Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talkin' The Talking In WALKING DEAD Blues

My semi-long critique of THE WALKING DEAD from last month seems to have found quite an audience. In only a few weeks, it has become the second-most hit-upon article on this site. Sunday, the series itself returned from its mid-season hiatus with "Nebraska," an episode that, though mostly unfortunate and plagued by all of the problems I had earlier identified, still managed to set a cable ratings record, drawing 8.1 million viewers.[see Update below] As I explained in my earlier piece, I have a friend who, deprived of AMC, visits and watches the show with me each week. He's a good fellow and I'm happy for the company but it means I end up watching the series every week, which I wouldn't do under my own steam. Since I am watching it, along with so many others, and since my critique of it is something that seems to interest people, I thought I'd continue. I don't know how often or how long I'll do so. I'll just play it by ear.

A note: My earlier article was heavy on exposition in an effort to make it accessible to those with minimal knowledge of the show. I don't know if that approach was effective or misguided but I think I'm going to dial back on it, go with a bit less structure and speak more to those who know the series. There seem to be enough of them.

The horrendous writing that has become TWD's trademark was on full display this week when Dale, the wise old man of the group, expressed his growing suspicions about Shane to Lori. The scene became something like a workshop on bad writing and authorial contempt for the audience.

Earlier in the season, Shane and Otis trekked to a zombie-infested school to retrieve medical supplies needed to save Carl, then dying from a gunshot wound to the midsection. In the course of the adventure, Shane panicked and, in an act of cowardice, shot Otis, crippling him so the pursuing zombie horde would stop to snack on him while Shane escaped. Shane, of course, lied about what happened. As he told the story, he and Otis were cut off at every turn and almost out of ammo. They were, in his words, "down to pistols" when it came to fighting the dead and Otis heroically volunteered to stay behind and cover Shane's escape. The hole: the only pistol Otis had was Rick's and Shane returned with both it (which he wrestled from Otis's hands after shooting him) and his own. This being TWD, no one in the group noticed this huge, gaping hole in Shane's story.[1]

No one, that is, except Dale. Dale is, as I wrote in my earlier piece, "a careful observer of people who often gets in everyone else's business because he's trying to head off potential conflicts before they balloon into problems that could endanger the groups' survival." A Wise Old Man character. He immediately recognized Shane's story as ridiculous and already had good reason to suspect Shane, as he once saw Shane poised to shoot Rick in the back and only his own fortunate appearance on the scene at that moment saved Rick's life. He knew why Shane would do such a thing as well, because he knew of Shane's affair with Rick's wife Lori.

Later, Dale would confront Shane with his suspicions about Otis. Rather than being upset or hurt or trying to set Dale straight, as one would expect from someone wrongly accused, Shane went into psycho mode, all but confirming he'd done something terrible and even threatening Dale's life.

When it came time, in this week's episode, for Dale to outline for Lori his case against Shane, the writers decided to leave out every substantive element of that case. Dale offered his suspicion that Shane may have killed Otis and Lori, shocked by this, wanted concrete evidence ("You need to be really clear with me right now!"). Dale didn't bother to mention the pistol thing, though that's physical evidence of Shane's lie. He didn't mention seeing Shane draw down on Rick, who, again, is Lori's husband. He tells Lori that, when he confronted Shane about these things, Shane all but confirmed his suspicions but he leaves out the fact that Shane's response also included threatening to kill him if he didn't leave the matter be. Lori's experience of nearly being raped by Shane is also very germane to this matter but it was left out, as well--Lori, in fact, defends Shane. Also forgotten was the fact that, only minutes earlier, they'd all seen Shane go on a total out-of-control rampage and release a barn full of zombies on them, recklessly endangering everyone. Dale is the observer who tries to head off trouble and though this is what led to his conversation with Lori in the first place, the writers, in that scene, have him leave the matter of Shane at little more than the fact that he has a bad feeling about the fellow and has known no-account people like that in the past, giving Lori no real reason to buy into it.[2]

As writing goes, a total fail.

Absolutely typical of TWD this season though.

Hershel Greene's family, to cite another example, has spent the entire zombie apocalypse believing the zombies are merely sick people rather than dead ones. Only on TWD could Hershel, a trained medical professional with, presumably, decades of experience, be said to be incapable of distinguishing a living creature from a dead one without anyone batting an eye. Still, Hershel is set up as delusional and delusion can be a powerful thing. Is it powerful enough that Hershel and his family can observe the creatures literally rotting away right before their eyes without ever questioning their deluded premise? They feed the zombies raw chickens--live ones. A most curious diet on which to put sick people (or people). Otis, who lived with Hershel, was, himself, an Emergency Medical Technician who apparently realized the creatures were dead (he showed no compunction against killing them) but humored Hershel. If he was a second opinion on the medical question--while Hershel repeatedly dispatched him to wrangle dangerous zombies into the barn--he clearly didn't make a dent in the Greene families' analysis.[3] Once our heroes arrive at the farm, they're similarly unable to convince any of Hershel's clan that they are dealing with the dead. We've followed this group as they've seen zombies take damage no living person could survive. They've even lopped the heads off zombies and the heads keep trying to bite them. Three days before arriving on Hershel's farm, they trekked to the CDC in Atlanta, where a scientist explained what was happening and even showed them video of a woman dying and of portions of her brain reactivating. Yet in multiple conversations on this subject with Hershel and his family--Dale with Hershel, Rick with Hershel, Glenn with Hershel's daughter Maggie--the writers fail to have any of them ever mention any of these things. Our heroes just say the dead are dead, the Greenes disagree and that's the end of the matter. That's what the mess that passes for a "plot" demanded. Hershel and co. only come to their senses when they see zombies horrendously wounded without dying. If you question why this would convince them, when seeing creatures bereft of any vital signs (many of them already horrendously wounded) rot away and "live" off live chickens didn't, you're probably too sharp for the writing staff of TWD.

Probably too sharp to be watching it, too.


[Cross-posted to my comic book blog]


[1] Unless one is to think the portly Otis opted to give up his gun and go hand-to-hand with the pursuing zombie horde.

[2] The writers did the same thing an episode earlier, when Dale was discussing Shane with Andrea.

[3] This is another example of the series' writers making a mess of a storyline from the comics by unnecessarily changing things. In the book, Hershel is no physician; he's just a regular farmer who has done amateur vet work on some of his animals in the past. Otis was just a dumb hick without any medical training. It wasn't clear that Hershel's children shared in his delusion, and that delusion didn't include the notion that the dead were merely sick--he acknowledged they were dead but wanted to believe there was some way to reverse the process, because his son had zombified. The impression offered is that, in his heart, he knows the truth, but refuses to admit it. In short, a much more credible scenario on every front.

UPDATE (20 Feb., 2012) -- This claim, that "Nebraska" drew record ratings, seems to have originated with AMC and been circulated far and wide. The original claim was that the episode had set a record for a scripted basic cable drama. Note the multiple caveats, there.  In reality, MTV's wretched JERSEY SHORE had, only last year, drawn, with various episodes, 8.45 million, 8.6 million, and 8.9 million viewers. AMC's claim was based on the idea that JERSEYS SHORE, as a "reality show," isn't a scripted drama but, of course, the series is actually just as scripted as TWD.


  1. Couldn't agree more. What really bothers me at this point is that (based on what has been predicted/spoiled for the rest of the season) NOTHING these characters are going to do is going to make a damn bit of sense. The writing is god-awful and the pacing is an unqualified disaster. If Nebraska was any indication the writers and producers still have no idea what to do with this show. And I think that the rest of the season is going to be a mess because they are going to make every episode "jam packed" to make up for the time they wasted. I will probably watch out this season, be annoyed, and then just "forget" to watch when it comes back in the fall.

  2. Great analysis. You've nailed some of the logical flaws of the series. I say "some" because there are plenty more. You've just focused on some of the more glaring. (Although I have to admit the holes in Shane's story never occured to me.)

    I do think, maybe, you're being a bit too analytical. Stupidity runs rampant in the zombie genre. Otherwise, characters would find a safe place and live there with minimal drama.

    I'm not trying to excuse the bad writing entirely. I have been critical of the show as well. But I'm willing to let some of it slide when the show is entertaining. (Which it is roughly half the time. The other half is maddening!)

    Great write-up. Can't wait to read more!

  3. @Ellie: I don't know what they're planning for the rest of the season, but Mazzara, in talking about how he has addressed the criticism of the series, makes it sound as if he's just going to throw zombies at the problems. That may make it less dull, but it won't do anything to fix anything.

    @lebeau: I should, perhaps, add a disclaimer: "The explicit enumeration of certain shortcomings of TWD should, in no way, be interpreted as implying there aren't further shortcomings left unmentioned." Or something like that. It would be impossible to be comprehensive--one would just have to mark it as "Shortcomings: All."

    I'm not very entertained by the series. I'm not exactly a captive audience, but as I've said, I wouldn't be watching it if it was entirely up to me. In general, I'm willing to forgive lots of shortcomings, if there are benefits that outweigh them. I just don't see much here.

  4. A very noticeable shortcoming especially for a person who lives in Atlanta, is the total lack of walkers of color. Other than Morgan's wife who appeared way back in episode one 15 months ago I have seen nary a one. Guys we are talking about the black capitol of the south and I find it hard to believe everyone got the hell out of Dodge when the shit hit the fan.