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.



  1. The SLIDERS episode 'Sole Survivors' is better zombie show then all of the walking dead. Just had to throw that out there

  2. Well, the R.E is what i really love. But was really disappointed with the movie. So my best pick is TWD.