Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Forget it, Jake, it's THE WALKING DEAD

Writing ongoing articles about an ongoing series is a new thing for this blog, and, given the experience, I sort of doubt it will continue, beyond however many articles THE WALKING DEAD can still pull out of me. The series just isn't good. It isn't just plagued by a raft of problems. It is a raft of problems. There isn't much else to it. And it doesn't even display any variety in the ways in which it chooses to be problematic. Rather, it has exactly the same problems, week after week, which means writing about it begins to seem as if one is writing the same article week after week.

While this week's tepid tome, which answers to the name "Judge, Jury, Executioner," is mostly just more of the same, it is the case that it and the last few episodes have offered one difference worthy of note. Or maybe I'm just exaggerating it to "worthy" status in a desperate effort to find something different to note. TWD is supposed to be, as the comic legend reads, "a continuing story of survival horror." In the first season, the series' plots all flowed from survival concerns. This was mostly cast aside this season in favor of a crushing load of generic soap "storylines," set in a world that was far too safe.[1] The series continues to bear the heavy burden of this fundamentally wrongheaded shift, but in the last few weeks, the writers have at least turned an eye back toward the survival concerns that are supposed to be at the core of the enterprise. A step in the right direction, certainly.

It shouldn't be overstated, though--it's a very small step.

This week's installment continued the writers' efforts to create and have their characters deal with a moral dilemma surrounding Randall, the youthful marauder rescued from fence impalement. What's to be done with him? Keeping him a prisoner doesn't seem practical, and the fear is that, if allowed to live, he will slip away, hook up with the group of armed hostiles of which he was a part before,[2] and bring death and destruction down on the farm. It's a quandary from which competent writers could squeeze some healthy drama.[3]

Unfortunately, this is TWD. In my original critique of the series, I wrote:
"Of all the many changes the writers made to TWD in bringing it to television, the one that has always seemed, to me, the biggest departure from the comic is the tone the writers imported from the soaps. In their treatment of the characters and their interactions, the writers mercilessly jettison any hint of subtlety, complexity, or maturity in favor of extreme, jacked-up melodrama, with everyone nearly going glassy-eyed from being so perpetually wide-eyed and overwrought."
This approach means, among other things, that, no one on TWD can have a normal conversation, a conversation about a mundane subject, or, perhaps most importantly, an intelligent, adult conversation about anything. Everything has to be sensationalistic, and it's all handled through a kind of brainless speechifying; in place of competent dialogue, characters stand around and make grand, overwrought, and aggressively anti-naturalistic speeches to one another. The subjects of these speeches are always treated as if they're of absolutely critical importance, even if they're just petty relationship issues that seems completely absurd in the larger context of the characters' situation. Because everything is handled in this way, the matter of whether it's a good thing if Maggie loves Glenn is treated with exactly the same tone and as if it has exactly the same gravity as a debate over taking the life of a human being, which was the subject of this week's installment. And the speeches, in both cases, are equally inane. A serious treatment of a serious subject is rendered impossible.

That was the "Judge, Jury, Executioner" that was. Nearly everyone is intent on destroying Randall, while Dale runs around trying to be the voice of conscience and learns no one is interested in having one. On a question of such importance, the characters display a creepily fascistic deference to Rick's authority; even his wife, who gives him hell over nearly everything, backs him on this point (though, reflecting TWD's view of the moral courage of women, not necessarily allowing that killing Randall is the "right thing" to do). Dale pleads with the assembled group. No one wants to hear it. At the last minute, Andrea comes around and sides with Dale, but though it runs directly contrary to everything she's had to say on the subject so far, she doesn't offer any reason why she changed her mind. She just suddenly says they should find another way to deal with Randall. And that's all. TWD, this season, wallows in every conceivable cliché like a pig in slop, and without any elaboration on her change of heart, Andrea's switch seems to have been thrown in for no other purpose than indulging that cliché moment of a last-minute conversion.

The wallowing didn't end on that, either. The verdict on Randall is death, and they drag him to the barn, put him on his knees, and prepare to put his lights out for good, but, as Rick is about to drop the hammer on the pathetically pleading fellow (and risk alienating his television audience), his son Carl appears at the door to watch the festivities. He urges on his dear ol' dad, and Rick, seeing himself reflected in the boy, just can't bring himself to do it. After all the pleading about silly things like morality and conscience, Randall is finally spared by a worn-out movie cliché.

Earlier, Dale, hopped up on righteous indignation, declared that if the group was going to kill Randall, he wasn't interested in being a part of it, which probably reflects actor Jeffrey DeMunn's reported unhappiness over continuing with the series after the firing of previous showrunner Frank Darabont, with whom he has had a longtime collaboration.

Both DeMunn and Dale seemed to have the same wish, and this week, it came true.

Dale, walking across an open pasture, comes across a disemboweled cow. He turns in the direction from which he just came and finds himself suddenly facing a zombie, it having either apparently parachuted in behind him after he passed, or magically teleported to the spot. This was a zombie we'd seen earlier in the episode, stuck in ankle-deep mud. The creature had been so weak, at that point, it had been unable to pull itself free from this shallow mud, even when frenzied by the sight of a tasty dinner in the form of Carl standing right in front of him, but when it pounces on Dale,[4] it has the strength of a super-villain, and, with bare, rotting hands, rips open Dale's belly.[5] Others, alerted by the commotion, arrive and deal with the creature, but poor Dale is beyond saving, and, in the last moment of the episode, Daryl puts him down.

This loss is a serious one. Dale has gotten a lot of hatred this season from some of the noisier-than-thoughtful TWD fans, because the writers continued to have him getting into everyone's business while removing the reason the character does this (he's supposed to be trying to head off problems that could endanger the group, but the group hasn't been in any real danger all season). His death means the show has lost one of the very few likeable characters it had left.

As for the rest of the episode, it's the same story as last week. There's no plot. And for all the grandiloquent huffing and puffing the viewer endures, nothing moved. The dilemma at the end is the same as the dilemma at the beginning. A few weeks ago, with "Triggerfinger," I wrote about how the writers set up a cliffhanger, with Rick and the others debating whether they should kill Randall or try to save him from that fence on which he was stuck. Rick ripped him free, and focus abruptly switched away from the action and back to the farm for more re-re-retreading of already-well-worn soap scenes, which, I noted, brought the entire episode to a screeching halt. In a real sense, TWD has remained at a halt from that point. It's like the traffic snarl that brought things to a stop at the beginning of this season. Three episodes in, and the show is still speared on that fence. We've just burned through another hour. Another episode toward meeting AMC's order for this year. But that's about it.

What are the writers doing with TWD?

As little as possible.



[1] It's a sign of how divorced from the zombie apocalypse the show has gotten that Carl is basically able to run around completely unsupervised, without anyone thinking anything of it. This week, he climbs into the barn with what could be a dangerous prisoner, swipes a gun (for the second time), wanders through the forest alone. No one seems to be watching him at all.

[2] Randall had been at the farm for more than a week, but, consistent with the brilliant writing displayed on TWD throughout this season, they hadn't even bothered to interrogate him about that group, an armed contingent of unknown size and demonstrably hostile intent camped out somewhere in the immediate area. This episode, they have Daryl beat on him and cut on him and learn from him that there are about 30 unfriendlies in this other group.

[3] Though, for metatextual reasons, the end was never in doubt. Randall is a very young fellow who whimpers and pleads, professes no allegiance to the group that left him for dead, and is as cooperative as he can be; Shane, the designated villain, may have been allowed to kill him in some underhanded way, but the writers aren't going to allow the entire group to assume responsibility for such a heinous act, and they certainly aren't going to allow their hero Rick to pull the trigger, because either scenario would risk alienating the mass audience.

[4] And to pounce on Dale, it abandoned a huge meal, in the cow, which it had already downed, violating the established TWD rules for zombies (they don't leave a meal in hand). A lot of the zombies' abilities--their speed, in particular--have always been written based on momentary plot needs, but in the last two episodes, they seem almost like an entirely different species.

[5] UPDATE (7 March, 2012) -- After I posted this to the IMDb's WALKING DEAD board, "madman mundt" suggested I was being unfair to TWD in criticizing this, because, as he correctly notes, zombies, in zombie flicks, always have the ability to tear people to pieces. I can certainly accept the criticism that I may be being unfair on that point. The reason such things are forgiven--or, more usually, are never even an issue--in the better zombie flicks is because those films' merits far outweigh them; with TWD, there isn't much to counter them. The zombie in this episode had been shown to be incredibly weak, it apparently possessed powers of teleportation, and then, it pries a fellow apart. And its all happening in the midst of a ridiculous episode of a ridiculous series.

[Cross-posted to my comic blog]


  1. I opted not to write about this episode in spite of the "big, important death." (tm) Partially, I'm busier than usual this week. But mostly, it's for the reasons you describe. It feels like I write the same article every week. And while it can be fun picking apart the flawed logic (if it can even be called that), I just don't have it in me to do it every week.

    Regarding Andreas very sudden and unexplained change of heart, I think it was purely a nod to the comics. I don't recall if you have said whether or not you have read the comics (which are still flawed but infinitely superior to the TV show), but in the comics Andrea and Dale have a very different relationship. The TV show never got around to exploring that relationship beyond Dale being somewhat over-protective. Without that relationship, Dale seemed meddlesome and sometimes creepy. It was a tremendous disservice to the character. I suspect Andrea backed Dale at the last minute even though it was completely out of character for her TV version to do so because her comic book counterpart would have.

    There's two more episodes left and some spoilers have leaked regarding what is to come. I get the sense next episode will be more running in place as everyone deals with Dale's death. any forward momentum will probably be saved for the last 20 minutes of the finale as was the case with the mid-season.

    Glad you got around to doing a write-up because I just didn't have the stomach for it.

  2. I was a big fan of the comic for years before the series came along. My original review of the series, back in January, contrasted it with the comic a lot. The book really is "infinitely superior."

    I end up writing about TWD because I have a friend who loves it, but doesn't have AMC--he comes by to watch it. My parents have also gotten into it, and have me record it for them, too. I'm sort of stuck with it, for now, and my original thought was that, if I have to be stuck with it, I'm damn well going to write about it. It never really changes that much, though.

    I always get a kick out of the previews for the next week, and with the TWD promotional material in general. From watching the promos, one would think it was this fast, exciting series full of action and danger--hilariously false advertising. At least twice earlier this season, they threw in scenes of action for the upcoming episode that were not, in fact, in the upcoming episode (IOW, the one actually coming up was so dull, they couldn't cut an exciting preview spot for it). Next week, it looks like Randall escapes. I guess we'll see where that goes.

  3. My DVR usually cuts out during the previews for the coming week. So I don't even watch them. But that's hysterical that they include footage that isn't in the following week's show.

    I fully expect Randall to join the cast now that there is an opening (with more to follow). So I expect his "escape" to be more running in place. If the plot is advanced in any meaningful way, I will be surprised.

    I would love to be wrong though. As you know from my write-ups, I can force myself to enjoy the show in spite of the flaws. Even so, I can't ignore that the flaws exist.

    Are you still reading the comic? I actually feel like the comic has stagnated recently and suffers many of the same problems as the TV show. Still, far superior. But they have been stuck in one location with relatively low stakes for quite some time in the comic book.

  4. These episode reviews are spot on. Funny how when you bring up these issues with the true believers you are told to unlike the page or better yet you are not worthy of watching the show. This season has been absolutely awful with six episodes of horrible subplots and scenes thrown in just to say it's a zombie show. The walker in the well being the most obvious. How did he get there? What is it doing to the water? Questions never answered and the whole incident quickly forgotten by the cast and writers. The seventh episode had a great ending with Shane saying enough of this nonsense and taking care of the barn problem. Not only that he made Hershel an instant believer.How this apocalypse passed this farm by is beyond me. They live right off the freeway. The walker herd seen in episode one of this season has not been repeated. The barn only seems to get the occasional straggler who always seems to get stuck in the wet cement of the creek. How lucky for the farm. They also seem to be within a pony ride's distance of the only town to never be looted in this apocalypse. No upheavel. No abandoned cars. A drugstore with supplies and a bar with liquor. Those, along with gun stores, are usually the first to go in mass chaos. Ask Korean shopkeepers in South Central LA after the Rodney King riots. The only character I even care about is poor T Dog, who by staying in the shadows,has set a record for longest survival run by a black actor in a sci fi/horror show. Congratulations T Dog.

  5. So I decided to see the whole complete season 2, and boy did it suck. I was completely let down. The first season was amazing... I understand they try to get into character development, but they just went to far with it. I mean Rick is just a play bitch if you ask me. Shane screws your wife, then he goes and tell her you are not a man for this world and keeps going after her. Your wife told you he's dangerous, and you take him out on the deserted road to have a talk with him ? Are you freaking serious ? Then you also have the nerves to save him when he tried to kill you with a huge wrench. Shane is crazy, I'm dying for them to just get rid of him. Even after Rick saves him, he goes and tells Andrea you got to do something to take care of him and the others ? I don't think he really cares for Rick as a friend, and Rick just doesn't want to snap out of it. Shane's character is the reason for all this stupid drama in this show. I really don't think I'll watch the next season if Rick doesn't put an end to Shane's bullshit.