Monday, December 12, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Hearts Ain't Beatin'

There's a moment in "Hearts Still Beating," tonight's midseason finale of THE WALKING DEAD, when Negan becomes rather disgusted with Spencer. The alcoholic half-wit had been trying to convince the evil overlord that he should bump off Rick and put a new guy in charge of the Safe Zone--none other than Spencer himself, of course. Negan didn't like that. Rick, said Negan, has guts. While Rick is out there in this zombified world risking his life to try to scavenge supplies for the Saviors so no one in the Safe Zone will die, Spencer had been there sucking up to Negan behind Rick's back and talking this smack. You've got no guts, says Negan. And then he guts Spencer. If viewers were concerned about the big hole the writers put in Negan's reasoning here--Spencer himself had, only moments earlier, returned from a supply run laden with choice goods he'd turned over to the Saviors and they'd been so pleased, they'd made some overtures toward eventually recruiting him--it was no doubt overawed by their delight at finally seeing the obnoxious Spencer ended.

Spencer's death conformed with the usual conventions. He was a redshirt and so a prime target in a finale ep. He was a character written in such a way that no viewer could possibly be upset if he went away and most would be far more likely to be pleased by the development. His death was heralded by his sudden decision to really start hating on Rick. As longtime viewers of TWD know, that last is an even shorter path to an early grave than being the established black guy character when the new black guy shows up. The writers play a rather silly game here. They consistently write Rick as a dangerously incompetent leader--I've covered that point here since my very first article on TWD--then to try to compensate--because it isn't really cool if your lead alpha-male hero is a dimwitted buffoon--they have the other characters speak of his leadership in glowing terms, trying to cut a dodge around their own work and convince viewers to share such a view, rather than the one suggested by what they've actually written into the show. Believe the words of praise offered by these characters, this says, not your lying eyes. This eventually took an ugly turn: any character who was written as criticizing Rick was suddenly signing his own death warrant. This is a ridiculously overly defensive reaction to critics who question how they handle Rick and it can't help but beg the obvious: If they're so bothered, why not just write Rick as a good leader, for a change?

Tonight was another 90-minute ep--85 minutes, actually, just as was last week's. Something I wrote about that previous ep:

"Negan is sitting on the front porch with Coral and a sleepy baby Judith, sipping lemonade, waiting for Rick and grousing about how maybe he should move to the suburbs, then the ep just stops, in a way that makes me think there's some heavy editing going on. There's no ending, no dramatic capper. It feels like we're right in the middle of an ep and it's suddenly over. The obvious dramatic conclusion, Rick returning home, won't be happening for a while yet--he still has to try to navigate that zombie water-hazard. The end credits tonight informed viewers that next week's midseason finale will be another 90-minute ep, which makes me wonder if the extra half-hour in this ep had originally been part of the subsequent ep then had been edited into this one, either to greedily suck up another hour of commercial time or because they just didn't like what they had with the originally-shot eps. Given the extraordinary amount of filler this season, it seems incredible to me that TWD would do this--basically assemble an extra ep worth of material when they're barely even filling the eps they have--but this one left me somewhat convinced that's exactly what has happened. If that's the case, I guess we'll learn of it eventually."

Still no word on whether anything like this actually happened but several plotlines from roughly the first half-hour of tonight's ep seemed to wrap up stuff launched in the last half-hour of last week's.[1] In the aired versions, these are half-plots that seem to belong together but that have been divided. Spencer, as noted, returns with his supplies and turns them over to the Saviors, who are pleased. That hole I mentioned in my own opening above--Negan's faulty rationale for eventually killing Spencer--would be more explicable if both of those moments were originally the work of different writers working on different eps and just not really reaching harmony. Negan, who had been hanging around Rick's house, finishes preparing a meal. At first, he's waiting for Rick to return so they can all eat together. Then at one point, he just decides to go ahead and eat--a beat that feels very much like a finished-for-now moment. Rick and Aaron complete their adventure through zombie-infested waters to a boat full of supplies, load up said supplies then leave, only to have the camera reveal that some mysterious figure has been watching them. That feels like the conclusion of an ep--a final scene--and the rest of the material tonight, in turn, feels like one cohesive hour-long ep. The idea that these were originally three eps instead of two is speculation on my part and perhaps a bit of an aside but I am curious about whether this was the case and if so, why? TWD airs half-seasons in batches of 8 eps but if these were originally three, that could mean the stuff from the first half-hour tonight was originally the end of the midseason finale. Was the intended conclusion of the midseason ender, that mysterious figure, judged to be an insufficient note on which to end? Doesn't seem likely. TWD's creators have never been troubled by their own serving up lame-ass finales. Here's one better (and more likely): Maybe these were three eps and all were meant to be shown in the first half of the season then, for some reason (probably greed having to do with ad revenue on two half-hour eps), they were combined and a new ep was cooked up (probably at the conceptual stage), shot and inserted earlier in the season to fill out the half-season order (similar to what happened in season 2). The obvious choice for the extra ep in such a circumstance is, of course, "The Cell," a filler ep which covered nothing of any import and that replicated some things that happened in last week's ep, making it entirely redundant, as well.

One of those things it replicated was Daryl's predicament, which was another of those half-plots continued tonight. Daryl is locked in a room at the Saviors' compound when someone comes to him with a message, just as happened in "The Cell." In that earlier ep, the door to his room was left unlocked; tonight's message came accompanied by a key to open it. And Daryl goes through trying to escape again, just as before (though this time, he succeeds). The dramatic problem involved in this particular bit of Xeroxing is that, the first time around, the business of leaving his door unlocked turned out to be a trap and Daryl took a beating for it, yet only a few eps later, he's faced with essentially the same situation and does the same thing again, as if the first time had never happened. Mind-numbing repetitiveness, characters failing to learn and plot progression being made dependent upon them acting in incredibly stupid ways are all hallmarks of TWD, so it may be a mistake to read too much into this. Still, food for how much ever thought one wants to expend on this matter.[2]

Michonne hijacked a Savior last week--still another half-plot--intent on forcing the woman to take her to Negan. Tonight, in an utterly bizarre twist, she tells her captive that she isn't going to kill Negan. She's taken an action that will mean her death in order to get to Negan and she isn't even intent on killing the man once she gets to him? None of this leads anywhere either. When the pair get close to the Savior's compound, Michonne just turns around and leaves, apparently liquidating her hostage. Perhaps this will leave some viewers wondering what in hell was the point of any of this but seasoned viewers will recognize what this subplot brings to the ep, the most valuable things in the world to TWD's writers: it eats up screentime.

Other items: Ezekiel's right-hand man, whose name escapes me, is still trying to get Ezekiel to fight the Saviors, more material we've already seen. He tries to recruit Morgan and Carol to his cause. Morgan is back to his peacenik routine, while the writers' character assassination of Carol continues as she declares she wants no part of it or of anyone either. Both refuse to help, making this yet another meaningless screentime-consuming subplot. When Negan kills Spencer, Rosita draws her gun and shoots at him with her only bullet.[3] It hits his baseball bat instead. He isn't pleased. For no reason other than one of those idiotic fiats of the writers, Negan picks up and examines the shell-casing from this single round. He decides it was home-brew and demands to know who made it. Of course, even if Negan could determine the round had been reloaded at some point, there's no reason at all to assume this was done either recently or by anyone in the Safe Zone and, indeed, the fact that Rosita had only one is enough to make that an entirely counter-intuitive assumption--no one would bother going through the trouble involved in reloading ammo just to do a single bullet--but this is TWD.[4] When no one will tell him who made the bullet, he has one of his underlings shoot Olivia, another redshirt to fill out the finale-dictated death-quota that seems to be the only reason TWD's fans follow this series.

In the comics, Rick was only pretending to go along with Negan while secretly working against him. TV TWD has opted, instead, to do yet another tired version of Broken Rick, wherein Rick is the milksop with the blank stare who entirely gives in to Negan--more of those stellar leadership qualities. In discussing last week's ep with Lebeau over at Le Blog, I wrote:

"It wouldn’t be TWD if it didn’t have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I think something will happen next week that will set Rick on the path of opposing Negan. Maybe that’s even how the ep--the midseason finale--will end, with Rick giving one of those patented TWD speech about how they’ll overtly play along for now but they’re secretly a’ gonna’ be workin’ against Negan fer however long it takes. 'We survive everything. We’ll survive this!'"

And that's pretty much how it played out tonight, except it was Michonne giving that speech. Negan's killing of Spencer and Olivia proves to be the miracle cure that unbreaks Rick's back. Most of our major characters go to Hilltop and are reunited--lots of hugs and semi-teary smiles set to emotional music--and decide they're going to find a way to take the fight to Negan. Just as soon as the next tv ratings sweeps period comes along.



[1] It isn't as mathematical as that--there's plenty of editing going on.

[2] The awful soap material with Dwight and his former wife was also repeated between those eps.

[3] Last season, Rosita, in the emotional backwash from Abraham's so cruelly dumping her, slept with Spencer. She never seemed particularly fond of him and this season, Spencer has gone out of his way to alienate her. In still another example of the writers trying to convince viewers of Rick's great leadership, she became furious with him for his ranting against Rick. If Spencer had been some little glimmer of hope on to which she'd been holding, she'd clearly lost her grip--she spent the entire ep plotting to kill Negan, knowing this would mean her death. Tonight, as Spencer was on his way over to kiss Negan's ass, he stopped and talked with Rosita for a while and they ended up flirting and parting on good terms, with the suggestion of dinner later, which didn't make a damn lick of sense. Spencer not only hasn't done anything to smooth over their divide, he immediately went to Negan and tried to convince the villain to bump off Rick and make him the leader, while Rosita watched.

[4] In another amusing bit of nonsense, the single shell-casing that Rosita recovered and that Eugene reloaded came from a Desert Eagle fired by Negan himself--probably a .44 Magnum round--yet the gun Rosita uses is a Beretta 92, which is a 9mm. Not compatible. Negan's bat stopped the bullet, which is credible in the case of a 9 (but wouldn't be credible at all in the in the case of a .44).

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, December 5, 2016


THE WALKING DEAD offered up yet another 90-minute episode this evening, the 2nd in only four weeks. This one--"Sing Me A Song"--has quite a bit more meat than did "Service," the previous effort, but it lacked any payoff. It just fills the allotted time then very abruptly ends.

When a nowhere character on TWD is suddenly made the focus of an ep or storyline, it usually doesn't bode well for his future health and this was a tale centered on Coral, a character who is usually treated as a background-noise redshirt but whom, it's conventionally assumed, wears the same indestructible plot-armor as Rick.

Several of my Golden Oldie Gripes were on full display this evening. Arbitrary shifts in characterization, nonsensical turns of events that happen only because the writers want them to happen, magical coincidences and setting up the main story, plot progression being made dependent upon the characters being written as complete idiots. Coral infiltrates Negan's compound in the back of a supply truck armed only with a knife and intent on doing away with the smiling no-goodnik. What, exactly, is the plan here? To somehow use his knife to kill Negan in the heart of the villain's lair, surrounded by Negan's heavily armed henchmen then... what? He isn't suicidal. The ep makes that plain. He's just out for revenge. The writers want to do an ep wherein Negan sort of takes him under his wing for a while, so they have him intentionally put himself in a situation he can't possibly survive, just because. Fortunately, the truck comes rather conveniently equipped with a fully-automatic weapon, which appears right at the moment Coral needs it. Unfortunately, Coral is no more intelligent with a gun in his hand than he was with the knife. When Negan's men begin to unload the vehicle, he shoots one of them, bursts into the open and declares he only wants Negan. "No one else has to die!" Negan is there--he'd come out to meet the truck. Instead of gunning down his intended target on sight, the way he just had that faceless minion, Coral just stands there, lets Negan prance around chewing the scenery for a bit then some guys rush and disarm him (in the scuffle, Coral manages to dust another of them).

Negan decides he likes Coral, the kid being so tough and all, so he spends most of the A-plot showing Coral around parts of the compound and doing his campy, '60s Batman villain routine. It's a one-note act that was already tiresome by Negan's second appearance on the show. It hasn't improved with age (and I've started to feel sorry for Jeffrey Dean Mogan). At one point in the proceedings, he manages to make Coral cry and drops it for a moment--yeah, it's as bad as it sounds ("I didn't mean ta' hurt your feelings or anything..."). And the camp only stops for that one moment. The rest of the time, he's taking Coral through various aspects of his operation and we get some soap opera nonsense about Dwight and his ex-wife, all of this rehashing utterly nonessential ground already covered in "The Cell" (further underlining the complete worthlessness of that ep).

This is one of the few eps this season to feature secondary plots, and these grant some screentime to some of the other cast-members (though Tara, who made her way back home last week, has now disappeared without explanation or mention). Rick and Aaron are still on their supply-run on which they left a few eps ago. Spencer and Father Gabriel go on one as well and Rosita and Eugene are paired up for a mini-plot. This felt like the writers, who have done almost nothing with the six previous eps, were suddenly trying to cram in a lot of material, which can't help but tug at another of those Golden Oldie Gripes--how badly structured, badly paced and packed with filler this season has been.

Gabriel is initially riding with Spencer but he doesn't like Spencer's attitude, has him stop the car and opts to walk back home.[1] By one of those cosmic-scale coincidences--TWD, the mark of quality!--the place Spencer stops is just where he needs to be to hear a zombie grumbling in the forest. Merely because the writers want him to do so, he goes to check it out and finds a zombified hunter still buckled into a tree-stand. How in the world did that hunter... ? No, never mind. Anyway, the hunter has a bow and a note in his pocket that proves to be the hiding-place for a big cache of supplies. Spencer digs them up, returns to the safe zone and announces his intention to give it all to Negan. Go Spencer!

Meanwhile, Rosita and Eugene trek to the shop Eugene intended to turn into a munitions factory. By the time this angle was introduced last season, Eugene, though still a comic-relief character, had toughened up, become a lot less cowardly--brave, in fact, to the point of being rather stupid. It was presented as a major turning-point for the character. When, a few eps ago, Rosita found a gun and asked him to make a bullet, he was on board. But at this point, if the show didn't feature arbitrary character shifts, could we even call it TWD anymore? Eugene is now back to being a coward who gets cold feet and has to be berated shamed into making that bullet.

Michonne piles a bunch of dead zombies in the road and eventually, a Savior vehicle comes along and stops. The driver is traveling alone, something that, outside of emergency situations, simply isn't done in a zombie apocalypse, but the writers want Michonne to be able to take the truck. She does so and, for whatever reason, wants to be taken to Negan.

Rick and Aaron find some property on which the owner has posted warning signs for any travelers who happen upon it. They look into it and find a possible store of supplies from a possibly dead man but it's on the other side of a lake bobby-trapped with zombies--the sort of device one sees on Z NATION.

After a lot of his usual mugging and camping it up, Negan takes Coral back home. With Rick gone, he asks for and receives a bizarre little tour of the place wherein he acts quite pleased to see utterly mundane things he saw only a few eps ago when he and his men combed through it. It's presented like a sequence in a comedy, a montage featuring upbeat music and goofy moments, as if the creators suddenly forgot what show they were making.[2]

Negan is sitting on the front porch with Coral and a sleepy baby Judith, sipping lemonade, waiting for Rick and grousing about how maybe he should move to the suburbs, then the ep just stops, in a way that makes me think there's some heavy editing going on. There's no ending, no dramatic capper. It feels like we're right in the middle of an ep and it's suddenly over. The obvious dramatic conclusion, Rick returning home, won't be happening for a while yet--he still has to try to navigate that zombie water-hazard. The end credits tonight informed viewers that next week's midseason finale will be another 90-minute ep, which makes me wonder if the extra half-hour in this ep had originally been part of the subsequent ep then had been edited into this one, either to greedily suck up another hour of commercial time or because they just didn't like what they had with the originally-shot eps. Given the extraordinary amount of filler this season, it seems incredible to me that TWD would do this--basically assemble an extra ep worth of material when they're barely even filling the eps they have--but this one left me somewhat convinced that's exactly what has happened. If that's the case, I guess we'll learn of it eventually.



[1] Spencer shares with Gabriel his hatred for Rick and Gabriel doesn't like it. Gabriel speaks of Rick in an admiring way, tells Spencer he's being an asshole then leaves. This is TWD attempting one of its usual end-runs around one of its major dramatic problems. Rick has never been shown to be a good or even mediocre leader. He's flat-out awful. He's stupid, he makes terrible choices and he gets people needlessly killed. To prop up one of the central conceits of the series--that he is the leader and that his people continue to follow him--the writers have the other characters describe him as a good leader. Which, of course, just makes them look like idiots and insults the viewers. The writers don't mind taking it an extra step either--anyone who criticizes Rick or his leadership tends to end up on a slab.

[2] Coral killed two of Negan's men, which Negan makes plain can't go unpunished. Earlier, in a moment that was supposed to be creepy, Negan had Coral, who was obviously scared to death, sing "You Are My Sunshine" while he menacingly practiced his brain-smashing bat-swings only a few feet away. By this montage, they're like buds.

UPDATE (7 Dec., 2016) - I haven't been doing many comparisons of comic TWD to the tv version lately but after I wrote this piece and posted it in various locales, I immediately started getting feedback to the effect that the business with Carl's assassination attempt came straight from the comics. This was used both by critics of my article in an effort to defend the series and by critics of the tv scenario who were sometimes blaming the comics for this dumb bit of plotting and its poor execution. Unlike myself, Lebeau over at Le Blog had the right instincts regarding this matter--in his rundown on the ep, he brought in the comic, not spending a lot of time on it but at least pointing out the huge difference in what happened there vs. what happened in the tv version.

It's still another of my Golden Oldie Gripes that tv TWD is constantly pillaging moments from the comic while entirely removing the context that, in the comics, made them make sense. Events often happen on tv TWD merely because they happened in comic TWD and the television writers don't bother to create any new context that makes these moments work. Carl's assassination attempt on Negan is yet another example of this. Mechanically speaking, the tv version played out almost exactly as did the comic version. The gremlin in the works is that Carl, in the comic, is a little kid--prepubescent, small. His actions are explicable by his lack of maturity (and his particular character development). When, however, these same actions are given to Chandler Riggs' Coral, who is 17 and basically an adult, they look a lot more like utter idiocy, just as I described them.

The age of comic Carl also informs everything that follows.

He's so small, he can barely even hold the rifle he's carrying and whenever he cuts loose with it, he can't control it. He liquidates several of Negan's men and opens fire on the villain as well but the gun is simply too big--he sprays wildly, taking out some more Saviors while the main baddy himself hits the dirt and the recoil from the rifle knocks Carl on his ass. That's how Negan's men are able to disarm him.

TV Coral, by contrast, can handle fully automatic weapons just fine--not only is he fully proficient with one here, we've seen him do it more than once in the past. He also has Negan in his sights and dead to rights at point-blank range for about half a minute but never even tries to shoot the guy, the thing he'd gone there to do. He just stands there like an idiot, tracking Negan with the gun and not pulling the trigger.

The fact that comic Carl is so young is a big part of why Negan is fascinated by him and doesn't just gut him on the spot, a mercy a 17-year-old is very unlikely to receive. Later, Negan makes Carl sing "You Are My Sunshine"; when he makes Carl cry, he feels bad about it; and so on. As these pages I've included help illustrate, Negan, throughout the comic dialogue, is clearly addressing a child. That's the dynamic in play in all of this. Incredibly, the tv version ports over all of this material and most of the comic dialogue, with little change!

It's impossible to so radically alter the circumstances of something that happens in so specific a context and still have it play out the same. The tv adaptation is an ill-conceived fail.

Twitter: @jriddlecult