Pacing 101: The Walking Dead, and how not to end a season
UPDATE: Long term fans of "How I Met Your Mother" may also be experiencing bouts of pacing whiplash. I didn't watch the series except hither and thither and liked the ending, but I'm not invested in it. Either way, this article makes points I'm also making here: Too much, too late, ruins things. (Hey, spoilers over there, too.)
I start this message with a warning. Spoilers! "Walking Dead" spoilers! If you care about how the last season ended and haven't seen the episode "A" yet, come back later.
Still here? Okay then.
I want to talk about pacing. Specifically, pacing on TV shows. Pacing on TV shows that are ostensibly about suspenseful things, which know not how to actually make things suspenseful.
"Walking Dead" is among the worst at this. It is not the only offender, but it'll do for today.
Let me get this out right here: Who the hell spends an entire (half) season with its lead actors scattered to the four winds and heading toward a new possible haven only to have them arrive at the haven and spoil everything that might make that haven creepy and horrible in the last 15 minutes of the last show of the season?
Why, "Walking Dead," that's who.
Agreed: Calling a haven "Terminus" is an awesome choice, because it implies if nothing else, an ending. Endings can be good, they can be bad, but they are meant to be a cutoff from something. There may be a beginning after, but no guarantees. So when Our Heroes began beelining down an endless set of train tracks toward a place that promised sanctuary called "Terminus," it was a great choice. Would this be another dictatorial Woodbury situation, or a messily-organized prison setup? Was a third choice even possible, where a subset of humans had survived the zombie-pocalypse and learned to live in some measure of peace and harmony?
That was probably asking too much of the show, in which things almost never go right for too long. There's no mishap that won't turn deadly, no mistaken identity that won't lead to a knife in the chest. No one ever says "I was trying to take a nap upstairs when your roving gang of testosterone-pumped thugs broke into the house, and I knew I would have to protect the unsuspecting woman and my son who were out scavenging from your wiles, so yes, I had to kill a member of your gang." Instead, it's just a gun to the forehead and a savage beating all 'round.
But I digress. Talk about pacing! Here's the thing: You have a precious commodity in your "Terminus." And yes, some buildup is important to get us there. Relationships and alliances need to shift; Rick needs to realize Daryl isn't just a friend but a brother; Carl needs to grow up and know himself better, and so on and so forth. Also, we need a new set of people who we care about but aren't core, so we can feel bad later on when they die. I get this.
What doesn't work for me, however, is the idea of setting up the season ender with a cliffhanger that blows every bit of suspense you had been building up … in a matter of minutes. I'd love to know the reasoning behind why we couldn't have had Our Heroes arrive at Terminus mid-season, be taken in by its charms — look, sunflowers! — and then, slowly, realize that they're deep into something heinous?
Look, the minute I saw Tasha Yar Denise Crosby grinning up over a great big barbecue in the penultimate season episode, I was a little disappointed: Terminus was not going to be a real sanctuary, a real place to learn how humans could get along after the collapse of civilization. That smirking smile said a lot. And I do rather want to see a setup like that explored correctly. But, all right — something stinks here at Terminus.
Rick, et. al's caution at walking into Terminus: Check. Made sense. His immediate go-crazy "where are my people" reaction to seeing Glenn's/Herschel's watch right before they ate what surely was not going to be untainted food? Not so much. Throughout this series, the lack of actual wile and learning these characters exhibit is painfully lacking — which may have made sense in season 1, but by season 4, c'mon. Does everything have to be confronted instantly, at the point of a gun?
Meanwhile, what should have been an easy situation to defuse, or work around, or at least keep an eye on in case something might be unsavory … became yet another shootout, yet another large-scale betrayal. And don't you think anyone missed that quick shot of a lot filled with human ribcages as Rick and company ran by. So there you are: Terminus, land of the cannibals and a room/shrine with the seriously sensitive wording "Never Again" painted on the walls.
That's what the season came to. It could have taken its time and unspooled the horror directly. Instead, we spent multiple episodes walking the tracks, eating pudding on the roof and always, always being surprised by walkers.
And that's my biggest beef with TV shows today: The inability to tell story properly. It's become all about the reveal, the shock, the "come back later" element. That is a huge part of making a TV show work, but it shouldn't be the only part. Good writers know how to dole out reveals while still keeping the suspense thread taut. Hacky ones go for nothing more than the grab at your neck when you're not looking.
As Terminus taught us, it's all about knowing how to end. And this end was no end at all.