Jeremy Bentham once imagined the panopticon: a revolutionary institutional building that would allow watchmen to track prisoners without the prisoners being able to see the watchmen. While it’s never been built to his design specifications, it found a place as a philosophical metaphor in the works of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, to name a few.
On a post-modern level, we might say that television is one gigantic panopticon: we peer into the lives of characters and real life people, but they in turn cannot see us. So it is with The Walking Dead characters, who now find themselves trapped in the prison. But they are not alone; the watchmen are now in there with them, and by no great storytelling moves.
It’s my opinion that what’s going on in that prison isn’t so much a reflection of where the story needs to be narratively, as much as it is a byproduct of AMC’s budgeting. The dust-up over Frank Darabont’s departure after Season 1 has more meaning here than any storytelling necessity.When Darabont left, we discovered that AMC’s producers were tired of location shooting expenses and wanted 50% more indoor scenes. The prison and Woodbury are the reality of this sort of cinematic fiscal austerity.
I’ll grant that on some narrative level Rick & Co’s settling into the prison was necessary. Now it’s starting to feel like a purgatorial panopticon—and not for the characters but for viewers. We are stuck in a narrative singularity, or rather a cyclical existence that is going nowhere. And, please, no suggestions that this mind-numbing repetition is the necessary groundwork for a Season 3 apocalypse. Quite the contrary. We’ve seen this plot before—in Season 2, but in a more interesting form. What’s the point in retreading the reality that Rick and his band of survivors are never safe; that they can try to settle in and re-establish civilization, but that the mayhem, the disintegration relentlessly, mindlessly follows. We know that. Show us something new!
What should be clear to any loyal Walking Dead viewer is that we understand the world built by the writers. It is or rather was never one of stasis; there is always an inertia—one propelled by fear. As Rick & Co have evolved into incredibly skilled zombie killers, their fear has now been transferred to the Governor and Woodbury. And the prelude to tribal warfare is, well, boring. No amount of choreography or blood will animate this corpse (pardon the metaphor).
The joy of experiencing that first episode of The Walking Dead was to see Rick experience a surreal, post-apocalyptic landscape; to feel in an almost sublime way the melancholy horror of it all.That feeling, which was the greatest strength of The Walking Dead for me, is now gone; jettisoned for budget reasons more than likely. But let’s say that budget is only part of the story. If Glen Mazzara and Robert Kirkman believe this is dynamic, visionary television, then they are woefully mistaken.
I cannot help but think that Frank Darabont knew this was bound to happen, and fought against it. If he was still showrunner, I believe that we would be seeing the world outside of the prison and Woodbury, in all of its kaleidscopic complexity. James Joyce taught us with Ulysses that there is infinite complexity in a single location (Dublin). But The Walking Dead writers are not James Joyce. They’ve got an opportunity to show us what a post-apocalyptic world would look like in serialized form, and all they give us is a single grain of sand on a vast beach of possibilities.
The Walking Dead could have been so boundless in scope, but its limited vision, whatever the reasons may be, is killing the series in Season 3.
If something isn’t done in the finale or in Season 4, I’m done and my guess is many others will share the sentiment.