A few weeks ago, I09 completely trashed the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, saying that it was one of the “worst” episodes of the series so far. I actually liked the episode but I09’s point that the episode involved a lot of lazy storytelling, cheap drama, and cheap scares was well taken, because if you strip away the actions sequences and the zombie-killing montage from that episode, there wasn’t much left. There wasn’t much storytelling — it was just a series of character and zombie deaths that culminated in what I considered to be a rousing conclusion to the zombie-herde arc, but one that lacked much substance.
The last three episodes haven’t done much in the way of storytelling, either. In fact, the best character on The Walking Dead right now is Negan, and he hasn’t even appeared yet. However, the threat of Negan is what has kept us involved. Each of the last three episodes has seemed less about moving the story along and more about manipulating us into worrying about a particular character or characters. Negan’s coming, and someone is going to die, so Scott Gimple has gone off book and created these romances to raise the stakes, all with an eye toward Negan’s introduction.
Michonne had a motherly moment with Carl and had sex with Rick, so now we’re more concerned about Michonne’s life because. Denise and Tara have bonded even more romantically (Tara told Denise she loved her in this week’s episode), so now we are more invested in her life. Maggie is pregnant with Glenn’s baby, so we’re more worried about her. Carol is also suddenly involved with Tobin. Meanwhile, Daryl is suddenly suspicious of all outsiders (an about face from the first half of the season) and Morgan is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Most of this stuff didn’t happen in the comics, and none of it really pushes the story ahead. That raises an issue that’s always been a problem with The Walking Dead: There’s nowhere to push it toward, because there’s no end goal in sight. The Walking Dead is not a story-driven series. It’s about making us invest in the characters so that we are devastated if they are killed off.
It’s episodes like tonight’s “Not Tomorrow Yet” that stress what Steven Lloyd Wilson once wrote about the series:
The fact that the writers are able to make you actually care about these characters while they torture them for your viewing pleasure shouldn’t be taken as a evidence that the show is any good as a story. It’s a shell game that convinces you to empathize with characters as they’re ground into dust. The empathetic characters are an essential part of the sadistic machine. But it’s only a treadmill of emotion to keep you marching towards the nonexistent dangling carrot.
Right now, The Walking Dead is moving those shells around a lot, and there’s a man named Negan hovering over them, and we know that he’s about to grind one of those shells into dust. That’s what’s keeping us invested: The fear of losing one of those characters we’ve come to empathize with.
But here’s where I part with both Steven Lloyd Wilson and I09: I don’t think the lack of story makes The Walking Dead a bad show. I think that it’s ability to make us emotionally invest in characters even knowing that there’s a very good chance they will die that makes it a very good show. It may be a lousy story-driven series, but it’s a great character-based drama. Caring about the characters, to me, is even more important that the story, because the best written stories don’t mean anything without compelling characters. The Waking Dead works because we care about the people, not about how the story will actually end, or even if it ever will.
That’s what makes Negan so important to this season. He’s the anvil hanging over all the characters’ heads — he’s what makes us care about Rick and Michonne so much, because their relationship is finite. If we knew that Eugene would find a cure soon and that Rick and Michonne were going to live happily ever after, our interest in the series would wane dramatically. It’s the fear of knowing that a character we love could die at any moment that keeps us watching. In fact, My biggest concern about The Walking Dead is not that Negan will take away someone we love; it’s that if Negan is killed off the series, we’ll have less reason to fear for the fate of the series’ characters.
As to the question of what Morgan was welding at the end of the episode? I can’t be certain, but it appears that he’s building a cell, like the one he had been held in by the cheesemaker. Who will he put in that cell?
Maybe he thinks he can capture Negan himself, put him in the cell, and reform him, as the cheesemaker had reformed him.
Morgan is clearly not thinking straight.