Did Walking Dead Kill TV’s Revolutionary Golden Age?
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This — A Zombie Walks Off a Cliff… And Hangs There
To be respectful of spoiler rules, I didn’t want to publish this the day after the season 6 finale of “The Walking Dead” aired because I understand how life gets in the way and sometimes you need a few days to watch the episode you DVRed. That said, 5 days is more than enough time. If you’re not caught up, right now is your chance to get off this train.
SPOILER ALERT: CLICK OFF IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN “THE LAST DAY ON EARTH”
In the episode… nothing happens. At least not what was promised. It’s another case of TV blue balls, a foul season ender that ends before it fully resolves its plot. The showrunner, Scott Gimpel (not sure about any relation to Bashevis Singer’s humble hero ) has made claims over and again justifying the fact that the season finale, an episode hyped as featuring the death of one of the the main characters, ended by showing that somebody was killed without revealingWHO:
“Where Rick winds up is completely different from where he started in [episode 60] 1 and where he started in 9,” Gimple said to justify the lack of delivery on the much-hyped ending. “I know, obviously, and I’ve known for awhile, what is in 701. Presenting what occurs, to show what happened in full force, it is the beginning of the next story.”
But that’s not true. What he said above either shows that the man doesn’t understand story structure in serials (plot is the series of events that pull one through the story, which basically continues through the whole damn series) or reveals the fact that it’s a poor cover up for the simple fact that TWD and AMC are denying a scumbag move that’s simply another attempt to create a ratings-monster season opener.
The fact is, TV has been struggling to pull in audiences the way it used to, with the original three channels and, like, 10 shows replaced by thousands of both, thinning out viewership for any single program. “The Walking Dead” is atop the critics’ list but, just like Rick and crew, the world of the tube is a precarious one today. And while the cliffhanger-as-story-element can be used to strong effect, can even be a welcome part of a show, if abused or misplaced it’s a gimmick only slightly better than the “it was all a dream” cop-out. It also shows that, for all the TV heads’ talk about how sophisticated viewers are, that our tastes are more refined, they think we’re idiots. Which most likely we are since we’ll all tune back in in a few months and justify everything they did. But still, how did the cliffhanger become de rigeur for one of the most-acclaimed shows currently on air?
Who First Thought To Walk Off the Cliff?
For all intents and purposes, the cliffhanger was invented as a method of survival, Scheherazade’s little trick to keep the sultan from killing her as she unspooled about “1001 [Arabian] Nights.”
The modern cliffhanger has been in play since the beginning of periodicals, with Sherlock Holmes stories serialized in British Magazines, the term ripped from a Thomas Hardy serial that left one chapter with its protagonist literally hanging off a cliff. Television shows began getting away from the self-contained episodic format when they brought in adventure programs, for which the cliffhanger was a natural fit; think old westerns and the show that most-utilized the technique, the original Adam West “Batman.” Essentially it was stuff for kids and action buffs.
Still it really wasn’t until the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” season finale of “Dallas” that it was used to create hype during the offseason and guarantee viewers would tune back in after a few months away. And that created so much buzz during the offseason that a TV exec couldn’t help but take notice. Still, it was a big “fuck you” to viewers, who had grown accustomed to at least their seasons being tied up with nice big bows even if episode cliffhangers were requisite in soaps and action serials.
As for ending a major work in a cliffhanger, it has appeared at the end of some literature and film before but it was done sparingly, and while the cliff was a big one that related to the story as a whole, the writers and directors ensured that the plot of the particular book, the film, the season made it through the standard 3-act, build/climax/denouement basic rules of storytelling. Think “Star Wars”: At the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” we’re left with the rebel alliance in nomadic shambles, Han Solo frozen in carbonite at Jabba’s palace and Chewbacca and Lando preparing to go rescue him (which, if anything, is the more-acceptable intro to the next episode, not the refusal to resolve a cliffhanger for episode II)(I mean V)). But the plot of the second film, Luke’s struggle to grow into the hero he was destined to become, was fulfilled with his failure to confront the ultimate baddie and the revelation of Vader as Luke’s father, a patriarchal mindfuck so groundbreaking and impactful that it became a plot twist few could ever dare to try to replicate. A literary example of the cliffhanger is “Lord Of the Rings,” wherein the bravery and willpower of some people give the world hope for the future of humanity following a great battle and Faramir’s test at the end of “The Two Towers,” though the main characters are spread out all over the land and the odds seem increasingly stacked against them.
But it should be noted that those were pre-planned trilogies and of fantasy-adventure works. And again the plots were satisfied. And despite the success of “Dallas,” the TV powers that be knew it couldn’t be a regular tool, that it would go against all serial entertainment stood for and certainly become hackneyed if overused. Of course this was long before the so-called “Golden Age of Television” (and here I’m referring to the 2000s Golden Age, not to be confused with the late 50s/early 60s, which some consider the Golden Age of Television but when you actually compare those to modern TV it seems more like “television,” or at best the birth of dramatic and story-driven television with top talent at the helm).
Story Vs. Plot
Our article will be back after this very important message for everybody who didn’t read Joseph Campbell or work in development or go to film school or get a MFA in Lit. There’s one basic difference all consumers of storytelling should understand: the difference between story and plot.
Plot is the collection of causes for what happens, the events that form the skeleton that carries us through. It isn’t neccessary for brilliant work: many 20th century writers seemed to take pride in having no plot in their novels at all, and avante garde filmmakers from Bunuel to Fellini, even up to David Lynch (and plenty more directors most people who aren’t film geeks have probably never seen) had fun giving us films without plot. In the last few years a lot of films about growing up (e.g. “Boyhood” or “Tree of Life”) don’t really have plots, but they have story.
See, story is what happens. It’s the development of the character, the development of the world. If each “Harry Potter” book had a specific plot (Harry keep Snape from stealing the Sorcerer’s Stone, Win the Tri-wizard cup, etc…), the overarching story was Harry’s growth as a wizard and human for the coming showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort. If the plot of Anna Karenina is the destruction of a woman when she fails to fulfill societal norms of family and motherhood, the story is the toll it takes on her psyche and how it affects the destinies of all around her. In TV, you can leave cliffhangers within the story; but if you’re a plot-based work (as is essentially all modern TV except for procedurals or sitcoms, in which plot is contained in each episode and there is no real overarching story except for possibly the never-ending battle between cops and criminals) you have to resolve each season’s plot by the finale.
The Golden Age of Cliffhangers?
As I said, many consider today the Golden Age of TV. HBO essentially ushered this in with shows like “Six Feet Under,” “The Sopranos” and of course “The Wire” (and I’ll even throw in “Sex In the City” if only because it inspired the ideals and lifestyle choices of a whole generation of liberated, strong-willed women). What is this based on? Unique storytelling with top talent delivering poignant renderings of humanity in all its greatness and frailty. With indelible laughs and cries, these special shows are imbued with a certain gravitas that ensures they stick to the bones long after you finish watching.
As such, it should come as no surprise that “The Sopranos” ended in one of the most talked-about, reviled, analyzed and (by some) admired cliffhangers of all time, one we will never get resolved. If the cliffhanger is the king of all gimmicky plot twists, it’s a good fit for ending the king of all dramatic programming.
Still, just before the infamous diner scene, Tony had consolidated his power, taken out his enemies and seen his family back together, stronger and doing better than they ever had and Tony, finally, if not at peace at least not having panic attacks anymore. If the story continues indefinitely, the plot was satisfactorily fulfilled.
It really wasn’t until AMC, the next chapter in the Golden Age that cliffhangers began appearing regularly. Now that it’s embracing it overwhelmingly so, the basic rules of storytelling, stretching all the way back to Grok grunting out the tale of a hunt by firelight in some cave, are being thrown asunder. And not necessarily in a good way. In a way that would signal perhaps we have moved on to a new era.
AMC You Next Season
If HBO began the Golden Age, AMC took the reins and matured it. HBO still has phenomenal shows. But AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” created conventions that are still the status quo for high-level television. Complex antiheroes who are frighteningly relatable (I can guarantee at least 90% of HBO’s viewers were never either an Italian or Corner gangster): A big time Madison Avenue ad exec pretending to be somebody he’s not running concurrently with a milquetoast down and out high school teacher who becomes a drug kingpin, essentially the alpha male and the average schlub, categories into which most men fall, if not at least in part. These are brilliant portrayals that will go down in the all-time TV hall of fame. They also introduced some dangerous precedents which, because they worked, have encouraged AMC to develop similarly heralded works and then set up big cliffhangers (anybody remember “The Killing,” whose 15 minutes of acclaim ended when they didn’t reveal the killer at the end of season 1)(the show’s ending shortly followed, followed by a brief rescuscitaion on Netflix that nobody really cared about) to seemingly devolve into a ratings-hungry lowest-common-denominator network. The recent “Walking Dead” season-ender is the crowning achievement of a new formulaic plot structure that doesn’t actually finish one season until the start of the next, in which they keep you guessing not by throwing in unexpected twists but by setting up red herrings and false directionals to distract people from the fact that perhaps it’s run out of good ideas. In fact, for the network once heralded as the heir-apparent to HBO’s throne as TV game-changer and still the most-respected content creator on basic cable, the heavy reliance on the lowest of plot techniques is a sure sign that TV’s Golden Era is dead.
The Bag of Cliffhanger Tricks
Sadly, two of AMC’s best shows encouraged this behavior. The rotten trick that worked for “Mad Men” was the half-season, a foul device in which you stop a season mid-plot for a couple month hiatus, making the rabid fans who had stuck with the heavy series for years wait another 11 months to resolve the problems presented in the first 7 episodes of the final season. “Breaking Bad” did likewise in their final season. It’s a neat little work-around, you can claim it’s not a cliffhanger, they’re just taking a little break, they only ran half the season. But anybody with half a brain can see what it is, a loophole for the fact that ending a season without resolving the season’s plot is an slimy act of deception on par with claiming “it’s not a break-up, I just need some space (and want to date other people for a while now that my career has taken off).” Hollywood has milked this teat just as hard, with more and more adaptations of book series breaking the final novel into two movies at the first big cliffhanger (though “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” actually does a decent job of breaking after resolving the plot of the first half of the extremely long and involved final chapter of Rowling’s 7-book masterpiece, which reads like two parts).
“Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have all gotten free passes for this because these are devices they used only once or twice and which could also be chalked up to the simple fact that the extension of the end of these shows, all of which can best be defined as slow burns, was welcomed by the viewers.
But AMC’s first real season-ending cliffhanger was in “Breaking Bad.” In Season 3 they had Jesse Showing up at somebody’s door with a gun without revealing what exactly happens or to whom. By this point, though, they had done enough solid storytelling and the cliffhanger felt organic enough that they got a free pass. I didn’t particularly feel cheated by this little abuse, but I hate free passes. They usually just encourage more abuse.
And then you have “The Walking Dead”
Depending on who you talk to, this is the best, or one of the best, shows on TV currently. An edge-of-your-seat action/thriller serial combined with a philosophic study of mankind; a depiction of an apocalyptic future set against our society’s evolution (everybody is now essentially living in fortified feudalist states, where you’re safe within the walls but anything goes on the roads and countrysides, similar to Europe 1000 years ago) filled with plenty of satisfying gore.
Yet it is very flawed. For one it has a tendency to put in lots of filler episodes, or even seasons (the farmhouse season coulda been 5 episodes, easy) to drag out the product. But recently it’s really grown disturbing, increasingly relying on cliffhangers over storytelling (like a braindead monster existing only to feed and cause havoc), the most egregious and shameless of which have been this season. The first one shows Glenn being killed, only to reveal a few episodes later (after they made us all watch Morgan’s drawn-out backstory when obviously all anybody cared about was is Glenn alive or not) he was alive. An argument could also be made for the “mid-season break,” which leaves us wondering what will happen as a human chain, pretending to be walkers in a sea of walkers and containing lead protagonists Rick, Michonne and Carl, have to contend with a babied son whose fear causes him to talk, thus drawing the attention of said walkers (though this slip is somehow not addressed when the show returned?). And then, of course, there’s the finale.
Which brings me back to Gimpel the Fool’s statement about season 6 being done because the reveal is a necessary tool for starting season 7. Again, it shows either a complete lack of understanding of story structure on the part of the showrunner (not likely, considering how much time any professional entertainment writer must spend living with plot points and 3-act structure to make it to the pinnacle of showrunnerdom) or a commitment to keeping the viewers on the edge of their seats beyond the time that any show has the right to do so, most likely for the sake of subsequent-season-opening metrics.
The plot of season 6 is Rick and the gang think they’ve finally found safety, a place where they can finally get on with the brave act of living their lives and ideally working towards rebuilding human society. In the comic book, that ends with Glenn getting his head bashed in by Negan. No better way to give a resounding end to the plot of the season, that being the realization that their safety is still an illusion, than with the death of one of their most beloved and central leaders.
The story would resume with the beginning of the plot of season 7 with Rick and survivors looking at their dead brother or sister and Rick now the head of essentially a slave kingdom. The story arc of season 7 would be Rick somehow rallying his troops (along with maybe the folks from the Hilltop or those dudes in the MX pads) to overthrow the violent mongul hordes.
So why did they end season 6 without finishing it? Did Gimpel and AMC think that audiences were idiots and would fall for the same trick 3 times in the same season? Did they actually think the ratings spike in the next season opener would transfer to all-time records (if it gets one, as the outrage over “The Killing” season 1 finale led to a massive ratings drop in season 2)? The show has enough content and goodwill that it shouldn’t have to resort to gimmickry to keep its rabid fandom watching. And all it has done this season is piss off the faithful and cynical alike.
The truth is, while TWD is a great show, it has lacked some of the heft and character dynamism of the Golden Age’s hall of fame, and when it has slowed down to try and build that it becomes stale, or preachy, or slows down SOOO much that it becomes filler. Because for all its high production values and lofty “society rebuilds from zombie apocalypse” premise, “The Walking Dead” is devolving into a 1950s pulp action serial. The story is there. The execution makes it feel like the show is just going in circles.
But if “The Walking Dead” isn’t the most original show with the most talent, captivating storylines and preternatural emotional weight, the elements thast basically defined Golden Age TV, what else is there?
“Game of Thrones” has high acclaim but almost more for its violence, sex and unguessable twists than its story and storytelling. Yes there is great story and wonderful fantasy but I don’t know if its exploration of characters’ flaws and successes can compare to the characters drawn in “The Wire,” and what else is truly great work about but humanity?
“Better Call Saul” has started off well but it still has some steps to take before it lives up to the series that spawned it. I can’t tell if I like “Vinyl” for the show and the characters or just for the drugs and the music. “Empire” is great in that it’s an all African-American cast exploring a unique family dynamic but it’s just this side of soap opera (and for my money, I think “Blackish” is more goundbreaking on that tick since it shows a successful but relatively average black family). BBC put out a few great shows, including “Downton Abbey” and “Orphan Black” but OB is just a step away from comparable Sci-Fi action vehicles and DA, while beautifully drawn and full of great dynamics, at times felt a bit too much like a 19th-century romance novel that leans on whimsy and great staging. “Girls,” the once-touted millennial “Sex In The City,” has trailed off hard. To open it up to comedies, “Louie” is pretty cutting edge for a show about nothing and “Portlandia” is a notable skit show (though not even half as groundbreaking as “In Living Color” was)(and it’s often pretty hit or miss). All told, none of these deserve a place alongside the best of the best of the last decade and a half. And there are plenty of other really good shows on TV. But none can compare to those Golden Age classics.
There is one shining light for the future of TV. Netflix has been pumping out brilliant shows that seem to be the next step. While “House of Cards” ended season 3 with a cliffhanger, the cliffhanger still resolved the plot, that being the growing estrengement between Frank and Claire that ends with (SPOILER ALERT) Claire hitting the road. And though “Orange Is The New Black” seems to be in danger of falling into the same downhill trajectory as showrunner Jenji Kohan’s “Weeds” did after a few seasons, one seemingly spawned by writers having too much fun and getting away from the more believable and thereby more interesting threads in the earlier scenes, it’s still a great and diverse show. There’s “Transparent” on Amazon Prime and seemingly every other week there’s a new announcement of some streaming service show on the horizon.
But no, I don’t think any of those can (at least yet) compare with the shows the Golden Age comprised.
AMC’s reliance on the cliffhanger is just a sign that we may be heading into a stale world of serial dramatic entertainment. No doubt there will be some enjoyable shows on the horizon but maybe either society has evolved past what the former masters of the medium can comprehend (as always happens when art evolves) or storytelling has evolved (the first time we see a unique character or a premise it changes our world; the second time we see it, it becomes hackneyed) or viewership has evolved (our standards for top notch dramatic entertainment has put the bar so high that we’ve exhausted every TV writer out there) past the wonder years and into something which may not be as poignant and deeply impactful for some time to come.
That means it’s time for the changing of the guard. That, just like Rick’s crew, we’ve left the utopian glory of Alexandria for the sick vagaries of the unknown on the roads. And we may not find that great ivory tower of serial entertainment for some time. But that’s okay. Because the story must go on.
In fact, I heard of a new show in development that sounds like it might be the next greatest show on earth, the rebirth of the Golden Age HOF, and that show is