10.11.2016

Problem: Is The Walking Dead the Kind of Show You Would Watch Again?


A couple of years ago, while watching the season 5 opener of The Walking Dead, I had a strong and unexpected visceral experience. I mean this literally, in that my insides were actually shaking.

For Walking Dead viewers the end of season 4 was a huge buildup to Rick Grimes and his clan of survivors' arrival at Terminus, which was a cataclysmic disaster. The people of Terminus were cannibals and managed to quickly take Rick and all his people captive. Season 5 opens in the frenzied confusion of a flashback of Terminus' tragic beginnings and the darkened battle-planning of Rick's crew from inside their cargo freight prison. Soon though, Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Bob, and a few people we don't know find themselves in a human slaughterhouse knelt above a feeding trough, awaiting their deaths. One by one the victims' throats are slit until they get to Glenn, whereupon his potential death is dangled before us a number of times as outside gunshots are heard and Rick distracts Gareth, the Terminus leader, by threatening to kill him. 

Eventually, due mostly to Carol, they all escape and zombie hoard chaos ensues, but once everything died down I realized I had had an actual physical reaction to watching all of this. My hands and my guts were quivering. I was down there in the trenches with them. I had immersed myself in their trauma and my adrenalin was flowing freely. I was the farthest thing from a detached viewer. I cared deeply about these people and I felt like I had become one of them.

Later on, perhaps weeks later, after a few other experiences similar to this, I came to a realization: I don't think I can watch any of this again. This is not something I want to put myself through more than once.

You have to understand. Like many others, The Walking Dead is one of my favorite television shows. It is certainly a different kind of show than my other favorites (I first lean mostly toward comedies and then "serious" dramas), but for me this is "appointment television." As a latecomer, I binge watched the first 4 seasons leading up to season 5, even liking the so-called "boring parts" (cough, cough....season 2!), and everybody's show became my show.

But then, in between seasons or in the middle of the week in between episodes airing I kept catching it in syndication late at night on a local TV station while I was flipping through and...I couldn't muster the strength to watch it...not even once...for more than a few minutes. I just couldn't even... 

I couldn't watch Bob on his death bed, pouring out his heart to Sasha. I couldn't endure Shane and Rick's final conflict. I couldn't put myself in the middle of another heated conversation between Andrea and Dale. And I could not even muster a repeat viewing of The Governor's extremely calm episode (by comparison) where he wanders away from a ruined Mayberry and takes up residence with an isolated family (with whom he finds Tara). Once was enough for all those moments, thank you very much.

I love subjecting myself to torture while watching The Walking Dead. I can endure whatever they put me through because I desperately want to know what will happen to the characters, but I am only going to watch it one time. Whenever those repeat episodes would come on I could feel my blood pressure rising and psychologically I would return to those moments... While binge-watching the early seasons on Netflix I would often watch them late at night, but now, even thinking about re-watching the episodes was too much for me. I did not want to ruin my night—I actually want to get some good sleep, if you don't mind.

The Walking Dead is a unique show in our age with its overwhelming amount of entertainment choices at our fingertips: its gripping plot and engaging characters draw many of us into a collective viewing experience whenever a new episode premieres. But I am left wondering: how many of us will re-visit the show again and again as the years go on? I know there will be a few masochists out there, but I won't be one of them. 

There are numerous Walking Dead images burned into my memory, images I carry with me always: Rick trapped in that tank in the first episode and talking to Glenn on the walkie talkie, Merle handcuffed and abandoned on that rooftop, Carl shot like a deer by a shotgun, Lori's death in childbirth and her husband's and son's reaction afterward, Hershel's beheading, Beth getting accidentally shot, Carol's cold execution of Lizzie, the slaughterhouse scene mentioned above, Rick's breakdown in front of the Alexandrians, Rick's murder of Pete at Deanna's insistence, Alexandria being hacked to death by a pack of the Wolves, Glenn's dumpster diving with crazed Nicholas, and on and on until we come to the final scene of season 6, where Negan takes the life of one of our beloved characters in calculated randomness. These are all scenes of horrific violence, packed with a tremendous amount of fear and sadness and undergirded by a chaotic post-civilized world in moral decay.

As powerful as those moments were, I never want to re-live them. Soldiers go through war and communities endure various kinds of tragedies and lifelong bonds are formed between people as a result, but hardly anyone would choose to go through those experiences to attain those bonds. Instead, you go through them because you have to, because life demanded it, and relationships and love and laughter are the paradoxical blessings to stem out of the horror.

Please don't mis-read me: The Walking Dead is just a TV show. It is not war or a tornado or a life threatening illness. I care about The Walking Dead enough to live through it once, but the stress of two times is more than I want to endure. Real life is hard enough. I firmly believe works of art like The Walking Dead can teach us a lot about living actual life. They can teach us about ethics and morality, good and evil, the cycle of history, and how humans might survive under the most dire of circumstances, and thus art like The Walking Dead can become "important" in our culture. But for me it is not art I want to keep re-engaging with multiple times throughout my life. I can envision a time when my children are in their late teens or early 20's and we might start watching the show together, but that is more than a decade away from now.

So here is what concerns me: The Walking Dead has created a "cultural moment", but is it a moment that will endure on into the future? Is it a work that subsequent generations will want to re-discover, or will we want to forget it a few years from now when we know how it ends, simply because it is too painful to live through twice? This is the problem of painful experiences: on one hand we don't want to forget because those experiences shaped us into who we are, and yet, moving onward from those experiences our whole existence is a living to forget, in the hopes of moving on into a better future away from the atrocities that tried to take our lives away. This is how I watch The Walking Dead: it is non-stop moving forward, a continual plunge into the future. I don't want to look back. I can't. All I can do is survive in the Now and hope for new life tomorrow.

All this makes for good TV in the moment, but what about TV in the future? From the looks of it, season 7 will be amazing. We are going to be introduced to a lot more people and other communities of survivors, and we will come to know what life is like under The Saviors. But it also looks like it will be and incredibly dark season filled with more evil, fear, and of course loss of life. This is Negan's world now and once we get through it as viewers I don't plan to look back on that time with any fondness.  As much as I've enjoyed this post-apocalyptic adventure, one day I hope to forget all about it.

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Related The Walking Dead Articles:
10 Ways Zombie Stories Cause Us to Think About Our Lives The Walking Dead, Gun Control, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Linking Zombies to Current Events
"We Know How the Story Ends": An Exploration of Narrative in Film
Let's Go On An Anti-Hero Television Cleanse!
5 Things I Wonder About as The Walking Dead Begins it's 5th Season

4 comments:

JJ said...

I love the show, and am one of those viewers who loves to rewatch, I have lost track of how many times i have watched the episodes! I always seem to rewatch right before the premeire. I rewatch when a new viewer is watching, I love experiencing it with them! So I do think it is a show that will live on!

Chris Marchand said...

Well, that's a good answer. It's an incredibly engrossing show, so maybe people will keep on watching.

Jeffrey Doty said...

I love to rewatch shows and movies, because there is always going to be something you missed the first time around. It gives you a different perspective on the plot, the lighting, something you catch out of the corner of your eye, I guarantee that you will see something new. I will watch the Hell out of this show. It draws you in regardless of how many times you see it. I did enjoy some of the points you made, but there will always be a following for great art.

michaeldanner said...

I'm with you, Chris. I love the show. Looking forward to season 7. I care about the charaters, which makes watching it a visceral experience. Yet, in the end, I liken it to rewatching a baseball game or football game. I love watching them the first time, but once I know what happens I feel no need to rewatch. In that way the story arch of The Walking Dead isn't that engaging to me. I care about the characters and if they will somehow survive. When I know they do, I don't need to go back and see how they did it again.