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.


  1. I agree, overall this was a good episode. And considering my gripes about the premiere, I was surprised how naturally tonight's episode delved into Prison life in the midst of the present crisises.

    However, I am not completely sold that this season is a vast improvement. I hate to gripe over the details, but they matter to me.

    For instance, (1) the Woodbury people, we saw a few of their new faces in Ep 1. But already in Ep 2, they all but disappeared after the D Block Massacre.

    (2) Rick luring the walkers away from the fence, excellent idea! But sacrifice the pigs after the walkers are already starting to follow him and Daryl, not so smart.

    Last (3), the Council seemed to have decided to quarantine the possibly-infected in A Block, Death Row. But at the end of the episode, Tyreese finds the bodies in the inner courtyard outside of E Block.


  2. The Woodbury folks, I assume, were moved to a different part of the prison. That doesn't seem to me to be a problem. The ep was pretty tight--there wasn't any time wasted (another Gimple innovation), and it left no time to spend with them.

    The use of the pigs was gratuitous, but they'd already decided they'd have to get rid of them because of the disease.

    A problem, if one wants to see it that way, is that the "quarantine" of those potentially exposed was talked about but was non-existent. Carl comes right to Rick and hugs him, then goes back with those not potentially exposed. Maggie is right there on the fence fighting against the zombie horde alongside those who were exposed. And so on. I tend to look at that as another example of how desperate their situation is.

  3. cimearchaeologist:

    Another good review. If you find yourself thinking about the events of a television episode, and sporting a genuine desire to see it again after its was a good episode. This is indeed a vast improvement: everyone is immersed in the overarching danger of the zombie menace and a strain of flu not seen since the 1800s. Everyone is involved in some issue of survival and not idly talking about thinks that no longer matter to the viewing audience.

    There's intrigue and mystery: the unknown human killer and the disturbing intuition that one of the two little girls is up to something spelling doom for the remainder of the clan. Plus, it was pleasing rather than grating observing Maggie and Glenn last night: his taking a photograph of her (when, admittedly, he might have saw who was feeding the Walkers rats)was a slight touch of feel-good humor.

    It was also good to see the "old gang" (Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Maggie) at it again during the fence scene, as well as the dynamic duo (Rick and Daryl) doing their thing once more cleaning the remaining zombies and dead, soon-to-turn bodies.

    *Technical note: Angela Kang, whom I previously abhorred, acquited herself admirably with this episode. I agree with your sentiment that it could have been either pressure from Gimple, freedom from the bad influence of Mazzara, or a coming into one's own. But I hope the increase in quality continues.

    *Personal note: take care of yourself, guy. There's nothing worse than wasted talent, and the world has a shortage of truly intelligent people.

  4. How about Hershel's regrown leg? :D

    Epic attention to details.

    1. It was a prosthetic found on a walker

  5. Will people stop calling the prison population 'woodbury survivors' the clearly established in the premiere that rick and daryl spent 6 months rescuing and bringing people back to the prison. Most of them are NOT former woodbury citizens.