Monday, November 30, 2015

The Walking Dead and ‘Glennanigans’: The Importance of Being Fair

*SPOILER ALERT: There are numerous spoilers in this post, including from the recently aired episodes of The Walking Dead. Most of the others are from works at least a year old, but in any event, consider yourself fairly warned.

After the recent writer shenanigans (or, if you prefer, Glennanigans) on The Walking Dead, I have to wonder if the show has jumped the shark for me.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it possible for this show, but I’m a little upset about recent events. And it has nothing to do with the usual reasons a show jumps the shark -- the story no longer being compelling, or characters becoming stale, or the tone or direction of the show evolving into something I no longer enjoy. Instead, what put me off (and a large number of other people, from the Internet screaming I’m hearing) was more about the writers being fair.

So what happened? Let’s start with Glenn. He’s a fan favorite and for good reason. He’s resourceful, resilient, and probably most importantly, he’s a good guy. He doesn’t give up. He survives. He is loyal. He forgives. He loves. In a very real way, his character is the emotional core of the show, or at the very least, its moral center.

Nicholas and Glenn on top of the dumpster
In a recent episode, he was out on a mission with a newer character, Nicholas (who had actually tried to murder him at one point last season, but Glenn was now trying to help him earn redemption…talk about forgiveness!) and the two of them were cornered by zombies in an alley. Trapped atop a dumpster and surrounded by ravenous walkers, things looked pretty bad for our hero. Nicholas apparently thought so, too, because he opted to shoot himself in the head, and as he fell from the dumpster top, he took Glenn down with him. The scene ended with a shot of Glenn laying on his back in apparent agony while walkers tore into what appeared to be his guts, eating him alive.

Pretty powerful stuff. In fact, I let out an involuntary “Oh, no!” of dismay as it occurred.

Okay. So far, so good. A character I love died a horrible death. Such an event sends a strong signal to the viewer. It says anyone can die. It means that every danger that is presented henceforth has to be taken seriously. The end result is that the tension in the storytelling is increased. And that’s a good thing, right?


So Glenn’s death was a horrible, but good, thing. Right?


Here’s why. He didn’t die.

That’s right. The Walking Dead spent three (three!) episodes exploring other story threads, leaving the viewer hanging without closure. When the story swung back around, we got to see the scene again…only this time, the camera angle pulled back further. We see that when they fell, Nicholas landed on top of Glenn. The zombies are still feasting, but instead of eating Glenn’s entrails, it is Nicholas that they are tearing apart. Glenn scrambles underneath the nearby dumpster and waits hours until the coast is clear.

He survived.

Which is very Glenn, by the way. I love him for it.

But I am angry with the writers. Because they cheated, plain and simple. They didn’t play fair.

Stephen King talked about this at some length in his novel, Misery. If you recall, in that book a crazy superfan named Annie Wilkes rescues Paul Sheldon, her favorite author after he crashes on a snowy road. While nursing him to health, Annie discovers that Paul has killed her favorite character and she demands that he “fix” it. Starting to realize at this point how batshit crazy she is, Paul agrees to her terms. He cobbles together a new storyline that is the functional equivalent of the Glenn situation. Essentially, he cheats, changing what has already occurred in the story the reader has read. Annie goes crazy [crazier?] and calls him on his cheating, refusing to accept this draft. He was being a “dirty bird” and so she forces him back to the drawing board, demanding that he play fair. No deus ex machina allowed for Annie Wilkes.

[Jeez, have I become Annie Wilkes?]

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about cliffhangers here. I’m cool with cliffhangers. In fact, I love them. I mean, I don’t love the six year cliffhangers that G.R.R. Martin specializes in, but overall, cliffhangers are powerful. They’re fair. I recently watched the entire Sons of Anarchy series, and several season finales used significant cliffhangers to great success. One season ended with the protagonist’s mother murdering his wife, followed by another club member killing the responding police officer. When the protagonist arrives home to see this mess, he is arrested for the murder of his wife. Fade to black.

Thankfully, Sons of Anarchy didn’t get cancelled before the next season started. We might have had another Southland on our hands.

Going back to G.R.R. Martin for a moment, I’m okay with something he’s done on more than one occasion – that is, the use of ambiguity. When Sandor Clegane (The Hound) knocked Arya on the head with an axe in the immediate aftermath of the Red Wedding, it wasn’t immediately clear if she was killed or merely knocked unconscious. The fact that The Hound was a character of questionable morals and loyalty only made it easier for the reader to worry that she had been killed. After all, Martin had already offed Robb Stark and his mother at the Red Wedding just a chapter before, not to mention killing Eddard Stark way back in the opening novel. Any reader who feared for Arya was being reasonable in those concerns. But Martin was ambiguous enough in the way he wrote that scene that when it turned out that The Hound had knocked Arya out so that he could stop her from running to her certain death, no one cried foul. The reader (most of them), consciously or unconsciously, sensed that Martin had played fair.

The Walking Dead did not, at least not in my opinion. The initial shots painted a picture that pretty clearly told the story of Glenn’s death. Then, several episodes later, they changed what happened. What a bunch of dirty birds.

Now maybe I am hypersensitive to this. I write in the mystery genre. No other genre demands such a high level of fairness from its authors. You absolutely dare not cheat as a mystery writer. It is inexcusable to introduce a critical fact at the last minute to resolve the mystery. Or to keep a critical fact from the reader (without telling the reader you’re doing so). Or cheat in any other way, because mystery readers will call a penalty each and every time. They’ll clobber you with justifiably bad reviews, bad word of mouth, emails to the author, and by refusing to buy any more of your books. Offend the mystery reader’s sense of fairness at your own risk.

And I’m cool with this. It is a high standard, but a fair standard.  It is what the standard should be.

Storytelling is a bit of a social contract, and it dates back to the times of campfire tales, or traveling bards. The storyteller weaves the story for the listener, and maybe she tries to fool the listener at times, but always in a way that is objectively fair. So it is almost hard-wired into our system to expect that fairness.

Someone reading this might be tempted to think I’m made about being fooled by The Walking Dead’s writers. I’m not. I don’t mind being fooled. It doesn’t happen often, but if it happens fairly, I’m actually delighted by it. For example, The Sixth Sense fooled me. That’s right, even though I figure out virtually every movie I see well before the “reveal”, I did not figure out that Bruce Willis was a ghost until the end when Shyamalan purposefully told me so. I was simply too distracted by the intriguing story of that poor kid who saw dead people to do the math, or even to know there was a math problem to solve. The clues were certainly there, but I was caught up in the experience and didn’t catch them. I didn’t even look for them. And when it all came together, my reaction was two-fold. The first was to say, “Wow, that was a cool twist. Well done.” The second was to think, “I should have figured that out.”

Notice I didn’t react with “That’s not what happened!”?

That’s because in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan played fair. He was no dirty bird. In fact, he played exceedingly fair, sprinkling clues throughout the film. A few people I know did figure it out. That’s how fair it was.

Were these recent Glennanigans that The Walking Dead pulled also fair?

No. At least, not to my mind. I wouldn’t have spent 1800-plus words chattering about it if it had been fair. It wasn’t a matter of clever film-making or hiding clues in plain sight or a cliffhanger or even an ambiguous scene. It was a dirty bird play.

So what’s the outcome? I mean, if this was a mystery novel or crime drama, we all know what the response would be. Close the book. Ban the author. Stop watching the show. A total freeze out. Playing unfair like this is a death sentence in the mystery genre. But for TV? For the horror drama genre?

Yeah, not so much.

Sure, the relationship has been damaged. My trust has been violated, if you’ll permit me to be a little dramatic. The Walking Dead has always been a show where anyone might die, although as the series has rolled on, a few people seemed to achieve untouchable status. Glenn was probably second only to Rick, the lead character, in that standing. So killing him was a bold move and would have ramped up the tension every time anyone was in danger, including those we thought of as untouchable. Now, those same situations won’t be as tense or as worrisome. With their Glennanigans, the writers have told us (by cheating) that those untouchable characters are probably not in mortal danger. They went from becoming potential Eddard Starks to being MacGyvers. And while you can still have tension in those kinds of situations, it is nowhere near as high as if you believe the hero might actually die. The Walking Dead has lost some of that.

Did the show jump the shark? Maybe.

Will I still watch it? Probably.

The show has built up a lot of credit with me over the previous five seasons. I still care about the characters and what happens next. So I will almost certainly hang around a while longer. But if the show pulls another Glennanigan, I’m probably gone.

One thing is for sure. As an author, you might see some cliffhangers from me. You might see some cleverly hid clues or some that are in plain sight that I hope you miss in the sound and fury of the story. You might even see the occasional withheld (but announced) clues or some Martin-esque ambiguity. But I promise you this…no Glennanigans.