The following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead up until episode 2.07.
The Walking Dead has just reached it’s mid-season finale here in the UK. Like many people who want to enjoy the visceral thrills of seeing a man beat another man to a pulp while remaining in denial about the serial killer within, I’m a fan.
The adverts in the week leading up have shown bits from the upcoming episode. Where The Walking Dead is different from many other programmes, is that rather than showing action shots from a variety of scenes, that look exciting but are difficult to gain any meaning from, The Walking Dead adverts on the FX channel have been an extended scene, taken, I think, from the preview at the end of the previous episode.
A lot of programmes end with clips of next week’s episode, but in general I prefer not to know what’s happening beforehand. (There’s the exception of Doctor Who, here, but that’s Doctor Who, and you can’t apply rules and logic to a Time Lord.)
So, for instance, when watching Misfits, Garrow’s Law, Boston Legal, and I’m sure there’s many more, I snap the channel over as soon as the preview clips start up.
The Walking Dead‘s ending preview seems to be an entire scene from the next episode, and in at least one case (a confrontation between two main characters) the scene being the second to last in the next episode.
Now, some people prefer to know in advance, to have a taste of what’s to come to whet their appetite, and I’m fine with that. There’s plenty of websites and magazines providing leaked screenshots, plot synopses, on-set photographs and probably urine samples from the cast.
And for a programme imported to Britain from America, the internet provides plenty of opportunities to get an idea of what’s coming.
In fact, it’s now probably harder to avoid than find spoilers – American shows seem to have Facebook fan pages for each country, for this specific reason.
I generally don’t seek out spoilers, but have done occasionally – I’m quite excited about The Dark Knight Rises, worried that Star Trek 12 will turn out to be a shot-for-shot remake of The Wrath of Kahn, and have occasionally clinked links to feed my hunger and quash what nerdrage I have.
I can even remember – sad as this is – when I semi-regularly read the Star Trek teletext gossip page. I can still remember reading that a female Borg was going to join the crew of Voyager as a love interest for Chakotay, and that the new preview series would have grappling hooks rather than the archetypal Star Trek tractor beams.
The little hints of what to come, whets the appetite, can keep the fires of excitement burning in the time between films or episodes.
That’s all a roundabout way of saying that I understand the desire to get a taste of an upcoming section of a developing story, as much as I generally don’t seek out spoilers myself.
The thing is, I generally prefer to watch the story unfold in whatever way it naturally does, as if it’s a real series of events, to take each twist and revelation as it comes, rather than knowing the big idea that’s coming up later.
Even with a series of images, when the story starts, it’s generally possible to see how the images fit into the pattern of the story.
The Walking Dead is showing on FX in the UK, a relatively obscure channel that a lot of the population haven’t heard of, but generally has good taste in spotting high quality niche programming. The Wire, Dexter, Huff, Generation Kill, Breaking Bad, were all shown first in the UK on FX, amongst others.
The channel also airs Law and Order, NCIS, Burn Notice and all of Seth McFarlane’s series – televisual comfort food, shows that excel within a formula as well as the more cutting edge stuff. So there’s a lot to watch on the channel, even if they do insist on showing The Cleveland Show. (The bosses must be completionists.)
During these programmes, scene long teasers of the forthcoming episode of The Walking Dead seemed to be advertised every advert break, or somewhere near, so have been nearly impossible to avoid.
I’ve no problem with advertising, within reason, and obviously our evil corporate overlords want to show the most appealing parts of the show.
But The Walking Dead is a show with many plot points being buried to be later raised. It can be difficult to recall all the plot elements, and all the histories of various characters. Whereas Lost, another show with a large cast of characters, had pretty melodramatic backstories (He’s an alcoholic doctor! She’s on the run from the law for killing her mother’s abusive boyfriend! He’s a conman trying to kill the conman whose con drove his parents to suicide!), every backstory on TWD is fairly downplayed and realistic – bearing in mind the incredibly unrealistic nature of a zombie uprising. It roots the characters, but can make it a little harder to keep track of everything, particularly when one scene is shown ahead of time.
To take one example, in episode 2.05 (Chupacabra), the advert shows one of the supporting characters, Daryl, stumble back towards the settlement, apparently zombified. The first time I saw this I was confused at first – did we know that he was a zombie? Is this something I forgot from a few episodes ago?
When the episode came along, Daryl is still with the survivors, planning to go out and search for the missing Sophia, appearing very much human.
He goes out alone, fights and is bitten by one zombie, and, after being muddied and attacked by others, stumbled back in the direction of camp, still a fair distance away.
There’s a significant portion of the episode passes before we next see Daryl, we catch up with him as others run towards him, not initially recognising him. The gap where we don’t see if Daryl has been zombified is presumably meant to raise doubt in the audience’s mind, the thought of him being turned is probably intended to be a shocking moment. However, I’d already seen the clip about a dozen times, I felt a sense of vague recognition more than anything else. I wasn’t really hit by it in the way I think it was intended.
Is he a zombie? Is he just injured and muddied? Will the survivors make the right decision when they see him? I still found it to be a good scene, but probably didn’t fully appreciate it as intended.
The Walking Dead has a large-scale story, unfolding as it goes, so there’s some fairly easy alternatives to what they do.
They could be boring and go with the standard method – show short clips from across the series, multiple episodes, and keep showing them after the episode in question happens.
I find the type of adverts in the style of the The Walking Dead adverts more striking – a long, single scene holds my attention more than quick, flashy microscenes- which is obviously what any advertiser wants.
Why not do the same, but show ‘classic scenes’ either from recent episodes or from way back, remind those who are already viewers of the different characters’ stories, whet their appetites, and show potential viewers what they’ve been missing.
It could be a cool action sequence, a nice little character scene to emphasise the quality of the writing.
Maybe even remind viewers of outstanding mysteries and problems – the state of the search for Sofia; Andrea’s grief at the death of her sister, and older plot points. During the gap between series one and two, I’d forgotten that Daryl was the brother of Merle, and whether Rick knew about Shane and Lori.
I understand that the advertisers’ first priority is to get as many people as possible watching the show, and that offering a little preview is a time-tested technique of getting people in – the equivelant of when people used to stand and give out samples of meat and cheese on a stick at supermarkets. (This is really far off topic, but does anywhere still do that?)
In the case of entertainment, for a lot of people, foreknowledge spoils enjoyment of the product itself.
In this day and age it’s hard to totally avoid spoilers, especially so when the show is an adaptation of a graphic novel series that sits on bookshop shelves all over the world. But, it wouldn’t take that much effort, with a bit of creativity, to avoid spoiling the show for viewers, and deepen the understanding of what can be a complex story at the same time.