Why isn’t The Walking Dead better?

As you know from our latest podcast, I've adopted a new stance; I'm not going to blame kids for bullshit I'm not happy with involving their characters on screen.  I'm not going to bag on Lizzie or Carl Jr. or Bobby Draper or Matt Weiner's kid any more.  I've become aware that it's not fair to blame children for the mistakes the adults make putting them in places where they have a poor chance of succeeding.  It wasn't a good look for me, and I apologize for my past mistakes in this area.

This week's episode of The Walking Dead, episode 410, "Inmates" rubbed me and Jim raw.  We thought a lot of the action sequences were implausibly setup, ugly, and confusing to follow.  We found the performances unconvincing, forcing characters to act in strange and unconvincing ways.  A lot of the problems focused on what's going on with Lizzie, but that wasn't the only problem with the episode.  So, what's going on here?  Who is really to blame?

The director:  Tricia Brock. Her credits include forgettable stuff like The Killing, and Smash, but also some gems including Girls and Community.  Still, those are comedies, which might require a different skill set than a survival / horror / drama / mess.  However, it's clear that Tricia has a lot of experience in the nuts and bolts of directing high-profile television.  But what we're interested in most is her two "The Walking Dead" credits.

We already know how I feel about "Inmates", so let's look at her next credit, "Indifference".  Uh-oh.  Jim and I had "a lot of problems" with this episode.  It featured bizarre, lazy side-characters like the two fuckwit hippies. It features Tyrese acting uncharacteristically like a "total asshole". It developed the idea of Bob'Angelo being an alcoholic in a somewhat hackneyed manner, and both the staging and actual action of almost losing his prized bottle was a jumbled, confusing mess. It also featured the puzzling and controversial decision to banish Carol.  Now, obviously, it is hard to separate writing failures from acting and directorial failures, at least for a neophyte like myself.  And you can't blame possible failures like "Carol's exile" on a single writer, the Writer's Room has to share collective blame for that. But I think it's fair to put forth as a hypothesis that the confusing action and weird, polarizing performances were Brock taking a swing and missing.  We might be on to something.

But wait! Tricia Brock also did "Clear", which is one of our all time favorite episodes, hinging on yet another incredible performance by Lennie James as Morgan.  While it did have some action set pieces, most notably Morgan's attempted sniping of Rick and company, Rick and Morgan's scuffle with a knife, and Carl's attempt to regain a picture of his Mom and Dad that was hanging in a restaurant, the action wasn't very ambitious, it was more personal, and not depending on quick cuts or lots of bodies in motion.  This episode was also written by the talented Scott Gimple, so we know that Brock can deliver the goods when paired with a gifted writer who understands our characters and their motivations and gives them something to do that is both interesting and falls within what their character is capable of.

Now, as far as the writing: "Inmates" is credited to both Matthew Negrete & Channing Powell, which to me is a sign of trouble, as in general the more writing credits a project has the bigger the risk of the work not hanging together as a whole.  It also backs Jim and I's theory that this episode is partially a jumbled, inconsistent mess because it wasn't intended to hang together as a single episode, but was conceived, written, and possibly shot as two separate episodes.

Let's start with Channing Powell.  She doesn't have a lot of credits to her name, for writing she has "White Collar" and "The Walking Dead", and she has a few other producer credits for The Walking Dead.  While she was co-writer for this episode, she was also the writer for another all-time great episode, "Internment".

"Internment" was carried on the back of Scott Wilson, who was given really excellent material to work with.  However, it also was an episode that further led to the backlash against the increasingly hard to relate to Lizzie character, who despite everything she's gone through at this point maintains a dangerous, naive outlook on walkers, and is showing signs of mental imbalance.  That is some pretty tough sledding to give to a young actor.  The plot also called for characters to resist keeping their cell doors shut, against their best interests, and a puzzling, half-assed action scene where a mini-walker outbreak occurred causing a father to accidentally shoot a survivor while being bitten himself.  I'd say the writing on this was average when you combine a score for dialog and basic plotting, but it elevated itself with the direction, impressive set design and lighting of the doomed A-block, and the performances of Wilson and the supporting cast.

But it wasn't just Channing Powell working on "Inmates", it was also Matthew Negrete.  Who was last united with Tricia Block for the underwhelming "Indifference!"  His writing credits include things like "White Collar", but a LOT of "Power Rangers", "Kimpossible", and "Timone and Pumba".  It's nothing to be ashamed of to be doing afternoon cartoons for kids when you're a working writer, but it's kind of surprising to see someone with so little serious writing experience working on a show that has massive ratings, makes massive money, and has pretensions of being a prestige drama.  Again, the guy gets paid for his writing, so kudos, but his resume is "cheap children's entertainment" and "The Walking Dead".  Hmmm.... We've already talked about the shortcomings of "Indifference", and you can see some of the same lazy connecting of the dots and sketchy characterizations in both "Indifference" and the "Tyrese" and "Maggie" parts of "Inmates".

So, what have we learned?  That the actors ultimately play a small part in the success of any given project. They can absolutely elevate great material and save average writing by going for broke on performance, but they can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.  Scott Wilson has done excellent work, as has Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. But the latter two have not come off as well in their stints on The Walking Dead.  While this is much too small a sample size to clearly say one way or another, in my mind we have a capable director in Brock trying to make the most of material given her by two relatively inexperienced writers who don't have a clear understanding of their characters and histories with the show.  And that the producers don't have a functional understanding of the talents of the people they have working for them, matching up directors who have little experience with shooting complex action and special effects work with scripts that have dramatic moments that hinge on them, and actors that can't possibly carry the weight required to make their scenes work, much less sing.

So in the end, I feel like if you want to blame someone, blame AMC.  Back in season two, a raging debate was had about whether Breaking Bad's budget was unfairly stealing from The Walking Dead.  That's clearly not an issue now, never really was an issue, and with The Walking Dead's soaring ratings should never be an issue.  A fair question could also be asked, why is AMC hiring writers from "White Collar" and "Power Rangers" when they could clearly afford more experienced and skilled writing talent?  With 15 million people watching the show, and TWD tie in advertising, merchandise, digital and traditional media sales, why is AMC content to keep milking the cash cow, and refusing to re-invest money back into it's brightest shining star?  Your guess is as good as mine.