Making My Peace with The Bicycle Girl: Reflections on The Walking Dead Web Series

Earlier this semester, I was asked by Scott Walker to be the guest speaker at the Los Angeles Transmedia Meetup, an event which brought together a roomful of artists and entrepreneurs who are invested in making the concept of "transmedia entertainment" into a reality. Today, I wanted to share with you the webcast version of this exchange.

If this whets your appetite for further discussions of these issues, it's not too late to register to attend the Futures of Entertainment conference being hosted by MIT on November 11-12. I will be speaking there on a panel with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, the co-authors of our forthcoming book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society, and you can find more information here.

In my opening remarks to the Transmedia group, I responded to the news that The Walking Dead was launching some webisodes in anticipation of their Second Season. My remarks were based on a news story I had seen that morning, which contained very little information about what was planned other than the news that it would center on "Bicycle Girl," a very memorable zombie character introduced in the series's opening episode. This news seemed to me a mixed blessing and as such, offered us a way to think about when and where transmedia extensions are appropriate or desirable. The discussion was a hypothetical one, a thought experiment, not intended as a criticism of the series producers, and I can now follow it up with some thoughts about the actual execution of the webisodes.

On one level, the choice of "Bicycle Girl" as the focus is inspired. The character originates in Robert Kirkman's original graphic novel and despite appearing on only a few pages, remains a "haunting" figure. She is the first zombie we really get to know as an individual when Rick exits the hospital and his decision to, in effect, commit a mercy killing on this zombie punctures any easy divide between humans and zombies. I've long wanted to know more about this character and particularly I wanted to know whether there was any previous relationship between Rick and the human who had changed into this hideous monster. Clearly the producers also were fascinated with this figure since they devoted a video segment on The Walking Dead dvd release specifically to the making of this sequence.

I would make two claims about why she was the right starting point for a web extension:

1. She is an iconic figure. She's a character we remember. Her situation speaks to the larger themes and conflicts which structure The Walking Dead as a series. Often, transmedia extensions, for budget and contract reasons, end up working with secondary characters rather than the series leads. This is fine if the secondary characters are ones we care about, if they are ones who have a compelling role to play in the series. In fact, introducing alternative points of view on the action may be one of the most valuable contributions transmedia extensions can make. A series which did this right was The Wire, where they produced only a few highly memorable and meaningful webisodes, each focused around characters and character relationships which were meaningful and memorable in the context of the original series. Too often, producers work with who-ever is available and the results seems arbitrary and disappointing.

2. The moment is one which taps what Microsoft's Geoffrey Long would call "negative space." The original moment created a gap or hole which viewers wanted to fill in. In the most generative cases, the audience taps its own "negative capability" to flesh out what must have occurred. This is one of the core processes which generate fan fiction (in its most formalized cases) or simply conversation and speculation (in more informal cases). The challenge for the producer is that when you attempt to fill in these gaps later, once fan speculations have been entrenched, you end up working against rather than with your fan base. We often call this the Boba Fett paradox in reference to a much-beloved secondary character from Star Wars, whose on-screen execution disappointed rather than rewarded a decade or more of intense fan interest. So, to use myself as an example, I very much wanted to see a story where Rick already knew the "Bicycle Girl" and was thus touched by seeing her laying there dismembered and zombified: this is why it matters that he takes the time to go back and take her out of her misery.

Why might it not be a good idea to return to the "Bicycle Girl" story? I have been finishing up an essay which explores the ways that The Walking Dead is and is not "faithful" to the original comic book series. In doing so, I argue that fans are ready to accept expansions and elaborations, even major changes in the continuity (especially those which allow them to explore other aspects of the character conflicts) as long as they are consistent with "the rules" (to borrow from Scream) which were established by Robert Kirkman. In this case, the "rules" are explicit; they emerged over time as Kirkman engaged with his fans through the letter column in the back of the comic.

One of the core rules which Kirkman established was that we would never be given an explanation for why there are zombies and we are never going to go back and fill in the first 20 days of the zombie apocalypse. Here's one of the many times that Kirkman has explained his rationale:

As far as the explanation for the zombies go, I think that aside from the zombies being in the book, this is a fairly realistic story, and that's what makes it work. The people do real things, and it's all very down to Earth...almost normal. ANY explanation would be borderline science fiction....and it would disrupt the normalness. In my mind, the story has moved on. I'm more interested in what happens next then what happened before that caused it all.

Some in the original audience for my remarks assumed I was saying that there was a hole in Kirkman's construction that he was seeking to work around. I don't think so. I think this goes to what I call the active production of belief. I never much liked the phrase the suspension of disbelief, which seems to me far too passive to explain what happens when we consume a fiction. For me, belief is something that is achieved (not something simply accepted) and it is achieved through choices made both by the storyteller and the listener.

In this case, Kirkman's impulses as a storyteller is that any explanation for the zombies would damage the credibility of the fiction he was constructing. This is not a problem with his story: it's a challenge in working with the zombie genre more generally, one all storytellers run up against, and especially a challenge of a version which strives for emotional realism in the ways Kirkman did. Given this particular "rule," which we might see as an informal contract between the producers and consumers, fans were understandably upset when the final episodes of last season took us to the Center for Disease Control and threatened to provide a "rational explanation" for the zombie attacks -- one grounded in the idea of contagion and epidemic. So, I was also defensive at the thought of telling the "Bicycle Girl" story which would mean going back to a time prior to Rick's awakening and thus increase the likelihood of the producer's trying to explain why there are zombies.

As it turned out, I should not have worried. The producers of "Torn Apart" (as the Bicycle Girl webisode is called) were well aware of audience expectations around this issue and as a consequence, they take steps to avoid giving us anything substantive which might explain the outbreak. We get one dubious theory from a somewhat crazed neighbor that the zombie attacks might have been caused by "terrorists." We get a few snippets of news coverage before the power grid goes down and all communication gets cut off. We get the suggestions that whatever happened occurred very swiftly, allowing no time for people to prepare, and catching most of the population off-guard. None of this breaks the underlying logic of the "rule" even if it may push up against the letter.

I spent a class session in my Transmedia Storytelling seminar walking episode through episode through "Torn Apart". The initial response was that the quality was not as high as was routinely achieved on the television series: the acting was more heavy handed, the scripting and camera work more obvious in calling out certain key plot points, and there was less time to fully explore the emotional consequences of certain moments of intensified drama. As we talked as a class, though, we came to a deeper understanding of how these aspects of amplification and simplification emerged from the specifics of production for the web. There were production constraints, in terms of budget and time, which made it hard to achieve the same quality in the web productions as could be achieved on the show itself, and this becomes an issue when what happens on the web is intended to be read as "part" of the television series, a problem which transmedia producers of all kinds will need to address. We discussed the similarities and differences from how these problems are confronted by student filmmakers (at USC film school and elsewhere) and exploitation filmmakers, both of whom dealt with limited time and money, and worked within short form as opposed to long form storytelling. And we discussed the very different interpretive frames consumers bring to such work, excusing imperfections in favor of ambitions in both cases, because we understand the constraints on what could be done.

A second discussion centered around the compression which occurs here. The more closely we looked at the construction of this web series, the more impressed we were by how tightly integrated the details were. Every line, every plot point connected to something else, so that by the end, this was a very classically constructed story with many intensely melodramatic moments and with no loose ends. There are choices here the class debated, such as the decision to recenter or decenter key aspects of this story from the "Bicycle Girl" onto her ex-husband or other members of her family, or the relative arbitrariness of how the "Bicycle Girl" becomes a zombie, despite the elaborate back story with which we were presented (and whether this was consistent with the sense that anything could happen at any time that is part of the logic of The Walking Dead series as a whole.)

The short length of these segments seems to suggest a prevailing industry logic that people only want to watch things on the web which are less than five minutes long (shorter depending on which web expert you talk with) but we can start to question this logic when more and more of us are watching full episodes or feature length movies on our computers through Hulu and iTunes. In the class setting, it quickly became tiresome to have to wade through a pre-roll commercial and credits before getting into the next chunk of the story, and in this case, all of the episodes were released on the same day which means that the serial process was perhaps wasted on this content. That said, part of what we were trying to discuss in class was the twin logics of seriality, which depend on chunking (the creation of meaningful bits which cohere in any given chapter) and dispersal (the shifting of interests and attention onto what is coming next through cliff-hangers and enigmas, both of which are well illustrated in the construction of this particular series).

Some of the more interesting discussion centered around the placement of this episode in the overall flow of The Walking Dead series -- as a bridge between the first and second series. I often hear people talk about the nonlinear quality of transmedia, saying that the parts can be consumed in any order. This is technically true in the same sense that we can read any chapter in a book in any order we want, but we often choose to read the book in a desired sequence. Or we can read any book in a series we want, but again, most readers choose to follow the author's preferred order. Transmedia (at least as Hollywood currently practices it) has to be designed so that any given extension can function as a point of entry into the series and so that only the "mothership" is essential to the experience, but that does not mean that there is not considerable thought put into the timing with which different extensions are introduced into the franchise.

In this case, there is a conscious decision to create something which refers back to the very first episode of The Walking Dead rather than following on from the end of season one, especially in the context of a series which has been sparing with flashbacks and which tends to have a strong forward momentum. We also felt that the focus here on children at risk connected very strongly to the core themes which surfaced in the opening episode of the second season, with certain moments in the webisode having direct parallels in the television episode many of us would watch shortly after.

Beyond this, there is a nice balance in the webisodes between relying on information hardcore fans have acquired through watching the series (such as what happened in Atlanta or what they know at CDC, both plot points here which were already answered in the series) and creating something which could be an "attractor," a point of entry for first time viewers which might draw them into watching the series itself.

There is a lot more that transmedia producers and consumers can learn from looking closely at this example: indeed, my hope is that we can move the conversation about transmedia from broad definitional debates to this kind of close reading, which helps us to learn what works and what doesn't in the current work being done in this space.