Monday, February 29, 2016

WALKING DEAD Unties Some Knots, Ties Others

Sitting here immediately after finishing "Knots Untie," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, I'm not quite sure if it was good or if it only seems that way by being, in the context of this otherwise spectacularly poor season, something better than godawful. This was definitely an ep that worked better than anything we've seen so far. The rest of the season still haunts it though.

Last week, Rick and Daryl, in some of that standard arbitrary TWD plotting, were suddenly written as entirely different characters in order to allow them to take ninja Jesus back to the safe zone. This week, having again easily escaped their efforts to confine him, he tells our heroes of other human settlements. As he tells it, he's a recruiter sent out by one such group of survivors to find others with which to trade. He offers to take them to his group, show them around, set up diplomatic relations.

The shadow of the rest of the season begins to fall over the ep at this point. Rick and co. know there are at least two other groups of armed and murderous hostiles in the area, one led by someone named Negan. They never ask Jesus about this and when they prepare their diplomatic mission to accompany him home, not only does most of the major characters go along--a very bad idea--but they all pile into a single vehicle, a very bad idea that most recently caused problems only last week.

The writers may have been able to get away with this if they didn't immediately insist on calling attention to the unsoundness of it. Right away, our heroes come across a vehicle that appears to have just crashed. Jesus says it came from his group. Rick immediately suspects a possible ambush and puts Jesus in the same cuffs from which Jesus has already escaped while they check it out. There's no ambush, just some folks who need saving.

Our heroes make their way to Jesus's settlement,[1] which turns out to be fairly substantial but out of ammo. "This is Gregory," Jesus says as he introduces their leader. "He's the one who keeps the trains running on time around here." But as Mussolinis go, Gregory is strictly a dilettante. Bursting with base douchebaggery and sporting an elevator that can't quite make it to the penthouse, he starts by propositioning the married-and-pregnant Maggie. When that doesn't work out, he pretty much loses any further interest in diplomatic relations.

This deadlock is ended by the fortuitous return of a group of couriers. They'd been dispatched by Gregory to pay a mordida to--you guessed it--Negan. Negan had decided he was shorted and had nabbed the brother of one of the couriers, saying he would only release the hostage if the courier killed Gregory. The fellow does manage to stab Gregory in a non-vital area but Rick's group intervenes and after some ass-whuppin', restores order.

Negan, it seems, has been plaguing this community since shortly after it formed. Rick decides Negan is no big threat and, seeing an opportunity, offers to take out the pesky thug in exchange for food. Gregory is made amenable to this. Rick asks one of the couriers if he'll take them to Negan's compound. The guy seems quite reluctant but then agrees and if Rick suspects the fellow may be working for Negan on the side--something he really should suspect--he shows no sign of it.

Hubris is about to get the best of our heroes and this is the part of the story over which the rest of this season and, indeed, the entire series to date, hangs most heavily. The current storyline is adapted from the comic on which the series is based. By the time it rolled around in the book, our heroes were a smart, lean, mean battle-hardened group of professional survivors--real badasses who had good reason to believe they could handle whatever was thrown at them. Their television counterparts have, since they arrived at the safe zone, spent an inordinate amount of time talking about what badasses they are but whenever it comes time to put that to the test, they're written as complete idiots whose absurdly ill-conceived plans inevitably lead to death and disaster. Ten of the twelve eps of this season were consumed by dealing with the bloody consequences of Rick's insanely cretinous decision to release that quarry full of zombies in spitting distance of home instead of simply reinforcing the quarry--something that could have been done in literally minutes--and/or destroying the creatures on the site--something that could have been accomplished by merely setting a few fires. Tonight, Daryl made it sound as if reducing Negan's tough-talking bikers to a greasy spot on the highway had been child's play, whereas the way the scene had actually played out, Daryl, Sasha and Abraham had been caught because they'd stupidly stopped for a gang of armed thugs on motorcycles while, themselves, driving a truck that could have ground said gang to powder and they only made it out of that encounter alive because the leader of the bikers made a stupid mistake. Tonight, none of the characters express any real doubt about their ability to handle whatever Negan can throw at them. This uber-confidence is an  utterly arbitrary contrivance of the writers. It isn't derived from any of the characters' experience and, in fact, stands in bold contradiction to all of that experience. If they'd ever been shown as being remotely capable of handling much of anything, TWD may have been able to get away with grafting this attitude on to them. When the hubris leading to a fall is so entirely unearned, it doesn't allow for much of a story. It's just ends up being the 10,000th time a bunch of dumbasses yet again do something stupid that yet again leads to disaster.

That aside--and that's really the concern of future eps[2]--"Knots Untie" moves well, it has an amusing, if somewhat heavy-handed, subplot about Abraham's romantic confusion (keep Rosita or go for Sasha?), and Maggie finally gets something to do besides cry over Glenn. Overall, its easily the best ep of this season. It doesn't have to do very much to earn that distinction though, and it certainly can't stand up to any of this series' best.



[1] Upon arriving, Rick drives their RV into a rather nasty mud-bog and gets stuck. There's no way he could miss it and it's easily avoidable but he drives right into it.

[2] TWD tends to slam on the brakes and throw out the drag-weights in the second half of the season. This wasn't at all a slow ep but given the record, I'm wondering if we'll even see Negan before the season ender.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's New World Order Feels Pretty Old [Updated Below]

"The New World," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, featured a pair of parallel stories that, in more sensitive hands, could have been outright great. In the hands of TWD's creators, they proved to be dull, dumb, uninteresting and sappy.

Weeks have passed since the previous ep and the Alexandrian safe zone has been cleaned up, repaired and looks just as it did before the chaos of this season had occurred (including being largely devoid of any Alexandrians). Rick and Daryl are going on a supply run. The inclusion of Rick in this adventure seems very arbitrary--while Daryl has made regular treks into the outside world since arriving in town, we've never seen Rick do so. Rick is feeling optimistic and--wouldn't you know it?--at the first place they stop, they find a big truck loaded with food and supplies. And then at their next stop, they immediately lose it. Trying to retrieve a Coke from a machine, our heroes encounter a guy who looks like a popular artistic depiction of Jesus and even goes by the name. Jesus, it turns out, has ninja skills and confounding our heroes with a Bugs Bunny gag, easily jacks the truck. This starts a cat-and-mouse chase that runs for most of the rest of the ep.

If TWD wasn't so uncomfortable with full-bodied humor, this could have been an amusing tale. The ep makes a few stabs at jokes but it mostly just ends up looking like the usual overbearing TWD. Jesus proves quite the adversary. He can boost one's keys right out of one's pocket, fights like a human hurricane and when he's trussed up and left by the side of the road, he frees himself with the speed of thought. When, ultimately, Jesus is injured, the writers decide to have Rick act as though he's learned absolutely nothing and opt to tie up the slippery ninja and cart the fellow back to the safe zone for medical attention. Rick had previously denied to Jesus that he and Daryl had any camp--a wise safety measure--but as he's driving home with Jesus apparently unconscious in the back seat, he's blabbering on and on about the safe zone, all the people in it, etc. Good job, Rick. In context, our heroes are aware of the existence of at least two groups of armed hostiles somewhere in the area. Earlier in the season, the Wolves infiltrated the town and killed large numbers of people. The bikers from last week's ep announced they were going to take everything Daryl and co. had then force Daryl to drive them back to his camp where it, too, would be theirs. Straight pirates who make a joke of killing. Rick notes that Jesus is clean and has a well-trimmed beard, evidence that he's been living somewhere, not just roaming the bush. So Rick has a persistent, thieving ninja they can't contain who obviously comes from some other camp, he knows two group of hostiles are out there somewhere and in this context, he decides to take Jesus back to town.[1]

The other story of the evening involves Spencer hiking around in the forest outside the walls of the town on some mysterious mission. Michonne sees him and follows him. He's carrying a shovel but won't tell her why he out there. After much running-time is eaten up (following both Spencer/Michonne and Carl and Enid who are also in the forest), it's revealed that Spencer is hunting for the zombie of his mother Deanna. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of her in the melee from the previous episode. Deanna really shouldn't be a zombie or wandering around like this; when last seen, a large number of the creatures were closing in on her inside a house. That many would have torn her to pieces and if she'd manage to close the door and keep them out, she would have been trapped inside. The creators knew, when they put together that earlier scene that they were going to do this story two eps later. Mark down their handling of it to poor staging. Carl finds zombie Deanna and covertly leads her to Spencer, who kills the critter and buries it.

Again, a basic story that, handled with some sensitivity, could have probably been whipped into a haunting little subplot. Here, it's just flat and entirely uninteresting. The series writers had done nothing to give it any emotional impact. Offered as it is, it just sits there, cold, lifeless, uninteresting and played out via TWD's usual godawful soap dialogue. One watches it wishing the focus would move to something more interesting.

By the end of the ep, Rick and Michonne have a romantic interlude. Their snoozing in its aftermath is interrupted by ninja Jesus, who again easily escapes being tied up and locked up and seems to have something to tell them. Readers of the comic know where that's going. Everyone else will just have to stay turned.

"The New World" comes after a run of absolutely godawful eps this season and while its wasted potential runs through its every frame, it's a marginal step up from what we've been getting simply by virtue of it's being far less an active insult to viewers. It's more a run-of-the-mill mediocrity. If the past is any precedent, the next six eps are going to be very slow-going.



[1] I've frequently written about how the soap melodrama format of TWD means you don't really have "characters," just figures who are arbitrarily changed at every turn to suit temporary plot needs. This makes any assertion that the "characters" are acting out-of-character a tricky charge but this was Rick acting as out-of-character as anyone on TWD can be said to be out-of-character. I doubt this is the beginning of a new Rick; I think it's probably just another arbitrary alteration made in the service of a poorly constructed plot.

UPDATE (23 Feb.) - Lebeau, over at Le Blog, has offered a more extensive deconstruction of this ep than I did above and his piece is a good compliment to my own. He goes into more detail about the contrived nature of the ep, how Daryl and Rick abandon their car for an entirely untested truck, how this was done solely so that Jesus could later swipe their truck and they'd be forced to pursue on foot, how Jesus ends up back at the safe zone merely because the writers want him there and fundamentally alter Rick's character in order to accomplish this. Worth a read.

On an unrelated matter, I'll also note that Michonne's hook-up with Rick at the end of the ep doesn't look good for her future. But if the writers are planning her demise, it will be apparent long before it happens.

Monday, February 15, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD Bites, Chews, Swallows, Repeats

If one is feeling overly charitable, one could suggest that "No Way Out," tonight's midseason opener for THE WALKING DEAD, should have been November's midseason ender but TWD hasn't really done much to earn any charity, "No Way Out" didn't either and the truth is that this season has been so watered down that this, its 9th episode, could, in more competent hands, have been its 3rd or 4th with no loss of substance. The Mazzara era of TWD was notorious for this sort of terminal underwriting but this present season is, with regard to this, probably the worst TWD has ever been.

The ep began with a ludicrously implausible scene in which Daryl, Sasha and Abraham encounter a small group of armed thugs on motorcycles. Daryl is driving a gas tanker that could utterly grind to powder any motorcycle-mounted thugs looking to block his path but solely because the writers want to convey some information to us, he instead stops. The leader of the thugs does some screentime-consuming tough-guy posturing. After announcing his intention to take from our heroes everything they have, he disarms them by stepping, unarmed, between them and his own men. Daryl or any of the others could have simply trained their guns on him at that point and walked away with him as a hostage but the writers have something else in mind, so we get more talk, talk, talking, posturing and then a pretty funny, if somewhat expected, end to the scene.[1]

Next, we're back in the Alexandrian safe zone which isn't safe anymore. It's been overrun by zombies and Rick and his group, employing the zombie-gut camouflage trick the writers sometimes allow them to remember, are walking among them. We get, in fact, an uninterrupted two minutes of just shots of Rick and co. walking among them. "It's going to be one of those," I thought with a sigh. And it was; we gets lots and lots more of those shots before the ep is through. Rick stops everyone for an impromptu strategy session right in the middle of a street filled with the walking dead. Many clichés are exchanged. The zombies, perhaps regular TWD viewers, are obviously used to it and pay it no mind. The mighty zombie-gut camouflage trick is impenetrable and watching this, one can't help but think of all the times our heroes could have used it but instead developed amnesia because the writers wanted the plot to go a different way.

And just when one is thinking such thoughts, the writers pull a switcheroo. Before the end of the first half of this season, Sam, Jessie's worthless younger brat, had been absolutely terrified of the zombies. He spent the previous ep hiding in his bedroom listening to Tiny Tim over and over again. Then when he had to be covered in stinking zombie goo and rub elbows with a few hundred of the creatures, he didn't seem to have much of a problem with it at all. During Rick's strategy session, he refuses to go with Father Gabriel and take refuge in the church. "I'm not leaving you," he says to his mother with as much steely-eyed determination as one can manage for such an awful, worn-out line. But as he continues to wander among the dead, fear randomly overtakes him and the dead suddenly and just as randomly develop the ability to see through that camouflage, jump him and eat him, starting a chain reaction that ends with Jessie and both her sons--all covered in zombie guts--being similarly eaten.

If one ignores the fact that, to accomplish this, the writers blatantly violated a rule that has run the entire length of the series and that they had reinforced only minutes earlier, these deaths occur without prior ceremony and given how unusual that is for TWD, I suppose that's worthy of some little bit of praise but the deaths also mean that all the running-time spent establishing these characters throughout this season joins almost everything else this season in the filler column. The death of the whole family feels like the writers just got tired of writing about them and, hey, TWD needs shocking deaths--why else would anyone watch?

The ep is full of the standard TWD speeches in place of dialogue. Glenn and Enid trade speeches. Carol and Morgan, whose conflict goes nowhere, trade speeches. Even Father Gabriel gets in on it at one point. We can do this. God will give us courage. Those you loved and lost live on through you. Blah, blah, blah--it's just garbage from every other soap or bad movie you've ever seen and it all just runs together.

Toward the end, Rick goes on a zombie-killing rampage and the other Alexandrians, inspired by his example, take to the streets to battle the dead, at which point the endless shots of zombies wandering around are replaced by endless shots of everyone killing zombies, folding, eventually, into an embarrassingly bad montage of zombie-killing--poorly-lit people in a studio in front of a bad green screen in close up quick cuts making silly, grunty battle faces as they whack away at the camera and are splattered with fake blood.

In the midst of this, Daryl, Sasha and Abraham show up with the gas tanker. At that point, all that is necessary to rid the safe zone of its zombie problem is for one of them to lay down on the horn for a moment then slowly drive away with the dead following along but Daryl comes up with a more visual solution. He pours the rare and precious gasoline in the truck into a storm drain and sets it ablaze. Worse, he's apparently short of matches or the lighter he has always carried and opts to ignite it with a rocket launcher. Daryl had just encountered a contingent of armed hostiles from a larger group of same. That rocket may have come in handy if that group of hostiles had shown up at the safe zone gates the way GINO turned up at the prison in season 4 but no one on TWD ever learns anything and the writers have survivalist Daryle judge it more important to have a blazing explosion to cap off the midseason opener. And in another violation of the series' rules, the writers have the dead walk right into the blaze and be consumed by it. Though it doesn't make a lick of sense, fire has always attracted the zombies of TWD but they've never walked into it. If they'll do that, imagine how simple it would have been to resolve the zombies-in-the-quarry situation on which this season has been built. Or any situation in the entire run of the series involving large numbers of zombies. Or think on how in hell zombies who behave in this way would have ever overrun the world in the first place. Or, if you're a TWD fan, don't.

The ending sees Rick making another speech over the fallen Carl, who was earlier shot in the eye. Coral, you just gotta' live through this and see this peachy new world we're a' gonna' build, as his voice cracks and he tears up. Connoisseurs of bad melodrama know what's coming next; we get the slow camera pan down to Coral's limp hand as it slowly but surely begins to move and grip his father's hand. Cue the violin music.

Isn't that sweet?

No, it's just THE WALKING DEAD. Give it a shot of insulin.



[1] An end that, except for the "somewhat expected" part, is a brand of humor straight out of Z NATION and heretofore entirely unknown to TWD.