Monday, December 2, 2013


TWD has been extremely uneven this season. Showrunner Scott Gimple and his team have crafted a significantly reformed version of the series that, as I've noted here, often seems intentionally aimed at rejecting, refuting and righting some of the worst rubbish of the Mazzara era. Glen Mazzara continues to cast a long shadow over the series though, and parallel to this effort, TWD has repeatedly backslidden into that same cretinous creative cul-de-sac of error, laziness and poor decision-making. These trends began to come together in last week's episode and spectacularly collided in tonight's.

It's easy to read a lot of metatextual commentary in this season's TWD and an angle about which I nearly wrote last week was whether the Gimple Gang was taking its big textual Theme for this season--can we come back from the bad things this world has made us do?--and applying it to their handling of the series. Can TWD really come back from the godawful Mazzara era? The last two episodes have featured a blatant rehash of the Woodbury storyline from season 3 and it's impossible to see this as anything other than Gimple trying to prove he can do it better than Mazzara.[1] No one could seriously argue that Mazzara's handling of what had been one of the absolute high points of the comic was anything short of godawful, the authorial equivalent of a pirate raid without any cool pirate stuff. He showed it no respect, pillaged and raped it and didn't come up with anything better, anything as good or anything that in any aspect would deserve to have the word "good" applied to it. That is, however, a crime that can't be uncommitted. Sure, it can be redone and handled better--tonight's ep proves that--but doing it far better is, forgive me, comically easy. It can effortlessly top the original without even being very good--something else tonight's ep proved. Spending a chunk of the season rehashing such a storyline may prove you're better than Mazzara but what it really means is that you didn't have anything else of your own to say. It's a sequel that's basically a remake; even if it works, why bother?

So what TWD delivered tonight was something closer to what it should have delivered in season 3. Taken in isolation, the episode itself was an a stupid but at-times-entertaining diversion. The more interesting "Brian Heriot" had, last week, been devolved back to GINO with the instantaneousness of a light-switch being flipped, to the point that even when his new "daughter" had been attacked by a zombie, he'd simply shot the creature and coldly stalked off without bothering to comfort the child or even inquire about her well-being. Tonight's ep backed away from that to an extent and he is given a few scenes that suggest he genuinely cares about his adopted "family." Whereas back in season 3 he'd had no motive (beyond being the series' designated villain) for wanting to attack the prison, the present rehash restores the motive of the parallel character from the comic--he wants the prison because it's a better and safer place to live. There is dark irony; while GINO is trying to take over the prison to secure his families' survival, his "daughter" is bitten by a zombie and dies; at the end, it's his lover who puts a bullet through his own brain. There are a few noteworthy moments of a visceral variety. Daryl using a dead zombie as a shield/disguise in order to take out a tank was a nice touch. I liked the fact that, when trouble turned up, the prison group had an escape strategy in place. That's such a minor detail that it would barely seem worthy of mention but it represents yet another major break with and repudiation of Mazzara's TWD, which, as I've so often noted, never spent a moment on such basic survival matters except to demonize them.[2] The concluding moments featured some nice, Romero-esque shots of roaming, rotting zombies inheriting the earth.

Any kind words directed at "Too Far Gone," though, come with some serious caveats.

Its first line, GINO addressing his Woodbury 2.0 group, is, "I have to talk all of you into doing something." That particular "something" being to attack the prison and drive out its occupants. Last week, the just-add-water ease with which GINO, an almost total stranger to these people, took over as their leader wasn't believable and it's even less believable that what mostly appear to be a group of ordinary people would not only readily acquiesce to participate in such a monstrous act but would follow GINO as he nearly decapitated a defenseless old man right before their eyes, destroyed the prison's defenses (the very reason they wanted the place) and provoked a heavily armed resistance from its defenders, who had done them no harm at all and had offered to let them live there. In spite of it all, most of them follow GINO right to their doom with the devotion of some fanatical cult. Or like a herd of zombies.

Prior to the debut of season 4, I offered an evaluation of Scott Gimple in which I noted his apparently extreme disdain for Rick. "His reign," I suggested, "could mean hard times for Rick fans." That was certainly the case tonight, when the creators subjected Rick to yet another full-blown character assassination. When GINO shows up with an army on his doorstep and demands a parlay, Rick rather jaw-droppingly demurs, limply asserting he doesn't run things anymore and that there's now a governing council. When he finally makes his way to the fence and talks, his voice cracks, he seems perpetually on the verge of tears, and with hilariously bad accent blinking in and out by the second, he virtually begs his enemy not to make a fuss. In the face of a massive existential threat, this is as pathetic and weak and stupid a Rick as TWD has ever presented. When, later, he and GINO get at one another hand-to-hand, I found myself wishing GINO would kill him, then almost immediately wishing they could both just kill one another.

There are other problems. At that fence parlay, GINO gives a little speech to Rick then repeats it 3 or 4 times. Apparently the ep needed a little extra running-time and no one could think of anything more for the unidimensional cartoon villain to say. Rick, for his part, ends up reciting the season's big Theme, telling Woodbury 2.0 "we can come back," though in context it doesn't make a lick of sense.[3] Characters on TWD often have magical, Wolverine-style healing powers and these were on overdrive tonight. GINO slices into Hershel's neck with Michonne's katana, cutting perhaps a third of the way through it, and Hershel is still alive and tries to crawl away! But he doesn't make it. Michonne later skewers GINO on the same blade but GINO proves a tough fucker, too--even long after having a sword shoved right through his heart, he's still alive for his girlfriend to come along and self-righteously put down--a fan-service double kill. The teleporting zombies the series has so often featured were back with a vengeance tonight--as soon as the fence around the prison comes down, they materialize well within the prison grounds, attacking the living on both sides. And so on.

I think it would have been interesting tonight to have on hand Karen, the sole survivor of GINO's massacre, last season, of Woodbury 1.0. TWD is, unfortunately, long in the habit of killing off people who would lend interesting dynamics to a given scenario. T-Dog was responsible for Merle's loss of his hand, and a confrontation between them, when Merle returned, would have been fodder for drama. At the very least, it would have given T-Dog something to do except be black. Instead, T-Dog was killed off before Merle had reunited with the group. Merle himself offered an invaluable dynamic to the group, both via his brother and through his rocky relations with everyone else. Lots of dramatic opportunity there and the excellent Michael Rooker essaying the part but was killed off before any of this could be explored. Karen's absolutely pointless murder by an entirely-out-of-character Carol earlier this season--a plot decision made with the knowledge GINO was going to be at the gates of the prison a few eps later--is just the latest example.

The series did break another related Mazzara-era habit tonight in killing off Hershel. As I've often noted, the series has handled the sticky, potentially audience-alienating matter of killing regulars by either relegating such fates to redshirted non-entities (like Karen) or, if the character is a major player, so demonizing them that by the time they die, the audience is glad to see them go. In the entire run of TWD, Hershel was the first unquestionably major player to be killed who wasn't subjected to this treatment. Unfortunately, he was subjected to another Mazzara-era abuse; it's the habit of TWD to telegraph character deaths by suddenly making those about to die the central focus of an episode. Hershel was the central focus of his last complete ep ("Internment"). Some bad habits, it seems, die hard. I don't approve of the habit of some fans of making the deaths of regulars a thing they anticipate or of TWD's habit of catering to this by using such deaths for shock effect but in this case I'll take half a loaf. It's more than we'd gotten before.

As things stand, our heroes are scattered and have fled the prison, though it's still standing, still usable and there really isn't any need to leave it other than the metatextual desire to have the group move on. At the midseason break, TWD still sways between the promising reformism of this season and that long shadow Glen Mazzara casts over the production. It's still written subservient to a predetermined Theme, rather than with an eye toward going with what works. Every two or three steps forward seems to be accompanied by a step backward. I'm not really sure what its future holds but the pointless rehash of season 3 is finally over and the Gimple Gang can get back to doing something else.



[1] This was so blatant that when GINO's Woodbury 2.0 marches on the prison, it announces its presence by blowing up one of the prison's guard-towers, just as the 1.0 version did last season.

[2] If someone on Mazzara's TWD had suggested taking a moment away from the relationship melodrama to create an escape plan in the event of trouble, he would have been presented as a war criminal or child rapist, his plan entirely self-serving in some terrible way.

[3] Rick could have made clear to the assembled who and what GINO was and he'd have the survivors of Woodbury (to whom he only made a passing reference) to back him. Since GINO was insisting there was nothing personal in his actions, he could have offered to take in everyone except GINO. Nothing personal (a few eps earlier, Rick had pitilessly exiled Carol; now, weepy Rick offers to take in GINO!). He could have flatly told the lot of them that if they cross that fence, his people would make it a point to kill as many of them as they could (it's horrible to think that Mazzara better understood the likely reaction of ordinary people to such a threat than the current Gimple regime). There are about 10,000 things a competently written Rick could have done and several he should have done. Instead of striding down to the fence and playing it smart, he's cowardly, weepy, dumb, and weak--disgusting to watch.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Shifting WALKING DEAD Weight

My brief essay on THE WALKING DEAD's Theme for this season--can you come back from the bad things this world has made you do?--could have almost served as my review for tonight's episode. My point in that earlier piece was that TWD's writers should go with what works, rather than making everything subservient to some big Theme that will probably dictate things that don't, or that, at least, don't work as well. The writers failed to learn this lesson with Carol; after making her emerge, rather spectacularly, as the most interesting character on the show, they assassinated her character in the name of the Theme then sent her into exile. Last week, they took GINO, Glen Mazzara's bland insult to the viewers from last season, and transformed him into "Brian Heriot," a much more interesting character with a better story. The ep ended with Heriot encountering Martinez, one of his henchmen from his GINO days, and I feared the Theme was about to claim another interesting direction the series had taken.

And, as it turned out, I was right.

"Dead Weight" is a good title for tonight's installment. Heriot and his new family are taken in by a new group of survivors who have gathered around Martinez. He doesn't want to be there, doesn't want to think about his past, and certainly doesn't want Martinez to talk about it. In typically over-the-top TWD style, he becomes so averse to it that when Martinez suggests sharing power over the group, Heriot bashes the fellow in the head with a golf-club and feeds him to a group of zombies, shouting "I DON'T WANT IT!" over and over again. A consequent leadership vacuum leads to what he perceives as a dangerous situation,[1] and he loads up his new family and flees into the night. He comes upon what appears to be a mud-bog in the road in which a pack of zombies the width of the road are mired up to their waists. It's unclear what this is, how it got there, or if it's some kind of intentional obstruction; no explanation is offered. Because of it, Heriot returns to camp, and doesn't leave! The danger he perceives in staying apparently isn't significant enough to dictate simply going around this mess or taking a different route.[2]

It does, however, dictate his throwing off his Heriot identity the next morning and becoming GINO again, that thing against which he was so dead set that he insanely murdered Martinez for merely suggesting. He wants his new family to survive, and the writers pretend as if this new motive justifies this move--on TWD, there's never any middle ground.. He kills the camp's leader, co-opts his right-hand man, and sets himself up as ruler again--full GINO mode with the flip of a switch. A little later, when his new "daughter" is nearly eaten by a zombie, he kills the creature then icily stalks off, without even bothering to inquire about the child's condition.

The ep tries to present a man struggling with his identity. The problem is that his GINO identity was, as I noted last week, "a poorly-constructed, unspeakably silly cartoon villain." There are a few nice touches along the way--some solid, deceptively subtle cinematography, and when GINO kills the group's leader, he dumps the body off a pier with a weight on its leg so that, when the fellow resurrects, he can go back out and look at the creature struggling under the water--a rather rich image. For the most part, though, the story isn't compelling--the GINO character is anti-compelling, the motivation for his switch is laughably weak (virtually non-existent), and the extremes from which he swings far too extreme.[3]

All of this is done to set up a confrontation with the prison--one that will be familiar to readers of the comic--and to have it fall right at the point of the mid-season break. That, far more than any dramatic considerations, is probably what accounts for both the instantaneous nature of Heriot/GINO's transformation, and its extremities. That thought can't help but remind me of how, earlier this season, the creators wasted most of two episodes and parts of another by slamming on the brakes and piling on the filler. Time that could have been spent integrating a more credible evolution of this character (and would have been better spent doing just about anything remotely interesting).



[1] That develops in a rather amusing way as well. Heriot, while out on patrol with some others, spies another camp of survivors. They consider killing the group and taking their supplies, but the new leader vetoes the idea. No need to act like animals, right? A few minutes later, they look in on the camp again, and someone--perhaps a group of ninja--have turned up and managed to gun down the entire camp and make off with its supplies without any of Heriot's group hearing a thing, though they're in the immediate vicinity.

[2] Nor do the mud-zombies that prevent him from leaving prevent him from driving to the prison on what appears to be the next day.

[3] Consistent with both the cartoon villain aspect and the completeness of the transformation, they even given GINO his old wardrobe and gun, and have him angrily spy Michonne outside the prison.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thoughts on the Theme of THE WALKING DEAD

This season, THE WALKING DEAD has a theme, or, more accurately, a Theme. A Theme is a theme but handled in a noisy, sometimes clunky, ham-handed sort of way. Mere themes are written into a story in ways that don't necessarily call attention to themselves. Often, the creator isn't even conscious of them; they're present in the work because they're present in his head. A Theme, on the other hand, is usually pretentious, always intentional and always loud--always making its audience aware of itself. Whereas themes are often many and recurring throughout a work, a Theme tends to be singular--it's there to be explored, brought to a conclusion, then more-or-less dropped. Episodic television series often adopt a Theme and build an entire season around it. The results of this approach can be quite good or quite bad, always depending on the talent of those telling the tale. The Theme of the present season of TWD was spelled out in Rick's little adventure in the season opener. It's a question: can people come back from the awful things this zombified world has made them do to survive?

Astute viewers of TWD will immediately recognize the problem inherent in having this as its Theme: very few of the characters on the television iteration of TWD have done anything particularly bad from which they need to "come back." In a misguided effort to make TWD more palatable to a "mainstream" audience, the source material has, throughout the run of the series, been relentlessly sanitized. I've written about this many times. From, for example, my commentary on the season 2 ep "Better Angels":

"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."

From the fate of Sophia to what to do about the zombies in the barn to what to do about Randall, Shane resolved all of the dilemmas that consumed season 2, keeping any blood that had to be spilled off the hands of our heroes. Rick then disposed of him. As I've covered here many times, the series didn't just avoid having its heroes make any tough choices; it was, under Mazzara, openly hostile to survivalist sentiment, and made a regular practice of presenting such sentiment in contexts designed to make it seem entirely inappropriate.

Examples of this are legion. In season 2, after the search for Sophia had dragged on too long and Daryl had been hurt, the idea of calling it off needed to be given some kind of hearing. Instead, the TWD writers put that sentiment in Shane's mouth, thus writing it off as the selfish view of a heartless villain. In "Home" from season 3, a strikeforce from Woodbury is probably bearing down on the prison. With Rick out of his mind and everyone else just standing around with thumbs in orifices (as they so often did on Mazzara's TWD), Glenn tries to get the group prepared for the imminent war; for his efforts, he's presented as being a dangerously stupid jerk. Hershel gives him a speech about how his attitude is going to get him killed. Maggie, angry that he's angry that she was threatened with rape, even refuses to help him shore up the perimeter. Later still, in "Welcome To The Tombs," Carl offers a great little speech to Rick about how failing to responsibly deal with problems that arise results in people being killed. As I wrote at the time, "he failed to kill the walker that killed Dale; Rick failed to kill Andrew, which resulted in Lori and T-Dog dying; Rick didn't shoot GINO when he had the chance, resulting in the attack that had just happened." It was something that, by then, desperately needed to be said, but, again, the writers presented it as the self-serving words of a brat kid who had just gunned down a surrendering teenager, then presented Rick as refuting it by taking in the survivors of Woodbury. And on into infinity.

Upon the inauguration of this season's Theme, Rick was set up as someone who wondered if he could "come back" from the bad things he's had to do. As the season opened, he'd virtually retired from action and became a farmer, because, as he described it, he'd started down the road of making those tough calls one has to make to survive and, as a consequence, almost lost himself and his son. This certainly comes as news to regular viewers of TWD. Rick has never made a tough call with regard to a matter of survival. Any time he's been put in a position to do so, he's punted. It's true he allowed a backpacker to be devoured by the dead in "Clear", but that was a virtually random thing that happened when he was out of his mind. He later decided to hand Michonne over to GINO, but he changed his mind (as always), and, in one of the all-time low-points of TWD, Michonne told him he was right to consider that offer, and even thanked him for taking her in. Read in light of the season's Theme, the idea that Rick has anything from which to "come back" is just arbitrary melodrama.

More broadly, none of the regular characters on TWD have had to make any tough choices from which to "come back." The sanitization process has been too thorough. And that, of course, is why the writers suddenly had Carol go radically out-of-character this season and pointlessly kill two people; it's done in the service of the Theme, the usual plot-dictating-characterization approach of melodrama. Carol now has something from which to "come back," and the writers can milk it, but it required arbitrarily dictating that she commit cold-blooded murder, which assassinated her character. Carol had, for the first time in TWD's run, become a genuinely interesting character with an interesting dynamic to contribute; now, she's the perpetrator of an atrocity and has, for the moment, been written out of the series. The writers failed to learn what should be the lesson of their own work.

Hold that thought. It will return soon.

Unlike most of the other characters, GINO is a villain, and as such has done lots of terrible things. But GINO, as GINO, sucked. He stopped being GINO this week and became "Brian Heriot." It was a big step in the right direction, if any direction at all was to be taken with this character. Heriot's initial tale was a good one, but it ended where it began, and now, Heriot is apparently going to have to confront his GINO-ness in the name of the Theme.

Can he "come back"?

The lesson the creators should have taken from their own work this week is that this is actually one of the least interesting questions one can ask, not only of this character but of any of the others. As GINO, this character didn't work at all; as Heriot, he did. His previous incarnation was a poorly-constructed, unspeakably silly cartoon villain. Shucking that and making it some troubling things that happened in his past worked well, while revisiting it in a head-on way may befoul the character's progress and end up reinvoking all the reasons he should have never returned in the first place. Why not just forget the Theme and go with what works?

Our heroes, as I've noted, haven't done anything from which to "come back." And where, exactly, are they supposed to "come back" to? The world has ended. It's over. It isn't coming back. What's left is harsh, brutal, unforgiving, and, when competently written, will rarely get any easier. In my essay on TWD's melodrama problem, I argued that a character study must be a central feature of TWD but can't within the soap melodrama framework wherein characterizations are arbitrary and dictated by the needs of temporary plots aimed only at doing an end-run around thought and invoking a string of emotional responses. TWD has a Theme this season. What it needs, though, is to ditch the soap melodrama approach, offer up some conceptually strong characters for a change, and give us a thoughtful look at how such a world as theirs may affect them. That's all a TWD can offer. And from that, the themes would flow.


Monday, November 18, 2013

WALKING DEAD, Live Bait, Dead Meat, and GINO's Fate

When last week's episode of THE WALKING DEAD ended with a shot of GINO watching the prison, I suggested, in my comments section, a way to bring him back into the story I would certainly find acceptable. The next ep would begin a few seconds after that final moment. GINO is standing outside the prison. Then he's being spied through a rifle scope. It's Maggie. She's in one of the guard-towers with, say, Daryl. Spying the arch-fiend practically at their door, she pulls back away from the scope, wide-eyed, mouth agape in standard TWD overdone melodrama fashion.

"Holy shit!"

"What is it?"

"I think it's... GINO!"

"What? Where?"

"Down there!"

"You sure?"

"Pretty sure!"

"What's he doing?"

"Just standing there."

"Well... shoot that motherfucker!"

"Yeah." She takes aim.

Back down on the ground, GINO has a big self-satisfied smile. He's been checking out the prison and, with hands confidently grasping waist, chuckles to himself in his best imitation of Liam Neeson: "Looks like it's gonna' be a cakewa..." And then his head explodes to a thundering boom of a rifle report.

Back in the tower, Daryl: "Did you get 'im?"

"I think so." She looks through the scope, sees the corpse. "I think I did!" Looks up with one of those beaming, excited-Maggie looks.



YEAH!" They high-five. The opening credits begin.

And no one ever mentions GINO again.

Hey, it would suit me just fine. From my anecdotal perusal of TWD-related message boards I know that even some of TWD's hardest-core, least critical fans share my sentiment that the return of GINO is a thing to be greeted with the same enthusiasm as a Milli Vanilli reunion, ISHTAR 2, or a return of the bubonic plague. A few days ago, the Hollywood Reporter suggested similar sentiment may extend to the show's creative team:
"We've just devoted an entire season to the conflict of the Governor and [new showrunner] Scott Gimple came in and was like, 'You know what? I'm sick of the Governor.' He actually said that. It's not that we don't like that character; it's just that we needed to give that character a break," executive producer Robert Kirkman tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Going right back into that would seem like more retread of season three, and that's the thing we don't want to do."
Kirkman has a history of making comments about the series that turn out to be wildly inaccurate and which call into serious question the extent of his involvement in its actual production,[1] but tonight's episode, randomly titled "Live Bait," suggests that in this case he may have his story straight. The bottom line regarding GINO the Liam Lesser is that he's nothing more than a festering incarnation of the slow-motion creative train-wreck that was season 3, of the broader Mazzara era, and of the absolutely brainless, brutal waste of what had been one of the best storylines of the TWD comic. Tonight, the Gimple Gang rolled out their solution to this problem: they turned GINO into someone else entirely and added another solid episode to their roster.

I'd like to hope Kirkman's caveat ("It's not that we don't like the character...") is just diplomatically-dictated prevarication. Tonight's ep begins with GINO driving a truck into the abandoned remnants of Woodbury and burning it to the ground, which works well if read as a metatextual refutation of that entire storyline and season. He abandons the thugs who stayed with him, abandons himself, and takes to the road, a broken, lost soul with a thousand-yard stare who aimlessly wanders the wasteland the world has become. The cold opening is an extraordinary montage tracking these events.[2] To the tune of Ben Nichols' excellent "Last Pale Light in the West," we hear him, in an audio flash-forward, explaining to someone how he'd come from a town where "the man in charge... he just lost it." He comes across a barn where people have left messages for passers-by. Several relate to someone named "Brian Heriot," who is said to be dead. A little later, he finds a family of survivors in an apartment building and, asked his name, that's what he offers.[3]

And as a story of Brian Heriot, rather than GINO, what follows is quite good, a solid, standalone little story. The family who take him in is a pair of sisters, one with a young daughter. Their father is in the final stages of lung cancer, his death imminent. They've stayed in the apartment building throughout the zombie apocalypse in order to care for him. Initially intending only to stay the night, Heriot is pulled into their world, becoming a useful hand. The child reminds him of his own dead daughter. When the father dies, he deals with the corpse as it reanimates. As he sets out on the road, the sisters insist on accompanying him. There has to be something better out there.

This would have been a fine way to wrap up this character, if he had to be wrapped up at all--it certainly made more constructive use of him than my silly fantasy take on how to handle his return--but the Gimple Gang's plan for Brian Heriot is apparently bigger than that. He and his new family are just getting underway when a series of unfortunate events lands him in a zombie-trap overseen by one of his GINO-era henchmen. And that's how this week's tale concludes. To be continued.

Even with the new twist, I'm no enthusiast of this character sticking around. He doesn't just come with too much baggage; he is, himself, too much baggage. Tonight, the Gimple Gang had him walk away from GINO, burn his past, become a different person, assume the name of a dead man, and even destroy his only picture of his previous family, seemingly severing his last ties to his GINO-ness, but then he immediately runs into his former henchman, another unfortunate echo of that awful, awful season. Tonight was a good ep, and I'll watch where all of this goes, but I'd still rather it go away, and tonight's tale, minus its ending, would have been a good way to send it off.



[1] In that interview, Kirkman also asserts there was never any plan to kill GINO at the end of season 3. If true, it means all of the rubbish that preceded the season ender--episode after episode of doing absolutely nothing while publicly justifying this by asserting the season was building to a conclusion--never really had any conclusion in sight after all.

[2] The opening moment, in which a zombie approaches him, tramping through his campfire while he just impassively looks on, could have been eliminated. In the next scene, he emerges from a small, womb-like tent, and that would have worked better as a thematic opening shot. That is, I suppose, a nerdy filmmakers complaint, but when TWD is good, it does encourage that.

[3] This is partly a tip of the hat to the print mythos--in the novel "Rise of the Governor," the Governor's real name was revealed to be Brian Blake.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Another Turn of the WALKING DEAD Worm

...and then, out of nowhere, THE WALKING DEAD came roaring back again. After two extremely limp episodes, the Gimple Gang down their picker-uppers and come back hard with a mostly-keeper of a tale called "Internment." It's not a full-blown classic, but with the exception of the lamer elements, it's just where a passably good ep of TWD should be. Which, of course, means it looks great by TWD standards.

Those lamer elements are some Mazzara-era inanities that plague the ep, almost all of them in the first act. Filler material, most of it of a melodramatic nature featuring Hershel as he tends to the many afflicted by the mysterious virus. It doesn't add anything to what's to come except running time and to redundantly set up what the previous episodes have already set up. Ten minutes in, Rick arrives back at the prison from his ditch-Carol trip, and Maggie is standing alone inside the fence spearing zombies congregated in a huge herd immediately outside it and pressing into it. It's a great, startling image; a much bigger group of monsters than nearly took out the fence three eps ago, and as Rick jumps out of his vehicle, that's exactly what Maggie tells him. This is, by any serious estimation, a dire matter, requiring immediate attention. Incredibly, Rick basically tells her he'll get to it afterwhile, and goes off to have conversations with Carl and Hershel! Telling Hershel what happened with Carol is deemed to be more important than this. The tale stays with Hershel for a time, as well, further killing the tension that should be building over the situation at the fence.

Nearly a quarter of the episode passes before Rick gets back to Maggie. From that point forward, it's full steam ahead, and quite entertaining television, but why are the idiocies and the wasteful, inane filler there at all? Why can't TWD finally just flush this goddamn shit for good and live up to the quality show it is through the rest of this episode? These are vexing questions.[1]

The rest of the ep is a very fast-paced, suspenseful horror tale. Night has fallen, and Rick, who has been trying to keep Carl out of action, is forced to recruit the boy to help buttress the fence. But the seemingly endless wave of zombies continue pressing forward, and soon, the makeshift reinforcements give way and the dread horde comes streaming on to the prison grounds. Rick breaks out the automatic weapons, reluctantly passes one over to Carl, and the two prepare to make what could be a last stand. Meanwhile, inside the quarantined cell-block inside the prison, Hershel is the lone healthy leg in an isolated cell-block full of people on their last ones, doing all he can to keep the rest--including Glenn--alive until the mission to find meds can return. When his patients die, they reanimate, and with a string of deaths, this quickly gets out of hand. All of this is pure gold. Hershel--one-legged, exhausted, and well past his zombie-fighting prime--stumbles around in the dark trying to deal with an increasingly confusing horror show around him that goes from bad to worse then worse some more.

I like to see TWD done well, and except for that Mazzara-esque rot, that's what this was. I don't know what it will take for the series to finally rid itself of Mazzara-ism once and for all. A tub of Ex-Lax, maybe? An injection of penicillin? Perhaps an exorcist could be engaged, I don't know, but I certainly wish someone behind its scenes would look into it and see it done. Even with the warts on this mostly solid production, I'd normally still be looking forward to the next week's installment, but tonight's last note was unfortunately also given over to a particularly bad bit of Mazzara-ism: a shot of GINO standing outside the fence, watching our heroes clean up, followed by a preview of next week that seems to promise a GINO-centered ep. I suspect most viewers will greet the prospect of this characters' return with the same delighted anticipation they'd offer a return of the bubonic plague.

I, however, am not as delighted as they are.



[1] How much filler and idiocy have we had in recent weeks? After the inane bits of tonight's ep, it felt as if TWD had picked up the ball where it was left after the second ep. One could, in fact, almost just pick up the relevant parts of the first few minutes of the third ep (the decision to dispatch the team in search of meds), stitch them together with tonight's ep, minus the inanities, and it would be like a direct continuation that wouldn't lose anything that mattered, except the revelation that Carol was the killer (which would be good to lose), and her fate. Not seeing the mission to retrieve the meds would be, dramatically speaking, somewhat unsatisfying, but nowhere near as unsatisfying as that mission as it was presented.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

WALKING DEAD: A Melodrama Problem

The television incarnation of THE WALKING DEAD has always been a melodrama and as I've often noted, it has a melodrama problem. It's my contention that the soap melodrama approach to the material is fundamentally incompatible with it. Some recent comments on the series on the IMDb's TWD board, in my email and in my "comments" section here led me to begin making a few notes on this particular aspect of TWD. It ran long, so I've decided to make it even longer and whip it into a full-blown article.

TWD's first season was, through four of its six episodes and in portions of the rest, fairly well written. There were holes in the writing and some carelessness; by all reports, it was assembled rather quickly in order to meet a preordained airdate. Between seasons, the writing staff was fired, Glen Mazzara was employed to hire a new one and the team he assembled proceeded to rebuild the series on a daytime soap model. Rather than well-written melodrama, it became the low-grade product that has so often resulted in the very word "melodrama" being employed, by those of us who write about such things, as a pejorative.[1]

Soap melodrama takes all of the potentially problematic elements of the melodrama and cranks them up to 11. It eschews reason, subtlety, nuance, understatement and intelligent, adult behavior and aims, instead, at provoking emotional reactions through simplistic and sensationalistic narratives centered around highly emotional themes, played out via exaggerated, non-naturalistic, emotion-laden behavior. This is the level on which it tries to engage its viewers.

I've written quite a bit about how this approach befouls the character interactions on TWD. Back in my very first article on 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."

The first two episodes of this season actually dialed this back but by "Isolation," the third, it was spooling back. To pull out a representative moment, when Hershel, who had so far managed to avoid exposure to the mysterious illness plaguing the prison, decides to break quarantine and go tend to those stricken by it, his daughter and others object. In competently written character drama, this would just be something he does because that's who he is and that's how he would react to that kind of situation and those around him would just understand that, whether they liked it or not. TWD, on the other hand, handled it by bringing everything to a halt and having Hershel give a grand anti-naturalistic speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh and unforgiving world. If a hummed version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" had been added to the soundtrack behind it, it wouldn't have seemed at all out of place.[2]

Except for politicians and professional wrestlers, human beings do not talk like this and this entire approach to the material is a barrier to quality writing. Talented writers can, in a controlled way, intelligently develop a tale to a fine emotional pitch when needed. This is impossible when everyone is perpetually being written in this overwrought way.

It makes impossible the kind of solid, consistent characterization so essential to a serious drama as well and, in fact, removes it as even a goal. The late, great Sidney Lumet once told Charlie Rose that "in a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters; the characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." In low-grade soap melodrama, this, too, is taken to the nth degree; characterization comes to be dictated almost entirely by the plot of the moment. In a weekly series like TWD, that's the weekly plot of the moment and, indeed, radical changes are routinely imposed on its characters in an entirely arbitrary way merely because the writers wanted to tell a particular story. TWD's central concern is merely to create one artificial scenario after another aimed at generating those emotional reactions. In one episode, Lori berates Shane for his selfishness in suggesting they should call off the search for Sophia; an ep or two later, she's berating Rick for volunteering to go to the tavern in town to fetch Beth's father after Beth falls ill; she guilt trips Rick and says their son, who had no pressing need for Rick at all at the moment, needed him there, as if he was entirely abandoning the boy if he left long enough to drive a mile up the road and back; minutes after Rick leaves, she, herself, abandons their son and takes a car to pursue and retrieve Rick; she tells Rick to kill Shane; a few eps later, after Rick did that very thing, she's furious about it. Lots of overwrought melodrama in all of those situations but no effort at anything remotely resembling consistent characterization.

Multiply that by every significant character and you have TWD.

Rick, as the central hero of the piece, gets the most attention and in the first four seasons of TWD to date, there have been six major versions of the character (though one was a repeat, so it could be five depending on how one prefers to count it). Though there are some overlapping elements at times, all of these are essentially independent of one another, radical changes of direction that are suddenly and arbitrarily imposed at some point with nothing resembling a natural progression. In season 1, we get Rick 1.0, a sheriff's deputy thrust into an extraordinary situation who, in spite of some shortcomings, manages to demonstrate significant leadership skills; he's smart, assertive, tough, brave and, when need be, a real hardass. This is the Rick who walked into certain death in "Vatos" because he knew death was better than giving up those guns and leaving his man behind. In season 2 though, this original completely disappears and is suddenly replaced by the pathetic Rick 2.0, who is overly emotional, indecisive, weak-willed and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all. By the end of the season he's still remarkably dumb but he's shed a lot of the other unappealing attributes the writers had arbitrarily imposed on him. He's Rick 3.0, the Ricktator, the automaton whose word is law and who doesn't really care what anyone else has to say about anything. If the Ricktator was smart, he'd realize that making himself a Ricktator wasn't, and looking over the leadership of Rick 2.0, he'd have to conclude it had been one big fuck-up and that he was definitely not the guy who needed absolute power. The Ricktator emotionally abandons his wife--in more than 8 months of living in close quarters, we're told he barely even spoke to her. Then, when she dies, Rick 4.0 appears, Crazy Rick, a version who is so upset about this development--the death of this woman he'd entirely abandoned--that he instantly turns into the bad television version of foaming-at-the-mouth, way-over-the-top-of-the-top Stark Raving Mad, to the point that he's even having conversations with imaginary voices and chasing around the ghost of his wife. And as abject and out-of-control as his lunacy is shown to be, it's still made to turn on and off at the writers' convenience. Toward the end of that season, right out of nowhere, that pathetic 2.0 version of Rick suddenly returns. This could be seen as either a 5.0 model or a 2.1. This is the supine Rick who sits through that pointless meeting with GINO then is going to turn over one of his own to the madman who wants to slowly torture her to death, even as he admits it won't help anything. Rick 6.0--this season's Rick--is Farmer Rick the Pacifist, a fellow who is trying to get away from it all and live a quiet, easygoing life. Surrounded by a world of flesh-eating ghouls, he'd put away both his own gun and that of his son, infantilizing the boy in the name of imposing some idealized notion of childhood. Dangerously stupid but in different ways from the other dumb versions.[3]

Each of these radically different, contradictory, often irreconcilable incarnations came about because the writers wanted to tell a particular story and, with plot ruling character, imposed these changes in order to do so. And that's the only way to explain them. As the alleged "evolution" of a character, they don't make any sense at all, which helps illustrate why TWD can't be creatively successful while stuck in the soap melodrama ditch. A central feature of TWD in comic form is that it's a character-study of the effects this zombified world progressively has on the survivors. While fans of the tv incarnation will, at any invocation of the comic, cry their beloved series is its own creature, this character study really must be a central feature of any iteration of TWD, because without it, there really isn't anything else. The survivors try to get by, to rebuild, to persevere. The odds are never in their favor and never will be. The world has ended and it's not coming back. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. There's no overall story arc that will ever come to any conclusion, no villain that will be defeated in the end, no magic cure to the zombie plague. There are just the people who have survived and their survival is the only story being told. If TWD isn't a character study, it just becomes a group of characters mechanically repeating the same actions week after week. That's a way in which soap melodrama is fundamentally incompatible with TWD. A character study requires conceptually strong characters who are like real human beings involved in a real situation and who evolve in believable ways in the face of changing events and this isn't possible within a framework wherein characterization is dictated by temporary plot needs and arbitrarily changed on a routine basis to suit those needs.

I've often written here about how the demands of soap aren't really compatible with the on-the-ground reality within TWD's fictional world. The drive for soap scenarios leads to an undue focus on things that are, in the context of TWD, ridiculous and entirely inappropriate. One of the big, obvious examples is how the characters spent nearly all of their time in season 2 on things like love triangle melodrama, baby-daddy melodrama, lost child melodrama, injured child melodrama, budding romance, questioning Rick's worthiness as a father, Lori's essay on how women should remain barefoot, pregnant and in some kitchen and on and on and on, with virtually no time spared for what should be, at all times, the central concern of everyone present: how to survive what's happened to the world. When, at the end of the season, the zombies finally appeared, the survivors, who had made almost no preparation, had no idea what to do and had to break and flee as best they could. In season 3, the characters move into a single cell-block of a prison that could be turned into a great home and a formidable fortress, then mostly just lose interest in it and let zombies roam through most of it while their time is spent on more soap melodrama. Mazzara's TWD didn't just try to push survivalist concerns aside though; it took an actively hostile view of them. Absolutely wouldn't tolerate raw survivalist sentiment and persistently presented it in contexts aimed at making it look entirely inappropriate. Shane was turned into a cartoon bad guy, then any raw survivalist sentiment that season was put in his mouth; harsh realities that should have gotten a fair hearing were presented as the selfish rambling of a heartless villain. He was also used to solve all of the dilemmas of that season, keeping the tough decisions out of--and the resulting blood off--the hands of the heroes. When, later, GINO and Woodbury become a problem and it was likely they'd have a strike-force bearing down on the prison at any moment, Glenn goes into war mode, trying to get everyone prepared for a right; he's treated like he's being a dangerously out-of-control dick. And so on. It's a matter I've covered at some length over the course of my commentary on the show.

The current matter of Carol is another example of this rather despicable trend carrying on beyond Mazzara. Some of my readers have expressed their approval of the back-and-forth in the most recent episode regarding the morality of Carol's murders of David and Karen after they contracted the mysterious illness. I can, in the abstract, certainly understand the appeal of such a debate. A competently written TWD would deal with such things regularly and in thought-provoking ways. I don't find this TWD's handling of it to be at all compelling. In the name of protecting the survivors from a disease, Carol murdered two innocent people but the killings were senseless and served no real purpose. The victims were already in quarantine and Carol exposed herself to the illness in order to kill them, at a time when dozens of others had also already been exposed to it. The decision to have Carol commit such an atrocity is wholly arbitrary as well, a total violation of her established character in more ways than can be easily listed. The writers could have credibly taken the Carol they started to build this year--a nice extrapolation of and expansion on her past experiences--and evolved her into someone who could do such a thing. They could have built on another aspect of her established character--she's a nurturer--and credibly made her an "Angel of Death" looking to relieve the suffering of people facing a horrible death from an intractable illness (the ep offered a stray line in that direction, but pursued it no further). They could have had someone else commit the murders and let that plotline go off on its own. They could have approached it in any one of half a dozen ways. Instead, they just ignored everything previously established and had Carol do it, right out of the blue and for no larger reason than the shock effect of it. Another example of characterization being dictated by temporary plot considerations.

There should always be a strong psychological motivation for such an extreme act. None was present here. Because Carol's decision to do it is such an arbitrary imposition, it doesn't allow Carol to make much of a case for it in her conversations with Rick. "Her" case is really just that of someone who is, in a coldly theoretical manner, merely arguing a hypothetical. There's no connection between the act and her. At the same time, her actions are morally indefensible because, instead of creating a scenario genuine in its moral ambiguity, one that would potentially raise legitimate questions that could be debated, the writers have intentionally stacked the deck against her. The point of having any of this occur--to bring this full circle--is to create a situation that can be milked for melodrama, not to craft one that is genuinely intellectually provocative. That's very unfortunate--the latter would make for a much better TWD.

On the matter of soap melodrama, the series seems, at the moment, a bit divided. The first two eps of the present season were galaxies beyond anything TWD had delivered since season 1 and were pointing the way to a TWD that could even surpass that, still its high point. The next two eps have been, overall, painfully awful, but even they sometimes show traces of the better TWD to which the first pair pointed. Is this a series in transition? One on the same dismal path as the last two seasons but that just had two fluke good eps? My own view is that, if the series is ever to be worth the time, it simply must drop the soap melodrama approach. Its ratings are flying high but, for reasons I hope I've at least effectively outlined here, I don't think soap melodrama offers a sustained path to success, even among the considerable fanbase TWD has amassed by way of it (or partially by way of it, anyway). It isn't a matter of it just continuing. I wouldn't have given a damn if, at any point in the previous two seasons, the series had been cancelled and to the extent that it continues to wallow in the soap suds, I don't care if it goes away either. As I've written from my first review though, it has remarkable potential. This season initially raised my hopes that someone at its helm had finally understood that. I'd still like to hope that's the case. It's a crime that TWD is such shit. It could be great.



[1] It could be seen as a bit unfair that the low-grade stuff pollutes the word in this way. Stringing together its finer moments, the melodrama does have a venerable history. This particular breed of it, though, definitely does not.

[2] The speech, as complete a departure from anything resembling normal adult conversation as it gets, is cringeworthy and, in context, makes absolutely no sense. Hershel is talking to a fellow he's known on an intimate daily basis for nearly a year and his own daughter as if he's trying to justify himself to a room full of total strangers who know nothing of the situation. He isn't saying anything that everyone there doesn't already know and know well--they live with the same situation every day. It's just hammy melodrama offered for an uncritical viewing audience, not for the characters in front of him.

[3] I defended 6.0 after the first two eps of this season because when Rick took up his guns again, it seemed an intentional device by the Gimple Gang to refute the unappealing Ricks of the past. His behavior in the most recent episode has thrown that into serious question.

Monday, November 4, 2013

WALKING DEAD Breeds "Indifference"

This season of THE WAKING DEAD started strong, and it was my sincere hope that last week's extremely unfortunate regression to Mazzara-era TWD would prove to be an isolated incident. To an extent, tonight's installment dashed that hope, but it wasn't a complete dash. Instead, it turned out to be a frustratingly mixed bag. Some of the Gimple Gang's reforms were still in evidence, and there were some good moments sprinkled throughout the night's proceedings, but they're lost in such a melange of Mazzara-ism that my overall reaction is summed up by the title of the ep: "Indifference."

The last two eps should have been one ep. The excess padding required to make of them two isn't nearly as extensive as it was throughout most of Mazzara's TWD. It's basically a single ep worth of plot (plus perhaps a little spill over into a second) stretched to cover two (Mazzara would use that much to fill 4, 5, and 6 eps). There's still too damn much of it.

Last week, those dispatched to a medical facility to retrieve meds for the dying ran into a herd of walkers and had to flee on foot. By the opening of tonight's tale, they're overdue, and Rick is set to go out and forage around in nearby houses for medication. Anything that can help. There's a fantastic opening sequence with Rick attempting to fuel a vehicle for his trip. His gas can is nearly empty, its contents apparently having been used by Carol to burn the corpses of those she'd murdered in the first ep. He imagines Carol committing her double murder, and the images in his head are crosscut with a conversation between Carol and the demented little girl who has been entrusted into her care. Rick decides to take Carol with him. His decision to go at all is questionable, given the demonstrated instability of the prison's security at the moment and the severe lack of manpower on hand to deal with any problems that may arise, but a large and growing number of people at the prison are sick and dying and need antibiotics if they're to have any chance of living. Rick's trip is a desperation move and certainly plausible, given the situation.

Both its desperation and its plausibility entirely collapse in the execution, though, because, as so often happened in the bad ol' Mazzara days, the writers then begin piling on the padding and drive a stake right through the heart of any sense of desperation the scenario should engender. The ep follows both those dispatched on the original mission and the adventure by Rick and Carol, and both are, for the most part, handled in an utterly lackadaisical way. No one in either group seems to be in any sort of hurry or exhibits any sign that they're in any way pressed for time. This necessitates some Mazzaraesque plot-dictated arbitrary characterization. Throughout his time on TWD, Tyreese has been shown to be entirely devoted to his sister. Here, that beloved sister is back at the prison, very sick, possibly dying, and he's ridiculously stuck in Angry Black Man mode. He drags his feet, looks sour, and behaves as if he doesn't even care if he lives or dies. More generally--and also dismally echoing the previous two seasons--the action is routinely brought to a complete halt for sequences of talky melodrama. Again, no sense of urgency. Did Rick and Carol find anything that may be useful? We're never told. They're never shown as frustrated by having found nothing, either.[1]

The night wasn't a total loss. The Gimple Gang did offer up a few good moments along the way. The highlight of the ep happens when Bob, the alcoholic medic, stumbles while on the ledge of a building and his bag, presumably containing the crucial meds he's just looted,[2] is grasped by a large group of zombies below. He fights like hell to hold on to it, nearly being pulled off the ledge himself, but with some help he's finally able to get it free. And then it turns out all he had in it was a bottle of hooch. He says he wanted it for the quiet moments. Daryl, in disgust, starts to give it a toss, and Bob goes so far as to put his hand on his holstered gun as a thread. Daryl isn't impressed. It's a great, tense scene.[2a] There's also a nice little bit about watches.

Carol, amidst a lot of melodramatic yammering, gets in a few good moments as well, but in the end, it comes across as rather pointless, because the writers ultimately choose to repeat a variation on a major mistake they made last season with Merle. Merle was essentially a stock, unidimensional redneck character given far more life than he deserved by the most excellent Michael Rooker. When he was finally given something to do, he became interesting. More importantly, he brought an interesting dynamic to the group that could have been milked for a great deal of dramatic material. And then, of course, he was killed at the end of that very episode, a complete waste that typifies the very bad decision-making of the last two seasons. This season has been spent building a very interesting Carol, and creating an interesting relationship between her, her "class" of children, and, in particular, the two girls left in her care by the death of their father. As tonight's ep spent more and more time with her--more time than she's ever been given--I feared she was going to be killed at the end of it (the pattern of the two previous seasons was to always telegraph character deaths in this way). As it turned out, she didn't die, but the fate she's given isn't much better--Rick, unable to accept that she's murdered people,[3] exiles her from the prison, and, presumably, from TWD for the time being. The effect is the same; a complete waste.

The Gimple Gang came out of the gates this season looking like they'd finally solved the riddle of producing quality TWD. It's frustrating to see that fall apart then see embedded in an episode like this the hints of what it could be if the Gang could follow through on what they started.



[1] They are, however, shown collecting tomatoes from a staked vine, presumably over a year and a half after anyone was around to stake them, at the edge of a perfectly-manicured lawn.

[2] In a painfully idiotic moment, Bob is shown looting from a massive case of medication, dictating to Michonne what to grab, rather than taking everything. It got worse still when, after the group encountered minimal zombie presence throughout their trip into the facility, the zombies are suddenly everywhere when it comes time to leave, and, though significantly decomposed, are seen to be carrying the disease from the prison (50 miles away).

[2a] UPDATE (4 Nov., 2013) "Spectre," a comrade in criticism on the IMDb's WALKING DEAD board, has reminded me of an acute idiocy from last night's ep, one I intended to mention but forgot. At the end of the ep, as the group dispatched to the medical facility was about to head for home, they're plotting their route back and their gas needs, and they figure their travel time at 7 hours. The facility from which they're returning was established as being in Georgia and 50 miles away from the prison. Presumably, they're cooking up some course to avoid the big herd they encountered on the way there, but the entire state of Georgia is only about 300 miles, longways north to south--7 hours is enough to traverse that entire distance about 1 1/2 times, even if they only drove the speed limit (on the road, it's not quite as linear as that, but their estimate is certainly Mazzaraesque idiocy to the nth degree).

[3] And Carol being the murderer in the first place really didn't make any sense at all. It was out-of-character and stupid and seemed to be included solely in order to provide a nice shock ending for last week's otherwise awful ep.

Monday, October 28, 2013

WALKING DEAD: An Episode In "Isolation"?

I suppose what I have to say about tonight's episode of THE WALKING DEAD will please those who have suggested I've been going soft on the series this season. When it comes to television, I don't demand anything be perfect. The good stuff in a series should, however, significantly outweigh the bad. So far this season, we've had two solid episodes, and by that standard the second was among the best TWD has ever offered. I've praised them accordingly. But tonight saw the series fall back into some of the very bad habits of the Mazzara era. This made watching the episode a chore, and I found the development very disappointing.

The virtual trademark of TWD's writing during the Mazzara regime was laziness and stupidity. When the Mazzara writers' room was at "work," it would craft a single episode worth of plot then use it to fill 4 or 5 episodes of the series, stretching the material to the point that all but a few minutes of every episodes was simply made up of filler and virtually nothing was happening. This process helped cretinize the already-idiotic writing, as the characters had to be made to spend most of their time sitting around with thumbs lodged in orifices, ignoring the obvious or otherwise delaying the taking of whatever action was needed. After two episodes that, for the first time since season 1, had each featured a full episode worth of plot, the Gimple Gang, which had been doing so well until now, slammed on the brakes, and we got another underwritten thumbs-up-asses episode.

Last week, zombies very nearly toppled the fence around the prison, an as-yet-unidentified murderer went to work inside it, and a virus began to spread among the survivors housed there. In a competently written TWD, addressing these matters would be an immediate priority. The survivors need meds to treat the illness and Hershel knows of a facility that may well have them and may not have been looted, but it's 50 miles away. It's refreshing to see a trip of this distance once again discussed as a dangerous one (and a sharp reversal of Rick's season 3 trip across half the state of Georgia to loot guns he'd already looted). Danger or no, the meds are must-have , and with a large and growing number getting sick and dying, our heroes prep for the mission. Then they stand around and talk. Then they stand around and talk some more. Soon, the mission that should have been the central focus of this episode is shoved aside by a lot of dicking around, any sense of urgency about it having disappeared, and for no other reason than the writers' desire to end the episode on a particular cliffhanger they only get their show on the road in the last few minutes.

There is, in the meantime, a nice little minor episode with Hershel and Carl wandering in the wilderness outside the prison in search of herbs,[1] but most of the rest of what happens is just filler. The sick need water, the pump that brings it from the creek into the prison is clogged with mud, and Rick refuses to help Carol go out to the creek and unstop it. He says they can do it "tomorrow," as if the sick won't need water. Actually, he says that solely to provide a pretext for her going out and doing it herself, so she can nearly get eaten and have to be rescued. The failure to reinforce the outer fence or otherwise do something to strengthen the prison's defenses after last week's zombie attack would be excusable, as there really isn't the manpower for it at the moment, but when Carol gets in her jam and Rick comes to her rescue, he slips right through two holes cut in both fences! These would seem to be the holes our heroes cut in order to gain access to the prison last season. For the sake of that moment, they're still there, and have never been properly buttoned up. And when Rick and Carol duck back inside the fence with half-a-dozen or more zombies hot on their heels, they stand within it, exchange a few words, then walk off with the big, person-sized gap to the outside still visible!

The bad, anti-naturalistic melodrama of the Mazzara era reared its ugly head several times tonight. Characters behaving in totally irrational ways, actors going way-over-the-top in spouting awful dialogue. Tyreese and Rick getting in not one but two pointlessly ugly face-downs.[2] Hershel making a grand, extended speech before going in to treat the ill.[3] The sudden return of this sort of shit is most unwelcome.

The writer-of-record on this unfortunate episode is none other than TWD creator Robert Kirkman. As with most of the eps with which he's been so far credited, this one shows virtually no trace of his influence. Something else to ponder.

I certainly hope my enthusiasm for this season of TWD hasn't been misplaced. The title of tonight's episode is "Isolation," and I hope that's all this ep turns out to be--an isolated regression never to be repeated.



[1] The straightforward revelation at the end that it was Carol who killed and torched David and Karen was the ep's only other nice touch.

[2] Throughout the evening's proceedings, Tyreese was reduced to a particularly ugly Angry Black Man caricature, which is particularly shameful. The ep follows the caricature to such a slavish extent that Tyreese even identifies Rick as a cop before going off on him--the Man isn't addressing the needs of the ABM. Tyreese's rage is irrational; he physically attacks people for no real reason, then later jumps down Rick's throat again for inaction because, in the few minutes since the murders were discovered and with everything else going on, Rick hasn't yet solved the crime.

[3] And when it comes to stupid, the rescue team at the end run into the midst of the biggest herd of zombies we've ever seen because Daryl, who is driving and at a high speed, picks up a radio transmission and is playing with the radio instead of watching where he's going. His excitement over hearing a voice is understandable, but it's another example of Mazzara-era plotting--a significant event in the plot being premised on someone behaving like a complete idiot.

Monday, October 21, 2013

WALKING DEAD's Gimple Gang Has "Infected" The Show With Quality

And it turns out last week's complete reinvention of THE WALKING DEAD--outright revolutionary when placed next to the last two seasons--wasn't just a fluke. It does, indeed, seem to be a new direction, and I'm rather pleased about it. This week's installment, "Infected," was a real test. Angela Kang, who drew the writing chores, is the writer-of-record of some extremely unfortunate past episodes, and of no good ones. She seemed to be one to whom prior showrunner Glen Mazzara turned when there was an inane filler episode on the docket. I don't know if Kang's stunningly bad previous episodes merely reflected the poisonous influence of Mazzara or if new showrunner Scott Gimple is exercising a heavy hand or if she's just coming into her own on TWD, but whatever it is, this was a very good episode, and she and the rest of the Gimple Gang have earned some applause.

Though TWD is supposed to be "an ongoing tale of survival horror," Mazzara's TWD shied away from--and, for long periods, banished entirely--the horror elements, and, as I've often complained, actively demonized survivalist concerns, putting them in contexts intended to make them seem inappropriate or wrong. Gimple's TWD continues to right the ship tonight, throwing in some horror-flick suspense right in the cold opening. The tale that follows establishes an atmosphere of menace within an increasingly claustrophobic space, as the hungry dead appear inside the prison walls, relentlessly besiege it from without,[1] and a mysterious killer virus comes to light, one capable of rapidly striking down the healthy and leaving them a flesh-eating menace to their former comrades. And there's a human enemy within the prison, too, maybe more than one. Someone feeding rats to the dead and drawing them to the gates in vast and dangerous numbers--possibly a demented child who has developed an affinity for the ghouls--and there's a killer who murdered and burned two people.

The Gimple Gang's take on survivalist sentiment again offered up a scenario that seemed blatantly intended to flip the finger at Mazzara's TWD. Last season, Carl had become a get-things-down kid, hardened to the realities of the now-zombified world. This came to a head in the season 3 ender, of which I wrote at the time:

"The episode did feature one really striking moment that hit at the heart of one of TWD's many shortcomings. During the prison attack, Carl guns down a surrendering Woodburian. Rick confronts him about this, and Carl thoroughly dresses down his father, noting that their failure to deal with potential threats in a responsible manner is what results in their people being killed over and over again. He failed to kill the walker that killed Dale; Rick failed to kill Andrew, which resulted in Lori and T-Dog dying; Rick didn't shoot GINO when he had the chance, resulting in the attack that had just happened. And so on. At someone finally speaking this hard, frank, nowhere-to-run-or-hide truth, this viewer and vociferous critic of the series felt like cheering. Even more so when Rick looked as if he'd been slapped, then took on the countenance of a rapidly deflating balloon. Unfortunately, TWD has never had the stomach for this kind of matter-of-fact sentiment, and Mazzara, its now-fired showrunner and the writer of record on this episode, double-stacked the deck against Carl's brutally frank words by having the incident that led to it be Carl shooting a surrendering teenager, then, in the end, having Rick take in the remaining Woodburians, mostly kids and old people (nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but it was presented as a direct and total repudiation of what Carl had said)."

Last week, Carl seemed to have been suddenly radically devolved from this characterization (one of my only big reservations about the ep), but tonight it was revealed that Rick, in reaction against what Carl was becoming, has infantilized his son, taking away his guns and keeping him out of action, reading comics and farming. Michonne asks him why he doesn't wear his hat anymore. "It's not a farming hat." Carl still feels the call, though. TWD's newfound "show, don't tell" philosophy puts it on his face and in his mannerisms. It turns out Rick has put Carl under a great deal of pressure not to be the person he'd become; to just be a kid again. Tonight, he uses a gun to save Michonne from zombies, and his initial reaction is to profusely apologize to his father. Last week, he observed Carol teaching the young children about the use of bladed weapons. Season 3 Carl would have approved, but kiddified Carl seemed shocked, and Carol was afraid he'd tell Rick, and that Rick would put a stop to it. The suggestion that she was doing something entirely inappropriate felt very much like Mazzara's TWD. As it turns out, the Gimple Gang seems to have set this up only to once again repudiate one of the cornerstone's of that unfortunate era. Rick had given up his own gun for a while and taken a break from the action. When Carl tells him of the knife training, Carl argues it should be allowed to continue. The episode's events having convinced Rick it was time to take up his own gun again, he agrees, opens his toolbox, hands a pistol to the boy and straps on his own.

Perhaps an even more vivid illustration is found in Carol's interaction with two girls who, in the course of the episode, lose their father. The man dies, the victim of zombie bites, leaving his children in her charge. His body has to be brain-staked before he returns. The girls think they should be the ones to do it. The first is too horrified by the idea, but the other thinks she can. At the moment of truth, though, she gets cold feet, and Carol takes care of it. A little later, Carol scolds the grieving child for being weak, telling her that kind of weakness can get her killed.

Definitely not your Mazzara's TWD.

And it only gets better, because it turns out the girl isn't just mourning her father; she's mourning zombies! Last week's ep had established that she didn't think the dead to be monsters, just "different." She'd named one, and seemed to regard him as a pet.[2] Now, he's been killed, and she's heartbroken. Her sister tells Carol the girl isn't weak; she's twisted. Which is wonderfully twisted.

The treasures in tonight's ep are many--Michonne's remembrance of a lost child, an exciting, well-played action sequence at the prison fence, an effects sequence--a zombie with its guts pouring out as it sits up--done as an homage to DAY OF THE DEAD (on which TWD's make-up wiz Greg Nicotero worked). The Gimple Gang's TWD isn't just repudiating the last two seasons and putting the series back on course;[3] the rich, multi-layered storytelling and psychological depth they're bringing to the project has never been present in the television incarnation of TWD, not even in its season 1 prime.[4] I can't help but be cautious in my optimism when dealing with this particular subject, but I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new TWD prime. For the second time in as many eps, I find myself looking forward to next week's installment.



[1] In Mazzara's TWD, the dead were virtually written out of the series in season 2, then mostly treated as background noise in season 3. Here, they're returned to their proper station, the ferocious and extremely dangerous monsters who have overrun humanity.

[2] This can be read, if one is so inclined, as a bit of metatextual satire on the Mazzara TWD's treatment of the dead (see footnote #1).

[3] An element of the last two eps that, in the larger context of TWD, is remarkable in and of itself is that they each featured a full episode worth of plot. Tonight's ep was packed to the gills--not a moment wasted. This, too, overturns the Mazzara-era TWD's practice of writing a single ep worth of plot and stretching it to fill several eps, with most of the running-time devoted to pointless filler.

[4] The kind of storytelling one finds in the comic, which Gimple, unlike Mazzara, seems to respect.

A personal note: I had a really, really bad day today, so bad I'm foolishly allowing it to imperil my health, and TWD offered some little bit of relief. I always appreciate solid work, and I was grateful to have my mind taken off my troubles for a while.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ed Lauter has died

Ed Lauter has died, a victim of mesothelioma at the age of 74. The Associated Press article announcing his death refers to him as "character actor Ed Lauter," but that seems rather inadequate. Lauter is one of those guys everyone of a certain age who ever watched movies or television on a regular basis would recognize immediately--over 200 parts in movies and tv in a career spanning 42 years. He had a distinct look, a distinct voice, a strong presence, and he was damn good at what he did. He could play just about anything. To me, he's Claremont in BREAKHEART PASS and a killer of John F. Kennedy in EXECUTIVE ACTION and dour Captain Knauer in THE LONGEST YARD and the demented Hazel in DEATH HUNT and Captain John Sebastian Cain on SHERIFF LOBO, and the cop who blackmails Bronson in DEATH WISH III, and a million other parts great and small in pictures great and small. One night about a year and a half ago, I caught a flick he'd recently made called THE FRANKENSTEIN SYNDROME (also known as THE PROMETHEUS PROJECT). Though he'd worked steadily, even relentlessly, in the years leading up to it, it was the first new thing in which I'd seen him in a few years, and though his part was relatively small, I was sufficiently delighted to see him again that I started a nostalgic article about his career for this blog. Never finished it, though, which is probably just as well, as I wasn't really up to doing it justice at the time. For a cinephile like myself, there's a sort of bond with fellows like Ed. He's someone I've watched and enjoyed literally all my life, and in a medium that means so much to me he's so familiar he feels almost like a friend. Though I never even met him, it's not an entirely impersonal melancholy that accompanies news of his death.

He goes on, though. The AP reports that, ever the workhorse, Ed had finished several films that haven't yet been released, so though he's gone, we haven't yet seen the last of him. We probably never will, either. As with everyone who makes a mark on the medium to which Ed devoted his career, part of him--the part all of us knew--will live on. When it's an Ed Lauter, that's just fine by me.


Monday, October 14, 2013

WALKING DEAD: 30 Articles Without A Break

Tonight's season 4 premiere of THE WALKING DEAD was entitled "30 Days Without An Accident," and by coincidence, this also marks 30 TWD articles I've blogged here--at least one on every episode since the middle of season 2--and even that's just a fraction of my total work on TWD. A lot more of it has been scattered across message boards here and there, particularly on the Internet Movie Database. There may even be a new TWD project on the horizon for me (still too early to say on that one). The articles have proven incredibly popular, which is why the possible new project. They're also incredibly trying at times. Way back toward the end of season 2, I'd started to feel as if I'd said all I had to say about Glen Mazzara's awful version of the series. Worse, I came to be plagued by the thought that I may have even said everything in my original article, and the ones that followed had merely been appendices that unnecessarily expanded on the issues I'd raised in it. I had, I felt, fallen into a pattern of repeating myself. This repetition mirrored the events on TWD itself, and as season 3 proceeded and I was looking for new approaches to covering it, I began to play with even that, sometimes repetitiously offering up the same points I'd made in the past in a deliberate mockery of TWD's writing. If anyone ever caught on to it, they never said. Collectively, I've done more work on TWD than any of the series' writers did in that same period, and put a lot more thought into it as well. I seem to have given voice to some widespread discontent with TWD--demand for the mostly-critical things I have to say about it has always been strong, and hopefully that's not just a reflection of the kind of knee-jerk backlash one sees against anything that becomes popular. Somewhere along the line I realized I was like the central character in Stephen King's novel "Misery." Not trapped by a monstrous, dangerously obsessive fan, but trapped with a subject I'd come to hate.

I started writing about TWD during a very difficult time in my life, the aftermath of a full-blown personal cataclysm of which I'm still feeling the effects (and probably always will). It was the first thing about which I was able to substantially write after a period when I didn't even know if I had anything in me anymore. At times, I was a bit ashamed that I was writing so much about it while all manner of good and great movies and television series came and went with barely a mention here. I stayed with it long after I would have left it because I have a friend who loves it but has no other means of seeing it. He's a good friend; he's helped me out a lot over the years. Subjecting myself to TWD is a very small price to pay for the enjoyment he derives from it. Then my parents started watching it, and, again, I'm their only means of seeing it. If I have to see it and feel so terribly displeased with it, went my thinking, I'm damn well going to write about it. Part of writing about it also became an exercise in discipline--I made myself do it no matter how I felt, because I had a need to know I still could. Part of me has always hoped the noxious blend of incompetence and indifference that had made TWD such an utterly miserable experience would finally play itself out and something better would emerge. Maybe something that even lived up to the promise shown by the series in its earliest days.

And maybe this has just happened.

The suits at AMC have earned a very bad reputation for their treatment of those behind their original series, but it was impossible to view with anything but glee their firing of Glen Mazzara from his post as TWD's showrunner. Stated bluntly, Mazzara had been a pestilence on the series, utterly contemptuous of all of its central premises, a devout acolyte of the worst breed of soap melodrama, and a painfully incompetent and lazy storyteller. TWD couldn't have gotten any worse than under his reign, and his departure meant there was finally a chance for it to get better. With "30 Days Wthout An Accident," we got the first look at Gimple's TWD. It's still too soon to make any overly sweeping pronouncements, but if tonight's ep is any indication, this year may see the rebirth of TWD.

The episode was, on its own, no classic, to be sure, and not without problems--Carl's time on screen is mostly unfortunate--but it was such a departure from what we've been getting from TWD for the last two seasons that it was virtually revolutionary. The first rule of screenwriting is "show, don't tell." It's also the first rule Mazzara's TWD flushed. Thankfully, Gimple, who also wrote tonight's ep, embraces it. One of the smaller but remarkable moments tonight involved a new character on a supply run who walks by a shelf filled with liquor and suddenly becomes quite conflicted about being there with it. There's no dialogue. It's all conveyed physically. Another good little moment was the pre-credit opening with Rick listening to some down-home gospel[1] while tending a field. Having unearthed an inexplicably buried pistol, he pauses for a second, takes out one of his earphones, and the piteous cries of the undead, kept at bay by the nearby fence, rise to drown out the music. Rick is somewhat taken aback by their volume, offers a glance their way and quickly puts the earphone back in place and goes about his business. These aren't, in themselves, terribly subtle moments, but it points in the right direction and is the sort of thing that, except in Gimple's prior scripts, had become virtually non-existent on Mazzara's overwrought, over-the-top, subtlety-of-a-hammer-to-the-face soap TWD. It's something I hope to see continue.

Gimple's last two scripts--two of only three from season 3 that weren't outright awful--had shown a penchant toward strong characterization. This carried over tonight. Many of the central characters had good scenes. Hershel's remarks about the need to outfit Rick with a proper farmer's kit was a funny little moment. Daryl had an amusing one with one of the new characters who was trying to guess what Daryl did before the zombie apocalypse (in some amusing metatextual commentary, Daryl is treated as a celebrity by the prison survivors--again, the sort of thing you'd never see on Mazzara's TWD). Gimple set up individual storylines for nearly all of the central characters, storylines he can milk as the season continues.

Another strong and admirable departure from Mazzara's TWD--one that address one of my longstanding gripes--is that survival concerns are now front-and-center, the thing around which our characters lives revolve. TWD is, as the comic legend says, "a tale of survival horror," but Mazzara hated this and set survival concerns at odds with nearly everything else that happened, while presenting such concerns, whenever expressed, in contexts intended to refute them or make them look entirely inappropriate. Not Gimple. Tonight, everything is basic survival.[2] The characters' days are dictated by doing what it takes to get by, and their interactions occur in that context. This is conveyed by even inconsequential shots of the prison grounds, where it's clear the characters have significantly fortified the facility. Gone--hopefully straight to hell--are the braindead days when the characters just moved into one grubby cellblock and let zombies roam through the rest of their home while ignoring its potential. There's a great moment when Carol is doing "story time" for the young children they've taken in and she sets aside her book, rolls out a selection of cutlery, and begins explaining to the class how to use bladed weapons. There's a hint that what she's doing may be regarded as inappropriate, but let's hope that doesn't blow up into much of anything.

Rick's central preoccupation tonight was a survivor he finds in the forest while checking traps he's set for animals. She and her husband have apparently been living on their own throughout the zombie uprising. They have, she tells Rick, done terrible things to survive. Is it possible to come back from such things? She doesn't think so,[3] and what episodes like her tale and its ultimate disposition add to the story of TWD is immeasurable. Show, don't tell. This is the world of TWD. This is what it does to people.[4] It's the sort of incident that, in Mazzara's TWD, would have probably been rejected as pointless and irrelevant. Another of the sorts of thing I hope continue.

I'm still skeptical about how much of this will continue. Season 3 had a relatively good opener, too, then collapsed. Tonight's ep was much better than that one, though. Gimple wrote this episode, but as showrunner, he has apparently retained most of Mazzara's nepotistically-assembled writing staff, the hacks who have made the last two seasons such a chore. Will this radical new direction--which is really just a return to the original direction--continue, or will it fizzle? I'm definitely curious, and, for the first time in a very long time, I'm actually looking forward to TWD.



[1] An inspired musical choice, "Precious Memories." As Rick looks over the rotting dead outside his fence, how they linger, indeed.

[2] Tonight's ep featured an imaginative and well-played action sequence in a department store--the roof, on which there are a slew of zombies, begins to collapses and suddenly it's raining zombies on our heroes below. And further dashing the expectations engendered by Mazzara's TWD in a positive way, the new black guy, when trapped in the zombie downpour by a falling shelf, doesn't die!

[3] And that question could be seen as a bit of metatextual commentary, too--can TWD come back from the last two godawful seasons? Time will tell.

[4] And I'd like to think--though it's far-fetched--that this incident was inserted as a sort of "fuck you" to Mazzara's entire approach to TWD, specifically for his screwing up Jim's end in season 1. The character Jim lost his family to zombies. In the comic, he's bitten during a zombie attack on the survivors' camp and, dying, asks to be left on the outskirts of Atlanta so that, when he comes back, maybe he can find his family and be together with them again. In season 1 of TWD, Jim was also bitten by a zombie during an attack, but Mazzara, the writer of record on the relevant episode, removed all the creepy business about him wanting to try to find his family and just had a scene that tried to be sad, with the long-faced group leaving Jim sitting under the shade of a tree. I reacted very badly to this. It seemed to destroy a powerful moment in favor of generic melodrama, and, unfortunately, was indicative of what was to follow once Mazzara got his hands on TWD. With the incident tonight, we saw something like that actually played out. It felt like a righting of the ship.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An Evaluation of THE WALKING DEAD's Scott Gimple

October strikes, and another season of THE WALKING DEAD is upon us. I'm hoping this doesn't mean another season in which I mostly just end up bashing TWD. The Powers That Be at AMC fired TWD showrunner Glen Mazzara at the end of the last season, and as Mazzara oversaw the systematic destruction of a once-very-promising series and its conversion into the disgraceful mess I've described here in nearly 30 articles to date, it's impossible to see this as anything other than a very wise move. But will his replacement, Scott Gimple, be better? The long trailer for the upcoming season gives some little glimmer of hope. Among other things, it looks as if Gimple is going to double back and cover some of the very good material that occurred in the comic prior to the prison group's encounter with Woodbury and the Governor, material Mazzara simply pissed away. In advance of the new season, I thought I'd offer an evaluation of Gimple's TWD work to date.

In television, a series like TWD is worked out in a room full of writers. When details of episodes are nailed down to varying degrees, they're assigned to individual writers, who craft the actual scripts. This is an important caveat in what I'm about to describe; no writer has complete creative control over his scripts. With that in mind, Scott Gmple has, to date, been the writer-of-record on six eps of TWD:

Save the Last One
Pretty Much Dead Already
18 Miles Out
The Sorrowful Life

All but the last two of these were some degree of godawful. "Clear" is the only one that can be regarded as basically good. If "This Sorrowful Life" is overly burdened with far too much of the usual TWD rubbish, it still manages to rise about most of what we get from the series. Those two eps (if not necessarily the others) suggest Gimple is strong on characterization, which is one of TWD's weakest points.[1]

Gimple apparently likes Michonne. This may be an overly broad conclusion--the other writers had set the bar for this as low as it gets--but the proposition is given significant force by the fact that he's the only TWD writer to date who has written Michonne as a human being, instead of just an Angry Black Woman caricature. He gave her some good moments in "Clear," and more dialogue in that one ep than she'd had in the rest of the season combined. He did the same in "This Sorrowful Life," and gave her some good moments there, too. Michonne fans may have a friend in Gimple.

Unfortunately, Gimple apparently despises Rick. When, in season 2, the writers rebooted Rick, flushing his season 1 characterization entirely and replacing it with a suddenly weak-willed, overly emotional, indecisive idiot version, Gimple was on hand to author the low-point of that already-pathetic creation: Rick wrangling zombies right through our heroes' camp in "Pretty Much Dead Already." The writers rebooted Rick again for S3 and came up with another version that was also awful but in very different ways, and when, toward the end of S3, they suddenly decided to flush this Rick and bring back the awful season 2 version, Gimple again authored his lowest point, his plot to kidnap Michonne and hand her over to GINO. This was far worse than the previous low, and Gimple has Rick give a speech toward the end, the one declaring the end of the "Ricktatorship," that proves his version of Rick still had no idea what he'd done wrong. In between, Gimple authored "18 Miles Out," in which it was revealed that Rick had kept Randall on the farm for a week without having ever even questioned him about his comrades, a group of armed hostiles of unknown size camped out in their immediate area. In "Clear," Gimple had Rick go on a run for guns, and, with the prison facing an attack that could come at any time, has him drive halfway across the state on a long, dangerous mission to retrieve some weapons Rick himself had already carted off back in the pilot, driving, to get there, past dozens of towns that would have been ripe for weapons looting. Gimple's Rick is a first-class dumbass. His reign could mean hard times for Rick fans.

While Merle's attack on GINO and his men in "This Sorrowful Life" was well-conceived, Gimple has generally handled action and suspense rather poorly in his scripts. Back in season 2, the lead-in to his "Save the Last One" had set up what could have been a remarkably tense and exciting situation, with Otis and Shane fleeing through a black maze pursued by zombies in a race-against-the-clock, while, back at the farm, Hershel struggled valiantly to keep the boy alive. Could Shane and Otis avoid becoming dinner for the lurking deads and get the medical equipment back to Hershel before it was too late for Carl? Could Hershel keep Carl alive long enough for them to return? Instead of following through on this, Gimple opened the episode by spoiling the ending (showing Shane alive after whatever has happened), then aggressively murdered any tension the story could have--and should have--built by constantly cutting away to entirely redundant and/or embarrassingly inane filler moments back on the farm. We get a tale of Shane stealing a car in high school, Maggie and Glenn doing the God Talk thing (which had already been absolutely exhausted in the immediately previous episodes), and so on.[2] Gimple did the same thing in "18 Miles Out," repeatedly moving away from the testosterone-fueled Rick/Shane duel to an inane and pathetic Beth suicide plot on the farm. The action in that ep was awful as well, but mostly as a consequence of poor staging and direction, rather than writing. Gimple did have Shane hole up on a bus besieged by the dead and entirely fail to realize he could escape by simply waltzing out the back door, and he had Randall limping around and even kicking and breaking a zombie's arm on a leg that, only a week earlier, had suffered an injury that would have put it entirely out of commission for the better part of a year.

All of Gimple's eps have been stuffed with the vacuous filler that has become TWD's virtual trademark.

Gimple's two most recent eps are, as already noted, a cut well above anything else he'd written. In them, his greatest strength is easily his characterizations and dialogue. Because all of his previous episodes had been just as bad, on this score, as all the other TWD writers, I'd like to be optimistic and hope his later work shows he's just coming into his own. Time will tell on that, I suppose. His first episode as full-fledged showrunner airs tonight.



[1] Glen Mazzara has treated the characters like Play Dough figures in a soap melodrama, rather than anything resembling human beings. This isn't just a problem because it's terminally unengaging--anti-engaging, even--it's also a fatal flaw in Mazzara's TWD, and an indication of how poorly he understood (or cared about) the material. The point of TWD in comic form was, as Robert Kirkman has said, to have a zombie movie that never ends. One of its central concerns is to be a character study about how the zombiefied world affects people over time. That's why soap melodrama is so fundamentally incompatible with it: it's inhuman. People aren't like that and don't behave in that way. More importantly, you can't have a series that studies how people change over a long period when, conceptually speaking, the characters are just Play Dough and are arbitrarily changed--often radically changed--from episode to episode to suit the needs of the week's plot.

[2] That episode, in particular, is like a textbook on how not to write, shoot, and edit something like TWD--every choice the creators made was the wrong one.