Posted on April 4, 2016

Stay Tuned: Serialized Storytelling and The Walking Dead

Elizabeth Erwin

In 2013, George A. Romero famously told The Big Issue, “They asked me to do a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead but I didn’t want to be a part of it. Basically it’s just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that missing in what’s happening now.” While I disagree with Romero’s assertion that The Walking Dead lacks social commentary, last night’s cliffhanger ending does raise some questions as to the show’s approach to serialized storytelling.

That the show utilizes established soap opera tropes is without question. From the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle that results in a pregnancy of questionable parentage to an ample supply of teenage angst courtesy of Carl and Enid, the show has a consistent track record of employing storytelling devices first manifested in the soap opera format. Yet, unlike Romero, I believe that this approach to the narrative is ultimately beneficial because it creates an unusually high degree of audience involvement.


Carol’s treatment of Sam reads differently depending upon whether the viewer is new or long term

In much the same way that soap opera narratives rely upon long-term viewership in order to add additional layers of subtext to a story, such as understanding family dynamics and how those interactions color character decisions, The Walking Dead is a show in which meanings have multiple temporal frameworks. The character arc of Carol Peletier is a prime example of this storytelling approach. Her reaction to Sam in the infamous cookie scene, for instance, reads one way when examined within the confines of the episode but suggests an entirely different emotional arc when considered over the entirety of the show’s run.

And so while the frustration felt by some viewers over the finale’s unanswered questions is certainly understandable, it does build suspense in a very classic soap opera way. Similar to how audiences asked, “Who shot JR?” we now have audiences beside themselves trying to figure out who was on the receiving end of Negan’s bat. This similarity, when taken in conjunction with how the show reimagines soap opera conceits like the moral authority voice of reason (Dale, Hershel) or the ill-fated ingénue (Sophia, Beth) or the sexy bad boy (Daryl, Shane) clearly positions the show as having, at the very least, an association with the much-maligned genre.

Villains on TWD don't tend to last & this prevents them from tipping into caricature territory

Villains on TWD don’t tend to last & this prevents them from tipping into caricature territory

But is there a notable difference between soap opera and serialized storytelling? The popularity of serialized storytelling – evident in everything from so-called prestige television (The Sopranos, The Wire) to reality television – suggests not. If there is a notable difference between the two, it likely comes from the length of the narrative and not its construction. In other words, tropes are more pronounced when viewed over a longer period of time. It’s why we accept as legitimate drama the slightly campy mechanisms of The Governor but roll our eyes at Palmer’s scheming on All My Children. Our exposure simply isn’t great enough to tip the character into caricature territory.

One argument that primetime serialized storytelling is not soap opera revolves around audience attention. Certainly, The Walking Dead, with its 16 episode per season and currently airing reruns, is a far different beast from the soap opera’s grind of airing new episodes five days a week. And yet, thanks to the popularity of social media and creative fandom, the levels of fan engagement are startlingly similar. Fans dissect characters and storylines in nuanced detail, and the passionate conversation extends throughout the year. So while the show itself may not be airing daily, the story remains in the present for its audience. Whether it be fan fiction that fills in missing plot holes or constructs alternate universes or online discussions examining whether actions in an episode were out of character, there is a continuity to the story that functions, at least in terms of audience engagement, in a similar way to the daily airing of soap opera episodes.

One slight leveled at soap operas has always been that their focus on the emotional lives of their characters inevitably leads to melodrama and that this tendency is exacerbated due to an overreliance on television tropes, such as the back from the dead character or the sage elder. And while the genre is certainly rife with such examples, it undervalues the very real impact of this type of storytelling. It’s not an accident that soap operas were the first form of television to deal with hot button topics such as abortion, marital rape, incest, and LGBT inclusion. Given its long range view of the characters, serialized storytelling is especially equipped to offer audiences social commentary wrapped in drama. And it is on this front that The Walking Dead excels.

Moral authorities don't tend to last on TWD. Did Glenn's becoming a murderer save him from the fates of Dale and Herschel?

Moral authorities don’t tend to last on TWD. Did Glenn’s becoming a murderer save him from the fates of Dale and Hershel?

So, yes, The Walking Dead is a soap opera and yes, it has zombies. But with all due respect to Mr. Romero, the reason for the show’s incredible ratings success likely resides in how the show reimagines and leverages popular soap opera archetypes. Consider the case of Glenn Rhee. His position as moral authority was one inherited after the deaths of his role models, Dale and Hershel. His growth into the show’s conscience echoes those soap opera characters, such as Bert Bauer from Guiding Light or Lila Quartermain from General Hospital, whose motivations were unquestionably good and moral. And yet, ultimately we see Glenn choose to kill in order to protect his family. There is a thus inevitably a complexity to his thought and actions that is missing from the archetypal moral authority of soaps.

Every soap opera needs a resident bad boy and Daryl Dixon fits the bill

Every soap opera needs a resident bad boy and Daryl Dixon fits the bill

A far more complex soap opera character construct is that of anti-hero protagonist. Often considered to be a bad boy with a tendency to stray over the line – but not too far! – the anti-hero often engages in questionable actions but is ultimately reformed through love. In many respects, the character arc of Daryl reflects this sensibility. Much like Patch from Days of our Lives or Luke from General Hospital, the anti-hero starts off as the resident bad boy with a troubling inability to get along with anyone. Yet, his rough edges become slightly smoother thanks to the love and understanding of a woman. And while Daryl has yet to become romantically involved with any of the characters (seriously Gimple, give us Caryl!), his sense of family and belonging has created a similar character shift.

Carol evolves from damsel in distress to heroine and does so without relying on her sexuality

Carol evolves from damsel in distress to heroine and does so independent of highlighting her sexuality

Yet, perhaps The Walking Dead’s greatest success in remixing soap opera character constructs comes in the form of Carol. While her character arc initially suggested that she would be the long-suffering heroine in the vein of Caroline Spencer from The Bold and the Beautiful or Laura Spencer from General Hospital, her metamorphosis into self-sustaining warrior queen is not only a break from tradition but also comes independent of a male character. Carol’s transformation and ability to access her own power is something we’ve seen play out on soap operas but it always comes with the component of sex. The Walking Dead removes that element from Carol’s transformation and, in doing so, creates an entirely new construct grounded in radical feminism.

With critics and fans lamenting that this finale has shifted The Walking Dead into soap opera territory, it is worth examining how the show incorporates serialized storytelling and then reimagines it in purposeful ways. And so while we wait to see whose fate lies at the other end of Negan’s bat, I suggest fans take a page from the soap opera fandom and just enjoy the ride.

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