Which Medium Better Captured The Struggles After The End of The World?
After 12 years on the air, one of the defining shows of this generation has ended. The Walking Dead‘s final season came to a close this past Sunday in an emotional and bloody episode full of heartbreak, joyful moments, and notes of hope for the future. It’s not really the end, though. At least not for various characters. But it is the end of the story inspired by Robert Kirkman’s popular comic. The Walking Dead TV series has adapted original ideas in the past but largely took inspiration from its graphic novel source material.
The show hasn’t always been 100% faithful to the comics. At times this has both benefited and hurt it. There were ideas and themes from Robert Kirkman that fully encapsulated humanity at the end of the world. The show did its best to adapt these themes, mainly with success. However, the changing of the guard over the years in the showrunner position has seen the series go through multiple directional shifts. In turn, this led to the show’s faithfulness fluctuating. And when a show as unpredictable and grim takes on the task of being the basic cable equivalent to Game of Thrones, the darker and more surprising moments mean more than ever. Let’s take a look at how The Walking Dead TV series compared to its graphic novel source material and see which version of the series truly showed fans what life looks like when all else is gone.
Robert Kirkman’s comics gave fans great stories that took place after the world collapsed, and it wasn’t just society that crumbled. Each storyline he wrote put his characters in scenarios that saw them desperately trying to hold onto whatever semblance of humanity was left, only for it to be ripped to shreds in front of their eyes with every step. In turn, this forced each of the characters to change and evolve with every scenario. Kirkman told this story beautifully, but the TV series wasn’t as consistent. The first three seasons saw the group on a journey revolving around a central conflict. If nothing else, this conflict pushed their journeys forward.
Where this started faltering from season four onwards after Scott M. Gimple took over from Glen Mazzara. Fans had been arguing that The Walking Dead didn’t focus enough on character development. Gimple looked to rectify this issue at the start of his tenure by having episodes that grouped characters to focus on their personal conflicts and dynamics in near bottle episode format. It wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the fact that it was done entirely too often and left all other character’s unseen for weeks at a time, as well as losing sight of the central conflict.
Case in point, the first half of season five. The central conflict was against the cannibal group and the police group at an Atlanta hospital. Both groups ultimately became afterthoughts and only sparsely came back into the narrative when the season would have felt more whole and developed had they been given proper and proportionate development. Dawn, the leader of the hospital group, was uniquely characterized, but her story and that of her group were a cluttered mess because the show could not balance character development and story. The Walking Dead eventually established a more solid rhythm as time went on, but the shift in format should not have been done and effectively broke the momentum established by Mazarra.
Character Quality & Quantity
Despite the show’s heavy-handed approach to character development, many of their journeys were still disproportionately blocked and under-established. Although having an equal quantity of characters, the comics gave each their own identity but didn’t try to muscle in large amounts of information for them in a single chapter. Having distinguished characters and situations made their fates impactful, regardless of whether it was known what made them tick. The TV series also had a problem forcing its characters into specific roles whether they had earned them or not. This became common enough that some characters weren’t as distinguishable from each other anymore. A case in point is Tyrese. In the show, he follows a similar trajectory as his comic counterpart, but in the illustrated pages, Tyrese went through a lot more to earn his edge. The show put the character (and many others) in positions of being angry to a strange place of peace without blocking development. As sad as Tyrese’s death may have been, the narrative of his finding peace fell flat. They had wasted a character that could have otherwise been more impactful than he ended up being.
One of the main problems with the series was that it tried too hard to make everyone important. Game of Thrones arguably had this same issue, but pulled it off more effectively, while The Walking Dead constantly tried to do too much. The show needed many of the characters they established, to be fair, but not everyone needed to have something going on. Distinguishable side characters are vital to any series because they help push the story forward, but for the most part, they need only be there when needed. Attempting to make everyone feel special ultimately bogged down the more important story points in the show, reducing impact and importance.
What the show and comics both get right is the nature of the world once it’s ended, and both establish them well. The different phases can be viewed in bullet points. First, there’s the period of trying to outrun the chaos. Then the debate of how much of themselves they get to hold onto in their new lives, seeing the first instances of de-evolution into more primal beings. Those still alive band together and adapt harsh methods to survive, pitting groups against each other. A case in point is the third season. Then there’s reestablishing communities as more and more people learn to live together again. Finally, there’s establishing a sense of society in which the world can move forward as human beings once again. The Walking Dead series wasn’t, by any means, perfect, but the evolution of the world and survivors overall was beautiful in both mediums. It was only the route there that was cluttered at times. The comics gave fans the best interpretation of the world changing through the characters rediscovering their humanity along the way. The show was always in too big of a hurry to get there. In its defense, though, eleven seasons would be tricky for any series.
What makes The Walking Dead thrilling is its depiction of a cruel, unforgiving world. Readers could fully believe that anything could happen to anyone at any time. No one was safe. If they weren’t shockingly killed off, they could still be maimed or cruelly mistreated. Rick Grimes famously lost his hand to The Governor in the comics, stopping him from ever having the chance to be the gunslinger he was in the TV show. Andrew Lincoln famously wanted his character to suffer the same fate, but the showrunners thought it would be too much of an expenditure to edit out his hand every episode. Then there’s Carl losing his eye.
Both mediums showed that not even children were safe. However, the series eventually lost this aura after season three. Granted, there were still characters that perished randomly as the series progressed, but at a certain point, viewers knew characters like Rick, Daryl, and Carol were indefinitely safe. The tragic deaths sprinkled throughout eventually no longer felt earned, especially when they saw minor characters substituted in the place of more important ones from the comics. It’s not even so much about people dying. The comics showed the absolute worst aspects of humanity. When there was no longer the rule of law, people did whatever they wanted without regard for others. The world remained unforgiving to the very end, but the show eventually became one that could no longer shock and surprise. By all means, it became tame and no longer pushed boundaries. This element made a come-back after Angela Kang took over for season nine to a varying degree, but she was unable to capture the magic long gone.
The series was arguably at its best when it only used Kirkman’s source material as a reference to create more original stories. This resulted in compelling wildcard characters, both original and comic faithful. Daryl Dixon was the most popular character in the entire tv series, and he was made just for the show, as was his brother Merle. Daryl was a warrior of the new world and someone who was not constrained to already printed ideas. While this easily could have eroded fan’s respect, the Dixon’s creations worked out beautifully and made for some of the best storytelling and character development on TV.
The TV originals weren’t the only wildcards, though, as various characters were greatly expanded upon and fleshed out in the series compared to the comics. The Governor is a prime example. As notorious as he was in the comics, he was a simple antagonist who exhibited the depravity that came with the new world. The show gave him more of a fleshed-out identity. Fans learned who he was before the apocalypse. They knew what made him tick. In humanizing him, he became more dangerous and formidable. The same can be said about Carol Pelletier. The mother of Sophia would have died a long time ago if The Walking Dead remained true to the source material. Instead, the show made her strong. It used her losses to harden her, making her a warrior that couldn’t be hurt. She’s a prime example of why deviating from the prewritten story could have huge benefits, but only when the writers knew what they were doing.
Humanity at the End of the World
The journeys of The Walking Dead’s characters are the lifeblood of the series and comics. They start with normal people thrust into a world that seemingly fell apart in seconds and forced them to fight for their lives. Some characters evolved into monsters to survive. Others were consumed by the bleak hopelessness of reality and perished. It took monsters to survive the end of the world, but in doing so, they were able to regain the people they once were in some ways. Although the show failed in multiple attempts to show this, it succeeded where it mattered. Rick Grimes wanted to keep everyone safe to start, but he learned the hard way that he wouldn’t be able to do so without becoming a monster first. He wasn’t the worst by a long shot, but the decision to let innocent people die to preserve his family was notable. But despite his negative outlook, even he saw when the world no longer needed to be as it had been and pushed for a return to society, a push he made until his last episode in season nine.
While the show didn’t exactly nail this evolution in everyone, it certainly did with Rick, who was the main focal point for most of the show’s run. And although not directly addressed, the shift could be seen in everyone as time progressed. No one wanted to be killers forever. When the time came to put down their guns, they were ready, even if they sporadically had to pick them back up again. Seeing the world diminish and regrow like this over time was marvelous. This, if nothing else, was one of the things the show got right.
Which Medium Was Better
The Walking Dead comics fired on all cylinders from beginning to end and exercised all its themes better. Every detail was on point, and you felt for everyone who came into the story. This does not take away from the show, though. Sure, it has gone through its ups and downs and hasn’t always understood its format, but it gave fans what was perhaps their most human take on the zombie genre. No other show on television horrified fans or broke their hearts the way this show did, and perhaps none will again. There is no denying the legacy the TV series leaves behind. It broke the record for highest viewership multiple times and, at one point, was as big as Marvel. Perhaps the magic will be recaptured now that the universe is expanding. Fans know Daryl, Maggie, and Negan’s stories are only just beginning, and there’s still plenty of horrifying stories to be told. The Walking Dead only ever scratched the surface of human depravity, so there’s still that chance for The Walking Dead universe to remind fans once again what it was like to be afraid.
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