The Walking Dead’s Problem With Episodic Content

It blew my mind the first time I saw the words “To Be Continued” on a TV. I just couldn’t believe it. For years, I had been trained to believe that within the span of thirty minutes, problems could crop up, break down, and be resolved. Just thirty minutes and people could change. It was a fascinating notion to me as a child since the greatest change I could muster in half an hour would be a feeling of eating too much candy. And then tummy aches. And then I would be fine again, but I digress.

That moment when I discovered stories didn’t always wrap up neatly within the confines of a previously established structure was with Full House. Yeah, it was cheesy and super 90s, but when Comet ran away, my heart sank. And when they couldn’t find him, it wept. It was an oddly moving moment for a kid that never had a dog.

Television has changed since then, though. I don’t just mean the lack of camp and adorable twins but that multi-episode plots usually happen during finales. Television now hinges on major events and marketable moments rather than a likable cast or relatable premise (still important stuff, though). Season and series finales usually happen in two or more parts and they usually happen back-to-back so a half-hour show becomes an hour long and a one-hour show takes up the entire prime time slot. It’s easy to make an inevitable cliffhanger sound extra exciting when you can say it takes twice as long to show.

The problem lies within that break. When (or if, I guess) that show makes it to syndication, the chances of those broken-up bits being aired properly are slim. This week may be part one. Next week might be the pilot. It’s a mess. But the separation of the gestalt also breaks up the story as originally envisioned, and it happens in the worst way.

Commercials work as act breaks because they offer very brief respites that build tension and anticipation over a manageable period of time. It is perfect for the medium, so naturally breaks between episodes offer an even better delineation since we apply a meta anxiety to knowing this is how this particular chunk ends.

Think about this in the context of The Walking Dead, the adventure game series from Telltale Games. It is currently on its fourth and penultimate episode and has thus far garnered almost exclusively giant handfuls of praise. Not only will I include this on my shortlist of Game of the Year contenders but also proselytize it to everyone with ears and a bank account containing at least $24.99.

But the problem is that these five episodes operate on a television seasonal or miniseries framework. The first three episodes are standalone and yet fold so well within each other. They might as well be three big ol’ beanbags that are absolutely wonderful on their own, but when placed adjacent to one another, it becomes a god damn party. A dark, twisted, and mildly depressing party full of evil people, good intentions, and mindless zombies, but still a party.

And two weeks ago (one week ago for Europeans), episode four—entitled Around Every Corner—was released and guess what: it’s still dark, twisted, and mildly depressing. Lead by Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta, Around Every Corner contains probably the darkest moment of the series thus far, and given what I’ve seen and done in the first three episodes, that’s saying quite a lot. But it’s also the weakest episode, and that’s because it’s the first of a two-part finale.

The general shape of a story is something like a roller coaster. You’re building and building for what seems like forever to the peak of the story (the climax) only to ride it out to the end after a very large, Skrillex-shaped drop (the dénouement). But little humps happen along the way. Up to the top, you jolt and rattle around. On the way down, you’ll encounter turns and loops and things. The dramatic implications of these incidental movements correspond pretty well to how jarring they are when reflected in a narrative plot.

And as we’ve previously discussed, those little bumps make for perfect breaks. Between episodes, you can take a snapshot of the track and it could work as another, much more boring roller coaster in microcosm, each one complete with its own set of humps and drops. But naturally, the biggest, overarching climax invites for the best break since it usually represents the transition into the third and final act. That is why it’s called a cliffhanger; you make it all the way to the edge of the climax and then you’re left hanging. It’s effective.

But it also breaks the entire preceding sequence of events. Roller coasters don’t end with you on top of the hill for a good reason; there’s no catharsis. Well that and how the hell are you supposed to get a dozen people down from the top of a roller coaster, but whatever. You don’t get that sweet release. You’ve chopped down the tree, decorated it with tinsel and lights, wrapped all the presents, and then Christmas is canceled. It’s unsatisfying, frustrating, and a bit cheap-feeling. You can’t take that dramatic structure and just break it in half. Then you don’t have a drama; you have an angry audience.

It’s a subtle difference between that and a teaser ending. With a teaser ending, you still get resolution at the end along with the falling action of the story. It’s satisfying but still manages to toy with that part of you that wishes it had kept on going. The modern Marvel superhero movies were great at this. Each movie was its own self-contained story, but the stinger after the credits showed what it’s like to keep the audience on the hook without putting them at the edge of a cliff, staring off into nothing. Teasers are what we got with the first three episodes. A sheer cliff face is what we got with episode four.

But that isn’t the fault of Telltale or the series or even Gary Whitta. At some point, you have to play into the traditional narrative structure and that means breaking it off somewhere that works. You can’t do it too early or people lose interest as then they don’t get the cliff or the drop. If you do it too late, the resolution diminishes in importance as their minds begin to fill in the blanks as they see fit. The weakness of Around Every Corner is just natural to the structure. Done anywhere else, and episodes three and five would have been weaker for it.

The penultimate step to the finish is always a necessary step down. You have to rear back and rev up for the finish. Around Every Corner does what it can and does it well (this is by no means a bad episode, just the weakest when compared to the other three absolutely spectacular entries into the series), but instead of ending on a sense of foreboding mixed with reserved, extremely cautious optimism (how long does that last in a zombie apocalypse?), you are left with frustration not knowing or understanding what is going on.

But that hopefully means that the last episode, No Time Left, is all the better for it. Hopefully that means it’s one incredible ride down a blood-soaked mountainside. Hopefully we finally get that sweet, sweet drop.


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