Monday, March 25, 2013

This Sorrowful WALKING DEAD

The writer of record on this week's installment of THE WALKING DEAD was Scott Gimple, who will be next season's TWD showrunner. "This Sorrowful Life" is very much a mixd bag, bit it has a head up on much of the rest of TWD in that it not only has something to say but has something to say that's worth saying.

Two week ago, TWD wasted an episode on a completely ridiculous "peace conference" between Rick and GINO. The writers had done nothing to establish any reason for the characters to talk. GINO's substantial crimes against Rick's people--kidnapping, terror, torture, murder--had been entirely unprovoked, nothing more than the determined whim of a madman. Not only was there no reason for Rick to do anything but shoot GINO on sight, there was every reason to do just that, and no rhyme or reason in doing anything else. When, mere moments into the proceedings, GINO made it clear he was only there to accept the prison group's surrender, anything less than a hail of bullets into GINO's brain amounted to a character assassination of Rick. In the midst of the staring contest that followed, which didn't include any hail of bullets, the writers threw in a subplot in which Merle, back at the prison, argued the group needed to trek to the meeting and kill GINO while they could. He tried to get the others to go along with him. His idea was presented as stupid and was violently vetoed.

That's how you know TWD's writers don't want you to think about something--they put it in the mouth of a Designated Villain character. They did the same thing last season. As the search for Sophia had dragged on well past the point there was much chance of ever finding her alive, it was becoming dangerous to continue. The idea of calling it off needed to be soberly considered. Instead, the writers put that sentiment in the mouth of Shane, who, by then, they'd turned into a cartoon villain. Rather than getting a fair hearing, one that could lead to a tough call that could alienate the viewing audience, the idea was made merely the devious thought of a heartless villain. Two weeks ago, the writers realized the entire premise of their present episode--the abjectly pointless "peace conference"--was a non-starter, and were trying to self-servingly justify it by making the idea of simply eliminating GINO an emanation of the brain of a dumb, villainous hick.

Way back in my original article on TWD, I wrote:

"TWD would be a difficult property for most commercial television outlets. It's a very dark story, set in a bleak, unforgiving, relentlessly dangerous world that, on a regular basis, forces tough decisions on its characters, the kind that could utterly alienate a mainstream television audience."

In season 2, the writers used Shane to get around this. Once he was reduced to cartoon villain-hood, he was made to solve all of the manufactured moral dilemmas on which the writers spent the season, keeping the tough calls out of--and the consequent blood off of--the hands of our heroes. He dealt with their problems, then, as a designated villain, could, himself, be eliminated with no muss and no fuss.

"This Sorrowful Life" makes a plot-point of addressing this way of doing business. Appearing, at first, to continue it, the episode ends up refuting it. It's a direction that's definitely commendable. The getting there is a bit too TWD to earn unalloyed applause, though.

These days, GINO wants to lay his vengeance upon Michonne, and offered to let the prison group live if they'd turn her over to him. It was a bullshit offer, and there was absolutely no reason to believe he wouldn't, upon receipt of Michonne, just kill everyone anyway. Rick knows this and says as much, and, of course, immediately decides to turn her over anyway.

Those who have been paying attention will immediately realize that the creators wouldn't, under any circumstances, ever allow anything like that to happen. Michonne had proven herself a valuable addition to the group, and had stood with them even after they'd treated her rather badly. A consistently-written Rick wouldn't have even considered such an offer, but then, again, neither would he have suffered a GINO to live. As I've noted many times, there is no "character development" on TWD. There are barely even any characters. Those who serve the function of characters are, at no point, conceptualized as human beings. They are, instead, written as being whatever the script for the week requires them to be, without regard for who they were the week before or will be the week after. Rick's entertaining of GINO's offer was a return of the spineless, indecisive idiot version of Rick the writers had invented and arbitrarily imposed back in season 2, a Rick that should have never existed at all, and certainly a Rick the current Rick should be well beyond. He returns because he's the only version pathetic enough to engage with this ridiculously phony moral dilemma of handing over Michonne. The mechanics of TWD absolutely forbid him from this course of action, which makes the entire exercise one of merely burning through screen-time, but the attitude in the writer's room seems to be that the screen-time has to be filled by something, that they don't have anything better, and that they aren't going to trouble themselves to come up with anything, either.

The reappearance of season 2 Rick also, it turns out, signals a revisiting of that season's theme of questioning Rick's leadership. Rick keeps GINO's offer a secret from the larger group. He brings Hershel and Daryl in on his plot to turn over Michonne. Both are abjectly opposed to the notion, but, proving themselves moral cowards, go along with Rick anyway. It's when Rick turns to Merle as his fourth conspirator that things get interesting.

Merle understands the metatextual "rules" of TWD; he knows Rick turns to a Designated Villain like him to do his dirty work, and knows Rick can't be allowed to be responsible for such a terrible thing, so, while agreeing to help, he jumps the gun and takes matters into his own hands--he kidnaps Michonne himself, with the intent of taking her to GINO. It makes no real sense for Merle to do this, as he knows better than Rick that giving up Michonne won't deter GINO. For the ep to work, one just has to go with that part of it.[1]

On their way to the rendezvous with the forces of Woodbury, Merle and Michonne start to talk. At first, it's a rehash of Shane's litany. Rick is too tender-hearted. He won't do what it takes to keep his people safe, and would back out of this deal. It takes a bad dude like Merle to git 'er done. But then, as an intelligently-written Michonne[2] conjures some thoughts that become a needle beneath his skin, things start to change. For the first time, Merle steps out of the background, is given some depth, and becomes an almost interesting character. Careful observers of TWD know what that means. It would be nice to report that, for once, TWD broke with the cliché, but the telegraph, unfortunately, tells the tale yet again--Merle's emergence from unidimensional villainous redneck-ism signals only his impending death.

Before things get that far, though, there's the rest of a tale to tell.

Back at the prison, Rick does, indeed, have a change of heart. He just can't make himself do such a terrible thing.

Shocking, right?

But by the time he gets off his pot, Merle has absconded with Michonne, and it may be out of his hands. He gives what I'm sure Gimple and the other writers felt was an effective, impassioned speech to the group about his own leadership failures. In practice, it's yet another of TWD's usual ludicrous, overblown orations, delivered, by Andrew Lincoln, with an air of grand pomposity as if he was addressing throngs of faceless followers, rather than just the handful of intimates actually present. "We're the reason we're still here"--an actual line from it. He was wrong, he says, not to tell them about GINO's offer, thus proving that he hasn't a clue as to where he actually went so terribly wrong in that matter. Democracy, he says, is restored. The "Ricktatorship" he declared at the end of season 2 is no more. Ding, dong, the witch is dead! Whatever. The significant part--and the part least likely to last--is that they're now going to take responsibility for their own actions.

Back on the road, Merle decides he's not going to do GINO's dirty work for him anymore. He cuts Michonne loose. He tells her to go back to the prison, that, to follow the cliché to a fault, he has something he needs to do first. That something, of course, is to redeem himself. He makes his way to the rendezvous with GINO with a zombie horde in tow and does something else Rick has been unwilling to do--starts kicking ass and taking names.[3] Unfortunately, the last name taken--written before he can kill GINO--is his own.

With its many inanities, it's impossible to call this a good episode, but it can't help but look better compared to the absolute garbage that has preceded it week after week. The repudiation of that habit of letting Designated Villains make the hard calls, even if (as I believe likely) it proves only temporary, was welcome. The ep does feature, mixed in with the usual rubbish, some better-than-TWD's-average dialogue, and some particularly solid work by Danai Gurira (Michonne) and Michael Rooker (Merle). As in "Clear," Gurira shows what a crime TWD's writers have committed in so badly mishandling Michonne. There's a real actress, there, and she deserves better. Rooker, the central focus of the episode, is just a rock-solid talent, and always has been. His time as Merle has always been an essay on how a talented actor can take nothing--the substance he's consistently been given by the writers--and turn it into something worth a moment of your time, and for all its other problems, this ep was definitely his high-point in the part.

--j.

---

[1] Is it possible that in some early version of the script, he may have taken Michonne in order to get her away from all of it, rather than to turn her over to GINO? One scene, wherein he uses her sword, strongly suggests he wants her to escape. It would have been a nice touch to have made this his intention, but there really isn't anything in the ep to support it beyond that one scene and the illogic of what he does.

[2] Gimple is the only one of TWD's writers who has ever written Michonne as anything more than a caricature.

[3] Merle shows some solid tactical thinking in his confrontation with GINO's thugs, and earlier in the ep, Michonne had, as well, pointing out that the prison can be made defensible by making it too costly a prize for any attacking force.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's WALKING DEAD Time Again

One of the most popular of my many articles about THE WALKING DEAD--presently, only a few hits away from becoming the most hit-upon article on this blog--was a piece I wrote about the series' many timeline problems. When it comes to constructing a standard linear narrative in which no exoticism in the use of time is intended, a coherent timeline is one of the most basic elements. As that original article made painfully clear, this is just another of the features of minimally competent storytelling ignored by TWD. "Prey," this week's unfortunate episode, has brought this issue to the fore again.

"Prey" begins in Woodbury, the morning after GINO's meeting with Rick in the previous episode. GINO has his thugs cleaning out an armory, preparing for war. After episode after episode of fence-sitting, Andrea finally decides to break with GINO and return to her former comrades. She slips out of town and hightails it for the prison at a full gallop. TWD has never established exactly how far the prison is from Woodbury, but only a few episodes ago, in "I Ain't A Judas," Andrea walked the distance in a short time while wrangling a zombie. So it ain't far. This week, Andrea leaves Woodbury, presumably fairly early in the day, and heads for the prison at a dead run. In the forest, she has a brief encounter with some of TWD's patented teleporting zombies, and as night starts to fall, has to detour into an old building to give a pursuing GINO the shake.

The "as night starts to fall" part would sort of say it all--she appears to have ran all day, but can't get to a prison that was previously established as a short walking distance--but it gets even worse, because after giving GINO the slip just after nightfall, it takes her the entire night and part of the next day to get to the prison. A large chunk of time, perhaps 20 hours or more, was simply made to disappear from the timeline.

This was a chronic problem in TWD season 2, and old habits, it seems, die hard.

I intended to write about this in my initial article on "Prey," but simply forgot about it. This is something that happens more and more often lately. The series wears on me, and it's hard to pay too much attention to it when its creators themselves pay so little. The other timeline issue with the episode was one I entirely missed. It was brought to my attention by "spectre." Not the terrorist org in Bond pictures, but a long-time comrade in TWD criticism over on the Internet Movie Database's TWD board. He notes that it's suddenly fall on TWD.

In my original article on TWD's timeline problems, written last year, I noted how, after having nearly the whole series set in the summer, the writers had tried, in the last few episodes of season 2, to shoehorn in the coming of winter. The characters started wearing jackets, the weather was colder, fall was definitely in the air. It was impossible to make this match the episode-by-episode timeline. Rick had awakened from his coma at a time when, the 1st season established, daytime temps were in excess of 100 degrees. Less than 3 weeks of storytime passed between then and the point at which the writers started trying to turn things into a deep fall, where the daytime temps made Carl visibly shiver and complain that he was "FREEZING!"

A little over eight months passed between season 2 and season 3. By the time TWD returned, dialogue established that Lori's pregnancy was overdue. If we assume that season 2 ended in October--and given the incompatibility of what was presented, the only reason to assume this is that the writers clearly wanted us to assume this was roughly where it was set at the moment they were writing it--that puts the beginning of season 3 at some point in June. The characters still had most of the summer before them.

The season 3 chronology isn't as tight as the earlier two seasons, but even by the most liberal estimate--say, that provided by the timeline at the Walking Dead Wiki--less than 3 weeks of story time have so far passed in season 3.[1] That would put events, as of this week's episode, in July, the hottest part of summer. Instead, "Prey" is clearly set in the fall, in October or November. Everyone is wearing jackets again, and the fall foliage is readily apparent, and blown over every road we see. Once again, months of time have simply been made to disappear.[2]

--j.

---

[1] And that's a very liberal timeline. It has the events of season 3 taking place over only 19 days (20, including the most recent ep). There are some serious problems with that. For example, the timeline assumes, without basis, that there are three days between the events of "Sick" and the initial encounter between Andrea and Michonne and the Woodbury gang in "Walk With Me"--this is pulled from thin air, and nothing on the show even suggests it. The timeline also assumes a further gap of five days between that and the events of "Killer Within," for a total of 8 days between "Sick" and "Killer Within." The problem, there (other than the fact that, again, nothing in the show even suggests it), is that the latter appears to be happening the day after "Sick." As it opens, the prison group hasn't even cleaned up the bodies of the zombies they'd killed in "Sick" (they're preparing to do so), and they're only just moving their vehicles on to the prison grounds. Did they really just hang around the prison for 8 days amidst reeking, rotting bodies in the heat of June while doing nothing at all? For the Wiki timeline to be accurate, the brainlessly vengeful prisoner Andrew, chased away in "Sick," would have to have survived for over a week outside the protection of the prison. Also in "Killer Within," Michonne inspects the military vehicles GINO captured and discovers the blood of the Guardsmen GINO killed in "Walk With Me," still fresh enough to be wet. That absolutely precludes 5 days having passed since the slaughter of the Guardsmen, and it seems pretty obvious that the later episode was originally meant to occur the day after "Sick," as is the custom on TWD. This conclusion is, however, complicated by a stray line by Oscar--perhaps inserted late in the script process and certainly clumsily--in which he says he and Axel had been hauling out the dead bodies from their cell block "all week." So it doesn't make any sense, but, as usual, the Wiki timeline errs on the side of (indefensible) generosity.

[2] The writers made a plot-point of the prison group's intention to use part of the prison grounds for planting crops. Eric Pallen, a reader who also noticed the radical time jump, notes that the sudden, inexplicable onset of fall means "they missed an entire growing season." Food and fresh water are, in a survival situation, the primary concern. Skipping a growing season is a huge deal, and should have a major impact on what happens as TWD goes forward. It won't.

Monday, March 18, 2013

THE WALKING DEAD Prey On Viewers

Forget Vanna White. A job on the writing staff of THE WALKING DEAD must be one of the best gigs in the world, for the money. Only the participants, their paymasters and perhaps the stray fly on the wall knows how much time the present team actually spent designing the ongoing third season of the zombie hit, but we can say, for certain, that a team of the least ambitious writers in the world could have put together this season's entire story arc in less than 5 minutes. TWD's premise sells itself, and once this realization allowed this theoretical team to dispense with trying for anything particularly challenging, complex, or, heaven particularly forbid, original, the rest would simply involve throwing together a bunch of awful, worn-out clichés from soaps and bad movies. They'd have the entire season arc in the can in less time than any one of them spent on the toilet before coming to "work," and the only difficulty, from that point forward, would be concocting the details of the filler needed to stretch the 3 or 4 episodes worth of plot they'd assembled thin enough that it ate up the full 16 episodes. As "Prey," this week's dreary TWD installment, further testifies, this season's story arc gives every impression of being assembled in just that way.

Nearly all of "Prey" is one extended chase scene. Andrea finally decides GINO is a treacherous menace, leaves Woodbury to return to the prison, and GINO pursues. And that's it. After an entire ep devoted to one of the least suspenseful screen chases in recent memory,[1] GINO catches her, brings her back, and we see her strapped to a chair in a torture chamber GINO had designed for Michonne. The end.

I write a lot about the wasted potential of TWD. A group of writers with talent who understood it and had an enthusiasm for it could turn it into an awesome storytelling machine. They'd generate more material at any given brainstorming session than could be used in multiple seasons. Squeezing it all into only 16 episodes would have been impossible, and deciding what to leave out a major challenge (and painful). Instead, we get the soap treatment--a few episodes worth of utterly unambitious, hack-work-level plot stretched to cover the entire season.  Shortly after Glen Mazzara was fired as showrunner, it was reported that his regime had provided such a sparsity of material, particularly in the second half of the season, that the show was running out of things to shoot, and production had to be repeatedly shut down because of it.[2] The last six episodes, which have featured only around a single episode worth of relevant plot, certainly attest to that. For a lot of this time, the TWD team was apparently just shooting anything it could, just to fill time.

Because the writers don't properly plot TWD, they're forced to employ a series of absurd contrivances in order to stretch out what little plot there is. This does an incredible amount of damage. The treatment of Andrea is probably this season's loudest example. She's been stuck in place the whole season. After she and Michonne are taken to Woodbury, Michonne begins to figure out there's something rotten about it and about GINO. She tells Andrea as much, and says they need to leave, but, because the "plot" calls for Andrea to stay in Woodbury, she never shares with Andrea any of the actual evidence she's accumulated, not even when directly asked. So Andrea won't leave. This repeats, then repeats, then repeats again, while both Michonne and the audience are shown something is very wrong with Woodbury. It makes Andrea look terrible. Then, when Andrea starts to realize Michonne was right, it's another holding pattern. Andrea sees GINO's private fish-tank of human heads and the zombified creature he kept on a leash in his closet. She sees GINO put Daryl and Merle in a death match. She's horrified, but she's stuck in Indecision Mode. She learns the extent to which GINO is a lying psychopath, and she's still stuck. In one ep, she starts to kill GINO in his sleep, but can't bring herself to do it--still stuck. In another, she just can't imagine going back to Woodbury after the "peace conference," then does it--still stuck. And so on. While the writers do these things just to drag out their perpetually underplotted story, the effect is that her character has been assassinated far more completely than if they'd just made her an outright villain. A viewer could at least enjoy a good villain. Through this, Andrea became a grown woman in her 40s who, even when it's a matter of life and death for perhaps dozens of people (including all of her living friends), just couldn't get over an utterly inexplicable school-girl crush on a raving, psychotic animal who shows evidence of not a single appealing characteristic. The effect was devastating, and her decision to finally break with him this week comes far too late.

No one is sitting around writing these sorts of things based on any sort of conceptual vision of the characters. Attributing to them these sorts of decisions isn't dictated by any effort at quality storytelling. It's all just a matter of doing whatever it takes to stretch underwritten material.

It's the same reason the prison group completely lost interest in most of their new home almost immediately after moving into it. Their decision to take it was dictated by survival concerns, but those concerns seemed to cease just as soon as they captured the one cell-block. The prison is a large complex, potentially full of useful equipment and material, but they confine themselves to a single suffocating section of it.[3] In addition to a spacious and utilitarian home, the prison also offers a potentially great defensive position. Being a prison, its design would include the ability to lock down each section individually. With a little work, it could be turned into a death-trap for any invading force--a Hittite hive they could use to systematically destroy anyone trying to move through it, while fortifying various areas as hold positions. They could dig escape tunnels leading to the outside, and, for that matter, a network of tunnels and other covert means of moving about the grounds, creating hidden passages, false walls, and so on. No one in the group ever even discusses such things, and, in fact, they've left a huge, gaping hole in the rear of the place for a lot of the season. Not only have they not fixed it, they haven't even shown much interest in it. They learned about it after Tyreese and his group came through it, which is, itself, fairly damning--it means they never even surveyed the prison perimeter, even after the prisoners told them, early in the season, that the fence was down on the other side. This is a hole through which zombies pass, and our heroes simply allow these zombies to roam about most of their home. It's also a hole through which GINO could send a force that would help bury them.[4] The writers intend to use that hole and the zombies it allows in as a plot-point later, so everyone on the show itself just gets stupid for most of the season until that moment comes around.[5]

If TWD's writers were only to be judged as ordinary working guys and gals, I suppose it would be hard to fault them too harshly when it comes to this sort of thing. Times are tough. TWD has a premise that does sell itself, and will continue to do so for at least a while. It's a hell of a lot easier to spend a few minutes constructing, from a bunch of worn-out cliche's, a thin plot to stretch over the entire season than to spend long hours creating something original that would actually fill a season. There's no motive to put the kind of hard work into the project the latter would require--the pay would be exactly the same, and so would the ratings. So ride the gravy-train until people get wise and derail it, and if there is a twinge of shame in being paid so well for so little, salve one's conscious later. When one judges them as creators, though, what they've done is is a disgraceful waste of what could have been the finest project of their respective careers. I suppose the proper judgment lies somewhere in between. Readers will have to decide where.

--j.

---

[1] As usual, I watched the ep with a friend who likes the show, and the clichés were so heavy and so telegraphed that I was able to tell him exactly what was about to happen moments before it, indeed, did happen on four different occasions (but, to be fair, I missed on one).

[2] Unfortunately, this was overshadowed by salacious, tabloid-style "reporting" of rumors about TWD comic creator Robert Kirkman allegedly wanting Mazzara gone. Mazzara himself has cited "creative differences" with AMC as the reason for his departure. If the reporting about production shutdowns is accurate--and, given the last six episodes, that certainly seems to be the case--those "creative differences" could have just been the final straw.

[3] And, in fact, there's no real reason for the group to stay there after Woodbury became a problem. Part of this is further fall-out from the ill-advised decision to begin the current season eight months after the end of the last. The group spent those 8 months on the road, moving from place to place. We weren't shown how hard they had it, but what we can say, unequivocally, is that, at the end of that time, they were all in great shape, and no one had been killed or seriously injured. Their move into the prison was dictated by the idea that it would be a safe-haven, but keeping it has killed a few of them, now, and it has proven a horrible place where they live in filthy, cramped conditions, and now face a war with a madman bent on destroying them. In the comic, the prison was a great place where the group built a community. That's why the Governor wanted it. On tv, it's a dark, zombie-infested shit-hole, and they have absolutely no reason to stay there once GINO--who wants to destroy them in his tv incarnation solely because he's the designated villain--became a problem.

[4] Such a force could enter totally unobserved, because that section of the building isn't watched, and as long as it didn't give away its presence, it would have unlimited time to work its way to our heroes' living area. Once this team was in place and GINO places a larger force in front, our heroes would be Spam in a can--nowhere to run or hide.

[5] A few episodes ago, Glenn was in war mode, and, with Rick out chasing ghosts, was trying to get the rest of the group in action to prepare for an attack. He angrily noted that no one was on watch; subsequently, no one bothered to take a watch. He was trying to come up with a way to deal with that hole in the prison. He and Carl tried to survey the situation from inside, but there were zombies and they abandoned the effort. As Plan B, he was going to check out the hole by driving around the prison from the outside. Maggie, whom he wanted to accompany him, angrily slapped him away so she could lay on her bunk and do nothing at all. He set Carrol and Axel to putting up some barricades; they laughed and joked the whole time they plodded along, doing as little as possible and taking as much time as possible to do it. Hershel gave Glenn a lecture on how his hyped-up state was going to get hm killed. Glenn tried to get them to take their situation seriously, and the entire thing was written as if he was the one being a dick.

ADDENDUM (21 March, 2013) - To continue on that last thought (but somewhat outside the context of that footnote)... In the world of TWD, basic survival concerns should always be on the minds of all of the characters, but the writers act as if they resent this, and such concerns are routinely put into contexts that make them look inappropriate. Glenn, in that ep, was trying to get everyone to prepare for war, and he was presented as if he was being a jerk. Back in season 2, when the search for Sophia had become protracted and was endangering those taking part in it, the idea of possibly calling it off should have been soberly discussed. Instead, the writers put the idea in the mouth of Shane, who they'd turned into a cartoon villain (they made him the mouthpiece for other survivalist concerns as that season continued). Just last week, Rick and GINO had their "peace conference," and there was absolutely no reason for Rick to do anything except kill GINO on first sight. It would have solved all of their problems in an instant. Instead, the writers had Rick do his supine little sit-down with the psycho, and even seriously consider turning over Michonne, while putting the idea of using the encounter to kill GINO in the mouth of Merle, yet another cartoon villain.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Killing Time on THE WALKING DEAD

Nothing happened tonight on THE WALKING DEAD.

Again.

For 60 minutes, the creators of the series once again chose to dedicate nearly an entire episode of their season merely to killing time.

Episode title: "Arrow on the Doorpost"

The part that matters: Rick and GINO held a "peace conference" at a grainery. GINO made it clear, moments into it, that he was only present to accept Rick's surrender, not to negotiate. Toward the end, he offered a basis for a deal: he wants Michonne. Turn her over, and, he says, he'll let the prison group live in peace. And Rick returned to the spineless imbecile to which the writers had arbitrarily devolved him back in season 2.

Total plot progression: less than 5 minutes worth.

The other 55+ minutes: Filler.

The last 5 episodes, in fact, have collectively featured less than 1 episode worth of plot. In this regard, the writers seem intent on trying to break their season 2 record.

GINO makes his intentions very clear right from the beginning. The entire godawful storyline that has been this season could have been ended simply by Rick blasting GINO, and there's absolutely no reason why he wouldn't do that on  first sight of him. Rick has shown he'll kill problematic people without a moment's hesitation or second thought. He's the prison group's leader. His job is to look out for his own. GINO is a madman who, without any provocation, has already kidnapped, threatened, tortured, and murdered those Rick leads, knocked down the door to their home so every stray zombie can wander in, and tried to kill them all. Even sitting down with such a creature renders Rick weak, stupid, indecisive, and absolutely pathetic. He sat there with this arch-villain who threatens them all in arm's length, even after GINO makes it clear there's no point, lets himself be repeatedly insulted, and ends by telling GINO he'll think about giving over one of his own. And then does it, even while admitting such a "deal" is no deal at all.

I've often written about the tragically wasted potential of TWD. I've never felt this as heavily as I did tonight. The return of spineless Rick, after everything that has happened, is absolute garbage writing of the kind that has buried TWD, and actually made me angry. Something this awful shouldn't be able to get even that little bit of a rise out of me. Or maybe it should get a rise out of everyone who appreciates cinematic art. What a pathetic waste of space is TWD.

--j.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Geography of THE WALKING DEAD

A few days ago, I put together a post over on the Internet Movie Database about the geography of THE WALKING DEAD. In this week's episode, "Clear," Rick had revisited his hometown, and, consequently, there had been a lot of talk on the TWD board about exactly how far that town was from the prison at which our heroes are currently encamped. My post was an effort to disentangle some of the questions of geography, at least insofar as they could be disentangled. It led to a relatively productive exchange, which is a rare thing, indeed, for the TWD board these days. "Fabiopepper," a non-U.S. viewer of TWD, said it had helped clarify, for him, where the events depicted on the show were happening. That sounds like a more general vacuum that could use some filling, and, having a little time on my hands, I decided to expand on the discussion here. Even created a little map.

The big caveat to everything I'm about to do here is that TWD's creators do not, at times, seem to be using the real geography of the state of Georgia. They use the names of real places, and often seem to be referencing the actual locations, but there are exceptions, and the reader should keep that in mind.


One of those apparent exceptions occurs in the opening moments of the TWD pilot. Lincoln County police are in pursuit of a group of armed no-accounts, and request assistance from King County law enforcement. King County is a wholly fictional place where Rick and Shane live and work as sheriff's deputies. In the pilot, they get the request over the radio and go about setting up a roadblock to apprehend the fleeing felons. Just before the chase-in-progress gets to them, a radio dispatcher identifies its location as "2 miles west of Interstate 85." As you can see from the map, though, the real I-85 runs nowhere near the real Lincoln County, and county cops chasing anyone "2 miles west of I-85" would have been several counties out of their jurisdiction.

UPDATE (12 March, 2013) - IMDb poster "schatten42" points out that it was Linden, not Lincoln County police requesting assistance in this chase, and, upon review, he's correct. In making the map, I relied on captions that incorrectly recorded the dispatcher as saying "Lincoln County."

The incident does place King County as somewhere along I-85. If, that is, TWD's I-85 is meant to be the real I-85. During that message board exchange, "joeydoobs" noted that "Rubixcube10" had just referenced a new interview with Robert Kirkman in which the TWD creator said "I imagine that King County is always north of Atlanta..." So, to the extent that Kirkman can be taken as a reliable reference,[1] it's at least on the Lincoln County side of the state,and, in a non-zombie-infested world, relatively close to Atlanta, as there's only a little over 90 miles of road between there and where I-85 enters the state in the east.

In season 1, our heroes had made their camp at a quarry on the outskirts of Atlanta. In the episode "Wildfire," Rick makes his daily broadcast to Morgan in the morning and identifies their camp as "a few miles northwest" of Atlanta. Later, in that same ep, the characters, having decided to abandon the quarry, debate the merits of traveling to either Ft. Benning or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ft. Benning is initially rejected because it's "a hundred miles in the opposite direction." After the CDC literally blows up in their faces, though, they head to Benning. Somewhere along this trek, heading southwest out of Atlanta, they encountered Hershel's farm. The farm is overrun at the end of season 2, they drive for a while in an unknown direction, and set up a camp for the evening only a sort distance from the prison.

The series jumps 8 months between season 2 and 3, and we're told the characters have been moving around throughout that time, traveling in circles, apparently in a very small geographic area. They end up back at the prison. The prison's precise location isn't known, but season 3 establishes it's a relatively short distance from Woodbury. The real Woodbury, Georgia is in Meriwether County,  southwest of Atlanta. TWD's Woodbury may not be intended as the real one, but the real one is in the right place, and it doesn't seem any sort of leap to assume they're the same. Kirkman, in that interview, placed it "south of Atlanta."

Logic usually doesn't play a very big role in TWD, though. Viewers of this week's episode came away with the impression that Rick's hometown must be pretty close to the prison. They're using logic. The prison is threatened with a military strike from Woodbury, one that could come at any moment. Surely the characters--particularly the leader--wouldn't want to wander too far from it under those circumstances. At the same time, a trip of any real length is extremely dangerous in a world gone dead. Viewers quite reasonably concluded Rick's hometown must be pretty close to the prison, but that doesn't appear to be the case at all.

As Rick, Michonne, and Carl were driving to King County this week, they went past a sign someone had left beside the road informing an "Erin" that a group was trying to get to Stone Mountain. Stone Mtn. is slightly northeast of Atlanta, south of I-85. It isn't clear how much further the characters drove beyond that, but Kirkman says 'you're looking at maybe a maximum four, five hour drive" between the prison and Rick's home.

So with the group facing imminent annihilation, the characters drove that incredible distance through a zombie-infested Georgia. Every town through which they moved would have had gun stores and police stations ripe for looting, yet they ignored them all to try to collect guns from a police station from which Rick, himself, had already removed all of the guns back in the pilot.[2]

Only on TWD.

--j.

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[1] And that's quite questionable--Kirkman is the co-creator and owner of the TWD comic and, on paper, an executive producer on the series, but though he describes himself as intimately involved in the series' production, he's racked up quite a history of wildly inaccurate public comments about it that suggest he's not terribly involved and is only minimally aware of what's even happening with it.

[2] A few louder-than-observant posters have challenged the idea that Rick removed all of those guns. The pilot didn't offer an overview of the full contents of the police station's army cage, but we see that it's small, we see weapons have been stripped from it, Rick, upon evaluating it, says "a lot of it's gone missing," then later, in the third ep of season 1, tells everyone "I cleaned out the cage back at the station before I left."

Some have asserted this could just be hyperbole, that he may really only have meant he took all he could carry, seemingly forgetting that he had a police cruiser at the time, and could have filled it. Poster "Angel Angelus" points out the only way Rick's comment about cleaning out the cage wouldn't be a direct lie: "Maybe he means he swept and mopped it?"

To accept the premise of this weeks' ep--that there were still guns there--requires believing that Rick overstated things when he noted the cage had been picked over, and that he recognized the value of the guns (one of the most precious commodities in a zombie apocalypse) but is a cretinous imbecile who, with the ability to effortlessly transport everything, chose to leave a big cache of them behind for no reason at all, and that he intentionally lied to the others, without any conceivable motive for doing so.

It's too silly to take seriously anyone who would even suggest it.

The real reason--and the sole reason--Rick made that long, stupid trip to his hometown this week is because the writers wanted to engineer a reunion with Morgan. That's all.

Monday, March 4, 2013

THE WALKING DEAD Seeing Things Clearly

In the midst of a season that has ranged from worst to you-ain't-seen-nothin'-worst, THE WALKING DEAD pulled off something extraordinary tonight: an episode that was good and almost great. "Clear" doesn't have to clear any real hurdles to rightfully claim the crown of best TWD ep of this season to date ("Seed" was the only other installment that wasn't outright awful). Even burdened by many of TWD's chronic problems, it was clearly light-years ahead of anything we've gotten since the series' earliest days.

In the larger context of the series, it's essentially a filler ep, a side-story that once again comes up with a way to burn through another hour of the season without doing anything to advance the season's central plot. As the season's central plot really sucks, that's also the good news.

When Rick and co. took the prison earlier in the season, it was established that there was an armory somewhere near its grounds. The raid on it apparently happened off camera--the characters suddenly began carrying fully automatic weapons, set to full auto. That they've been using the weapons in this way implies a large stockpile of ammo and if such a stockpile exists, they've barely touched it. It could, of course, also just imply that they're idiots and one could cite this entire season and last to make that case. The stockpile is the charitable choice. I'm feeling charitable tonight. That's what a pretty good TWD ep can do.[*] Last week, in an effort to amp up the desperation of the situation at the prison, the writers began playing up the idea that our heroes were nearly out of ammo. That led, this week, to a mission to get more of it.[1]

Rick, Michonne, and Carl, in this search for guns and ammo, return to the town where Rick had worked and lived before the zombie outbreak. Entering the town police station, Rick is terribly upset to see that someone has gotten there ahead of them and has cleaned out the armory cage. His memory is apparently as short as that of the writers--Rick himself cleaned out that armory back in the pilot episode of the series.[2] So the entire story that follows is, as usual with TWD, built on an idiotic contrivance to get the characters to this particular town but given the ep's merits, this is, in the balance, a relatively minor gripe. The reason it's that town is because the centerpiece of the story is the return of Morgan, the fellow who, way back in the TWD pilot, found Rick when he was fresh out of his coma and wandering through a world gone dead.

Morgan has, unfortunately, gone a little squirrely since Rick saw him last. He fires on our heroes and has to be shot. Carl does the honors with his trusty Beretta but though Morgan is wearing heavy body-armor, which, in the real world, renders a Beretta's wimpy 9mm. little more than an annoyance, TWD's writers ludicrously render Morgan completely unconscious for an extended period, artificially dragging out their underplotted tale, as is their custom.

There's filler here. All tolled, "Clear" only features about half an episode worth of plot (and none of that is relevant to the season's overall story). This compares quite favorably to recent eps though--the previous three didn't, cumulatively, contain even that much--and the half-ep-buried-in-the-ep this week is pretty good, a tragic and atmospheric spotlight on this unforgiving world of the dead and on what the living have lost.[3] Other than the flaws already outlined, it's fairly well-told. There's some surprisingly good dialogue and character interaction. Michonne is finally made to look relatively human rather than the empty Angry Black Woman caricature she's been since she was first introduced. Our heroes blow past a traveler on the highway as the ep opens, never slowing down as he runs behind them and begs them to stop. His ultimate fate and their reaction to it displays a level of quality storytelling almost entirely absent from TWD. Warts and all, a lot of "Clear" provides some little hint of the caliber of tale it could offer every week in competent hands and reminds the viewer of the series' tragically squandered potential. Unfortunately, it's just a detour, and next week, things will probably just go back to being TWD.

--j.

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[*] UPDATE (5 March, 2013) - "MaxJets," a reader on the IMDb message board, has pointed out that, in "The Killer Within," the 4th episode of this season, a line of dialogue establishes that Rick and co. had found the prison armory cleaned out. Thanks for the correction, Max, and fill in this blank __________ with all jokes about my self-satisfied charitability.

[1] Last week, as an excuse to have the characters stand around the prison and yet again do nothing, the writers included a lot of paranoia about GINO posting snipers outside or blocking the roads from the prison; this week, no such concern.

[2] Two eps later, he explained "I cleaned out the cage back at the station before I left."

[3] That it's about anything at all would, alone, probably make it a cut above TWD's usual soap opera tripe.