Cogent decision-making under pressure used to be one of The Walking Dead’s strengths. However, as the most recent episode, and the eighth season thus far, shows, that rationale has become what Gregory (in a chuckle-inducing if overlong speech) would call a “Big Scary U” for the show’s writers: An unknown. And the show demonstrates few signs of understanding how to reacquaint itself with it.
There’s a rule that applies to both planning a military engagement and writing a conflict: Have a goal, and take logical steps to achieve it. Having forgotten this torchlight, The Walking Dead has been stumbling around in the darkness, having characters shouting assurances ad nauseam, without giving viewers much reason to have faith.
Case in point: Daryl and Rick’s lover’s quarrel in “The Big Scary U.” On two occasions, Rick tells Daryl some variation of “There’s a plan. We stick to it.” But is there really?
This season opened with Rick declaring that “Only one person has to die.” Great! Mission established: Kill Negan. But how is the “show” part of “Show, don’t tell” going?
Rick rolled up to Negan’s door with dozens of soldiers. From around 25 yards away, his submachine gun somehow missed Negan. Maybe it malfunctioned. Luckily, he had an army with assault rifles. At least one guy’s rifle is even scoped. In most military basic training, trainees have to hit 300 meter targets with old-as-dirt M-16s with iron sights to qualify. It isn’t hard. With 3–4 magazines of ammo, a semi-competent shooter could teach a novice to be reasonably accurate at that distance. Yet Negan escaped unplugged.
But hey, that was plot armor, not logical inconsistency.
Gabriel’s encounter with Negan on the other hand ... Negan has a goal: Self-preservation. He also carries an overly large knife. Yet, instead of subduing and disarming Gabriel with that knife to the priest’s throat, he swaggers out with a crappy one-liner. Gabriel never attempts to shoot him.
But hey, maybe Gabriel was too scared, and Negan was banking on that.
Well, what about Rick trying, again, to recruit the Scavengers? Enlarging your fighting force makes sense on paper, but you don’t go threatening an army alone, when yours doesn’t know where you are.
But hey, the Kingdom just got wasted. Maybe Rick didn’t have time to rally his troops. Plus, it’s not like we’ve seen the garbage people working closely with Negan. Maybe Rick thought their split was amicable, and he could put the moves on them.
Generally speaking, when you’re expecting “All Owut War,” you flesh out POW policies in advance. Yet no one in Rick’s coalition had any idea what to do with prisoners. Granted, we’re trying to manufacture tension here, but Morgan wanting to kill the runaways in “Monsters” still would’ve accomplished that. Moreover, the show is unnecessarily redrawing moral lines here. When Jesus, Tara, Morgan and Maggie hem and haw over their prisoners’ fate, they invoke right and wrong instead of means and ends.
Who cares? What matters is that when people are inducted into despot-ruled society, many don’t want to be there. Kill or crack the facade of their government’s omnipotence, and they’ll rise against it. (See the deaths of Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, Nicolae Ceaușescu, etc.)
Kill every surrendered Savior, and word will reach the rest. They’ll fight desperately to death like kamikaze pilots. However, if Rick’s coalition inducts the most compliant prisoners, disperses them as workers among their three groups, and jails or executes Negan’s most loyal lieutenants, they’d incentivize more Saviors to surrender, swelling their ranks at Negan’s expense.
Rick approaches this kind of pragmatism when he argues that Daryl's plan to bomb the Sanctuary could prompt Savior workers to take up arms against Rick’s army instead. Although, if Rick really wanted to contemplate hearts and minds, perhaps he should’ve established POW guidelines before this all-out spectacle. Gregory, meanwhile, also pragmatically evaluates killing captives, but in the believable, self-preservative light of dwindling resources and the danger prisoners pose.
Negan isn’t The Walking Dead’s biggest problem. It’s that when he swaggered onstage, rationale slunk away. It started with worsening dialogue and characters making increasingly bad or uncharacteristic decision last season. Now, with its scope expanded, the lack in logic has bled into every aspect of the show’s production, compromising three tenets central to enjoyable action: clarity, realism, and resourcefulness. The result? “All out war” has just become tedious noise.
Not every action scene has been bad. Ezekiel, Carol, and Jerry’s fight in “Some Guy” was well-done at the hands of first-time guest director Dan Liu. Morgan and co.’s assault on the satellite station was also compelling.
However, take Aaron’s assault on, and Rick and Daryl’s infiltration into, the outpost in “The Damned” and “Monsters.” There’s no clear signal they’re all at the same place. Aaron & co.’s infinite ammo stormtrooper shooting just makes you wonder why no one brought grenades. Rick shooting a fire extinguisher to provide him and Daryl cover comes off less like resourcefulness, and more like Dues ex fire extinguisher.
There’s little clarity, an unrealistic shootout, and unbelievable resourcefulness.
So let’s rewrite that scene. This go-round, we see Rick and Daryl kitting up with Molotov cocktails and a smoke grenade. Daryl mentions that he hates the garlic smell of phosphorous grenades. Rick retorts that if Aaron keeps them covered, they shouldn’t need it—establishing clearly that they’re all at the same place.
Aaron’s assault this time features less full-auto. Instead, suppressive fire covers grenadiers lobbing grenades, pipe bombs, or Molotov cocktails at the Saviors. Now, when the Saviors retreat into the building, it’s because they’re in a convincing kill-box, with their cover getting burnt out.
Rick and Daryl hear Saviors coming, but not before Rick snatches a fire extinguisher. They’re burning this place down. They don’t want the Saviors to put out the fire.
As Saviors approach from both sides, Rick, thinking on his feet, shoots the extinguisher, putting the Saviors at risk of friendly fire, and forcing them to regroup on one side of the hall. As the Saviors press onwards, Rick pops the smoke, and Daryl tosses Molotovs. The hallway becomes a confusing miasma of fire and smoke, making the Saviors back off. However, they keep firing. Rick and Daryl are pinned. Rick has an extension chord in his room. He could try to climb out the window, but Daryl would have to cross a hallway choked with fire and lead. There’s no way out for them both—until Aaron et al save the day.
Clarity? Check. Believable resourcefulness? Check. Realism? Check.
The old Walking Dead would’ve given us a similar scene structured along these lines. Instead, the show has dismissed logic in filming the show’s action sequences, leaving too many moments where at least one of these things is always forgotten.
Rick confronts Negan, and the latter doesn’t come out the door without some cover or workers for human shields. Daryl and Rick take on a truck with a 50 cal, and Rick’s windshield casually tank bullets that chew up engine blocks, so Daryl can make a 30-40 yard pistol shot on a speeding motorcycle.
The old Walking Dead would’ve made Rick duck as the bullets came, and his car stall as they tore through the engine. But hey, Daryl would’ve had a submachine gun—or if he really wanted to be badass, a sawed-off grenade launcher—Yes, that’s a thing—to make that shot. Instead, the show keeps abandoning logic and, unlike Daryl, missing easy shots.