The Zombie Apocalypse – a Story Gift That Keeps on Giving

Walking Dead Season 4 Cast – AMC image

The Walking Dead is a show that’s well and truly hooked me. I both yearn for and dread the approach of Sunday night (3-30-14), when the Season 4 finale airs. There are story threads I’m watching anxiously, to see how they play out. However, once those are resolved – or left all cliff-hangy – I will have to wait who knows how many months before there’s more Walking Dead to watch.

While imagining various outcomes, it occurred to me that the writers of this series sure know what they’re doing, in terms of keeping an audience slavering in anticipation. So obviously, I want to take the show apart to see  what makes it tick. I’m trying to leave spoilers out, though, so this discussion will be short on specific examples.

In MICE terms (where you classify a story depending on whether the main focus is on the Milieu, Idea, Character and Event; for further info, look here), the overall story arc of The Walking Dead is that of an Event story. There are some great character arcs and ideas/mysteries. In addition, the milieu (setting) has the benefit of being both familiar (contemporary America) and novel (after being smashed to smithereens). But what propels this series is the quest to bring order to the characters’ world in the midst of the aforementioned zombie apocalypse.

Some TV series peter out after a time. I suppose The Walking Dead could, too, if the show’s creators run out of ideas. Based on what they’ve come up with so far, though, that could take a good long while. As long as they keep introducing interesting characters at roughly the same rate they kill them off, and those characters deal with their horrible situation in compelling ways, this series could go on indefinitely.

Because – let’s face it. Once you have a zombie apocalypse, the world is unlikely to be the same ever again. This allows the writers to ratchet up the tension on a struggle many of us seldom worry about anymore – simple survival. In the world of The Walking Dead, that struggle is universal. No one has it any better than anyone else—at any rate, they don’t have it that way for long. You might find what you think is a safe setup for your hardy little band, but it only takes one wacko or evil person to bring it all down.

The characters’ lives would be fine if they could thoroughly vet the people they take under their wing, but human beings don’t work that way, do they? If you have ties to someone – maybe because you’re related or you’ve slept with them, maybe because they’re young and vulnerable, maybe because they did you a solid somewhere along the line – you’re inclined to say, “We have to bring this person in and provide safe harbor for them.”

The other people in your group, those who don’t have the same ties to this person, might say, “Screw that. Can’t you see this guy/chick is trouble?” But eventually the good-hearted Walking Dead band that we’ve come to know and love will say, “Aw, heck, nobody’s perfect. Might as well give them a chance.”

Sometimes it works out okay, sometimes it comes back to bite them in their collective butts.

Anyway my point is, it would take a lot to make this show jump the shark. I can see two ways of doing it: one, you allow your body count to include a character that too many viewers identify with. It could be Rick, or it could, as one internet meme has it, be Daryl.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon – AMC image

The second way is to find or create the orderly society to which most characters wish to return. Once an actual civilization (one that can keep you safe) is functioning, or once all the zombies die or go away, then the main problem of living in this world disappears. Everyone lives happily ever after. Obviously you save this solution for the series finale, and I bet you money, marbles or chalk, that’s the writers’ eventual plan. As clever as they are, though, there will be some twist I never would have anticipated.

And that, my friends, is what you call a well-milked Event story.