Sunday, March 2, 2014

WALKING DEAD Still Kicking

Last week, the only thing some of you fear more than a new episode of THE WALKING DEAD came to pass: an episode of THE WALKING DEAD without an accompanying article by me! My email and private messages veritably overfloweth with concern. I appreciate the response, and the many kind words do wonders for my ego--I thank you all. I'm sort of a captive audience for TWD, and the weekly articles when it's in season have, at various times, become very much a discipline for me, something I do to prove I can do it, but test of iron will or no, I don't write about something when I don't feel I have anything interesting to say about it.

That's what happened last week. I watched the episode ("Claimed"). It featured a very good suspense sequence wherein a battered, unarmed Rick was trying to escape detection by a gang of faceless marauders who decided to hole up in the same house in which he was resting. There were a few other noteworthy moments, mostly small. By TWD standards, it was, if for the suspense sequence alone, a pretty good ep. I just found, at the end of it, that I didn't have anything to say about it. Response to my last three TWD articles has been way down, I've been working toward a much more interesting series of articles on the recent BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series, and I just took a break. And yes, it was with an eye toward maybe leaving the TWD subject for good.

Just when I thought I was out...

Given the amount of grief I've given TWD over the years, there's simply no way I can forgo some remarks on tonight's offering. The writer of record for "Still" is Angela Kang. Prior to this season, she'd been one of the weakest links in a whole string of weak links that made up the TWD writing staff--some of the worst of the worst of the inanity that was TWD season 2 and 3 went out under her name. Seeing it affixed to an upcoming ep, one expected less than nothing from it, and no matter how low one set one's expectations, the ep still managed to be utterly underwhelming. From her output this season, one can only conclude she was either being totally smothered by then-showrunner Glen Mazzara, is presently under the heavy influence of current showrunner Scott Gimple, has seriously come into her own as a writer, and/or just started winning a string of bets she's previously lost. Whatever the case may be, she authored, earlier this season, "Infected," easily one of the best episodes of TWD since the 1st season, and tonight, she's done it again. "Still" is an excellent ep, perhaps the single best ep of this uneven season, which makes it one of the best TWD has ever done.

Kang brought her A-game again, all the strengths of Gimple's "reform" TWD, very few of its weaknesses, and even less of the Mazzara-era detritus that has so frustratingly clung to the series this season. Daryl and Beth are still on the run in the aftermath of the fall of the prison. The ep begins with an excellent suspense piece in which, pursued by the dead through the night, they have to hide in the trunk of the remains of a car until the herd passes. The next day, Beth decides she needs a drink. Not just any drink. Her father, the ex-drunk, disapproved of liquor and she's never touched the stuff. Now he's dead, the world looks bleak, and she's after her first taste.

And that's the story, Beth and Daryl crossing the zombie-infested countryside in search of some booze. It's a character-piece, something TWD, lost in soap melodrama-ism, virtually never attempts and at which it even more rarely succeeds. Beth has been a virtual non-entity for most of TWD's run, the girl in the background who watches the baby and sometimes sings a song. Her only real moment in the sun came in a season 2 ep in which she attempted suicide--a tale, like most of season 2, that is best forgotten. Tonight put a little flesh on her bones, both good and bad, and finally gave Daryl something to do--for perhaps the single most popular character on the show, he's surprisingly been quite sparsely featured this season. The ending of the evening's proceedings was nothing short of epic--for the first time since TWD began, it made me want to stand and applaud. This is what TWD should be.[*]

My one serious reservation about the ep may not turn out to be a reservation at all. While she chattered away at a frequently unresponsive Daryl, Beth seemed to be speaking in metatextual fashion to the viewing audience, repeatedly trying to justify her presence in the series. As I've so often complained here, TWD, under Mazzara, made a terrible cliché of telegraphing character deaths. It seems like the only time a TWD redshirt can get any camera-time is on the verge of their death. If this showcase on Beth turns out to be merely a set-up for her death, it will cheapen and ruin the impression left by "Still." Like the other good eps of this season, it should chart the future of TWD, not be reduced to a cheap stunt reflective only of previous bad habits.

Time will tell which it will be.

--j.

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[*] I've repeatedly argued TWD's creative team should learn to go with what works and not worry about servicing the big, pretentious Theme around which they've crafted much of their season. Tonight's ep was a good example both of doing so and of the benefits of the approach.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the best episodes of TWD that wasn't a season finale. Maybe someone on the staff has come to the realization that an audience can't care about characters that are just a name and a face. Finally they are giving the audience a reason to care about the characters, alive or in their deaths. Characters defined by real dialogue and meaningful action and not by ridiculous melodrama while they commit illogical behaviour and personality shifts just to further poorly constructed episodes. Actual characterization in TWD, I am speechless. Burning down the shanty was almost poetic, and Daryl smiling as he walked by the camera was a great touch too.

You know TWD has become predictable when a red shirt like Beth gets dialogue and screen time, and all I could think was that she was going to be taken out by the end of the episode. Since that's TWD usual modus operandi. It's nice to find out TWD may actually be able to surprise me after all. I really hope this is a turning point in the series, so such writing in the future doesn't surprise me, but instead, becomes the norm.

lebeau said...

I am really shocked to see you liked this episode. I thought it was the worst of the bunch since the mid-season. I didn't buy into a single moment of it. The goal was to be character-driven. But every note felt forced to me. There's nothing worse than when TWD goes for a character study and misses the mark. That was the case here.

Obviously, mileage may vary. In this case, it appears to have varied quite a bit.

cinemarchaeologist said...

@Anon, it remains to be seen whether this was just a set-up for Beth's death. Recall that Hershel's death was set up in one episode then carried out in the next. I don't really care if Beth lives or dies, but it kills this episode if it turns out it was just a set-up for smoking her next week.

@lebau, yours seems to be a common reaction. I don't agree, though. A good, simple story that ends up embracing a healthy, "fuck this" attitude toward life in the zombie-verse, some good character moments, and minimalistic dialogue; I think it's one of the best eps they've ever done. And fully expect to be crucified by my regulars for it! Do you think the impression you got of it being "forced" came from the obvious metatextual content of the dialogue (Beth trying to rationalize her continued existence)?

Max Headroom said...

On an intellectual level, I can see how "Still" could be a game changer for the show (unless Beth dies soon). But actually watching the episode last night, I couldn't help cringing. It seemed so forced and artificial when Beth decided she needed her "first drink".

Thinking about it now, I would say the biggest problem wasn't so much the episode's concept or the dialogue. For me I think it was just too weird for Emily Kinney (29 yo this year) to be saying those words. Beth being in her late teens works when she remains in the background. But last night, where she was center stage, suspending disbelief was difficult.

lebeau said...

The metatextual stuff didn't help.

I checked out of the episode pretty early on. Daryl being extra violent to country club zombies because he's po' white trash? Ugh. Beth deciding that she needed to risk her life and Daryl's for her first drink? Groan. Getting Daryl drunk (and they both got drunk mighty fast even considering they were drinking moonshine) and then playing a game that was designed to piss him off just so we could have an emotional confrontation? Hack writing in my book. Every one of Beth's "I nevers" was designed to escalate the tension. I was rolling my eyes and checking my watch.

But obviously this is subjective. If it worked for you, then the episode did its job. I was expecting to come here and read about Mazara-era soap opera because that's how it played to me.

Durruti said...

As someone who's just exiting his teenage years the whole situation seemed extremely realistic. At this point Beth just wants to feel something, and having a drink is the perfect way to do that. Plus the pace they got drunk at seems pretty viable, since Beth's tolerance is super low, and Daryl's probably is too since it's been awhile since he had a drink.

And about each "I Never" purposefully escalating the tension, I'd agree, but that's not bad writing. In fact, it plays in perfectly with Beth's character and actions throughout the show. Throughout the show before the "I Never" game she was trying to get Daryl to show that he wasn't completely disconnected. She did that in the camp, in the golf club, and elsewhere.

@jriddle I feel like the metatextual could go one of two ways. One: they kill off Beth (and I would not be happy). Two: it is the beginning of a Beth that is much more important as a character, and last night was an "introduction" of sorts.