“Let’s face it, the ending is all that matters.” Taken at face value, this line from the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead: Dead City,
“Stories We Tell Ourselves,” might suggest a certain cynicism on the part of creator Eli Jorné for his own genre. And indeed, given the pacing of this episode, and the lack of narrative energy in the show thus far, one hopes that the finale next week might go some way to salvaging an otherwise frustratingly stodgy series.
For much of “Stories We Tell Ourselves,” nothing really happens. People walk around - limping, tiptoeing, lurching - and they also run. Two characters we’ve had no reason to care about are lost. Another character we don’t care about tells, unprompted, a personal story to Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), because, one assumes, Jorné couldn’t be bothered to find a more organic way to make the character sympathetic. Regrettably, this unexpected overshare still fails to make us care about him.
The episode deals, at a thematic level, with the “stories we tell ourselves to sleep easier,” as Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles) describes them. Those stories, he implies, are essentially falsehoods, and we are prompted to consider the ways in which each character lies to themselves. The Croat (Željko Ivanek)’s lie - to us and to himself - is that he is a villainous mastermind, when in fact he is a fawning, subservient lackey to the Dama (Lisa Emery). Maggie (Lauren Cohan)’s lie appears to be that Negan is a monster who deserves to have his life traded to the Croat for Hershel (Logan Kim)’s, as her real plan is revealed in the closing moments of the episode. Armstrong’s lie is that his work for the Babylon Federation is noble and just: “tranquility and order” are worth achieving at any cost. Tommaso (Jonathan Higginbotham) deceives himself with the belief that betraying his people to the Croat was for their own good. And the lie Negan tells himself? There doesn’t seem to be one, because Negan 2.0 is intended to be a self-aware and emotionally intelligent man who is unafraid to confront his weaknesses. Dead City
should try to emulate those qualities if it gets a second season.
The risk run by any limited series - particularly not
a spinoff - is that six episodes are not a lot of time to build audience investment in a cast of characters. The best limited series, like Fleabag
, and the best opening seasons of shows, like The Walking Dead
, are written and made by people who understand how to maintain the audience’s interest when the novelty of the setting has worn off. Dead City
premiered with an advantage: a built-in audience from the flagship show, two characters with rich existing histories, and a sentimental predisposition towards the series from anyone who had watched The Walking Dead.
Perhaps this knowledge made Jorné complacent enough to favor “epic” sets over character development, or perhaps he was only ever interested in Negan. Whatever the case, I really don’t care much about anyone in this show by episode 5, apart from the characters with whom I was already familiar. None of the side characters have earned my emotional investment. My nostalgic fondness for Hershel has been wasted, because he has barely appeared, and Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) is so obviously a pawn in this round of Negan’s Redemption that I find it hard to see her as three-dimensional. The character who comes closest to moving me is the Croat, because Ivanek, a highly accomplished actor, plays him as so fiercely pathetic, and because he has had substantial screentime.
“Stories We Tell Ourselves” contains my favorite scene in the entire show: not Maggie’s chest heaving through the sewers, not her fight with a gruesome amalgamate walker, but a few seconds of the Croat walking into the derelict New York theater where the Dama has her center of operations. He strides through the foyer to the sound of distant music, dressed in a shabby, Dickensian overcoat. On stage in the theater itself, a man stands at the piano, revealed in silhouette, banging out the opening verse of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” The rows of seats and the balcony are populated by a ragtag group of survivors, who sing along, and clap, and high five the Croat as he follows the aisle to the backstage area. It is surreal and beautiful, another kind of story within a story, and it segues perfectly into the scene that follows: the Dama’s book-lined and luxurious lair, where the Croat kneels and kisses her hand in a scene heavily reminiscent of those between Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) and Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) in The Walking Dead
There is a suggestion, in the subtext of this episode, that history itself is a story we tell to make ourselves feel better - not only personal history, but national history. The opening verse of “Anything Goes” is about the changed world the Puritans might find today, a world where nothing is forbidden. The Dama is reading Kerwin Lee Klein’s Frontiers of Historical Imagination
, a book that considers the conflict between narration and knowledge in America’s history: how does the way we tell our past shape the way we understand it? Historical narratives favor the narrators, for the most part, just as an individual’s collection of stories favors them. We create a world in which we are the heroes, not the villains. The characters in Dead City
are doing the same, the script implies - only Negan (the show would have us believe) has no delusions about the wrongs he has done.
Maggie and Negan’s identities as protagonist and antagonist were thrown into doubt in the first episode of Dead City.
Remember when Negan said to Maggie, “I’m not [the bad guy]. No one is. Or maybe everyone is?” Five episodes in, the show is still grinding away at the same question. Who is the villain? Who is the hero? What stories are we telling ourselves about Maggie and Negan, and are they true? This week’s episode reveals Maggie’s betrayal of Negan, and the fact that she has lied to him from the start of the series. Negan, meanwhile, repeatedly plays Good Samaritan to the marshal who has arrested him. For balance, and for the second time this season, Maggie flashes back to Glenn’s murder, to Negan as he was the “monster” whom, she warns Ginny, the girl will eventually meet.
As Dead City
plods towards its end, it’s worth remembering that the Dama is wrong. In stories of all kinds - fiction, history, personal anecdote - it is not only the ending that matters. To believe that is to misunderstand why we love stories in the first place: because they take us on a journey. No matter how explosive Dead City
’s finale might turn out to be, it cannot compensate for five episodes spent ponderously retreading - with less momentum and less subtlety - the same narrative and moral ground as the flagship show.