It’s no secret I’ve been slowly but surely becoming more and more disappointed in the direction The Walking Dead has taken over the past couple of seasons. I’m not the only one, either: AMC’s flagship show has lost half its audience since the terrible season 6 finale, and it doesn’t look like it’s making a comeback any time soon.
Actually, that’s quite the understatement: after the way the show wrapped up its 8th half-season, I’m willing to bet that plenty of forgiving – up till now – fans won’t be returning in February. And I count myself among them.
Obviously it’s not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things; there are enough problems in the world for me to shed a tear over the decline of what used to be one of my favorite shows. Still, when you spend years investing in something that’s supposed to bring you joy, it’s never a pleasant decision to have to make. Considering how OCD I am about following through with something once I’ve started it, even something as inconsequential as a show about zombies, it’s not easy for me to rage-quit TWD. But, honestly, how can I not?
It’s not just the massive drop in quality in later seasons, although that’s definitely a significant part of it. Anyone loyal to this show for reasons that go beyond the cool practical effects and creative zombie kills knows that this isn’t the same TWD we all signed up for back in season 1. Not only does the show lack the heart we all loved it for once upon a time, but it also stubbornly pretends it’s something different than what it has obviously become. If the writers, directors and producers actually embraced the camp element and ran with it, we’d be having a different conversation altogether. But they are treating this brainchild of theirs as though it’s heavy drama, beating us over the head with their obsession with ‘themes’ and artsy-fartsy montages, wonky timelines, fake-out deaths and even faker cliffhangers. They write characters that are grossly inconsistent, they introduce plot devices that then fall by the wayside, they leave gaping plot holes unaddressed… and then they indulge in self-congratularoty cinematic masturbation on the Talking Dead aftershow. Man, I feel sorry for Chris Hardwick having to defend this crap week after week.
To misquote the otherwise lovely Khary Peyton, and yet I watch. Not just because, with all their flaws, these are characters I’m emotionally invested in; not even just because I’ve spent copious amounts of time watching and then blogging about each episose – which is solely for my own benefit, because let’s face it, it’s not like TWD fans are dropping by en masse every Monday to read what some girl who calls herself the Telethon Runner has to say.
I watched because I still clung to a tiny glimmer of hope that perhaps TWD would reclaim its glory of seasons past. I was willing to allow these inexperienced writers and directors a learning curve so they could get their bearings and start delivering worthy product. And because, as far off into the future as the show’s executives keep promising it is, there has to be an end game to TWD, and I had every intention to see it through.
But boy, do these guys make it difficult for me to hang on. After this week’s mid-season finale, I was toying with the idea of finally accepting that TWD will never reach its previous heights, and I might as well let go of whatever expectations I had left. I’d wait for the back-8 episodes and binge the half-season, which would at least make me less inclined to complain about everything wrong with the show, and just enjoy it for what it is what it’s become: semi-entertaining to binge, not really worth spilling more ink over.
However, given the uproar that followed *spoiler alert* Chandler Rigg’s departure from the show, I’m having to rethink this strategy and just call it a day. Not only is this development a betrayal to the story, it’s also a betrayal to the actor himself. And for a show that’s been touting to everyone who’ll listen about how the cast and crew is like one big happy ‘family’, it’s a pretty shitty move.
I have to assume that the rest of the actors, especially the ones who’ve been with the show since the very beginning, are pretty broken up about this development – perhaps not enough to quit in solidarity to young Chandler, but certainly enough to make them rethink the terms of their contracts, when and if those are renewed. But my gripe isn’t with the actors, of course; Carl’s death being the gamechanger that I presume it will be for coming seasons, I can only imagine that many of the original cast, let alone the newest additions, might be on the chopping block next, and most of them will never have another opportunity this big in their careers.
My gripe isn’t even with Robert Kirkman, a frequent object of my ire since the show first went on this downward slope. After all, he’s been on the record proclaiming that TWD is really Carl’s story. Dubious though I may be about his sincerity in other instances – he’s been known to mislead viewers and heavily remix storylines in the past – I think it’s fair to say that in this matter, at least, we can trust his intentions. If the comic is any indication, Carl was indeed supposed to live a long, healthy life as his father groomed him to become the leader of this post-apocalyptic microcosm. And given the ongoing lawsuit between the show’s creator and AMC, it’s also fair to say that this plot twist wasn’t Kirkman’s decision.
Oddly enough, my beef isn’t even with Scott Gimple, although he does share a big part of the blame here – and god knows I’ve been placing it on him with each disappointing weekly installment of the show for a while now. Is he a crappy showrunner? Taking into account the most recent run of the show, the answer would be a resounding yes. But weren’t we cheering him on when he took over after Glen Mazzara’s short-lived run? Weren’t seasons 4-5 arguably the best since the original (short) Darabont season? Sure, there’ve been plenty of missteps along the way, but that’s what you get when you place such a huge responsibility on a young writer who has zero experience as showrunner, let alone as the big kahuna at the helm of a TV phenomenon. Paired with the mostly inexperienced group of directors the show employs, and it’s pretty much amateur hour – with the added pressure – immense pressure – of living up to the expectations of, at the show’s peak, a whopping 17 million viewers.
So yes, as much as I would like to blame every single mistake the show has made over the last few years on Gimple, and I’ve obviously been known to do that in the past, it’s common sense that you can’t put your flagship show in the hands of an underqualified team and expect miracles. True, there have been unjustifiable blunders when it comes to the writing that simply cannot be overlooked, but when an employer chooses to fast-track unexperienced employees to the top of the totem pole, the majority of the blame lies with the employer, not the stressed-out employee who’s arguably just doing the best he can with what he has to work with.
And when they make the catastrophic decision of putting said employee in charge of not just one, but two major projects, as is the case with the news about Gimple now taking over FTWD as well as TWD, then the head honchos of AMC are either too stupid to realize they’re doing their principal money maker a serious disservice, or too greedy to do right by their programming or their employees, let alone their show’s fanbase.
Corporate greed is nothing new in the entertainment business. It’s been the driving force behind every executive decision to move forward with a project or swiftly give it the axe, and there’s enough Hollywood gossip to go around about compensation disputes and disgruntled stars, producers, writers and/or directors, if you care to look beneath the glitz and glam.
Most of the time, I don’t really care. Money makes the world go round, after all; like any other business, big networks and studios are in it for the big bucks. As an audience, we’re hard-wired to take contract disputes with a grain of salt and even a touch of schadenfreude: for all our admiration of television and movie stars, there’s still some underlying resentment when their hefty compensation numbers become public and – especially – when tales of said movie stars being cheated out of even larger profits start making the news. Most of us wouldn’t even dream of earning that kind of money, so a couple of million dollars’ worth of losses here and there doesn’t seem all that unfair.
It’s only when it results in shows and/or movies cutting corners and delivering substandard final product that we, as viewers, start to take notice. And when we’re talking about the biggest TV hit of the decade, and the biggest show in the history of basic cable, it actually becomes a big deal to more than just the people involved and directly affected by these ‘executive decisions’.
This isn’t, of course, the first time that AMC’s decisions regarding TWD have made the news. The network’s very public firing of Frank Darabont back in Season 2 over budget cuts was only the beginning, followed by the recent lawsuits that made the news this summer, involving, among others, TWD comic book creator Robert Kirkman and long-time executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. The common denominator? Money, of course.
To recap, AMC slashed the show’s Season 2 budget – because that’s what you do when you have a TV sensation on your hands, right? – forcing Darabont to modify his shooting schedule and opt for a single location set instead, hence the much complained-about slow farmhouse storyline. Not only that, but they also demanded to see all the season’s scripts ahead of shooting – again, because that’s how little faith you have in the Oscar-nominated writer/director at the helm of your hit show.
Two showrunners later, and the show’s budget is only marginally higher than that of Season 1 (contrast that to the massive increase in budget with each season of Game of Thrones, for instance), but now the show’s main executive producers are also turning against AMC. As we learned over the summer hiatus, Robert Kirkman as well as producers Glen Mazzara, David Alpert and Gale Anne Hurd are suing AMC, stating that they’re not receiving a fair share of the show’s massive profits. Yep, sounds about right.
As far as the lawsuits go, the problem lies in what’s known as ‘vertical integration’ in the TV business, which arose since its deregulation in the 90’s. Had TWD been produced by an independent studio and there were two separate parties negotiating budget and fee issues, we’d probably have a different show on our hands. This was the case with Breaking Bad and Mad Men, for instance. But with AMC holding all the cards, everyone involved in producing the show is pretty much at the mercy of the network.
Coming back to Scott Gimple, does this let him off the hook? Hell no. Budget concerns may have undeniably had their part in driving the story, but money can only take you so far. Still, it’s not his incompetence I’m upset about. It’s the fact that every so often I have to watch his smug face on the Talking Dead couch, attempting to not only justify his inane decisions as showrunner, but also talk down to the audience and explain away each and every bad plotline as something that ‘serves the story’.
Such was the case with the infamous Season 6 “cliffhanger” debacle, at which point I almost rage-quite the show, or even Glenn’s fake-out dumpster dive before that, but this latest fuckup is really the final drop, on multiple levels.
For one thing, it marks the complete derailment of the story line – or, if you want to be nice about it, the complete departure from the TWD future the comic book has laid out: Kirkman ultimately envisioned TWD as Carl’s story, so yep, let’s kill off Carl. Makes sense, right? In terms of what’s been going on behind the scenes it actually does, especially if AMC execs are as vindictive as they appear to be: Kirkman is suing us, so let’s show him what we think of his story. And if Gimple’s ego is as big as it seems, it makes sense from his perspective as well: I’ll make this story MINE. It’s not the first time his storytelling diverges from the comics, it’s not the first time he gets flack for it, and rather than learn his lesson, he just pushes on to… prove us wrong?
(Also: Kirkman isn’t the only one suing AMC. Gale Anne Hurd, the executive producer responsible for bringing Chandler Riggs into the fold is suing them as well. I can’t imagine that his is merely a coincidence).
Let’s talk about the actual story for a minute.
In Gimple’s own words, Carl’s death services the story. How, exactly? We don’t know, but judging by his obsession with themes of right vs. wrong and compassion vs. ruthlessness, which he likes to repeatedly shove down our throats, I’m guessing this will all come down to Rick’s utter devastation and a possible change in outlook regarding his plans for Negan and the Saviors once the war is over. Except why would his only son dying make him any MORE forgiving on a man? Last time Rick went cuckoo he left a massive trail of dead bodies behind. So this makes zero sense whatsoever.
Or will Gimple maybe take this departure from the comics to a whole other level and have the Saviors win the war? You never know with this guy. But let’s just for a minute try to imagine that he somehow pulls a rabbit out of the hat and makes the story work. Doubtful, but stay with me here. Let’s say this new direction the show seems to be headed towards is actually a good one.
That’s all well and good, except that’s not what lies at the heart of the story. It’s always been about Rick and Carl. We watched an 11 year old kid grow into a smart, compassionate young man; in a better show, we would have watched Rick groom him to resume leadership of our group of survivors. We watched their relationship change and evolve as both male Grimeses had to adapt to their circumstances and rethink their worldviews. We’ve invested 7.5 years in exactly that central story. So who is the story going to be about now? Judith? Rick, again? Haven’t we examined every range of emotion and mental state poor Rick Grimes could possibly go through already? Or is this going to be about Maggie, who inexplicably arose to her leadership position overnight, because Gimple wrote it that way? How long will it take for him to plausibly develop other characters in order to make the audience care about another protagonist, in a way that will measure up to the central Rick & Carl plot line? Longer than most people will care to keep watching, from the looks of it (again, assuming Gimple has even the slightest interest in writing a story that’s plausible, which is also doubtful). Hell, it might even be about a rehabilitated Negan, for all I care. Still won’t make it interesting.
Even if Gimple’s spiel about Carl’s death driving the story forward is bullshit (which it is), let’s just, for the sake of argument, assume this was simply yet another ‘shocking’ twist. A ‘ballsy move’, as TWD apologists called it. Does it work? Not really. It only works as a ‘fuck you’ to the fans, who always thought both Rick and Carl were secure in their plot armor. Take that certainty out of the equation, and what you’re left with is a main character who had minimal screen time all season, almost zero interactions with the other main character (his FATHER), and who didn’t get the hero death he deserved. Even if, in the 8B season opener, Carl dies saving everyone in the known universe, it still won’t change the fact that he got bit by a random walker he had no business fighting, saving a newly introduced character no one really cared about. Try as he might, Gimple simply can’t spin this death twist into the TWD version of Ned getting his head chopped off, or the Red Wedding, because a) his skill level is severely lacking and, most importantly, b) because those shocking events in GoT were an integral part of the story, not thrown in on a whim to shock the audience.
And let’s not forget all the “clever” hints and clues Gimple kept dropping throughout the mid-season finale: it’s all bullshit. The episode featured exactly ONE good scene (Carl’s conversation with Negan at the Alexandria gates), while Carl spent the majority of the hour-long finale stumbling about Alexandria as the effects department kept blowing up cars and houses all over town. He wrote his dad a note, found Enid’s JSS message to him, offered to die because “he’s already dying”, and let’s not forget the requisite flashback conversation he had with Rick about ‘how it’s gotta be’. Now let’s think back to the season premiere and Rick’s dreamlike sequence of a peaceful future with his family, intercut with closeups of teary-eyed papa Grimes mourning someone’s death, or maybe simply realizing he was just defeated. How is this anything other than a cheap fake-out, whose only purpose was to blind-side us with Carl’s death? This isn’t good storytelling, it’s just the Negan S6 finale scene all over again.
Aside from the obvious problems with the writing, however, this isn’t even the main reason why this recent plot twist has me all riled up. It’s the fact that everything about Gimple’s justification of Carl’s death is only a thinly veiled attempt at hiding what really lies behind this retarded executive decision, and it has nothing to do with the story whatsoever.
You see, a couple of years ago, when Chandler Riggs’ contract was about to expire, his dad made some ‘unfortunate’ comments on social media about Chandler’s upcoming “freedom”, and it seems like this didn’t sit well with AMC execs at all. Do I need to even point out the inherent douchebaggery in punishing a kid for his dad’s comments? Remember, this is a 17 year old kid we’re talking about, who grew up on this show since age 11. A show that, for all its faults, has never given us reason to doubt the camaraderie every cast and crew member seems to enjoy on set. For over seven years, TWD was, for all intents and purposes, Chandler Rigg’s family.
But let’s go even further: Chandler Riggs came of age on this show, and wanted to make plans for his future. Instead of making ludicrous demands, like other child stars have been known to do, he just wanted to decide whether or not he’d be going to college. When Scott Gimple assured him that Carl would be on TWD for (at least) the next three years, Riggs behaved like the consummate professional. He bought a house in Georgia and enrolled in an Alabama college about an hour’s drive away, so he could juggle both his acting and academic responsibilities while on location. And then a couple of months later, he’s written off the show in the most unceremonious way possible.
Being the professional he’s proven to be so far, Chandler Riggs has refrained from any disparaging comments, other than to express his sadness over getting killed off the show. Not a word about how Gimple blatantly lied to him and forced him to make life-changing decisions based on a false premise; not a word about what a huge disservice to the story Carl’s death really is. On one hand I wish the Riggs family sues the crap out of AMC, on the other I secretly hope they won’t, because any compensation would probably come with a non-disclosure agreement, and I really want Chandler Riggs to come forward with the whole behind-the-scenes story some time down the line. (I also hope Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus decide they’ve had enough of this bullshit and ask to be written off the show; let’s see how AMC and Gimple will write their way out of that mess).
Two things are for sure though:
First, this development is definitely a blessing in disguise for Chandler Riggs. He gets to leave a show that’s on a rapid decline, before he’s forced go to down with the sinking ship. He also gets to pursue other interests, explore new possibilities, live his life – for the first time since before he even hit puberty – as a young adult away from the constant pressure of intense shooting schedules and TWD fandom. From all we’ve seen from this kid so far, Chandler seems to be an intelligent, grounded, generally nice young man, and I wish him all the best with his life and career from here on out.
Second, I have no interest in watching the show any more. Even if somehow Gimple is able to miraculously turn it around, I can’t support a show (or a network) that treats its young star this way, and although my viewership doesn’t really count towards the ratings, I refuse to encourage (in my own small, insignificant way) the continuation of this saga ad nauseum, just so the bigshot AMC execs can keep lining their pockets. Like I mentioned before, I was planning on just letting the rest of the half-season play out and binge it at a later date, so that maybe some of the plot holes and various inconstistencies wouldn’t stand out as much as they do on a week-to-week basis, but that would have been a half-measure. When a show (and a network) royally fuck up, they deserve the Netflix-Kevin Spacey treatment: buh-bye, TWD. It’s been fun.