Teaching the Dead: Treating the Seasons as Movies

OK, time for our next lesson! It’s the structure of the seasons and how they play out better almost as a whole than the sum of their parts.

This was a theory I worked on since season 2. During the entirety of that season on the farm, I remember people complaining that “nothing was happening” and “why are we spending an entire season looking for girl?” and most importantly “too much talking and character development.” I have taught English long enough to know that the season was building up to something. The search for Sophia would have a pay off. The developments and debates would become important in hindsight.

And sure enough, the minute Sophia emerged from that barn, and I screamed and cried and was haunted by it for weeks, I knew I was right.

Season 2, most would agree, was a fabulous season, one that got even better when you binge watched it one episode after another. It is then you can see just how structured the season really was, and how every conversation, every moment, every debate, lead to the ultimate show down in “Better Angels” and eventually the finale. Which leads me to my point: Each “season” in the show seem to me to be playing out as if they were each individual movies in a saga, not just a TV series. Almost likea trilogy, or whatever moves beyond that. Each episode builds up to and leads into a greater story arc, like chapters in a novels. Remove any of the chapters, even the “slow” ones where there is little “action” and you miss important pieces in the storytelling or the characters’ views along the way. Each season plays like a movie.

In film and literature, there is are storytelling techniques and formulas that help develop the story and move it along. You need, usually, an attention grabbing beginning, some slow but steady rising action which includes the set up of the conflict, examination of characters and motivations, internal conflcits, etc, a climax or turning point in the action, some falling action as things start to build and options are considered, and then a lead up to the resolution.

Within the narration is usually foreshadowing (which is unrealized until the end), red herrings, and theme and character development, both internally and externally.

When this formula is applied to each individual season of the TWD, then the direction of each story arc is made much more clear.

Season 2, as previously stated, is a prime example of this technique, but season 3 followed this formula as well. Season 3 had it’s flaws, to be sure. For one, I felt the pacing was very uneven. Too much time was spent on issues that went nowhere. Prime example was Milton’s experiments. I thought for sure he’d learn something from poor dying Mr. Crawford, or that his journal would yield some useful information, but instead, we got nothing. Just a wasted opportunity. And too much time was spent in Woodbury and not with it’s citizens. Maybe there was some uneasiness over the Governor’s rule? People realizing it was a dystopia and not all it seemed? A look at the Governor’s army before he massacred them? No. Lots of time was spent in Woodbury, but focusing on the wrong things. More could have been done with the Dixon Brothers as well, and perhaps more internal conflict with Andrea. . Some episodes seemed rushed, while others took their time (perhaps too much time), making the finale anticlimactic. Let’s face it, the prison standoff in “Too Far Gone” should have been last year’s finale, sans meeting up a whole new “family” and forming a new army.
But it was all part of the pacing issues.

Still, season 3 played much better when binge viewed. The pacing issues became a bit less of a problem once all the episodes are watched strung together. The development of the conflict is clearer and it just makes more sense. Ironically, for me, season 3, although my least favorite of the four seasons for the above stated issues, had the most of my favorite episodes – “Killer Within,” “Clear,” and “This Sorrowful Life” are some of my all series favorites. In the case of season 3, some of the parts were better than the whole to an extent.

Season 4 is winding down and looking to be a much better structured example of my theory. The season has, in my mind, been masterfully executed. The season is showing the grief and loss the group experiences when their own utopia is destroyed by within and from outside, and how they struggle to deal with such loss. The subplots, such as Bob’s alcoholism, Sasha and Bob’s growing relationship, the rat killer, the Karen David murders, etc are seamlessly weaved throughout the greater conflicts, and the season took time to examine each group individually, which allowed each story to play out rather than seem “choppy” as the viewer bounces back and forth. I have already binge watched the first half of the season and find it to be the best of the seasons thus far (season 1 aside, which may be in it’s own category because it was the premiere and the shortest). In fact, it is the one I watch most frequently with the fewest number of “skip over” episodes. (It may even end up having the most of my favorite episodes before its all over!) Even more than the other seasons does season 4 take this theory to an art. Gimple planned this season and its execution well.

The biggest flaw I see in this formula is how the time is spread out. A midseason cliffhanger with nearly two months in between causes a loss in momentum and you have to “hook” the audience again and “remind” them of the building conflicts. For example, causing only about two weeks to pass since the death of Lori in October of season 2 and continued insanity of Rick in March confuses veiwers, who have real time stuck in their heads when watching the show. It causes Rick’s motivations and mental state to seem drawn out. Season 4 plays the same way. Bob was part of the prison group for just a week when episode 1 opens up. Then the illness hits, and the Governor’s attack, all of which takes only a few days. Post prison the episodes After, Inmates, and Claimed take place no more than 3 days after the attack, meaning all of season 4 up to “Still” runs only the span of about a week. This will all make more sense once you watch the episodes back to back, but over the real time viewing of five months with a six week break in between it can get confusing. Other than that, I think the formula causes for a much more satisfying and impactful finale and end of each season, as well as anticipation for the upcoming season.

In this age of Netflix, onDemand, and DVR’s, it is the new way to create a TV show. Shows are binge watched now more than ever in history, so each series needs to respect that viewers are devoting hours on Sunday afternoons to “catch up” on their favorite shows. This type of structure for a season lends itself very well to the trend of “netflixing,” so TWD serves itself very well to continue it. Episodes flowing into another easily makes the viewer forget that they just spent four hours in front of the TV and makes them “flow” right into the next episode. It’s the new way to watch TV and it required a new way to structure these type of shows.

I’m not sure if TWD knew what it was doing when it set up it’s seasons this way, but they don’t seem to be giving up the formula this season and with Gimple at the helm for season 5, they won’t next season either. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so we can expect to all be binging on season 4 when it comes out on DVD as well, and we may even gain a better understanding of it when we do.


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