Thursday, May 18, 2017

Must Be Metric: BETTER CALL SAUL Tackles BREAKING BAD's Skyler Problem?

It's with some sense of failure that I contemplate the vast amount of high-quality television appearing in recent years--shows I eagerly follow every week they're on--then look at how little I've written about them here. The fact that I've devoted so many articles to THE WALKING DEAD, which usually isn't a good show, makes it all the worse. And, of course, the one most conspicuous by its absence is the one that is, in my view, represents the high-point of television to date. To BREAKING BAD, I've failed to devote a single article. Its also-excellent prequel series BETTER CALL SAUL is presently in the midst of its third season and I haven't written anything here about it either. Fortunately, I've just run into an opportunity to write at least something about those two magnificent beasts.

Monday, Lili Loofbourow posted a piece at The Week magazine entitled and themed, "How Better Call Saul Fixed Breaking Bad's Skyler Problem." An intriguing topic but I'll offer as a preliminary concession that the article is definitely of a species of analysis for which I generally have very little use. Rather than directly engaging with the material, Loofbourow tends to analyze nearly everything about these shows and the reactions to them via a sort of trope-porn, constantly referencing this-or-that generalization identified by someone else as a trope. I'm a storyteller myself. When I run into a problematic narrative and feel the need to expound upon its shortcomings, my instinct is to simply outline where I think the story fell down, not to scour a bunch of academic and critical literature in search of generalizations to try to apply to explain those failings. Some of what are identified as tropes are, in my view, so identified as a consequence of various segments of the educated classes taking the "pattern-seeking" part of pattern-seeking primates a little too far. Many are given a negative connotation without actually deserving one. Depending so heavily on such things makes it sound as if one doesn't have anything to say oneself and the resulting analysis starts to feel like some sort of empty, generic critique wherein one just strings together various pre-existing criticisms not crafted for the object that's supposed to be under examination. I don't often find these tropesplanations helpful. Make of that what you will, dear reader.

On to business...

Skyler was the awful wife of BREAKING BAD's protagonist Walter White, a woman who came to be absolutely despised by much of BB fandom. Loofbourow dives into the trope catalogue almost immediately, declaring Walter's story to be of the "Difficult Man genre" and "the antihero story." She notes that Skyler was meant to be the moral center of the story, not to be hated, and contends that the hatred aimed at the character "was (to put it mildly) excessive." She initially chalks this up to the Bad Fan phenomenon--because why not throw in another trope, eh?--then confesses that when she rewatched the series, she came to dislike the character as well. "My recent reaction to Skyler was so powerful," she writes, "that I've grown reluctant to blame the fans for their response."

During BB's run, it was common for various commentators to assert that the negative reaction to Skyler was based on her being a constant killjoy, always getting in the way of Walter's fun. Loofbourow agrees but this has always been, at best, a grossly insufficient explanation, a short sniff around the periphery of what was really wrong. Those who beat this particular drum often asserted there was a strongly misogynistic element to the Skyler hatred and Loofbourow is particularly down with that but that assertion is strictly off in the ozone, an entirely unfair smear of people with a legitimate beef about a legitimate problem with the series. There were never any clear gender divisions when it came to Skyler hatred--among BB fans, Skyler was hated by both women and men. Loofbourow herself admits to having that negative reaction. The analysis of the Skyler problem I'm about to offer still exists today because a pair of ladies who read it praised it and strongly suggested it was worth keeping (howdy, J. and M., if you're out there).

I wrote that piece, the one I'm about to pull out of the mothballs, a few years ago for the Internet Movie Database's BREAKING BAD board. It was authored during the very long break between the first and second half of the show's final season, at a time when the subject had been provoking another round of heated exchanges. From Jan. 2013, this is my take on why people dislike Slyler,


The writers have always included a particular domestic power relationship between Walt and Skyler. Walter White is this once-incredibly-promising scientist who walked away from his destiny and ended up as this hen-pecked fellow who has allowed his wife to run his entire life, a guy who could be a Master of the Universe but ended up barely getting by in lousy, unsatisfying jobs for shit pay, one who is so miserable and/or defeated that when he learns he's dying from cancer, he just seems to take it in stride as the latest indignity. One of the reasons Walt came to enjoy his criminal activities so much is because this was the one part of his life over which he was in control. Through it, he got back in touch with his inner ├╝bermensch, both the part that was real and, maybe more importantly, the part he only imagined was real. The degree to which he had repressed those impulses in order to become Skyler's docile puppy is remarkable; it suggests a much stronger relationship than we've ever been shown.

The Walt known to Skyler is the one who does what she tells him, and she, for her part, seems to enjoy that dominant role. The writers could have handled this a few ways. Just because Skyler is domineering doesn't mean she has to be written as a bad person. She could just have a strong and in-charge personality and Walt acquiesces to it because he loves her and doesn't really care about such things. A basic plot-point of BB is that Skyler had little idea who was really inside this meek fellow to whom she's been married for years. When she starts to become aware of it, it's like he's a totally different person to her. She has no frame of reference for who he's becoming. This is happening against the backdrop of his coming under a sentence of certain death. The emergence over time of this "new" Walter could have been milked for some serious, meaty drama. Skyler could have been written as very curious and concerned. The very wrong turn the writers took was instead to make the power relationship both toxic and the core--and nearly sole--element of the characters' relationship as we see it, Skyler's seeming central concern and the thing around which all of her interactions with Walt revolved.

There's always a great deal of contempt for Walt in those interactions. In the very first ep, her birthday treat for him is an indifferent handjob she carries out while reading on her laptop. When Walter became ill, she was certainly concerned about him but that contempt was still there. She was reading books and trying to learn about cancer and absolutely insisted he seek treatment but even that ended up being written through the prism of that power relationship--Walt, in initially declining treatment, was defying her. She never engaged in any deeper, more intense heart-to-heart, you're-the-love-of-my-life-and-you-can't-leave-me talk with him. His eventual capitulation was explicitly presented as more a case of his giving in to her as he always has, rather than genuinely deciding it was better to try to live.

Skyler has also been written as both a very self-righteous prude and a hypocrite, a woman who has very over-the-top, outraged reactions to Walter allegedly smoking an occasional joint and to her sister's shoplifting, one who, when she became aware of Walt's drug-making, was beside herself in disapprobation yet who we'd already seen take up smoking while pregnant in what appeared to be little more than a bratty fit of pique. Skyler is only human and could be forgiven these and so many of her other transgressions if only the writers had created a human character that made viewers in any way inclined to forgive her. Instead, this sort of thing, over and over again, is all we get from Skyler.

When she began to learn of Walter's criminal activities, there was absolutely nothing in her reactions that indicated she had any real love for her husband at all. They've been together for more than two decades and the writers just don't give us any human connection there. The revelation should have been a major WTF? moment. She never even asks him why he would do such a thing, though if she'd given it a moment's thought it would be screamingly obvious. She doesn't think. She rages. She wants to throw him out of the house, divorce him, she cheats on him, cuts him off from his children, hurts him at every opportunity and never once stops to have an adult conversation with him about what the hell has been going on, despite his repeated efforts to initiate one. She's all fury and no love and while she puts forth no effort to understand or even learn what this is about, viewers had seen she was the reason for Walter's plunge into the drug trade, that he embarked upon a life of crime and horror and systematically sold his soul one piece at a time for her. Skyler's reaction when she begins to learn the truth makes her come across as the most selfish bitch imaginable and that reaction, in turn, is largely what turns Walt into Dark Walt--full-blown Heisenberg. Walter's willingness to go through so much for her suggests a very strong bond, one the writers simply haven't conveyed at any point in the proceedings.

This is the only major failing of BB, a show that is otherwise among the best the medium has ever produced, but it's a serious one. The writers have done virtually nothing to establish Skyler as a three-dimensional person or to make her marriage to Walter make sense beyond that power thing, yet important parts of the story in every season are made to depend upon these missing elements. Who is Skyler? What's her story? What's the story of Skyler and Walt? The lack of shading on such points is a big part of why Skyler became so hated.

Later, when Walt brought her in on the business, the writers continued to keep that power relationship front and center but this time they milked it for comedy, having Skyler come in and basically begin taking over Walt's criminal life in the same way she'd been running the rest of his life. That twist actually worked pretty well--Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, earned her Emmy nomination for it--but it didn't last long and not only did it fail to solve the problem with the character, it arguably made it worse, because as she became more aware of everything Walt's criminal activities entailed, she realized she had no real power and regresses, cutting Walter off from his children again, even openly hoping he dies from his cancer and still never has that adult conversation with him. She doesn't have that conversation until the middle of the 5th season of the series.

Unless she's just supposed to be nothing more than a selfish bitch--and if she's nothing more than that, it creates a serious crack in the overall story--she needs to be much better realized as a character. I hope this gets some attention in the final 8 eps.[1]


In a Vulture interview cited by Loofbourow (and also much-discussed on IMDb back when it was current), BB creator Vince Gilligan is entirely blind to all of this, or making a show of being blind to it:

"[W]ith the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she's succumbed to Walt's machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, 'You can't cook crystal meth.' She's got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She's telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?"

These sorts of comments could be defensive in nature--Gilligan just trying not to deal with a problem one has allowed to happen. Gilligan has been involved in film and television projects for 15 years prior to BB, so it doesn't seem likely he doesn't understand the dramatic problems presented by Skyler. He has reportedly been involved in a long-term relationship, so it doesn't seem likely he doesn't understand how such things work, how people involved in them and who love one another work out problems. The explanation staring the reader in the face is that Gilligan is simply depending on his audience embracing a very simplistic morality on these matters. Skyler shouldn't try to understand Walt, no one should sympathize with Walt and viewers should sympathize with Skyler because gosh-darn it, breaking the law is just wrong! That's the most obvious explanation but it's horseshit. Gilligan is known for these projects of sublime moral complexity and Skyler was never written as any moral compass,[2] nor did she know about any "murder" by Walt until very late in the game. I don't believe for a moment Gilligan is so profoundly out of touch with this part of his creation but he'll have to address the subject himself, if he ever does in a straight way.

Despite the obvious problems with Gilligan's comments, Loofbourow doesn't question his sincerity on this. Maintaining her distance from the material, she runs with it, writing "I submit that the problem with Skyler in Breaking Bad is not a fan problem. It's a structural problem... [W]hen you've made the wife the antagonist and stripped her of the thrills of villainy--when you've made her not just the boring wife, but also the show's moral center? Well, that there's a recipe for massive annoyance. Which, when you want to be entertained, quickly morphs into hatred." And that hatred, in her estimation, is misogynistic. "There's simply no separating the vitriol Skyler received from her femininity," Loofbourow insists. The character is an "annoying pregnant wife" with an "annoying extended family" making "domestic demands" and generally acting as a hindrance to Walt's quest for "manly-man power." Rather than the straightforward dramatic problem I've outlined, it's just a matter of Skyler being "structurally impossible to love."[3]

It's difficult to read this as anything other than an effort to have your misogyny and eat it too. Loofbourow concedes that even she didn't like Skyler. Why not concede that this was just a poorly-conceived and badly executed character? It's the job of the creators to make viewers like characters--the ones that are supposed to be likable anyway--and Gilligan and co. simply failed here. Why cling so insistently to misogyny as an explanation when there doesn't actually seem to be any? Gilligan's comments from which Loofbourow are working certainly don't display any. Loofbourow has basically conceded misogyny wasn't behind the fan reaction to the character. She's rendered misogyny this free-floating entity, something unmoored from anyone's intent yet present "structurally." This mode of analysis isn't really as loony as some will initially receive it; when it comes to reading art, the only real measure of an interpretation is how well the work will bear it. But BB won't, in my view, bear the misogyny talk.

The opposite of Skyler, writes Loofbourow, is Kim Wexler on BETTER CALL SAUL. The fact that Kim is a character everyone, including the Skyler haters, seems to love would, at first blush, seem to take all the air out of the "misogyny" balloon but Loofbourow has a patch for that too--she invokes another trope. Kim is a Cool Girl, that is, a character written like one of the guys but in the body of a beautiful woman. Loofbourow doesn't think much of Cool Girls. She describes Kim with an avalanche of positive adjectives--funny, loyal, beautiful, etc.--then insists these, cumulatively, are a bad thing. We never see Kim's family, don't see her home, "she's marvelous precisely because she's unfettered by back story... Best of all, she's an enabler for Jimmy's shenanigans. The show likes to pretend that Kim is a straight shooter, a moral compass for Jimmy akin to what Skyler was supposed to be. In practice, Kim plays 'Giselle' to Slippin' Jimmy and scams dudes out of $50 tequila shots." Kim is the creators' solution to the Skyler problem: "eliminate everything about her that made her vulnerable, annoying, and, well, human."

Loofbourow tries to take the edge off by professing great fondness for Kim and actress Rhea Seehorn but her premise is what it is and the unrecognized ironies that jump out at the reader seem to go on forever. Immediately after so doggedly holding on to that misogyny thing with Skyler, Loofbourow then goes out of her way to cook up a profoundly cockeyed rationale for hating on this character. The fact that Kim is a no-nonsense, hardworking, professional career girl is used to argue that Kim isn't really a woman at all but just a man in the body of a woman, someone stripped of everything that made Skyler "human." BETTER CALL SAUL is a prequel to BREAKING BAD, yet Loofbourow implies it's as a remake in treating Kim as the creators' version of a new-and-improved Skyler rather than as an entirely different character in a different story and hates on Kim, even while professing to love her, for being different.

Loofbourow is also wrong on some points that are pretty central to her argument. While it's true we don't yet know much about Kim's extended family and backstory, it's also the case, as I noted in that piece years ago, that we never learned much about these things with Skyler either. Skyler wasn't problematic because she had a family and a backstory; part of why she was problematic is that she didn't and, in the context of that series, badly needed one. Skyler and Kim are both supposed to love and be in a long-running relationships with the male protagonists of their respective series and the point where I most vehemently part company with Loofbourow is in her assertion that Kim is "an enabler for Jimmy's shenanigans," because the grounds on which she's here condemning Kim is that Kim, unlike Skyler, is written as genuinely being in love with her man. She knows Jimmy is flawed but she loves him. She's trying to deal with the situation as best she can. She is a straight shooter and a moral compass, who wasn't corrupted by her brief excursion into the world of Slippin' Jimmy.[4] She was furious with Jimmy for his Mesa Verde forgery but she correctly put it in the context of the larger Chuck/Jimmy feud. The same is true of her defense of Jimmy before the disciplinary hearing, where Chuck's insane personal jealousy of his brother led him to set an elaborate trap intended to take Jimmy's law license. Allowing that wouldn't be just. Living Jimmy, Kim isn't going to allow that to happen. Characterizing her as "an enabler of Jimmy's shenanigans" based on that is obscene.

BREAKING BAD was top-of-the-line. No tv project yet has been perfect but its shortcomings are so few, they're easily listed.[5] And the major one is that Skyler was just really badly written. While BETTER CALL SAUL isn't BB, it's been a worthy successor. Its creators Gilligan and Peter Gould are knocking it out of the park every week and it's the best show on television in an era when that really means something. It's not at all absurd to suggest that if it lasts, it may eventually eclipse its predecessor. The only real point in such a comparison is as a measure of BCS's quality. If it makes it to a natural end, Kim won't. By the time of BREAKING BAD, she's already gone. Whatever eventually removes her from the scene is guaranteed to be a tragedy viewers will mourn. That's not a "structural" thing; that's great storytelling.



[1] Alas, it didn't.

[2] There was no moral compass on BB. The writers were true to their title; all of the characters broke bad.

[3] Since the pregnancy thing was stressed, it's worth pointing out that Skyler gave birth in season 2; the show continued through 5 seasons and Skyler was never much loved.

[4] Jimmy brought Kim in on the "$50-shots" scam Loofbourow describes to show her what a con was like and Kim had fun with it but she recognized that it was entirely unethical and not something they could ever really take up.

[5] Why would Gus Fring, a major drug-lord who is so very careful about concealing his activities, make his identity known to a pair of lowly street dealers who could be pinched by the cops at any moment? Jesse turning against Walt is never entirely convincing. Jack and his gang make off with Walt's fortune but opt to stay in the drug business anyway? Some of the resolutions of the various plotlines, particularly that of Jesse, were disappointing, as was part of Walt's final conversation with Skyler.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"TWIN PEAKS: An Armchair Guide To Soap's Spaciest Oddyssey"

In May 1990, the week of the 5th episode of TWIN PEAKS' original run, TV Guide offered a "Special Report" on the show, a series of articles outlining its story to date, a report on a visit to Snoqualmie, Washington, where PEAKS' exteriors were shot, some speculation on where the series would go after the murder of Laura Palmer is settled and a profile of castmembers Dana Ashbrook and James Marshall. Enjoy:


Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Welcome to the Weird New World of TWIN PEAKS"

In April 1990, on the verge of TWIN PEAKS' premiere, TV Guide offered this great little preview of the upcoming series. PEAKS' pilot film would go on to become the highest-rated movie of that year but the show's regular timeslot after that pitted it against then-ratings-monster CHEERS on NBC, the first of an endless series of bad scheduling decisions by ABC that would eventually help do in the series.


Twitter: @jriddlecult

Friday, May 5, 2017

Peaks Performance

Believe it or not, it is happening again. The quarter-century-delayed third season of TWIN PEAKS makes its debut on Showtime on 21 May, something I never thought I'd ever see. In the pervasive remake-obsessed movie climate of the last several years, I figured it was inevitable that someone would come along at some point and do a new version of it. Few properties of such standing have managed to long evade the indignity of a high-profile, low-quality rehash. But a genuine, new season featuring the original cast and creators? My coffee-cup runneth over.

I was a huge fan of the show during its original run. It's a pretty gutsy move for creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to come back and do it again. This thing they created back in 1990 has become a great deal more than just a popular tv show. TWIN PEAKS, in fact, didn't draw big ratings in its day. It was a cult show, the sort of something-very-different-and-wonderful that attracts the most devoted sort of fan. Those fans have, in turn, kept it alive in the decades since, many of them acting as its apostles and spreading its gospel to new generations. It's a legend, a thing that takes up residence in the hearts of those who love it and stays warm, growing in the memory of those delighted impressions from all those years ago. TWIN PEAKS, for some of us, may be a lot bigger than TWIN PEAKS itself. At the same time, the show really raised the bar for tv. It's cinema-quality work and one of the direct ancestors of the great age of television with which we're presently blessed. I've been revisiting it lately for the first time in a long time as I've introduced my young rat cousin to it, and in most respects, it looks and feels a lot more like a modern top-shelf series than anything that was on the air back in the early '90s when it debuted.[1] Its influence is nearly incalculable. I have no doubt that Lynch and Frost are going to have something special for us but they aren't just competing with the array of superior television they helped birth, they're competing with their own legend. Maybe the toughest competition there is.

Lynch can be a hard sell to an American mass audience anyway. It can be tough to be an original, baby, and he's much more like a European genre director than anything spawned in the good ol' U.S. of A. He spins the sort of throw-out-the-rulebook, jazzy, genre-warping, Expressionistic, impressionistic, symbol-laden, surrealistic dreamlike narratives that tend to drive those weaned on more conventional mainstream material to hair-pulling and expletives. His Twin Peaks feature prequel, FIRE WALK WITH ME, was a masterpiece but his indulgence in the freer reign it allowed his personal quirks meant it was very poorly received in some quarters. He's reportedly directing every episode of the new run, his first substantial directing work since (the excellent) INLAND EMPIRE eleven years ago. I'm a bigger Lynch fan than I am a PEAKS fan; for me, this is all gravy.

Less groovy is how stingy Showtime has been with their footage. We're only a few weeks from launch and the most substantial thing we've seen, a promo released Thursday, is more like the sort of bare teaser we'd get from anything else six months out. Perhaps the marketing department has decided to just depend on the legend to sell it. And it can certainly do so but hey, we've waited a long time for this guys--would it hurt to throw us a bone?[2] Of course, it may just be that Lynch and Frost are fucking with us on this. Lynch certainly loves a good mystery.

I still have some Peaks-related items from the days of the original run and I'm going to be putting them up here in the next few weeks. Nothing major-league but some of it will, it seems, be making its internet debut. Here's a new scan of one that has made the rounds before, the two-page ad in TV Guide for the debut of the pilot movie:



[1] The one exception to this is the pace, which was quite measured in its time and seems even more so today. I hope the new run carries over this element; I don't care for the play-to-the-least-attention-span approach in vogue these days.

[2] Ok, in this one respect, forget what I said about pace in the note above.

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why Rick Can't Shoot THE WALKING DEAD: Image Round-Up

The reviews of THE WALKING DEAD on this blog have long noted Rick Grimes is the Leader Who Can't Shoot Straight. This has always been meant in an entirely metaphorical sense. Rick's a terrible leader. Something I've never covered here before is that it's also literally true. After x number of years in law enforcement and a couple years fighting his way through a zombie apocalypse wherein his survival and that of his people depend on his proficiency with weaponry, Rick has never learned to use a gun. Without an eye on his head, can't aim one with this line-of-sight:

You're gonna' break your wrist doing that! But you ain't gonna' hit a thing:

We all know what the guns of these Alpha-male action-hero characters really are, right? When the moment is right, will Rick be ready?

Switching to a longer weapon doesn't produce good results but it's a little improvement--perhaps he's aiming with his ajna chakra:

But get him upset, and all bets are off:

Want to survive an encounter with Rick? Get him teeth-gritting mad:

In trying to deal with this, Daryl has shown the patience of a saint:

After launching a Facebook group to try to preserve the nutty WALKING DEAD and Z NATION communities from the Internet Movie Database after IMDb discontinued its message-board system, I've been creating more TWD imagery than usual, the stuff people like to pass around Facebook. This season saw an uptick in Rickless eps, for example:

Sometimes, the ridiculousness of the show really begins to wear on the actors:

In a candid moment, Rick evaluates the 7th season:

Pretty much says it all.


Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, April 3, 2017

The First Day of the Rest of THE WALKING DEAD's Life

There's a great moment in tonight's season finale of THE WALKING DEAD. When the rubbish-tip-dwelling Garbage People arrive at the Safe Zone ready to do battle with the Saviors, they're traveling in--what else?--a fleet of garbage trucks! It's a small moment, offered, as all good comedy should be, without undue note. Though the show up to it had been pretty rough going, it gave me a good laugh and for an instant--just an instant[1]--I even entertained the thought that maybe TWD would pull off something it has never managed: a good season ender. Alas, it wasn't to be. "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life" ultimately belongs in the same pile as the rest of the series' lackluster finales.

Last week, Rosita brought Dwight back to the Safe Zone. He's distraught over the loss of his wife and wants to kill Negan. As one of the villain's inner circle, this would seem a simple matter but Dwight has ambitions; he wants to entirely overthrow the Saviors. Negan, he reveals, is bringing a bunch of soldiers to the Zone the next day. He pitches to Rick a plan whereby the Alexandrians and their allies can ambush and kill Negan and his men, appropriate their vehicles, return to the Sanctuary and wipe out the central Savior command-post. After that, it would just be a matter of taking out the outlying outposts one at a time.

Negan is coming to the Safe Zone on a punitive expedition after learning of Rick's scheming against him, which raises a rather significant question: How did Negan learn of this? Immediately, one must consider the possibility of a rat in the house (or one of the other houses). Solely because it would spoil the ep's big "plot twist" later, Rick never even asks. With a cooperative top Savior turncoat in his hands, he doesn't ask much of anything else either. How many Saviors are there? Where are they? Are there other communities they have under their thumb? Dwight could be a liar, of course, but Rick never asks any of this. He trusts Dwight enough to go with Dwight's plan and, being the Great Leader he's always been, never puts into motion any back-up plan of his own.

Fighting the Saviors requires guns and bodies. Rick, showing more of those leadership skills, went out of his way to entirely alienate a large community of potential allies just last week. He doesn't know the Kingdom has decided to fight--and doesn't bother to send an emissary there to appraise Ezekiel of the current situation either--but he does have Hilltop on his side and when he learns the Saviors are coming the next day, he doesn't bother to call them in, instead having Jesus tell Maggie and her people to stay out of it! Rick knows the do-or-die stakes--at one point, he tells Daryl that if Dwight is lying, "this is already over"--but of his allies, he relies only on the Garbage People.

All of this is arbitrary plotting with later "twists" in mind.

Dwight and a group from the Safe Zone drive out to put some trees across the road in order to slow down Negan's convoy. Why not just hit them while they're on the road? A quick ambush, trap them, take them out, with minimal risk to all involved. It doesn't make any sense to risk the Safe Zone itself. The final battle seems to take place at the Safe Zone for no other reason than that it's an existing set, and thus a cheaper place at which to shoot.

Meanwhile, Negan thinks he's recruited Sasha to his cause. She insists that if she joins him, he can only kill one from the Safe Zone. She spends the ep riding with Negan's convoy inside a coffin he intends to fill with whoever he decides to kill, herself dying from the poison she's taken and experiencing flashbacks of new material intended to fix past plot idiocies.[2] Sasha was ready to get herself killed over the death of Abraham, a fellow with whom she'd only just started a relationship when he was killed, so there's a tender moment with him from the day he died in which she said she'd had a dream in which he'd died. In its aftermath, she wanted him to stay in Alexandria. He, of course, refused and that led to his death. Last season, while the Safe Zone was threatened by dangerous foes, she, Abraham and all of the rest of its best fighters insisted on leaving it virtually defenseless in order to gratuitously accompany Maggie to Hilltop to see the doctor;[3] the flashback lamely attempts to justify why both she and Abraham went along.

When the Saviors arrive at the Safe Zone, the Garbage People betray our heroes, turning their guns on Rick and co. and revealing they'd cut a secret deal with Negan. Negan dramatically drags out that coffin he brought along and when he opens it to reveal Sasha, she's now dead and, Sonequa Martin-Green's spirit having already departed for the new STAR TREK series, zombified[4]--tries to eat him. Coral takes advantage of the confusion to shoot some Garbage People, everyone goes for their guns (the Garbagers never disarmed anyone after getting the drop on them) and a big firefight ensues. Though it doesn't make a great deal of sense (a consequence of some bad directorial and editorial decisions), the Saviors quickly win and have Rick and the rest on their knees again. Rick talks tough to Negan, reiterating his intention to eventually kill the villain, whatever it takes. Negan is about to bash in Coral's head when, at the very last second, both the Hilltoppers and the Kingdom arrive in force and attack!

Ezekiel and the contingent from the Kingdom had coincidentally been on the road, heading to the Safe Zone to seal an alliance, but though they have vehicles, they'd been traveling on foot, which, of course, doesn't make any sense at all--more arbitrary stupidity the writers employ to keep them at bay until the right moment. On the other side of the world, Maggie had coincidentally opted to defy Rick's orders and bring the Hilltop force into the fight. Both the Kingdom and the Hilltop coincidentally arrive at exactly the same time and, also coincidentally, this is just in time to stop Negan from killing Coral and to save the day.[5]

In the end, the Saviors are decisively beaten but Negan and some of his key people manage to jump in a truck and escape. Though he's in a ponderous military vehicle and would be easily caught, the writers never have any of our heroes pursue him and take him out. He rides away while flipping off 25 people with fully automatic weapons and no one jumps in a vehicle and runs him down. The people already on horseback don't even pursue him very far beyond the Safe Zone gate. He's just allowed to drive away and begin organizing his forces for war.

At the end of last season, I wrote:

"Season 6 has crept along at a pace that makes snails look like Indy contenders. This has been the most filler-packed season of TWD since the Mazzara era, to the point that most of what we're shown just feels like something ginned up and tacked on to delay events until something else happens down the line."

This season has, in this respect, been even worse. Entire eps that add nothing but running-time, large sections of other eps that do the same, practically every scene allowed to go on and on, scenes that often didn't go anywhere the first time nevertheless repeated, repeated, repeated. After the season opener, the course of action for our heroes couldn't have been clearer: begin stashing weapons and supplies, searching for allies and planning to oppose the intolerable rule of the Saviors. But because that would preclude wasting half the season on filler material, Idiot Plot Syndrome--another of TWD's constant plagues--reared its head. Rick's decision to fight back, it was decreed, had to be the beat on which the half-season ends, so everyone gets stupid and we get a string of single-line-item "plots" padded to fill the time. We get an entire ep of Daryl in a closet. An ep in which the Saviors loot the Safe Zone. With days to prepare for this, Rick hadn't hidden a thing and even had a complete manifest of all of the Alexandrians' guns, so Negan's men can be sure they'd confiscated all of them.

The rest of the season fares no better. Narrative problems, holes, cheap gimmicks, Idiot Plot Syndrome gone wild. Even after the fan outcry against the stupid Glenn dumpster-dive "death" last season, the writers threw in a fake-out Rick "death" and tonight, a fake-out Michonne "death." While an entire 7A ep expended on slooowly introducing the Oceanside community suggested it was going to play a significant role in what was to come, that role was limited to being a source of guns; the Alexandrians, absent any apparent self-awareness, show up like a pack of Saviors and rob it blind, taking not even so much as an Oceanside character along with them to justify the inclusion of that community in this season. But including it did allow the writers to eat up the better part of another 2 eps, which seems to have been the only point. The Saviors visit Hilltop, the same moments repeated. The Kingdom meeting with the Savior delegation, tensions ensue, repeat. Carol, droopy-faced, entirely out of character, declaring she just can't fight--repeat, repeat, repeat. Eugene spent last season becoming crazy brave, the writers forget this ever happened and revert him to his prior cowardice. Maggie assumes leadership of the Hilltop community and a few eps later, the writers forget this ever happened.[6] Morgan's character arc from season 6 was consigned to a Memory Hole then repeated.

For all the time spent on Carol this season, her awful "storyline," if one wants to dignify it with the word, didn't go anywhere. A few weeks ago, I noted that, having created a strong, capable Carol who does what has to be done, the writers have repeatedly come up with ways to write her out of the action, as if they see such a competent character as a problem for their poorly-constructed plots. This awful 4.0 version has been with us since back well into the previous season. She learned what the Saviors did with her friends, realized she had to fight, packed up her gear... and that's pretty much it. She got one small scene on tonight's ep. In the aftermath of the Safe Zone shoot-out, no one even acknowledged her, though she's been gone from the Zone for some time. Morgan gets the same treatment; for all the time spent on taking him through exactly the same arc as last season, just gets one very brief scene--the same scene as Carol.

The writers wasted incredible amounts of time this year on filler then, with the second half of the season, tried to suddenly jam in a bunch of often-paradigm-shifting elements that, in a competently-written series, would have been introduced over the full season. While the writers struggled every week to fill the time they have, this season, like last, also featured many extended eps, the point of which just seems to be to squeeze in as many ads as possible--to keep milking the dying cow right into its grave. Tonight's ep ran nearly 90 minutes as well. This just makes the underwriting problem worse.

Several prominent moments of Z NATION-inspired zaniness peppered throughout the season were a welcome change. The insane "zombie lawnmower" sequence from "Rock In the Road" was the highlight of not only this season but of the last few. The Mad Max-ian Garbage People were a real hoot but once they were introduced, the writers did practically nothing with them (the characters only seem to be present for Rick to credulously trust them then be betrayed by them). That's really the biggest problem with these imported elements; not enough of them. Whenever one has appeared, it has seemed entirely out of place in the world of TWD, a bizarre, tonally dissonant turn of events dropped in from another (and very different) show, which is, of course, exactly what it is. Longtime TWD fans who have found something to love in the regular plodding, awful soap melodrama direction of the series have every right to be appalled by them. But these elements work, at a time when none of TWD's native elements do.



[1] It was immediately followed by another funny moment when Jadis, the Garbage leader, asks Michonne if Rick is hers. Michonne notes they're together. Jadis: "I lay with him after. You care?" The confounded looks by both Rich and Michonne at this are priceless.

[2] They're also an example of some other long-running TWD nonsense. Killing well-established characters that have developed a fan following is risky business in television. Until this season, TWD has always avoided those risks. The usual practice for well-established characters marked for death is to demonize them so that viewers weren't so sad to see them go. This season, the creators showed some backbone on this point for the first time by liquidating Glenn without first making a jerk or villain of him. And their ratings crashed--probably won't ever be any more of that. TWD's redshirts, on the other hand, are always expendable, and this is the category into which Sasha fell. The redshirts are kept sketchy and ill-defined until they're about to be destroyed, at which point they're suddenly thrust into the spotlight, given something to do at the last minute to try to make audiences care about them so that their death can have some impact. Just not much impact. Enough to milk for soap melodrama and/or shock effect.

[3] Like some of the plotting in this ep, this was done for no other reason than to have all of those characters present when Negan appears.

[4] This, like so much else that happens, is a culmination of absurdly fortuitous coincidences. When Eugene gave her the poison, he couldn't tell her exactly how long it would take or even if it would work at all but for everything to play out as it did, the poison had to kill her and in less time than the drive to the Safe Zone, no one could check on Sasha while she was in the coffin (which becomes even more ridiculous when the convoy is stopped by trees over the road and everyone has to wait until its cleared) and she has to have time to reanimate--something that can take minutes to hours--before Negan opens the coffin.

[5] One need only imagine how much better this would have played if, when Negan was pronouncing sentence on Rick, Rick told him he had a little surprise for him and then these forces, acting as part of a coordinated Rick back-up plan of which the viewer was unaware, appeared and mopped up the villains. Instead, the writers go with a deus ex machina and Ezekiel gets to lead the charge.

[6] As of tonight, Gregory has finally gone to the Savior compound to tell Simon about Maggie and her scheming, something the show has been absolutely plodding in putting in motion. In my article last week, I made a joke that at this pace, Gregory "should get there by about the fourth ep of the next season." Tonight's ep acknowledged Gregory had departed; we'll have to see when he turns up at the Sanctuary. Another subplot on which a great deal of time was spent but that didn't go anywhere.

Unrelated Musical Interlude Dept. - This is the latest audio concoction by my friend Sarah Cummings (who is a goddamn awesome singer) and her brother. They're looking to get some attention for it. Check it out. And if you like it and are of a mind, pass it around:

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, March 27, 2017

Something THE WALKING DEAD Needs Is Better Writers

Ladies and Gentleman, let's get ready to ruuuuummmmble!!!!! Presenting the main event of the evening. AMC and the King of Bum Steers, No-Wiser, presents "Something They Need," the latest installment of THE WALKING DEAD! In this corner, Filler Material! Ludicrously overextended, repetitive and tedious scenes that add little more than running-time to the proceedings. And its opponent in the red corner, Idiot Plot Syndrome! Stories that are dependent upon every character behaving like a complete imbecile and that reduce the proceedings to clueless half-wits randomly crashing into one another without real rhyme or reason! Which of TWD's deadly faults will dominate? Refereeing tonight's event, in this, his 93rd TWD article, J. Riddle!

After the cold opening, Filler came out slugging; Maggie is explaining gardening to the Hilltoppers, who, by all indications, were gardening just fine before she came along. Sasha, after her ill-advised one-girl attack on the Savior compound, has been captured and stuffed in that dreaded closet, the one we've already seen over and over again this season. About half of tonight's ep was set there as well. Negan decides he likes Sasha, as happened earlier in the season with Daryl, Carl and Eugene, and tries to seduce her into coming over to his side, repeating material we've already seen at length with Daryl, Carl and Eugene.[1] Then Sasha tries to manipulate Eugene into bringing her a weapon, on the pretense that she wants to kill herself when she's actually planning to kill Negan. He spoils her fun by bringing her a fairly worthless poison capsule.

Idiot Plot Syndrome fights back hard. Tara previously revealed to Rick the existence of the well-armed Oceanside community, which had been horribly mistreated by the Saviors. The bulk of the rest of the ep is devoted to what Rick does with that information. Rick is going to war and needs warm bodies for the fight. His plan for getting Oceanside to join him in this endeavor is the sort of masterstroke of diplomacy one expects from a great leader like Rick: he sends Tara to take its boss-lady Natania hostage at gunpoint and to announce that the Alexandrians will be arriving shortly to take all their guns! But you ladies can join us if you like. And it gets even better. When the Alexandrians appear, they actually attack the Oceansiders, using up many of the very few explosives they have to terrorize these already-terrorized women into submission. The explosives bring a horde of zombies from a beached ship nearby and Rick and co. have to fight them off.[2] Their decision to do so via weapons set to fully-automatic fire scores some additional body-blows against Filler; while it looks all kewl and stuff on camera, it makes even more noise and wastes large amounts of precious ammunition. The zombie attack was just thrown in to spice up the ep with some more action but it does underscore how dangerous this world can be. If our heroes' attack on Oceanside wasn't Savior-like enough, Rick and co. do, indeed, cart off all of the communities' weapons, leaving it defenseless in the face of that world. There's no negotiation, no real pitch for the cause. A great way to make lots of new enemies. Fortunately, the same writers are penning the Oceansiders. Some of the women want to join the fight. Natania refuses rather adamantly. Cyndie, the sympathetic girl who helped Tara escape earlier in the season, says "Some of us do [want to fight] but not all of us, and it has to be all of us." If that makes any sense to you, well... you know how this sentence ends. None of them join up.

Filler fights back with a minor subplot involving Gregory at Hilltop. The last time we saw Gregory, it was pretty clear he was going to go to Savior Simon and try to get the Maggie stone from his shoe. In this ep, he still hasn't done it, so we get to waste some more time on it. After Maggie saves his life from a zombie--some Idiot Plot Syndrome counter-punching here--he finally decides to set off to see Simon. At this pace, he should get there by about the fourth ep of the next season.

At the end of the fight, it's Irish rules--the ref gets to call it. Both the lads put up a furious battle. Neither deserves a hand. While I call the fight a draw, there is a clear loser:

The audience.



[1] Negan wouldn't be able to maintain any loyalty with this behavior. Daryl, Carl and Sasha liquidated multiple Saviors and his response was to try to recruit them. How well are the other Saviors going to accept new recruits who killed their buddies. Why would anyone be faithful to a leader who, upon seeing his loyal followers killed, seeks to reward their killers?

[2] The waterlogged zombies are actually one of the only good points about the ep; they're very EC Comics in their design. Stylized and ghoulish.

ADDENDUM (27 March, 2017) - Something I forgot to mention: the writers, last night, tried to retroactively plug some of the narrative problems they'd created. As I've noted here in the past, Eugene's story arc from last season was entirely erased and he was reverted back to a sniveling coward. In this ep, he offered a revisionist take on this, explaining that his heroism in the previous season amounted merely to when he was driving the RV "into the sunset" at the end of the last season but then were frightened so badly, he realized that was folly and reverted to type. That is, of course, not what happened. It was actually a story arc that played out throughout the prior season in which Eugene fundamentally turned a corner and became rather crazily brave, even in the face of death. Apparently, someone on the writing staff finally remembered part of this.

Twitter: @jriddlecult