Mystery is one of the ultimate tools in powerful storytelling. It’s one thing to watch a show and be entertained, but when a show manages to get your mind racing to predict what happens next, or what you believe should happen next, that’s powerful. Pulp Fiction does it masterfully with Jules and Vincent’s briefcase. Lost did it to us for 6 network seasons without giving us a payoff (thanks alot Lindelof). After 4 seasons and counting it never occurred to me that the Walking Dead does it insanely well too, until last Sunday’s episode.
For a long time I couldn’t answer the question of why I’m still into The Walking Dead. I know the main reason why I like Justified (dialogue), I know why I like Game of Thrones (characters), and I know why I like Vikings (pacing), but with The Walking Dead the answer eluded me. Then 3 weeks ago in came Gabriel, and last week we met Beth’s caretakers/captors. The juxtaposition of meeting and inherently good guy like Gabriel followed 2 episodes later by that Slimeball cop who forced himself on Beth made me finally realize, I like this show because I enjoy the guessing game of who will be good, and wh0 will be bad when new characters are introduced. It’s that simple, it’s that clever and it’s that addicting.
Lost did the same thing in a different way. Their main characters all had depth and intricate backstories which they needed to atone for, but their environment was shrouded in mystery. Remember the hatch? Of course you do, it took an entire network season to flesh out. The Walking Dead is like the anti-Lost. It’s characters for the most part are somewhat one dimensional (yes even Rick), but in a way it’s one of the shows greatest strengths because the focus isn’t really on them. It’s on the immediate dangers ahead for them. That’s what keep us guessing. Anybody can get killed off, and the show can easily just keep rolling.
Imagine if Lost killed off Jack 3 seasons in without answering any of his questions. People would have been furious (I know, I know the finale didn’t really either! Thanks Lindelof), but with Rick and the world he lives in it’s completely tangible. The show really wouldn’t skip a beat plot wise. Rick’s back story died with Shane and Lori, and he is the only main character who really had one. Any issues left long in the past can’t come back to haunt any character who has been a mainstay on the series because everyone they knew is dead.
I used to think the lack of character development on the Walking Dead was its biggest detractor. Now I think it’s actually one of its greatest strengths. I don’t know even know if the writers are doing this intentionally or not, but it’s pretty awesome and I hope it stays this way. The past is long gone, the present is dangerous, and the immediate future keeps you guessing.