Monday, March 25, 2013

This Sorrowful WALKING DEAD

The writer of record on this week's installment of THE WALKING DEAD was Scott Gimple, who will be next season's TWD showrunner. "This Sorrowful Life" is very much a mixd bag, bit it has a head up on much of the rest of TWD in that it not only has something to say but has something to say that's worth saying.

Two week ago, TWD wasted an episode on a completely ridiculous "peace conference" between Rick and GINO. The writers had done nothing to establish any reason for the characters to talk. GINO's substantial crimes against Rick's people--kidnapping, terror, torture, murder--had been entirely unprovoked, nothing more than the determined whim of a madman. Not only was there no reason for Rick to do anything but shoot GINO on sight, there was every reason to do just that, and no rhyme or reason in doing anything else. When, mere moments into the proceedings, GINO made it clear he was only there to accept the prison group's surrender, anything less than a hail of bullets into GINO's brain amounted to a character assassination of Rick. In the midst of the staring contest that followed, which didn't include any hail of bullets, the writers threw in a subplot in which Merle, back at the prison, argued the group needed to trek to the meeting and kill GINO while they could. He tried to get the others to go along with him. His idea was presented as stupid and was violently vetoed.

That's how you know TWD's writers don't want you to think about something--they put it in the mouth of a Designated Villain character. They did the same thing last season. As the search for Sophia had dragged on well past the point there was much chance of ever finding her alive, it was becoming dangerous to continue. The idea of calling it off needed to be soberly considered. Instead, the writers put that sentiment in the mouth of Shane, who, by then, they'd turned into a cartoon villain. Rather than getting a fair hearing, one that could lead to a tough call that could alienate the viewing audience, the idea was made merely the devious thought of a heartless villain. Two weeks ago, the writers realized the entire premise of their present episode--the abjectly pointless "peace conference"--was a non-starter, and were trying to self-servingly justify it by making the idea of simply eliminating GINO an emanation of the brain of a dumb, villainous hick.

Way back in my original article on TWD, I wrote:

"TWD would be a difficult property for most commercial television outlets. It's a very dark story, 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."

In season 2, the writers used Shane to get around this. Once he was reduced to cartoon villain-hood, he was made to solve all of the manufactured moral dilemmas on which the writers spent the season, keeping the tough calls out of--and the consequent blood off of--the hands of our heroes. He dealt with their problems, then, as a designated villain, could, himself, be eliminated with no muss and no fuss.

"This Sorrowful Life" makes a plot-point of addressing this way of doing business. Appearing, at first, to continue it, the episode ends up refuting it. It's a direction that's definitely commendable. The getting there is a bit too TWD to earn unalloyed applause, though.

These days, GINO wants to lay his vengeance upon Michonne, and offered to let the prison group live if they'd turn her over to him. It was a bullshit offer, and there was absolutely no reason to believe he wouldn't, upon receipt of Michonne, just kill everyone anyway. Rick knows this and says as much, and, of course, immediately decides to turn her over anyway.

Those who have been paying attention will immediately realize that the creators wouldn't, under any circumstances, ever allow anything like that to happen. Michonne had proven herself a valuable addition to the group, and had stood with them even after they'd treated her rather badly. A consistently-written Rick wouldn't have even considered such an offer, but then, again, neither would he have suffered a GINO to live. As I've noted many times, there is no "character development" on TWD. There are barely even any characters. Those who serve the function of characters are, at no point, conceptualized as human beings. They are, instead, written as being whatever the script for the week requires them to be, without regard for who they were the week before or will be the week after. Rick's entertaining of GINO's offer was a return of the spineless, indecisive idiot version of Rick the writers had invented and arbitrarily imposed back in season 2, a Rick that should have never existed at all, and certainly a Rick the current Rick should be well beyond. He returns because he's the only version pathetic enough to engage with this ridiculously phony moral dilemma of handing over Michonne. The mechanics of TWD absolutely forbid him from this course of action, which makes the entire exercise one of merely burning through screen-time, but the attitude in the writer's room seems to be that the screen-time has to be filled by something, that they don't have anything better, and that they aren't going to trouble themselves to come up with anything, either.

The reappearance of season 2 Rick also, it turns out, signals a revisiting of that season's theme of questioning Rick's leadership. Rick keeps GINO's offer a secret from the larger group. He brings Hershel and Daryl in on his plot to turn over Michonne. Both are abjectly opposed to the notion, but, proving themselves moral cowards, go along with Rick anyway. It's when Rick turns to Merle as his fourth conspirator that things get interesting.

Merle understands the metatextual "rules" of TWD; he knows Rick turns to a Designated Villain like him to do his dirty work, and knows Rick can't be allowed to be responsible for such a terrible thing, so, while agreeing to help, he jumps the gun and takes matters into his own hands--he kidnaps Michonne himself, with the intent of taking her to GINO. It makes no real sense for Merle to do this, as he knows better than Rick that giving up Michonne won't deter GINO. For the ep to work, one just has to go with that part of it.[1]

On their way to the rendezvous with the forces of Woodbury, Merle and Michonne start to talk. At first, it's a rehash of Shane's litany. Rick is too tender-hearted. He won't do what it takes to keep his people safe, and would back out of this deal. It takes a bad dude like Merle to git 'er done. But then, as an intelligently-written Michonne[2] conjures some thoughts that become a needle beneath his skin, things start to change. For the first time, Merle steps out of the background, is given some depth, and becomes an almost interesting character. Careful observers of TWD know what that means. It would be nice to report that, for once, TWD broke with the cliché, but the telegraph, unfortunately, tells the tale yet again--Merle's emergence from unidimensional villainous redneck-ism signals only his impending death.

Before things get that far, though, there's the rest of a tale to tell.

Back at the prison, Rick does, indeed, have a change of heart. He just can't make himself do such a terrible thing.

Shocking, right?

But by the time he gets off his pot, Merle has absconded with Michonne, and it may be out of his hands. He gives what I'm sure Gimple and the other writers felt was an effective, impassioned speech to the group about his own leadership failures. In practice, it's yet another of TWD's usual ludicrous, overblown orations, delivered, by Andrew Lincoln, with an air of grand pomposity as if he was addressing throngs of faceless followers, rather than just the handful of intimates actually present. "We're the reason we're still here"--an actual line from it. He was wrong, he says, not to tell them about GINO's offer, thus proving that he hasn't a clue as to where he actually went so terribly wrong in that matter. Democracy, he says, is restored. The "Ricktatorship" he declared at the end of season 2 is no more. Ding, dong, the witch is dead! Whatever. The significant part--and the part least likely to last--is that they're now going to take responsibility for their own actions.

Back on the road, Merle decides he's not going to do GINO's dirty work for him anymore. He cuts Michonne loose. He tells her to go back to the prison, that, to follow the cliché to a fault, he has something he needs to do first. That something, of course, is to redeem himself. He makes his way to the rendezvous with GINO with a zombie horde in tow and does something else Rick has been unwilling to do--starts kicking ass and taking names.[3] Unfortunately, the last name taken--written before he can kill GINO--is his own.

With its many inanities, it's impossible to call this a good episode, but it can't help but look better compared to the absolute garbage that has preceded it week after week. The repudiation of that habit of letting Designated Villains make the hard calls, even if (as I believe likely) it proves only temporary, was welcome. The ep does feature, mixed in with the usual rubbish, some better-than-TWD's-average dialogue, and some particularly solid work by Danai Gurira (Michonne) and Michael Rooker (Merle). As in "Clear," Gurira shows what a crime TWD's writers have committed in so badly mishandling Michonne. There's a real actress, there, and she deserves better. Rooker, the central focus of the episode, is just a rock-solid talent, and always has been. His time as Merle has always been an essay on how a talented actor can take nothing--the substance he's consistently been given by the writers--and turn it into something worth a moment of your time, and for all its other problems, this ep was definitely his high-point in the part.



[1] Is it possible that in some early version of the script, he may have taken Michonne in order to get her away from all of it, rather than to turn her over to GINO? One scene, wherein he uses her sword, strongly suggests he wants her to escape. It would have been a nice touch to have made this his intention, but there really isn't anything in the ep to support it beyond that one scene and the illogic of what he does.

[2] Gimple is the only one of TWD's writers who has ever written Michonne as anything more than a caricature.

[3] Merle shows some solid tactical thinking in his confrontation with GINO's thugs, and earlier in the ep, Michonne had, as well, pointing out that the prison can be made defensible by making it too costly a prize for any attacking force.

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