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.