Sunday, March 11, 2012

WALKING DEAD Gives Viewers "Better Angels" Instead of Better Writers

Another week, and another episode of THE WALKING DEAD has shambled by. "Better Angels," this week's installment, is noteworthy for the fact that it finally puts an end to the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle melodrama that has been a lead weight around the neck of the lead weight that is much of the rest of the show this season, and brings an end to the Randall matter on which the show has been speared for over 3 episodes now, without any progress. It's a ham-handed mop-up operation, and, like the episodes that preceded it, another showcase for inept (and gutless) writing.

Characterizations are, as usual, radically altered to serve the momentary needs of the plot.

"Triggerfinger" ended with Lori pulling a Lady MacBeth, trying to convince Rick that Shane was not only dangerous but so dangerous he should be killed. Now, only a few episodes later, Lori offers a big, emotional, astonishingly abject apology to Shane for everything she's put him through--the kind of apology she's never offered to her dutiful clown of a husband.

For much of this season, Shane has been written as a cartoon villain, but, other than being villainous, the writing of the character has been wildly inconsistent. He wants to leave the group, then he wants to stay. He cares nothing about the larger group, then he's persistently plotting a coup and trying to take it over. He cruelly screams at Carol about her daughter being dead, saying they're risking their lives to find this dead girl, then, in the next episode, is given a tender moment with Carol. In "18 Miles Out," he had proven, once again, to be dangerously unstable, to the point of trying to murder Rick with a large wrench. Then, in the next episode, he was quite stable and even reasonable, making a deal with Dale, his arch-foe, over allowing Dale to make the case for sparing Randall from death. In "Better Angels," he falls back to full-on psycho mode, and plots Rick's death.

In my original review of TWD, I wrote that the story is "set in a bleak, unforgiving, relentlessly dangerous world that, on a regular basis, forces tough decisions on its characters, the kind that could utterly alienate a mainstream television audience." This, I argued, made TWD a tough sell for tv treatment. The writers of the series, this season, certainly agreed, and Shane has been their way around this. Whenever a problem has arisen this season that doesn't have an easy answer, Shane has been given the duty of dealing with it. As the designated cartoon villain, he can do so, and spare the rest of the group from having to make any tough--and potentially audience-alienating--calls. When it came time to discuss whether it was a good idea to continue to risk the rest of the group in a search for Sophia, who was, by that point, almost certainly dead, it was a matter worthy of serious discussion, but, being a hard discussion, the writers put the advocacy for abandoning the search in their villains' mouth, rather than giving it an honest hearing. When the delusional Hershel was insisting the dead must be treated as if merely ill, and Rick, going along with this, was herding dangerous walkers right through the camp, the villain dealt with the problem, solving, in the process, the long-running mystery of Sophia. For over three episodes, the series has been at a dead stop--and not in any good way--over the question of what to do with Randall, another difficult situation for which there are no easy answers. This week, the villain takes Randall into the woods and kills him, solving the problem while conveniently keeping the blood off everyone else's hands.

Under the pretense that Randall has clocked him and escaped,[1] Shane leads Rick in a "search" for the escaped prisoner that circles through the forest, ending up, eventually, in an open pasture he intends to make Rick's grave. There's some uncharacteristically good cinematography in this scene--a big, full moon over an open field.[2] Rick turns the tables on his would-be killer, and finally puts an end to the matter of Shane. Andrew Lincoln, essaying Rick, handles the scene pretty badly, but, given TWD's penchant for wallowing in every cliché imaginable, it was actually somewhat refreshing when Rick, as the life of his soon-to-be-former best friend ebbs away, resists the urge to crack the sky with a full-throated cry of "NOOOOOO!!!" But he only barely resists it. He wobbles about, goes through the standard body language, offers an incoherent cry, and one can see that "NOOOOOO!!!" start to form on his lips, but he holds it in check, and for TWD, that's a major accomplishment.

It's somewhat undermined by what happens next, of course--two moments without a cliché would probably be a bit much to expect.

For no real reason at all, the writers make Carl appear on the scene. Totally unsupervised, and, with a potentially dangerous prisoner on the loose, Carl is wandering through a pasture in the middle of the night, only a day after Dale was torn to pieces by a zombie while doing exactly the same thing.[2a] Carl is there because, in the comic, he's the one who killed Shane, and the writers of the series wanted to offer a tip of the hat to that, without regard for whether it made any sense at all. Carl, coming across Rick kneeling over Shane, whips out a gun and appears to draw down on Rick. Rick rises up and pleads with him, while he continues to take careful aim. The thing at which he's actually aiming is the now-zombified Shane, who has risen from the ground and is creeping up behind Rick. It's a scene everyone has seen a million times. So it can play out without spoiling the fun, everyone gets stupid. Carl holds the pose while Rick, assuming himself to be the target, pathetically pleads (one thing Lincoln's Rick is adept at doing), and Carl never bothers to tell his father what's actually happening, or issue a warning about the approaching zombie, until he pulls the trigger. Rick, for his part, seems to have gone temporarily deaf, and is oblivious to the loud, angry growling of the zombie that is practically on top of him.

Others, however, are not so hard of hearing. Hershel's farm has, throughout the season, seemed to feature some sort of magical zombie repellent. Even as two groups of our heroes prowled the forests on the property in different places and for an extended period in search of Randall, they didn't encounter a single zombie, except that of Randall himself (reanimated after Shane killed him). But as the shot that dusts zombie Shane rings out, the forests on the farm are suddenly absolutely thick with walkers, perhaps having freshly teleported to the scene,[3] and they all immediately begin to converge on the source of the gun-shot, setting up a big showdown with the dead, just in time for the season finale.

And that's about it. The Randall melodrama is finished. The love triangle melodrama with Shane is finished. And TWD still needs better writers, not "Better Angels."



[1] The idea of Randall, a wounded, scrawny, insignificant creature, successfully decking the brutish Shane is hilarious, at best.

[2] Given the milieu, this was probably borrowed from the conclusion of George Romero's SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, though it isn't original to that film.

[2a] UPDATE (13 March, 2012) -- I've gotten some criticism for my own criticism of Carl's appearance in this scene. Earlier, Carl had been shown back at the farm-house, scanning the night with binoculars, seeing nothing. That he was looking for Rick and Shane has been mistaken by some as a reason for his going out to meet them. Other than the metatextual desire to pay homage to Shane's death scene from the comic, though, Carl has absolutely no reason to be there, and lots of very good reasons not to be stomping around in the night. Like most of what happens on TWD, the scene is dependent on his being an idiot. Something else worth mentioning is that Rick and Shane step out into the open pasture in sight of the house, but they're far too distant from it for Carl, without the benefit of teleportation, to cover the ground between in the available time.

[3] Teleportation being an apparent zombie power on TWD. In at least two other instances this season, zombies have displayed the ability. One teleported inside the pharmacy, back in the first part of the season, so it could attack Maggie. Another teleported behind Dale. This week, it seems to have been a mass teleportation, filling the forests on the farm.

[Cross-posted to my comic blog]


  1. Just finished my reply to your comment on my blog by saying that I was looking forward to what you thought about tonight’s episode and then I see it sitting at the top of my blog feed. What great timing.

    I’m glad we’ve come to a major turning point as well as the final conclusions to a couple subplots that have been in sequence throughout several episodes, or as you put it “a ham-handed mop-up operation”. It may be flawed but I’m always satisfied when things play out in ways that I don’t see coming. I had heard that Shane dies in the comic, but I honestly thought they were going to keep him. I also thought of the conclusion to Survival of the Dead from the view of the standoff between Shane and Rick. I think the term “Walkers” was coined in Land of the Dead, but I could be wrong.

    The teleporting zombies from Fulci’s “City of the Living Deadl” would be proud of the zombies in TWD. I’ve wondered for a long time now what made the farm so exempt from the rest of the world and more like an isolated haven, because as tonight’s episode indicated there were plenty of walkers out there.

    Great write-up J, your TWD series has been something I've been looking forward to now after every episode.

  2. Jeremy how does Carl just go where he pleases with nary a soul concerned about his whereabouts? The fact that he can wander through obviously walker infested woods at night by himself to the exact spot Rick and Shane are is navigation worthy of Magellan. Why would they not have two flashlights? If just one why would Daryl be the one with it since he is the one most likely to maneuver in the dark? I do give a nod to the opening sequence that showed the group checking the fence and waylaying a group of walkers. Unfortunately having finally seen the fence it doesn't seem to stretch across the front side of the property. H

  3. I can actually explain Carl showing up on the scene of the big show down, but only with a different bit of bad writing. If you notice, the pasture that Shane leads Rick to, after who knows how long of hiking in the forest, in order to kill him there, is actually right next to the barn. So instead, of killing Rick in the middle of the woods where no one can see, he decides to do it in plain view of the night watchman that should be stationed in the barn (and they of course, give that job to the 10 year old kid).

    I agree the cinematography during the Shane- Rick showdown was unusually good, but yeah, I scoffed at Rick's acting at the end there. The Carl shooting the zombie thing was ridiculous not just because of the cliche, but also, if I'm not wrong, he draws the gun on Rick before Zombie Shane even stands up. So it was a case of "I'm going to shoot you!" but no actually at the last minute I'll shoot the zombie behind you. They made it seem like Carl had stumbled upon the scene, which was Rick semi-sobbing over Shane's dead boy, and then somehow immediately concluded that Rick had murdered him and that he was a monster and Carl had to do something about it. Really? He wouldn't just assume that hmm..maybe Randall, the escaped prisoner with a gun, had killed Shane and Rick was kneeling over his body?

    Anyways... I'm just glad the zombie horde is finally coming so they can leave this farm, which is a major reason this series is stagnating so badly. It has no dynamism because they are stuck on this safe farm and the only conflicts are artificially drug up soap storylines that go nowhere.

    Anyways, I am happy to see Shane go actually. People say it's a mistake because he was the primary antagonist, but I actually thought it was wearing thin and needed a conclusion. What they need to do is get off the farm and get on with the story. Introduce characters like the Governor who aren't just random, cardboard cut out "survivors". Interesting characters!

  4. In fact, I just rewatched the end scene, and the house itself is in the background behind Carl when the focus readjusts. The place that Shane took Rick to to murder him was in full view of the house. If you were looking out the window of one of the bedrooms you would have seen them have their big show down. What a masterful plan by Shane.

  5. One argument that was shot down tonight is where all the food they were eating was coming from. People said hey they're on a farm. They must have plenty stored. Tonight Hershel said he would put food in the basement so they would have 2-3 days worth. You think they would have had that basement stocked to the rafters.

  6. Another great deconstruction of this frustrating show. I've followed TWD off-and-on this season, hoping the production and writing staffs would realize what a great opportunity they have to produce a show that is satisfying both to fans of the genre and to fans of good television, and I've been consistently disappointed with the results. Your discussions embody the reasons why this is so. We now know what TWD is and what it will continue to be- a guilty pleasure for people who are sufficiently intrigued by the premise to overlook the many glaring problems in the execution. Thanks again for the on-point analysis.

  7. Heh. I googled "walking dead season 2 sucks" and found your blog. This pretty much nails it. For a while I was able to suspend my disbelief by telling myself that the thesis of the show is that people do stupid things under a lot of stress. But NO ONE could be as stupid as Rick's wife is consistently shown to be.

    I think the big suspenseful question we're supposed to be asking ourselves after this episode is what new ontological shift has happened that the dead are being reanimated without having been bitten!?!! Yawn. Maybe I'll check back here to find out the answer, since I think I'm done watching the show itself...