Wrapping up my DEAD ZONE rewatch and... THE DEAD ZONE is a strange show. Debuting in 2002, it neatly and cleverly addressed a lot of difficulties that other serialized-but-standalone shows had experienced, finding a happy balance between myth-arc episodes and individual episodes. But then it retreated from its own solutions and replicated the very same mistakes it had previously solved.
Avoiding the Trap: In reviewing the myth-arc episodes of THE DEAD ZONE -- I find that they are good. Like THE X-FILES, THE DEAD ZONE was an eccentric, paranormal procedural except the one paranormal element was Johnny Smith, a psychic detective with the ability to see the past and future of any person or object he touched. And like THE X-FILES, many of Johnny Smith's adventures foreshadowed a terrible, apocalyptic future that Johnny had to investigate and hopefully prevent.
Unlike THE X-FILES, each myth-arc story of THE DEAD ZONE brought some progress, perspective and characterization to the show and each mythology episode had its own unique tone and genre. The average myth-arc episode of THE X-FILES was a series of espionage thriller set pieces with Mulder gaining vital information or evidence on the conspiracy only to lose it by the end.
Stepping Into the Trap: In contrast, THE DEAD ZONE offered new information and development with each myth-arc installment -- although it soon fell into the same traps as THE X-FILES through a series of unforced errors. Both THE DEAD ZONE and THE X-FILES spent a great deal of effort on telling chapters in a story with no conclusion, making those early chapters pointless.
Opening Act: The first myth arc episode of THE DEAD ZONE is Season 1's 13th episode, also the Season 1 finale: "Destiny." Johnny discovers that his psychic powers fully came to life on the day congressional candidate Greg Stillson started his election campaign.
Johnny meets Stillson and upon touching him, Johnny starts having visions of Stillson somehow bringing about a horrific cataclysm with America in flames. "Destiny" is about the scope of Johnny's powers and how he realizes his life's purpose may be to stop a national, potentially global disaster.
Delayed Follow Up: The Season 2 premiere doesn't address this, showing that the vision of Armageddon was so traumatic for Johnny that it burnt out his powers for a prolonged period of time. The Season 2 premiere shows Johnny trying to find a kidnapped boy, eventually reactivating his missing powers. The premiere makes it clear: the Stillson arc is ongoing, but not the focus of the show.
Two Out of Nineteen: Subsequent Season 2 episodes have Johnny researching Stillson as a B-plot. But Stillson only becomes an A-plot only in episodes 6 and 19 of Season 2.
Season 2, Episode 6 is "Scars," a psychic political intrigue story where Johnny starts using his powers to interfere in the congressional election, trying to prevent Stillson from winning his seat.
Johnny uses his powers to help Stillson's opponent and tries to bury the man's past scandal during Vietnam, only for the opposing candidate to be moved by Johnny presence and confess of his own accord, leaving Stillson a clear path for the congressional seat.
Stillson is shown to take Johnny completely seriously as an impediment to his career and also being dangerous, violent, self-serving, reckless, erratic and savage -- but able to conceal his psychopathy. It becomes clear in this political thriller that Stillson's rising political star is not something Johnny can shoot down in one episode.
Fighting the Future: After this, the show switches to standalone episodes, but the Stillson arc continues to build as an ongoing subplot with Johnny regularly learning about Stillson's political rise. And throughout episodes 14 - 18, Johnny starts having visions of a strange man, someone he doesn't know, someone who isn't there, but it's quickly dismissed in favour of the psychic detective case of the week.
Delaying the Future: Like THE X-FILES, the DEAD ZONE myth-arc teases a future story of apocalyptic disaster, of Armageddon. And, like THE X-FILES, THE DEAD ZONE teases a story that it can never really tell. THE DEAD ZONE never had the budget to set itself in a post-Armageddon landscape,
THE DEAD ZONE's episodes are dedicated to the adventures of a psychic detective existing in a relatively normal world. THE DEAD ZONE isn't interested in changing its psychic procedural format to a post-apocalyptic timeframe, just as THE X-FILES was never going to devote the bulk of its episodes to a planet Earth ruled by aliens.
Limited Focus: It's perhaps best that only two episodes of Season 2's 19 are focused on Armageddon. THE X-FILES had so many mythology episodes about the impending alien invasion, a story beyond the budget and scope of a procedural drama, and by the fifth season, it was obvious that the invasion would always be delayed to some future date that would never arrive.
THE DEAD ZONE avoided spending too much time on foreshadowing for a story it could obviously never deliver.
Chapter Three: In the Season 2 finale (episode 19), "Visions," Johnny discovers that the strange man he's been seeing in his visions, Christopher Wey, is a fellow psychic living in the post-Armageddon future, able to communicate with Johnny in the present through their shared psychic powers.
Wey confesses: he doesn't know how Armageddon started; he was unconscious and woke up in an America ravaged by some unknown disaster, but he is a way for Johnny to find the truth. The stage is set for Johnny to devote his full attention to Armageddon.
Stepping Into the Future: The Wey character is a clever invention from showrunner Michael Piller and Season 2 producer Karl Schaefer. Wey's presence allows THE DEAD ZONE to show Armageddon in the present day without changing the setting to a post-apocalyptic situation. "Visions" is an hour of ominous foreshadowing to a terrible future that was only glimpsed, but "Visions" ends by showing how THE DEAD ZONE can depict that future onscreen in the present day situation -- while still leaving the present day intact.
THE X-FILES could never show the world after Colonization. But THE DEAD ZONE would be able to show the world after Armageddon in Season 3.
Out of Focus: Season 3 opens with a three part story: "Finding Rachel Part 1," "Finding Rachel Part 2" and "Collision," all three featuring a new character, Rebecca Caldwell.
In Part 1, Christopher Wey directs Johnny to investigate a mission person's case. Filmmaker Rachel Caldwell (sister of Rebecca) disappeared when filming material for Stillson's political campaign. Wey believes Rachel to be a flashpoint in Stillson's future and the impending cataclysm. Johnny investigates only to find Rachel's dead body and the police arrest him for murder.
Also, Johnny discovers that each vision of Christopher Wey has affected his memory: he cannot account for his whereabouts during Rachel's killing, he has no memory of where he was or what he was doing in the hours after each vision of this ally from the future.
"Finding Rachel Part 1" is structured like any psychic detective case of the week from Seasons 1 - 2 except Wey's guidance adds a more desperate edge to the story and the entire situation suddenly collapses on top of Johnny at the end.
Out of Sight: Part 2 switches to Johnny trying to clear his name with Johnny's path to innocence further challenged when his psychic powers make it impossible for him to pass a lie detector test (his visions set off the readings) and his knowledge of crimes past and present now make him seem like the predator.
The focus is almost entirely on Johnny's legal issues. In addition, Johnny is thought guilty of Rachel's murder by almost everyone except Rachel's sister, Rebecca, who is inspired by Johnny's decency and develops romantic feelings for him.
"Finding Rachel Part 2" is a strong DEAD ZONE story. It is a strong Johnny Smith story. But it is not an Armageddon story. Wey is shown briefly as being unable to contact Johnny any further due to a situation in the future, and while Johnny's name is cleared, the Wey arc is dropped and also strangely, the episode never resolves who actually murdered Rachel Caldwell, although the implication is that it was Greg Stillson (who wins his congressional seat).
Out of Mind: And with third part of the story, "Collision," the story moves to Johnny's budding romance with Rebecca, the sister of the murdered Rachel Caldwell. And the case of the week centers around a vehicular accident. It has nothing to do with Armageddon.
It's a good episode, but also truly jarring. Season 3 doesn't focus on the myth-arc; seems to actively steer away from it, won't even permit it to be a subplot like in Season 2..
Quality? Both parts of "Finding Rachel" are taut, capable stories. The first is a missing person's case with a disturbing connection to Armageddon (that isn't fully explored). The second is Johnny's powers proving to be a liability when he's being investigated for murder. "Collision" is a stunning exploration of vehicular trauma. But all three episodes had Armageddon as a starting point and all three seem designed to dodge it in favour of standalones.
Out of the Way: It's understandable that focusing every episode on Armageddon is not sensible; a summer cable TV show like THE DEAD ZONE needs to allow for casual viewers. But the Wey character allowed THE DEAD ZONE to show and explore the post-Armageddon future while still having standalones.
Yet, Wey vanishes from the story in Season 3's second episode and THE DEAD ZONE never ventures further into the world after Armageddon. And with the fourth episode of Season 3, THE DEAD ZONE drops ongoing serialization of its myth-arc.
Armageddon is not referred to again until Season 3's 11th episode in a passing remark. The promising avenue of Christopher Wey is dismissed as a dead end. In fact, the next eight episodes after "Collision" seem to think that Johnny's top priority is cases of the week instead of an impending and cataclysmic disaster.
Absent Arc: On the original airing, Season 3 was truly mystifying. Showrunner Michael Piller, having so diligently woven the myth-arc into the standalones as a subplot in Season 2, seemed to completely abandon that approach for Season 3's 12 aired episodes.
Years later, it would be revealed that Piller had become extremely ill towards the end of Season 2 with Karl Schaefer, taking over Piller's administrative duties for the last six episodes. Schaefer remained as showrunner for Season 3, but it is clear that Schaefer was for whatever reason not empowered to assume Piller's role in rewriting all the standalone scripts to feature the ongoing arc.
Resurgence: The 12th Season 3 episode and the season finale, "Tipping Point," however, brings the seemingly abandoned plot elements of the Season 3 opener back into play. Johnny has a vision of his Season 3 love interest, Rebecca, murdering Greg Stillson, believing he killed her sister. This potential future ends the threat of Armageddon.
Speaking to the Future: As Johnny searches for alternatives, he discovers his psychic powers are causing brain damage that require surgery that will likely remove his powers but save his life. Johnny has to decide whether or not he can lose his powers, but then he has another vision of Christopher Wey. Wey wants Johnny to speak to someone.
This someone is revealed to be Johnny in the future, Johnny after Armageddon, decades from today.
The future Johnny tells the present Johnny that he must allow Rebecca to murder Stillson and die in the process. Johnny seeing his future self proves so traumatic to his brain that he collapses.
Purposeful: Unlike the three part Season 3 premiere, "Tipping Point" is clear and focused: it has Johnny contemplating the deliberate removal of his powers to save his life. It has Johnny presented with a chilling option for ending Armageddon by sacrificing Rebecca's life and the randomness of "Finding Rachel" now seems filled with intent and "Tipping Point" is a story of terrible choices and sacrifices and the uncertainty of any choice when every person in Johnny's life seems threatened either immediately or in the near future and even Johnny himself is running out of time.
Suggestions: It is never stated onscreen, but the implications after "Tipping Point" seem clear enough: the future Johnny used Christopher Wey in "Visions" and "Finding Rachel" to steer the present Johnny towards the Rachel Caldwell murder.
The future Johnny knew that Rebecca would come to believe that Greg Stillson murdered Rachel. The future Johnny sought to create an assassin who would murder Stillson before Stillson triggered Armageddon.
Implications: In addition, Johnny's memory loss and bouts of unconsciousness are due to future Johnny deliberately rendering him incapable of interfering in future Johnny's plot. The future Johnny failed to avert Armageddon. Now he is trying to change the past by reaching backwards in time with his psychic powers.
Not Dead Yet: The appearance of the future Johnny, alive after Armageddon, also makes it clear that Johnny's psychic powers are not dangerous to his brain; the future Johnny is clearly not dead, meaning Johnny's present day health issues are due to future Johnny inducing them through their psychic connection.
Johnny's deleted memories in "Finding Rachel Part 1" led to him being wrongly accused of murder and forming a bond with Rebecca; Johnny being knocked out by his visions in "Tipping Point" allowed Rebecca to decide to murder Stillson without Johnny to get in the way.
Split Paths: It's here that the myth-arc of THE DEAD ZONE takes another peculiar turn. Season 3 only aired 12 episodes. But 13 were shot. The original Season 3 finale, "Tipping Point Part 2," had Johnny accusing Future Johnny in dialogue of all of the above -- except for causing Johnny's health problems, although the mere existence of Johnny in the distant future indicates his supposedly lethal neurological condition isn't so lethal after all.
Original Ending: "Tipping Point Part 2" ended with Johnny's interference in Rebecca's assassination attempt proving tragic: she would fail to kill Stillson and be shot to death by police. Johnny himself would suffer a gunshot wound to the head; he'd survive, but the bullet remained lodged in his brain, possibly affecting his visions.
Race Against Time: The plan was for Season 4 to have Johnny dying, not from his future self hurting him, but from the damage caused by the unremovable bullet in his brain, meaning Johnny would now be desperate to prevent Armageddon before his time ran out.
Changes Before Broadcast: USA Network refused to broadcast "Tipping Point Part 2", deeming it too dark and depressing and also an impediment to their preference for future episodes to be standalone. The episode was rewritten and reshot into the Season 4 premiere, "Broken Circle."
The New Ending: In "Broken Circle," Johnny wakes up in the hospital. He refuses to get the brain surgery that would save his life. He experiences no further health issues. He pursues Rebecca to stop her from assassinating Stillson for Rachel's death.
It's revealed that Stillson's father is actually Rachel Caldwell's killer, fearing that her documentary work had captured proof of voter fraud. Johnny reveals the truth to Rebecca and she ceases trying to kill Stillson; her life is spared, but Stillson survives as well, meaning Armageddon remains on track.
"Broken Circle" was also rewritten to bring a new character into the myth-arc, a mysterious Malcolm Janus who becomes one of Stillson's top advisors.
Contradictory: "Broken Circle" is a myth-arc episode that is extremely capable as a standalone hour and as a chapter in the myth-arc. It's a chase episode: Johnny is falsely accused of trying to kill Stillson when he's trying to save his life and it's Johnny doing THE FUGITIVE as he flees federal agents, jumps off bridges, gets into foot chases -- all of which show Johnny in perfect health. He has several visions; none harm him. The implication is that only far future visions cause his health problems.
Unharmed: However, Johnny has a final confrontation with Future Johnny. Johnny accuses his future self of manipulating him to turn Rebecca into an assassin and his future self confirms it. But Johnny suffers no ill-effects from the vision when previous far future visions knocked him unconscious and put him in the hospital.
Undiscussed: Johnny never accuses his future self of causing his health problems. Johnny never refers to how he was dying one episode ago. The future Johnny makes no effort to incapacitate his past self despite having done so in "Finding Rachel Part 1" and "Tipping Point." The plot point is simply not addressed as though the creators hoped the viewers will forget about it.
Unstated: The viewer could infer that Johnny's awareness of his future self now makes it impossible for his future self to control him, erase his memories or knock him unconscious -- but this is never stated anywhere onscreen.
Treatment vs. Script: Curiously, the "Broken Circle" story treatment clearly states that Johnny's health is steadily diminishing with each scene, that he's struggling physically, that each vision is draining, that the final vision of Future Johnny knocks him out, that Johnny realizes at the end that each far future vision has been the problem and that he has to cut off contact with the future to heal his body.
Johnny's Health: And yet, the treatment calls for so much physicality from Johnny: running and jumping and diving -- it would have been difficult for the actor to perform both feats of strength and speed and portray Johnny's ailing health. The outline is severely at odds with itself and the final script elects to ignore Johnny's health problems entirely.
The Showrunner's Health: "Broken Circle," despite being exciting and enjoyable, shouldn't actually qualify as a good episode of television; the leading man was hospitalized and at death's door one episode ago only to become an action star now without explanation.
It is bizarre that the usually brilliant showrunner Michael Piller oversaw the conversion of "Tipping Point Part 2" into "Broken Circle." These obvious oversights show how severe Piller's health problems must have become at this point.
What Myth-Arc? THE DEAD ZONE after this Season 4 premiere went dark on the myth-arc. For six weeks, THE DEAD ZONE decided that Johnny's top priority would be crimes of the week, a bizarre choice when anyone Johnny might save would still be doomed to die in some horrific holocaust.
Vanguard: THE DEAD ZONE would not address Armageddon again until the seventh episode of Season 4, "Vanguard," in which Johnny discovers that one of his former science students, Alex, will create a missile guidance system that is some key piece of the nuclear war that is Armageddon, a nuclear war that will be brought about by Greg Stillson when Stillson is President of the United States.
Johnny tries to sabotage Alex's work, is exposed; then tries to tell Alex the truth -- and Alex is killed when trying to destroy the technology. At the end, Johnny mourns his student while the mysterious Janus is able to retrieve the guidance system.
Standout: "Vanguard" is a powerful hour, a tale of sacrifice and responsibility, and about the inevitability of technological advancement. It is one of the finest episodes of the series. It is a much darker hour than other Season 4 episodes and bizarrely out of place with all five lightweight episodes before and after it.
Saved: The next Season 4 myth-arc episode is the 11th and final episode of Season 4, "Saved," in which Stillson's fiancee goes missing and Stillson asks Johnny to help find her. Johnny at first refuses to help Stillson only to discover: if Stillson and his fiancee aren't reunited, Armageddon will not happen. Stillson's fiancee is a key step to Stillson becoming President of the United States.
Cliffhanger: Johnny attempts to appear to help without actually doing so, but his efforts fail and Stillson's reunion with his future wife puts Armageddon back on track. Johnny is further disturbed when he goes home to discover that Malcolm Janus, Stillson's advisor, left a Bible in Johnny's bedroom, a Bible that Janus touched to allow him to plant a vision for Johnny, a vision where Janus invites Johnny to join Stillson and use his psychic powers to help Stillson acquire political power.
Inversion: It's a dark, disturbing and truly effective myth-arc episode and season finale. Johnny is put in the unusual situation of being a psychic detective trying to keep the case of the week unsolved. And Janus is terrifying, raising the stakes of the Armageddon episodes unlike any before. Janus is masterminding Stillson's rise to the White House. Janus somehow understands Johnny's psychic powers. Janus somehow knows how to create visions. Worse, Janus seems to know how to maneuver Johnny to prevent him from interfering.
"Saved" is one of THE DEAD ZONE's finest hours with a truly unnerving lead-in to Season 5.
Interruption: "Saved" receives no follow up in the next episode. The next episode ignores "Saved"; instead, it is a lightweight Christmas episode aired between Seasons 4 and 5 that doesn't address the Season 4 finale at all.
It is a confusing choice and reflects a certain disinterest in the viewing experience. Strangely, this trend has become somewhat common with other shows that often broadcast Christmas episodes that are set outside any ongoing arcs.
Resumed: Season 5 opens with "Forbidden Fruit" and the return of the myth-arc. The premiere has Johnny attempting to expose Janus as a security leak in the US government only to discover Janus has outplayed him and steered him into exposing a rival to Stillson's power.
Urgent Questions: Once again, Johnny is outmatched by Janus and it's unclear how Janus can anticipate Johnny's every move. The episode is a strong opener raising questions as to who this Janus person is, how Janus can be so implacable and invincible. The stage is set for Johnny to focus on the mystery of Janus as he did on the secrets of Stillson. The next episode must address Janus. The next episode ignores "Forbidden Fruit" and is about Johnny dealing with a traffic jam as though stalled cars are more important than the coming nuclear holocaust.
Ignored Questions: After the Season 5 premiere, the next nine episodes have Johnny dealing with murders and cults and heists; the end of the world doesn't seem to rank high on his list of priorities.
THE DEAD ZONE not only downplays the myth-arc, it flat out ignores its previous myth-arc episodes, first with the Christmas episode and now with no proper follow-up to the Season 5 premiere. Even when a myth-arc episode demands immediate follow-up, the next episode is a standalone with no continuity on Armageddon.
Vortex: There is one exception to this in Season 5's middle-season myth-arc episode: "Vortex." Oddly, "Vortex" is not actually about the myth-arc at all and offers no progression for the arc beyond Stillson's rising political star mentioned as continuing to rise, a fairly repetitive point of non-development.
And yet, "Vortex" is a strong episode and opens with Johnny upset and worried about the impending Armageddon (despite having not even mentioned it for the last six episodes). Later, Johnny is investigating a doomsday cult after he has visions of them using landmines and killing a child.
Doomsday: Johnny 'joins' the cult and they learn about his visions of Armageddon; Johnny must save the cultists before the leader detonates the entire compound. The story has a framing sequence where Congressman Stillson questions Johnny about his role in the cult; the episode ends with Johnny able to save all the cultists from their leader and hopeful that having prevented one doomsday, he can prevent another.
Incorporated: "Vortex" is excellent. In some ways, "Vortex" reflects how future shows like SUPERNATURAL would incorporate standalone episodes with arc episodes; the standalones would be thematically relevant to the season-long arc even if the standalone wasn't relevant in terms of its plot.
However, "Vortex" is an outlier and all other Season 5 standalones seemed to take place in some alternate THE DEAD ZONE continuity where there was no impending nuclear disaster. The next two episodes after "Vortex" were standalone cases of the week with no references to Armageddon.
Helpless: Season 5's 11th and final episode is "The Hunting Party" in which Johnny tries to stop the assassination of the US Vice President and fails, leading to Stillson becoming the new VP. It is a powerful, frightening, conspiratorial episode. It is effective in its plot and disturbing in its bleak presentation of Johnny seeming powerless against Stillson and the mysterious Malcolm Janus who manages to manipulate Johnny into only being a witness to a murder he cannot stop.
The episode ends with Janus appearing in Johnny's house again, warning Johnny that if he doesn't join Stillson, he will die. Never has Johnny seemed so helpless, his powers so utterly useless. Janus is manipulative, masterful, powerful.
Stalled: And yet, "The Hunting Party" makes it clear that despite this episode being strong, the myth-arc has become irrelevant.
Janus already visited Johnny in "Saved" and proposed a partnership; the next episode immediately switched into a lightweight Christmas episode and ignored the previous installment. "Forbidden Fruit" ended with Johnny defeated by Janus; the next episode had Johnny cheerfully attending a fireworks festival without any mention of it.
There is no reason to think "The Hunting Party" will be treated any differently by a show devoted to standalones.
Posturing: Janus ends "The Hunting Party" -- and Season 5 -- by telling Johnny that the assassination of the US Vice President was "A preview. The opening act of the greatest drama ever conceived by a man. An epic tale born of victory and penned in blood." He remarks, "Think it over, John. It's almost showtime."
But Janus' threatening, portentous words only indicate how the Armageddon never get past being "a preview" and an "opening act," constantly declaring it to be "almost showtime" without the show ever actually arriving. THE DEAD ZONE clearly never wants to tell that story. THE DEAD ZONE's myth-arc episodes are the most exceptional hours of THE DEAD ZONE, but the bulk of the show avoids acknowledging their existence.
Stillson being one step from the US presidency is irrelevant. Stillson could become God Almighty in one episode and the next one would still ignore it and focus on a standalone case of the week.
A Delayed Solution: Season 6 of THE DEAD ZONE opens by ending the Armageddon arc in a single episode. The seemingly masterful and all-powerful Malcolm Janus is abruptly killed off; Johnny's visions of Armageddon cease upon Janus' death.
There is no explanation as to how Janus could be so in control in Seasons 4 - 5 and so easily dispatched in Season 6's premiere. It is rushed; a five season arc is dismissed in one episode. It is dismissive; all of the clues and hints and details about what would bring about Stillson's nuclear war are irrelevant to this ending. It is clumsy; Johnny plays no role in Janus' defeat at all.
It was necessary for Season 6; Seasons 4 - 5 had made it impossible to take Armageddon seriously any longer. With Armageddon gone, Season 6 could tell standalone episodes unburdened by the threat of nuclear disaster. No longer would Johnny's victories be made pointless by the myth-arc. The Season 6 solution seems to come rather late; it might have been best to do something like this as early as the Season 4 premiere.
A New Start: Season 6 starts a new arc, one about Johnny Smith's father and family legacy. The family theme is suited to Johnny's character and proves effective for the standalone format, allowing characterization to run from episode to episode even if the cases of the week are isolated to each individual episode.
Two Steps Back: In the Season 6 finale, Johnny discovers that his father, long thought dead, is actually alive. In addition, his father has psychic abilities just like Johnny. Mr. Smith Senior, however, is suffering from dementia; it's revealed that the departed Malcolm Janus somehow located Mr. Smith and used him as his personal psychic. This is why in Seasons 4 - 5, Janus seemed to understand how to control and avoid Johnny's visions; this is why Johnny was defeated every time.
It's explained: between Seasons 5 and 6, there came a point when Stillson tired of Janus' control and maneuvered Janus into his death in the Season 6 premiere. The explanation is satisfying and Johnny's reunion with his addled, confused but deeply loving father is beautiful.
However, the events that lead Johnny to find his father also alter the future once again, and the once-averted Armageddon is put back on track.
Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after this episode and no resolution was ever filmed.
Empty Threat: The results of this unplanned finale are a mixed bag. It is heartrending and powerful to see Johnny reunited with his father. The performances are stunning and beautiful. The episode closes beautifully with a father reunited with his son. As a single episode, this finale is extremely strong.
As a series finale, it is disappointing that Armageddon is raised once more only for the show to be cancelled. Once again, Armageddon had no ending. While the Season 6 premiere was not a satisfying conclusion, it had at least been a conclusion and the series seemed better when freed of it.
Armageddon's return here was repetitive: Armageddon had ceased to be a plausible danger long ago.
Disguised Blessing: In terms of the cancellation, Armageddon having been defanged long ago was in some ways a blessing. Despite there being no ending, Armageddon had been ignored and curtailed so repeatedly that surely in the hypothetical Season 7, Johnny would find another easy, simple solution. The arc had ended due to its impracticality on cable TV; it would have been just as impractical in the Season 7 that never came to pass.
What Went Wrong? Why didn't the myth-arc work on THE DEAD ZONE? How could it have worked?
Problematic Percentage: THE DEAD ZONE developed a serious messaging problem with its myth-arc. Most of the Season 2 episodes had featured Armageddon as a B-plot, sending the audience the message that the myth-arc mattered and was on the characters' minds. This changed starting with Season 3. In the 35 episodes that made up THE DEAD ZONE's third to fifth seasons, only nine actually mentioned Armageddon.
This means that for 26 per cent of the show, the Season 3 - 5 audience was told that Armageddon was dire, threatening, pressing and urgent, but the other 74 per cent of the episodes declared that Armageddon was so trivial that it wasn't worth mentioning.
A Confusing Message: The standalones undermined Armageddon's importance, declaring it inconsequential by never mentioning it. The myth-arc episodes in turn undermined the standalones by saying that everyone Johnny saved from car wrecks and floods and murder was still doomed to die in Armageddon.
THE DEAD ZONE was cancelling itself out long before its cancellation.
A Permanent Delay: Anyone who'd ever watched THE X-FILES knew full well that Armageddon was an untellable story that would never take place. While THE DEAD ZONE created tremendous drama and compelling stories from teasing this untellable story in Season 2, by Season 4, the tease had become predictable and avoidant.
A Story for the End: THE DEAD ZONE was also part of an era of television where showrunners acted as though if the central myth-arc of a TV show were resolved, the show would have no further reason to exist. QUANTUM LEAP never got Sam Beckett home. Mulder and Scully on THE X-FILES never exposed the alien conspiracy. Johnny Smith never stopped Armageddon. These were stories that showrunners would only tell if they knew the show was ending, rarely did showrunners know that the end was coming in advance of filming their season finales.
THE DEAD ZONE made itself dependent on knowing precisely when they'd be filming a series finale, a luxury few showrunners of the era could ever expect and one THE DEAD ZONE didn't receive.
Why Didn't the Myth-Arc Stay a B-plot? Season 2 found a winning approach: standalone episodes, the myth-arc as a running subplot, one myth-arc episode out of every 10 or so installments. Why didn't Season 3 stick with it?
The running arcs were in Season 2 because showrunner Michael Piller had been rewriting all the scripts to add running character and mythology arcs. He became too ill with cancer to do this regularly in Season 3.
But why didn't his successor take over?
Hiding: For reasons unclear, the studio did not truly appoint a successor empowered to handle rewrites and arcs during Piller's illness; they only did so for Season 6 after Piller had passed away.
Despite production diaries referring to Karl Schaefer and Tommy Thompson as "showrunner" for Season 3 (Schaefer) and Seasons 4 - 5 (Thompson), standalone scripts didn't seem to be rewritten during to incorporate ongoing arcs under their terms.
In Seasons 4 - 5, many of the standalones seemed to be first drafts from freelancers with all character development experienced by guest-stars and no characterization for the regulars.
Unempowered: There was the odd sense that no post-Piller showrunner for Seasons 3 - 5 had the authority to execute any development on the Armageddon arc or the character arcs. Certainly, the production company was reluctant to admit that Piller was ill; his cancer was not revealed until after his death and the studio's publicity materials all presented Piller as actively running THE DEAD ZONE.
After Piller died, production blogs revealed that he had less present starting in Season 3 and largely absent for Seasons 4 - 5. Only with Season 6 was the new showrunner, Scott Shepherd, permitted to develop the arc (and end it).
More For Less: There was also the manner in which Seasons 4 - 5 were filmed. In a cost-saving measure, USA Network mandated that Seasons 4 - 5 would be filmed in 4 - 5 months with a reduced budget and 23 episodes to air as two separate seasons of 12 and 11. They also mandated that all 23 episodes be completed before Season 4 had even finished airing, even though Season 5 would be broadcast a year later. This allowed USA Network to avoid paying for increased cast salaries in a fifth season.
THE DEAD ZONE's fourth and fifth season had to produce more episodes with fewer resources and less time than any previous season. To cope, production had to film episodes severely out of order based on cast availability, with cast absences scattered throughout the episode order.
Recurring guest-stars filmed episodes in a few weeks but saw their episodes broadcast years apart. This may have been why production developed an aversion to ongoing, episodic continuity. One would think that Piller would have taken the role of overseeing continuity, but he was too ill to do so.
Solutions: What should have been done? The frustrating thing is that THE DEAD ZONE had found solutions to all these issues, it simply didn't stick to them.
The myth-arc should have been maintained as a subplot through Season 3 with the Christopher Wey character used to position the standalones as relevant to the myth-arc. The myth-arc should have also been maintained through Seasons 4 - 5 in the Season 2 fashion.
Alternatively, if USA Network was disinclined to let THE DEAD ZONE focus on Armageddon, it should have been resolved in a fashion like the Season 6 premiere: a single episode or even a two-parter could end the arc and the show could start a new one that the network would actually support.
The Season 4 finale and the Season 5 premiere had crafted a storyline that could have easily served the same purpose as the Season 6 premiere.
Sadly, despite the Season 6 opener ending the Armageddon threat, THE DEAD ZONE once again backtracked from the answer to its problems and brought Armageddon back for the Season 6 finale. THE DEAD ZONE would not commit to its own solutions and kept recreating the very problems it had so deftly avoided.
Legacy: While THE DEAD ZONE is filled with brilliant, revolutionary episodes, its myth-arc defined every season even when it was absent.
It is very odd that THE DEAD ZONE surpassed THE X-FILES in its approach to serialization, but then backtracked on its innovations. THE DEAD ZONE went from doing better than THE X-FILES to being just as circular, directionless, self-destructive and pointless with its mythology.