Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Death & THE WALKING DEAD

One of the dynamics of mainstream television is that audiences almost invariably demand a relatively stable cast of characters who are likeable and/or in some way sympathetic. Before THE WALKING DEAD had ever aired a single episode, I was curious how commercial television would adapt a property in which the central characters are sometimes quirky in ways that would be considered quite unsafe for a mainstream audience, are often driven to do some pretty terrible things, and tend to regularly die under pretty horrible circumstances. TWD is, in general, a story where a lot of really horrible things happen on a regular basis, things a middle American audience would find quite unpleasant. If one wants a series to be liked, all of this is considered very dangerous territory to explore. It would take a show with a lot of guts to risk alienating an audience by putting such material before it.

Alas, for a show that so often showcases guts, TWD proved to be utterly lacking in this more metaphorical species of innard. It's a subject I covered in my first article on the series, and one I've covered repeatedly in my subsequent work.

In bringing TWD to television, gone was the sheepish, reserved beauty Carol who became creepily attached to people, suggested a three-way marriage with Rick and Lori, and, unable to find the love she so craved, eventually committed suicide in a particularly grisly fashion. Gone was the 20-something Andrea's relationship with a Dale four decades her senior. Gone was the boyfriend-snatching Michonne, who often had conversations and even arguments with voices in her head. Gone was the mercilessly sadistic Governor, who fed the living to zombies then watched them devoured with a satisfied smirk and who sexually tortured Michonne for days.

The sanitization of the original material has been relentless. When the writers wanted to make their Big Theme for season 4 the question of whether the characters could come back from the awful things this zombified world had forced them to do to survive, they ran into the problem that, due to the sanitization of the material throughout TWD's run, none of the characters had ever been made to do anything particularly awful. So Carol was reinvented as a dedicated survivalist. Not as a new and hopefully interesting evolution of the character but merely to give her some thin rationale for, in the service of that Big Theme, committing two utterly senseless murders in the name of "survival."[1] Earlier this season, TWD adapted the comic's cannibal storyline "Fear the Hunters." This was a tale that showcased how hardcore the group had become. "They're fucking with the wrong people," said Rick, in a line tv TWD also sanitized. In the original story, Rick and co. turned the tables on the cannibals and dealt them some of the roughest imaginable justice, slowly torturing them to death in exactly the way the cannibals had tortured their victims. On tv, Rick and co. just capture the cannibals and kill them on the spot.[2]

The area in which this attenuation of the original material reached its zenith is in tv TWD's treatment of the fates of its cast. Comic TWD has no mercy when it comes to its central characters; even your favorites can be and regularly are maimed and killed in horrible ways. Death strikes without warning. Boom! Someone who was alive a panel before is toast a panel later. The creators of tv TWD love to make the extravagant claim that on their show no one is safe, but the truth is that the brutal, unforgiving, often nihilistic landscape of the comic is a place to which they've never gone and never will. They talk the talk as a tease to those who don't know any better then hunker down (cower?) behind the safe conventional wisdom that a middle-American audience won't stand for that sort of thing. When it comes to casualties among its central cast, there are two general species, redshirted non-entities who are kept around in the background solely as cannon-fodder (Jaqui, Jimmy, Patricia, T-Dog, Axel, Oscar, etc.) and major characters who, before they're killed, have, over an extended period, been so relentlessly demonized that viewers are happy to see them go (Shane, Lori, Andrea, etc.). The death of Hershel last season was an exception to this, and one would like to take it as a sign of some little bit of progress toward a less safe TWD, but the old pattern reasserted itself almost immediately and has continued.[3]

One way in which Hershel's death was unfortunately unexceptional is in the telegraphing of the event. In a display of rigid devotion to one of the most tired clich├ęs of modern mass entertainment, all significant deaths on TWD are telegraphed from a mile away. When someone who has previously been just a supporting character is suddenly thrust into the spotlight of an episode and given lots to do, he's pretty much guaranteed to be bagged and tagged almost immediately. Amy, who, previously, had barely been a presence, suddenly has a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with her sister Andrea; by the end of the ep, she's been bitten by a zombie and killed. T-Dog, who, for the longest, had barely even been given any dialogue, suddenly comes to the fore to weigh in on the treatment of the former inmates at the prison; by the end, he's Zombie Chow. Hershel is suddenly made the star of an episode as he battles zombies and tries to heal the sick while locked in the prison; in his next full ep, he's decapitated. The same with Bob. The same with Sophia. The same into infinity. Supporting characters are by their very nature less central to the story, and redshirts tend to be nothing but a familiar face. Without some hook, the deaths of such characters can be meaningless, a thing about which no one has any reason to care, and that's a problem for a show like TWD that wants to pose as edgy and courageous on such matters, and, maybe more importantly, wants to use character deaths as a shock tactic to sell the show. Suddenly thrusting supporting characters to center-stage just before their deaths is one of the limp ways TWD has attempted to address this.[4]

That brings us to the upcoming midseason finale and the fact that the writers have, in recent weeks, telegraphed the deaths of both Beth and Carol. With "Slabtown," Beth, an almost non-existent background character, was given her own storyline and made the star of the show for an entire ep. With "Consumed," Carol was thrust to the center of an episode and presented as a character who has run her course. Both (particularly Beth) are obvious targets by the series' usual m.o., and TWD message boards are filled with speculation about which will bite the dust--it's by far the single most popular topic now.

Here's a different kind of topic: Wouldn't it be great to have a TWD where that level of passionate discussion was stirred by the great twists a viewer couldn't see coming or the difficult issues the show raised or thoughts it provoked or by anything at all other than speculation as to which character would be killed next? A TWD concerned with telling a great story, instead of one so terrified of alienating its audience that it takes the safe road every time?

--j.

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[1] As I've covered here into infinity, if it's one thing tv TWD despises above everything else, it's survivalist sentiment, which it consistently presents in contexts intended to make it look entirely inappropriate, cruel, inhuman and unnecessary. Part of the same sanitization process.

[2] The cannibalistic behavior of the Terminusians is meant to mirror the behavior of the zombies, but their turning to cannibalism in the world of tv TWD didn't make any real sense--the sanitization of the series has meant the characters have never had any serious problem finding food and live in a world where it's relatively plentiful.

[3] Another odd pattern with TWD is that: as soon as a new black guy arrives, the old one is killed off. T-Dog yielded to Oscar who yielded to Tyreese. Bob arrived off camera between seasons and is the only substantial exception to this rule, but as soon as Gabriel was introduced, Bob was history. The fresh arrival of Noah as a potential regular should have Tyreese and Gabriel feeling rather nervous just now.

[4] Another, a particularly ludicrous tactic, was introduced by Glen Mazzara as head of the writing staff then as showrunner: posthumous characterization. Jaqui, a non-entity, was blown to bits with the CDC; a few eps later, in season 2, she's suddenly someone Lori considered such a good friend that Lori is spurred to painful existential musings at her memory. It's discovered that Sophia, a character who, prior to the ep in which she disappeared, probably hadn't gotten 3 lines in the entire run, is dead; Glenn offers up ridiculous comments about how much she meant to them. T-Dog dies; Glenn is again given the assignment of telling how, after the zombie apocalypse began, T-Dog went around in a bus to check on old people from his church. Oscar is killed at Woodbury; Axel tells us what a great guy he was when they were serving time together. It's always characters trying ot make an audience feel for the dead person by talk, talk, talking about them as a substitute for having made viewers care about them when they were alive.

6 comments:

  1. Although I completely despised the nerfed Andrea and Governor, I have to disagree with Carol. I liked how they switched the roles by letting Carol outlive Sophia. Carol’s newfound strength, if done well (“The Grove”, “No Sanctuary”) can lead to interesting development. Lately, however, they have exploited her newfound popularity to force us the theme in the soapiest way possible (“Indifference”, “Consumed”). It seems they’re setting up Sasha as the new Andrea, which is all but welcome, especially if the ending of “Crossed” is ignored.

    Although I dislike some “sanitized” concepts made by the writers - particularly the aformentioned anti-survivalist ideology and the Tyreese hammer-time attack in “Isolation” (which is an adaptation of Issue 15 & 16) - it’s hard to blame them for the changes, as I think AMC has a big hand in these. All AMC shows are not allowed to use the f-word, even Breaking Bad, which is why it’s barraged with “bitch” instead. Look up Youtube - “They’re f*cking with the wrong people” is the line that was in the script, and it was even filmed, and both Gimple and Andrew Lincoln felt dissatisfied that that line didn’t make the final cut. There must be a reason why the cast and crew have repeatedly stated their worry about “the network executives” in interviews.

    Other than the fact that Rick’s hand not being chopped off was Robert Kirkman’s decision, a lot of things was probably AMC’s decision. Kirkman hinted that Judith’s death was one of the “things that couldn’t make it in TV”. I’m pretty sure most of the eps were written by the time filming started, so when they cautiously approached AMC about the filming details on “No Sanctuary”, and AMC agreed, they were stunned and even shocked that they agreed to go through with it. There’s a valid reason why they’re anxious. Had “Four Walls and a Roof” really religiously followed Fear the Hunters storyline, the episode might not even see the light of day. Heck, Michael Cudlitz (Abraham) even said that “Self Help” almost didn’t make it past the freaking censors.

    Frank Darabont (who, contrary to popular belief, helped outline season 2 and was part of filming until he got fired) wrote two episodes that was supposed to precede “What Lies Ahead”. One was a potentially intriguing one that focused on the backstory of the soldier walker that Rick encountered in the pilot (I have mixed feelings about this though). The filmed premiere was “Miles Behind Us”, which had a interesting idea - Shane left behind by the crew before catching up, and the group finding out the Vatos group had been overrun - which AMC almost completely discarded, with a few minutes incorporated into “What Lies Ahead” with Darabont given credit under the pseudonym Ardeth Bey.

    For all I know, Gimple, the cast and the crew are all but willing to take risks. Darabont wanted to challenge the norms. He got fired. If Gimple kept pressuring the network about unpredictable things and gets fired, I don’t know if anyone in his writing staff is capable of replacing him. Nichole Beattie, a former Mazzara writer who greatly improved in season 4, left the show (probably, since I didn’t see her name among the producers of season 5) and tweeted once that whenever “Live Bait”, a solid episode she wrote, aired, she would always remember the hate given by the fans. It almost makes me wish that TWD was airing in HBO. The folks at AMC probably aren’t bad guys, but sometimes I wish they didn’t hold back too much that ruins the potential creativity of the writing crew.

    Speaking of that, I’d like to see your thoughts on the recent events in the comics, which is now in the “New Beginning" storyline. Lately, however, I’m worried that the comics are following suit to the show, as some comments of recent issues of the “All Out War” storyline felt like filler eps of the show, and the ending of that story felt like Rick temporarily becoming “Too Far Gone” Rick. I haven’t personally read them yet (I just research some information), but these are my thoughts.

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    1. We probably don't disagree on the current incarnation of Carol; it's easily the best version of her so far. Every tv version of Carol, though, has been an original creation; none of it came from the comic. The writers invented a safer character and gave her Carol's name. And tv Carol was the most useless character on the series prior to season 4. The version introduced then wasn't any sort of evolution of who she'd been before that either. When season 4 began, it appeared as if the writers had gone back to the drawing-board and asked what someone who, in the abstract, had been through her experiences would be like but as it turned out, the harder survivalist Carol characterization was only introduced in the service of that season's Big Theme, to provide someone to commit the two absolutely senseless murders the writers were planning. A much better character was the result, but it's a character forever stained as a vicious killer with wretched judgmnt. Her ridiculous monologue in "Consumed" about how her previous versions had burned up works just as well as a metatextual commentary. The anti-survivalist ideology to which the series clings just boggles the mind, and makes you wonder what those involved originally thought they were signing up to do.

      AMC shows do use "fuck," including BREAKING BAD. "I fucked Ted." Walt to Gretchen: "Fuck you!" Probably others. It was just bleeped whenever it appeared in the broadcasts. When I was writing the article, I didn't really draw any hard lines between AMC's suits and TWD's writing staff as I do when it's significant--TWD is owned by AMC, and they're all its creators--but I don't think most of the sanitization is the work of the former. That would suggest a degree of meddling in the show that is extraordinary and at which no one has ever even hinted. Most of what TWD does when it comes to this sort of thing flows from its conversion to soap melodrama for a middle-American audience (a change that did come from the writers). It's neither a format nor an audience that's terribly notorious for embracing anything particularly edgy.

      Darabont's firing wasn't over content. Like a lot of beloved directors, he's developed a coterie of regulars who want to work with him and he'd gotten a lot of people to come on board the show for a fraction of what they'd normally be paid just because they wanted to work for him. His big fight with AMC was over getting money for them and for the show, in the face of significant budget-cuts. I suspect Glen Mazzara was behind turning AMC against "Miles Behind Us" (a long story). That Darabont continued to work and spend money on it after AMC ordered him to stop became the rationale for being rid of him.

      I don't remember "Live Bait" getting any hatred from fans. As much of a critic of TWD as I am, I even liked it, and that was a very tall mountain to climb with me, because I didn't ever even want to see GINO's name spoken agian. The ep was an example of taking a lemon--GINO--and making from him lemonade. It's only problem was that it wasn't made the end of GINO's storyline.

      As for recent events in the comic, I'm hopelessly behind--years behind, at this point. I have no idea where the book has gone lately.

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    2. I apologize for some of the claims that have been misinterpreted. I wasn't really aware of the Breaking Bad f-word thing because I don't follow the show that much. The only shows I regularly follow (mostly out of time constraints) are TWD and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which in my opinion has become an example of well-told storytelling in season 2, even though it's not the best show in the world right now (kind of shameless plug haha). And I do know that Darabont was mainly fired from budgetary concerns. Maybe my judgement has been clouded by how shady AMC was regarding the matter.

      A lot of bandwagon TWD fans dislike most of the slow episodes, which is why the back half of season 4 was mostly lambasted by "fans", despite majority of them churning out solid episodes. Some want it to be "badass" and action-heavy. I recall seeing comments on the TWD page after "Live Bait" aired and most of it was "omg it's boring", with only diehard fans like me defending it for its interesting concept. "Still" is probably the series' most polarizing one as well, and liking the episode - you and me included - is regarded as an unpopular opinion. To each his own, I suppose.

      Here's Nichole Beattie's tweet about "Live Bait".
      https://twitter.com/nicholebeattie/status/485836830277787649

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    3. lol. No need to apologize! You really, really should make it a point to take in BREAKING BAD. TV doesn't get better than that, and it's shameful that I haven't written anything about it here. I was definitely one of the folks who liked "Still." Aside from some of the extraneous soap melodrama (which I'm just never going to like), it was a good ep with a great ending. I'm told AGENTS OF SHIELD has grown into a pretty good series. I thought it was pretty good from the start, but I missed a lot of it after the first few eps and have just never caught up with it. I wonder if Beattie was at all serious when it comes to that tweet, particularly since she didn't elaborate on it any further.

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  2. The show as been written so that, for the most part, any character could "fill in" for any other character. Which is embodied in the fact that the characters shift to fit the plot.

    Bob's end could have been ANYONE in the group. Sasha getting knocked cold by a hostage could have been ANYONE because, save maybe one or two characters, they are all approximately the dumbest people anyone has ever come acrossed. I know it's been touched on time and time again... but I feel like it cannot be stressed enough: Most of these idiots wouldn't have survived ten minutes in the zombified world. The Sasha scene played out like a terrible horror film... a real "don't answer the door, don't answer the door" kind of moment.

    Carl is another example. I couldn't stand Season 3 Carl, but that might have been in part because of how bad Season 3 was overall. At the end we have this defiant little kid giving his dad the "what's what" in what I saw as fairly unbelievable. Magically Season 4 and 5 Carl has no problems with Dear Ol' Dad now? I don't remember them ever having it out, but in my defense there hasn't been that many memorable moments at all recently.

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    1. The Carl thing is understandable in my opinion. Many months passed in between seasons 3 and 4, and Rick seemed to make it clear to him about his reckless attitude. Carl didn't have "no problems". This was largely dealt with in "Infected", which showed that Carl had somewhat matured into balancing his recklessness and morality. And let's not forget "After", last season's midseason premiere, which featured Carl bashing at Rick for making terrible decisions, only for Carl to realize that he still loves his father despite Rick being a screw-up. It's one of the reasons why I still liked "After" (J. kinda hates the episode haha).

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