The Walking Dead - World Beyond, My Rambling Review
(No meaningful spoilers. This review was written after episode four or five. If you’ve seen The Walking Dead or Fear the Walking Dead, you already know everything that’s going to happen on this show.)
For people who don’t like zombie stories, they probably all look the same. You have zombies, and people running away from them, and lots of gore. How is any of that interesting again after you’ve seen it done once?
For me, the appeal of zombie fiction, and apocalyptic fiction in general, is speculating on what people might do when civilization as we know it is wiped out and everyone has to start again. How do we enforce what’s fair? Who gets to make decisions? How do we negotiate our different opinions? Those answers are going to differ depending on what kind of people are asking them, and that’s the variability that I like exploring. It’s all about the different mix of people you throw into the game.
So even though The Walking Dead, as a universe and franchise, has disappointed me over and over, I’m still willing to roll the dice on a new show, because the set of survivors is a new group of people and personalities. Maybe something good can come out of a fresh mix.
The conceit of The Walking Dead, World Beyond is that it’s about ten years after the zombie apocalypse central to the first two shows, and now there are teenagers who have grown up with zombies as just a fact of life. They were around before society collapsed, but generally too young to have really got to know it. In principle, I like the premise of people who don’t fantasize about “getting back to normal,” because they don’t know what normal should be.
My first hurdle in getting into this show, though, is that I’m having a little difficulty suspending my disbelief for the setting where everything is taking place. I just don’t know if I believe that humans would continue to be at the mercy of zombies in the long term if enough humans survive the initial onslaught. To be honest, I have my doubts that a civilization ending zombie apocalypse is viable at all, but if we go down that road we might kill a whole genre.
Granting a little leeway, we can imagine that at the outset of any zombie apocalypse, zombies have the advantage of having a surplus of targets, and the general confusion of no one knowing what the hell is going on. I used to think the confusion aspect was often over played, but, as as we’ve now seen from real life pandemics, it’s clear that most zombie fiction has maybe underestimated how dumb some people can be about basic precautions.
Given enough time, though, once you have a few humans settled into the new reality enough that they can defend themselves and start thinking about how to deal with zombies, then really, zombies are just an engineering problem. You could, as people have done throughout history, come up with all sorts of mechanisms for destroying humans wholesale. In the past, various groups of people have all too easily massacred other sets of huge groupings of humans when there’s even a slight technological imbalance. Zombies don’t even have the most rudimentary tool use or tactical maneuvers, so it’s hard to imagine why we would do worse against them.
It wouldn’t be about battles, it would just be a matter of building pathways, channeling their movements, configuring industrial sized slaughtering machines. How many zombies could you kill by setting up a large circular saw at the right height and just letting it run while they walked towards the sound? How about a large enough pit where you light them on fire? How about herding them into a high rise building with something making noise at the top, then blowing up the building? I don’t think the specifics matter, I have every confidence that if lots of moving bodies need to be slaughtered, people will find a way.
However you handled it, I don’t think it would take too much time before you were developing ways to just keep culling the zombies until they were manageable and you could turn the tables. Assuming an initial devastation as bad as we saw in this show’s universe, I would give it about two to three years before zombies were like weeds or bugs in a garden. You have to keep on top of them, sure, but people successfully grow tomatoes all the time.
This show proposes that a decade later, zombies are still just kind of out there, hanging out in huge hordes, and that’s just the way it is. The most people have done is set up communities inside fences large enough to start a farm and have schools, and different communities are trying to negotiate with each other to build alliances. But no one seems to be proactive about working on widespread zombie extermination.
It would really help if somehow, in some way, the show let me know why it is that by this zombies aren’t being hunted down for sport. I’m already providing a lot of leeway by not supposing that mother nature isn’t wiping out zombies as a matter of course. Over ten years, a few hurricanes, tornadoes, and completely unchecked forest fires should probably have brought their numbers down in the area this show takes place. And we’re not even considering general wear and tear, rot, and bugs. Unfortunately, I feel like the writers are content to believe that of course zombies would be a problem forever, and that as a viewer, I shouldn’t even think about it.
So if I want to watch this show, I’m going to have to just let that go. And I could, if the characters in this show, the thing that makes all zombie fiction interesting, are worth watching. Are they?
I’m not sure yet. The first few episodes set things up so that our main focus is going to be on a central group of about four teenagers, two girls and two boys. It’s a sort of road movie scenario, where the two girls, who are sisters, have decided to leave the safety of their community’s fences, to head off to find their father. Their father has been taken to another community as part of some kind of negotiation or something, because he’s a scientist or whatever.
There’s a backdrop scenario where different human communities have a kind of distrust of each other, because one of the recurring themes of the show is that people, living people, are the real threat, not the zombies. Sure, I guess. Anyway, what’s more unclear to me is exactly how far the father is from the girls. I kind of thought I heard someone say we’re in Portland when this starts, and the dad is in New York? These girls are planning to walk across the continent? I suppose since being any one place is as shitty as being in any other place, you might as well just go ahead and walk for however long it takes to get anywhere. But also… they seem pretty casual about it all in a way that makes me wonder if I got the locations wrong.
My first impression of these main characters as they start out on their journey is that they seem just as bad at dealing with zombies as everyone has ever been since the apocalypse first happened. I’m not saying that they should be exceptional super zombie hunters, but they’ve lived with zombies for a decade, during their arguably most formative years, so I feel there should be much more default familiarity.
In one of the first zombie encounters we see with one of the lead girls, she stabs it multiple times everywhere but the head, in spite of ample opportunity. I believe in a character who is not so great at fighting, but I don’t believe in a character who seems practically determined to fail at doing the one thing that everyone in this world should be absolutely clear on, above all other concerns. We’ve even seen that their schools provide zombie fighting classes, as you would, and I can’t believe the kids would be disinterested in that class, as they might be with say, math.
In this fight, the zombie and the main girl fall into a pit, and the zombie is impaled on some log or something so that it can’t move around much, but it’s still “alive” in that it’s still trying to lash out. For unclear reasons, the kids decide to not finish the job, and they walk away, leaving the zombie thrashing around. The other girl in the group says, “sorry,” to the zombie before they leave it.
This feels like a deliberate attempt to be evocative of the very first episode of the first Walking Dead series, when the main character Rick encountered one of his first zombies, and he recognizes that it’s not just a monster, but that it used to be human. We got a sense of empathy, letting us know that this show isn’t just a big adventure of killing monsters who are mere avatars to shoot like some kind of video game. No, in this show, zombies are supposed to be a tragedy.
That moment worked very well in that pilot episode. In spite of many attempts to recreate that magic, it has never worked since, and it doesn’t work here. Why is this girl saying sorry to a zombie? Are we supposed to believe that after all this time, in a world where the overwhelming threat of zombies is an ever present fact of life, where most zombies are the shells left behind by people dead and forgotten years ago, she’s been raised to think of zombies as people deserving treatment or concern?
Given what I know about teenagers, including my experience of having been one, I would find it way more believable that they would be a lot more cynical and dismissive, making them more casual about zombie deaths.
And this is where the show really hits the ground layer of the problem that’s pervasive in every series of this universe. It’s not so much about whether or not these teenagers are believable, or if my idea of teenagers is more right or wrong than theirs. The problem is, why shift time and place and give us a whole new generation of characters if they’re just going to repeat emotional beats we’ve seen ad nauseam on the previous two series?
The Walking Dead’s first spin off, Fear the Walking Dead, had the same problem, of being too similar in tone, making the characters indistinct on a base layer. You can have characters of different age and background, and deliberately differentiating quirks, but if they all share their innermost feelings in long dialogs with the same baseline of melancholy, it gets dull.
That’s what killed the first Walking Dead show for me. I bailed long before the series ended (wait, it hasn’t ended? huh. I was sure it had… Anyway…) because on a tonal level, it felt like all the characters were emotionally similar, in the same way that the sepia tone they use to film everything unifies the visuals into one narrow palette. Maybe that metaphor doesn’t work because the visuals look nice when they’re unified. When characters all speak with the same voice, it’s not unifying, it’s flattening. People are, or should be, different.
In any case, that issue is highlighted all the more because the show went to lengths to take us to a much different set of circumstances, with characters who have every reason to behave considerably differently, and create something new.
Anyway, we also have two boys following along with the girls. Each is a sort of misfit type. One is the effete artistic type, and the other is the shunned because he seems weird and dangerous type. The boys give boring reasons for coming along, but I didn’t really care. I didn’t pay too much attention because I was distracted by the absence of the boys having any crushes on either of the girls.
Not that the boys shouldn’t have more dimension than being horny teenagers, but their lack of active attraction, especially to the one girl who borders on being impossibly hot for this world, just doesn’t ring true to me. Their relationships to each other are too nuanced, too much like the adults on the show, again, burying them in sameness instead of using something about them being teenagers to take us somewhere new.
There are two adults who come after the teenagers, and who somehow find them in spite of all the potential for the kids to have gone off in countless directions. Fine, whatever. It’s the kind of thing you need to happen for there to be a show.
One of the adults is a guy with a clunky back story, and, I’m pretty sure the flash backs about his parents not accepting that he was gay was shoe horned in early in the series to explain why and he and the woman he’s with are not a couple. They’re both good looking and pop culture generally dictates that good looking people hook up.
The woman is the hot Russian embassy employee from the show Americans. I think she might be trying really hard to prove she’s not actually Russian or something, because she’s got a southern accent that sounds as bad as what I would come up with in an improv sketch.
Speaking of distracting, in this show, they call zombies “empties,” and I can’t think of a more jarring word to use in place of “zombie.”
I get why we can’t assume that every group of humans, isolated from each other, would come up with the same terminology. But I also don’t care, and the deliberate effort to keep finding new names for them is getting silly. Terms like “empties” just doesn’t feel like a genuinely natural label to arrive at from any perception of the undead.
Even in a narrative where the writers don’t want to use the word “zombie” to make it clear that none of the characters had prior knowledge through movies or whatever before the apocalypse, I’m still pretty sure people would land on “undead” way before “empties.”
Especially considering it’s ten years after the apocalypse, I think it would be reasonable to suppose that one term eventually spread around and got currency among all the disparate human settlements. But whatever, it’s just not important enough to think about while also being noticeable enough to pull focus. Just call them “walkers,” since it’s in the title, and stop saying weird words that make you pop out of every moment and think, “wait… they call zombies what?”
Anyway, getting back to that issue of how it is that zombies are somehow still a problem after ten years, I started to guess at why that might be by the fourth or fifth episode. There’s a weird policy of not killing zombies that characters in this show seem to abide by, and it goes beyond trying to create forced empathy.
For example, while going through an abandoned school, some characters encounter a zombie on the other size side of a door, preventing them from progressing. After they spend a little time moping around, as all characters on this show do, they decide on a plan to move forward. They open the door, and time it so that when the zombie comes through, they can run by it, and close the door behind them, locking the zombie on the other side from where they end up. The whole time, though, they have ample opportunity to bash it in the head and subtract one more zombie from the world.
Every zombie killed is one less future threat to you and everyone else, and one less vector for creating new zombies. So it’s always in everyone’s interest to eradicate every zombie at every opportunity. There’s no reasonable in-universe justification ever given for why any zombie should be left standing, and without it, these characters seem a little clueless about the world they live in.
It makes me think that the core reason zombies are around ten years after the events of the first two series is because everyone is too dumb to take obvious actions.
Which, I guess has a certain believably given the United States’ current handling of the coronavirus. It makes me wonder if, in the Walking Dead universe, as the events of World Beyond are taking place, maybe other countries like New Zealand and Japan are totally fine.
Now that would be an interesting spin off series, with some potential real differences. Walking Dead - New Zealand: We’re All Good, Mate.