Look, we know that The Walking Dead hasn’t exactly been a hard target for critical nit-picking. Since pretty much the beginning of its run, the AMC series has never really risen above “a pulpy good time” as its quality ceiling, or threatened to become Great Television in the modern sense. Whatever promise existed in the Frank Darabont-produced first season was pretty quickly replaced by a serial-esque approach toward its characters and their adversaries, as represented by a revolving door of villainous groups that have been dispatched, one after the other, from Season Three onward. Along the way, our weekly reviews have only become more burdensome, but we’ve stuck through it for nine seasons and we’re not about to quit now. We’re going down with this ship.
However. There is one thing in particular about Season Nine that I’d like to address, and I can summarize in the space of one sentence. It’s this: The Walking Dead refuses to provide its audience with the most basic information, and it seemingly can’t differentiate between confusion and “intrigue.”
Clear and concise storytelling has not traditionally been one of this show’s strengths, but Season Nine of TWD has somehow taken what was once simply a byproduct of bad writing and made it into the central mechanism of how the story moves forward. And thanks to the confusion and awkwardness involved in the departures of Rick Grimes and Maggie Rhee (actors Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan, respectively) this season, the faulty foundation has become all the more obvious for anyone to see. So let’s highlight some of the more egregious instances of how The Walking Dead has obsessively withheld basic information from the audience.
The gimmick of the beginning of Season Nine is that a 1.5-year time skip has occurred since the end of Season Eight—little did we know at the time that it would be only the first time skip of the season. The idea, however, is simply to show how Alexandria, The Hilltop and The Kingdom have progressed since the war with the Saviors came to a close.
Given that such a time period has passed in relative peace, and given that Jadis, the former leader of the Trash People, has become a member of the Alexandria roster, it’s only natural for the audience to assume that important information has been disseminated off screen. When she joined the group, Jadis would obviously have been subjected to some intense grilling on her past, and what the hell she was doing out at that junkyard, speaking in contrived Mad Max English. It seems natural to assume that at some point, if she was actually joining Rick’s group, she would have ended up revealing the true nature of the helicopters seen flying through the area—the helicopters we’ve clearly seen she possesses the ability to call to her position at will.
And yet, no—it doesn’t seem as if anyone in Alexandria, including Rick, knows anything about the helicopters or their connection to Jadis. This, despite the fact that Rick has seen them flying before, and would naturally be seeking the information.
Lest we forget, there’s one person living in Alexandria who 100 percent knows all of this information: Negan. As Jadis’ prisoner in “Still Gotta Mean Something,” he literally watched her call a helicopter to their position, presumably to take him away to a destination unknown. Did he ever ask her something along the lines of “Hey, where are those choppers from, exactly?” Nope! This despite the fact that he controlled the most powerful community in the area. People flying helicopters around was apparently something he had no strategic interest in, which, needless to say, makes no goddamn sense. Nor have the Alexandrians extracted this important information from him in the last 1.5 years, which, once again… makes no sense.
Immediately after this scene, Negan responds by not asking Jadis for any information about the helicopter he just saw, because The Walking Dead either hates its audience or can’t conceive of a method to hint at these things in a way that doesn’t require its characters to act unnaturally.
If “Rick’s; last episode” was something we found galling from the standpoint of “Oh, The Walking Dead lied to our faces yet again,” the fact that the same episode was also the last for Maggie passed by with almost no fanfare at all. It’s only a few episodes later, after the second (six-year!) time skip, that it’s starting to become clear that Maggie’s departure represents an even bigger storytelling mess than Rick’s.
Suffice it to say, Maggie is gone. She went off somewhere during the time skip, referenced by Jesus only as being “with Georgie,” taking her young boy Hershel along with her. Georgie, if you don’t remember her, was the matronly old intellectual woman who rolled up in a van for one episode in Season Eight and handed Maggie a book on how to build windmills, among other things. So, to recap: A primary protagonist who has been on The Walking Dead for eight seasons decided to leave the main narrative to do unexplained work with another character who has had about 10 total minutes of screen time, a season ago. A character, mind you, that the audience knows essentially nothing about—but the frustrating thing is, the characters on the show have so much more information than we do. For example:
— Who is Georgie, really? Jesus communicates with her by letters and seems to share this information with Tara, and possibly the entire community. At this point, they must know the nature of Georgie’s community, especially if their former leader is now living there. The nature of Georgie is common knowledge within the walls of The Hilltop. But does the audience get to understand this basic information that all the characters have access to? Nope.
— Why did Maggie choose to leave the community she fought so hard for throughout the events of the war with Negan and beyond? Why did she uproot her young child from his life at The Hilltop, besides the fact that Cohan has an upcoming ABC drama series (Whiskey Cavalier) to promote? What was the given rationale? Once again: The members of The Hilltop must know this information. But we, the audience, don’t get to know.
— Why have all lines of basic communication between each community fallen into disrepair, and what does it have to do with Maggie’s departure? The leaders of both Alexandria and The Hilltop possess this information, but they refuse to share it with the audience.
Sure, I mean, who WOULDN’T abandon the people they’ve been fighting alongside for 10 years in order to go with this lady, right?
In general, the viewers of this show are just being given nothing to go on. Each episode introduces newly unanswered questions rather than paying off any of the old ones, and the effect is to continuously confound viewers rather than piquing their curiosity. Everything we’ve seen on The Walking Dead in the last few weeks suggests that the writers of the show have no idea what any of the answers are to these questions, and are instead just working under the assumption that they’ll simply solve these problems if Cohan ever decides to return to the series. Narratively, she might as well be frozen in carbonite right now, with an uncertain thaw date.
Alfred Hitchcock famously described the use of “suspense” in film as the following: It’s when you, the audience, know something important that the characters don’t—such as the fact that a bomb will soon explode. How then, can you describe what The Walking Dead does—give its characters tons of information but refuse to share it with us—as anything but “reverse suspense”?
I can only imagine that the showrunner of The Walking Dead looks at the last two episodes, after the six-year time skip, and believes that each instance of showing a grisly “X” scar on a main character’s back (first Michonne, then Daryl) constitutes “an intriguing mystery” for the viewer. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion.
Simply punching the audience in the face with an unexplained piece of information does not a mystery make—or if it does, it makes for the most obvious and lazy mystery possible. It gives me a headache to imagine the writers or actors on the Talking Dead couch afterward, fielding questions from the audience about those scars with a wry smile and “wouldn’t you like to know?” attitude. These are units of storytelling so without subtlety or guile of any kind that they’re disgustingly geared toward simply getting the audience to beg you for more information. They so desperately want you to ask “Hey, what’s with those giant “X” scars, anyway?”, just so they can say “well, maybe we’ll find out sometime soon!”
Imagine if The Walking Dead had a recurring gimmick, wherein a dastardly looking man with a top hat and a handlebar mustache would appear in the background of various scenes, twirling his facial hair between his fingers and chortling, while never being acknowledged by any of the other characters on screen. That approach would be only slightly more ham-handed in terms of establishing a “mystery” than what the show is doing with these scars.
I really can’t imagine a lazier way to get your audience talking…
…except, wait, last episode gave us one more instance that was even lazier, if you can believe that. During the events of “Stradivarius,” Michonne learns for the first time that Maggie has abdicated her post as the leader of The Hilltop, something that has apparently been kept from her, possibly for years, for reasons unknown. She’s told this by Siddiq, who says the following to her: “I wanted to tell you sooner, but I promised someone I wouldn’t.”
Jesus Christ, The Walking Dead. “Someone”? That’s all you’ve got? Do the writers even know who he’s talking about when they write that line, or is it just another lazy throwaway intended to get those Twitter theorists a-tweeting, which will never be returned to again? It’s like they’re begging the audience to beg them for more information.
These instances aren’t so much tantalizing hints at future reveals as they are straight up teasing of the (remaining) audience, and in the process they force all of the show’s characters to act in ways that are both unsatisfying and unnatural. No one gets to converse like a human being in possession of common knowledge on The Walking Dead. Instead, they act is if they know they’re characters on a television show, and they’ve just been given strict orders by someone standing just off screen to not spill the beans to the audience. You half expect Jesus to turn to Tara and say “we’ll talk about it later… when the audience isn’t listening.”
That’s no way to go through a ninth season of television, guys. Please, stop acting so damn coy.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.