Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones season three.
Easter is a special time because my family goes out to a fancy Italian restaurant and I eat fancy leftovers on Monday. But this Easter also saw a conflict of epic proportions played out on the small screen before our very eyes. In fact our very eyes were the very soldiers that fought in the very trenches of a bloody – and largely one-sided – conflict.
The season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead and the season premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones both aired on March 31st at 9 P.M. What did you watch? It’s a pretty divisive question and nerd culture will likely schism at the spine over the choices made in the battle for Easter Sunday.
Rest assured, whatever you decided to watch, by 10:01 Easter night a meme was making fun of you.
Did your choose horror or intrigue?
The apocalypse or war?
Did you choose a show with a handful of talented actors who do their best to breathe life into the stale words and scenarios clumsily cobbled together by writers sitting on the laurels that are millions of viewers across the country, or did they fight for a show with a vast ensemble of creative talent from writers to directors to actors that traverse the globe in order to film one of the most ambitious television undertakings of all time?
Do you have regular cable or an HBO subscription?
Or did you watch both of them simultaneously like some psychopath?
Well, as of ratings reports popping up on the web yesterday, a vast majority of people went for the horrific apocalypse fueled by the laurels of sitting writers that is The Walking Dead. Which I do actually like. Really.
The AMC show garnered an immense 12 million viewers for its season three finale, which racks up to a staggering half of the Earth. Probably. But even beyond that, the post-Walking Dead commentary program Talking Dead, hosted by Nerdist’s Christ Hardwick, gobbled up five million viewers – over a sixth of people alive on the planet.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, debuted its third season to a piss poor reception of four million viewers, a.k.a. maybe one out of three people in my apartment building. Essentially the HBO hit brought home a straight-C report card to a drunken factory worker of a dad. I’m not even sure why that show is on the air anymore.
Oh and it set an HBO record or whatever.
Facts and figures and abusive parent metaphors aside – if you sided with Dead, you missed out my friend, because Game of Thrones enjoyed the more just, righteous victory. The “Rocky 1” victory, if you will.
Game of Thrones may have had only a third of the viewers The Walking Dead nabbed, but of the viewers who have since watched both the Dead finale and the Thrones premiere I would be shocked if more than an eighth were more impressed with AMC’s zombie fiesta.
I’ve ranted about this before and I’m sure I’ll rant about it again in October come season four, but man is coasting the name of the game for the creative powers that be behind what is legitimately the most successful television show on air today.
“Welcome to the Tombs,” the finale in question, was unusually loose for a season finale, where you would normally expect the storytelling to be as tight and paced as possible. It was also disappointing. Really, really disappointing. But more on that later.
On paper, the idea of Andrea being chained to a chair and locked in a room with Milton, who is bleeding out and will soon enough become a zombie and kill her all against his will, had a lot of potential. In practice it sucked. Ignoring the fact that the Governor’s decision to kill Andrea made pretty much zero sense – dude chased the lady for an entire episode and locked her in a room so that he could… leave her there to die while he’s off doing whatever? Why not just kill her when he caught her?
Because having the Governor lock her in a basement with a zombie was a potentially neat idea and narrative be damned The Walking Dead is all about being potentially neat, potentially “neat-o” even.
Even the logical gap could have been ignored, however, if the narrative thread wasn’t stretched out for miles. If I wanted to watch some lady pick up a pair of pliers for forty five minutes, I’d be an idiot. It’s this mix up between making things take forever and creating genuine tension that largely contributed to the finale’s “meh” reception.
But let’s not forget the disappointment.
Remember how there was this place called Woodbury with this crazy guy and this prison with a slightly nicer crazy guy and they were really mad at each other all godamn year and we were all waiting for them to go to war and it was the season godamn finale and they were totally going to go to war?
Turns out we’re still waiting!
Last time I checked wars have more casualties than two guard towers and some blown out tires – but hey, maybe I’m a pessimist. Who in the right mind though that twelve million viewers were tuning in to watch the Governor and his gang break into the prison, wonder around, run back out of the prison and leave, with a clip or two wasted in between, like a bunch of suburban teenagers daring each other to go into old dead Ms. McCreary’s abandoned house on the night she tripped and fell and died going into her own house?
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t me.
With a show that squeezes every ounce of melodrama possible out of every single moment, such a quick and uneventful end to the hostilities was out of character for the worse and lame as shit.
I caught the repeat at eleven, which means I was up until midnight! On a Sunday! I was so tired on my drive into work that I could barely laugh at Car Talk. I had to drink an extra Red Bull! Midnight! On a Sunday!
Game of Thrones, ever the ugly stepchild with its pithy four million viewers, started its season off with a similarly uneventful episode that was miles ahead in quality. The difference lies in a simple understanding: tension and action and payoff are all byproducts of the sorcery that is characterization and nuance and narrative foundation.
Was I on the edge of my seat while Tyrion got made fun of by his dad for being a weirdo? Nope. Nor was I supposed to be. But you can bet I was paying full attention because if I were a betting man my money would be on that conversation making later conversations or character moments or sex scenes or whatever HBO does more impactful. Do I really give a shit about Margaery giving a bunch of orphans already opened action figures? I couldn’t pretend to if I wanted to. But its effective juxtaposition and it serves to elaborate on the relationships and contrasts between characters in a meaningful, believable way.
Subtlety is so often the name of the game in effective storytelling. Take Rick’s temporary decent into madness during this past season as an example. Imagine how much more effective it could have been had viewers simply not been privy to all the dumb crap he was seeing. Imagine for a moment that the exact, specific nature of his mental anguish wasn’t spelled out for us with a flashing neon sign being.
But hey, twelve million viewers is hardly subtle.