We interrupt our (increasingly all-consuming) discussion of Marble Hornets to spend some time in the company of Rick Grimes and the cast of The Walking Dead. This post contains incredibly specific and substantial spoilers for the TV show. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
I’m not going to spend too long recapping the events of Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, because if you’re watching the show, you know what happened, and if you aren’t, the specifics aren’t too complicated. This isn’t, after all, a post about the details; it’s about the vision.
Once upon a time, Rick awoke from a coma to find that he’d missed the zombocalypse. He managed to track down his family, who were hanging out with a group of survivors including his former partner, Shane, who had been comforting Rick’s wife, Lori. In the two seasons which followed, Lori’s infidelity came to light, she revealed that she was pregnant, and Shane died.
Arriving in season three, we discovered that months had passed, and Rick and Lori had become all but completely estranged from each other. She regretted her actions, but the pain went too deep for him to forgive her. Seeking refuge in a (mostly) abandoned prison, the survivors enjoyed the first glimpse of safety and security that they’d had in quite some time. There were hints of a possible reconciliation between Rick and Lori, or at least a recognition that there was unfinished business and lingering emotional bonds between them.
In the most recent episode, Lori accompanied the injured Hershel as he took his new crutches for a spin, and saw the sun for the first time in days. It was a touching moment, and a reminder that moments of safety and sanctuary are always possible, and to be treasured. Lori and Rick looked at each other, and it was clear that they were re-evaluating each other, and looking at their shattered relationship in a new light.
And then, this being The Walking Dead, the camera panned over to show the lurking zombie horde.
We can skip the gory details, but suffice it to say that Lori died in childbirth while Rick was battling zombies in another part of the prison. Carl, their son, had to perform a final service for his mother, and carefully apply a bullet to her cranium, lest she turn and rise again. Rick missed the whole thing, but when Maggie, the new-born baby and Carl emerged from the darkness into the prison yard, he finally lost his hold.
And all I could think was that it was such a waste.
I’ve defended The Walking Dead in the past, including on the StoryWonk podcasts, by maintaining that it is more interested in the human beings than the zombies, and in the relationships than the gore. That had always been true, but now I feel that the show has crossed a line. It has squandered a fascinating potential storyline, positively bursting with realism, drama and emotional complexity, all in the name of shocking its audience.
Again, I’m not saying that it was badly done; I’m saying that it shouldn’t have been done at all. We’ve followed Rick and Lori for more than two seasons, and we’ve seen them fall apart. It would have been so much more interesting to watch them rebuild, to examine how marriage works in the face of overwhelming misery and pain, to show that the past can never mean as much as the present, and the future. It would have been wonderful to see Lori act as a moral counterpoint to Rick, particularly as he continues to grow darker. The battle for Carl’s soul — in terms of idealism vs pragmatism, at least — was always something the show had in its back pocket, but never fully realized. Now, of course, it never will.
Here’s the thing: I get it. I understand why they did what they did. Lori hasn’t always been an immensely popular character, and the back-and-forth between her and Rick may well be getting old for some viewers. It’s also true that after the extended stay on the farm in season two, the show has a certain twitchiness about its desire to challenge the status quo. All of that is fine, but the baby is now on the ground outside the window, wondering where its bathwater went.
Joss Whedon gets a lot of flak for the way he handles character death, and it’s an oft-repeated criticism that he’ll kill just to shock the audience — Wash in Serenity being the ultimate example, and the single reason that my Whedon-loving wife hasn’t returned to Firefly. Whedon, though, has never thrown away a character as casually as Lori was thrown away in The Walking Dead. All that potential (and actual) drama, sacrificed on the altar of the Grimdark Gods.
I’m going to continue watching the show, which remains one of the bravest and most original things I’ve ever seen on television. I don’t think that this is the moment it jumped the shark; I think, rather, that this is the single thing that the writers and producers have to watch out for in the future. The Walking Dead is a story about people and the relationships they forge and sunder; the bleakness of the setting should always serve to elevate that drama, not undercut it.
And as for Lori… I may not miss the character she was, but I will miss the character she should have been.