The Walking Dead Really Loves the Word “Save”

Televised storytelling relies on repetition, but too much can yield comic results.

By KELLI MARSHALL


When zombies such as those in The Walking Dead (2010-) or the upcoming spinoff Fear the Walking Dead (2015- ) attack communities, safety is obviously the utmost concern. But how many times in one season does the concept need reiterating verbally?

Apparently, 80 times.

This is dialogue from only two episodes of The Walking Dead (Season 2):

  • You’ve got to get your boy to safety.
  • Where? Where is safe? We’re not splitting up.
  • Please, keep your boy safe.
  • It’s not safe here.
  • Even if we do find a place and we think it’s safe, we can never be sure.
  • We fooled ourselves into thinking that that was safe.
  • He saved my life yesterday when one of the people you think is sick tried to kill me.
  • Lori, how many times has he saved your life?
  • How many times has Rick saved your life?
  • How we gonna make it safe?
  • I’ve given you safe harbor.
  • Why do you want to stay here when it’s not safe? We can make it safe.
  • You think this is gonna keep us safe?
  • Look, it was one thing sitting around here picking daisies when we thought this place was supposed to be safe.
  • You take it, Carl, and you keep your mother safe.

In its first five seasons, The Walking Dead has used variations of the words save and safe 327 times.

Again, that is 327 times.

This equates to an average of 5 usages per episode. Some individual episodes, like the two above, cite the words more than 12 times.

Televised storytelling, of course, relies on repetition — on themes, motifs, tropes, parallelism. Think Breaking Bad’s pink teddy bear, Justified’s lawless frontier, The Good Wife’s elevators, and CSI’s “signature shot.” Directors have effectively weaved these themes and motifs across episodes and seasons to engage viewers, explain characters, propel stories.

However, too much thematic repetition can yield comic results. In other words, some dialogue and images are played so heavily in TV series (and movies) that viewers laugh (and/or roll their eyes) when they appear. Most recently, I think of Scandal’s use of the terms gladiator and white hat as well as Dexter’s “dark passenger.”

It’s not just TV dramas that do this, of course. Some fans of the documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? created a drinking game since the show so often repeats phrases and Ancestry.com product placement. (There are several TV drinking games around, btw. Here’s a list and another and another.)

The Walking Dead’s over-emphasis on the words safe and save as well as the visual notion of security (e.g., characters’ hiding, ducking, fleeing) function similarly: the repetition ultimately becomes comical. Thus, it’s no surprise that fans who create drinking games for The Walking Dead detect this as well:

  • The Dallas Observer notices: “Take one drink if Glenn saves the day. Two drinks if Rick gets credit.”
  • She Knows knows: “Drink when someone is almost killed but is then miraculously saved at the last minute.”
  • Fans on Spoil the Dead message boards catch my drift: “We take a nice big swig when Kirkman (or anybody) says the inane line ‘No one is safe.’”
  • The same goes for a fan on this sci-fi board: “When anybody says ‘keep them safe,’ DRINK.”

As other drinking games, bingo boards, memes, and sofa pillows (whaa?!) indicate, The Walking Dead isn’t lacking in its use of repetition.

But for a show portraying the end of times, the survival of the fittest, and flesh-eating creatures — reflections of real things in our culture, btw (terrorism? immigration? capitalism? technology?) — perhaps some comical repetition is justified.