Sunday, March 15, 2015


I wasn't going to write about "Forget," the most recent installment of THE WALKING DEAD, but a lot of commentary on the TWD message boards I sometimes haunt has inspired me to offer a few thoughts on it.

The last three eps, which have introduced the tv version of the Alexandria Safe Zone storyline from the comics, have brought about a major shift in the focus of the series. If one ignores the fact that this storyline is being built around one of TWD's patented radical and arbitrary shifts in Rick, its central character, it has worked rather well so far. Overall, "Forget" was easily the best episode of TWD since the present season's opener.

A brief tackle of the Rick shift: As I've so often noted, TWD's soap melodrama model means, among other things, that characterizations are dictated almost entirely by temporary plot considerations, which makes any charge that someone on TWD is acting "out of character" a tricky one to make in all but the most general way. In stark contrast to competently written character drama, none of TWD's principals are, at any stage of the creative process, conceptualized as real human beings. How they're written at any given moment--their personalities, motivations, etc.--is dependent upon who they have to be in order to get on screen whatever the writers want to put on the screen at that moment, and the former shifts with the latter. The newest version of Rick is the 8th major incarnation [see Appendix below], a Rick that is, to the extent that anyone on TWD can be said to be, way out of character; Rick as a sinister quasi-villain.

The overlapping B-plot mini-tales within the Safe Zone, which have been pleasingly dense, have focused heavily on the difficulties faced by Rick's group, a hardened band of traumatized survivors of some of the uglier aspects of the zombie apocalypse, in adjusting to life within a mini-civilization wherein, throughout the crisis, the world has pretty much gone on just as it was before. They're scarred fish out of water in a place that looks just like the everyday world viewers take for granted but that seems to them an alien paradise.

Rick has brought trouble to paradise. I've often written about how TWD demonizes overt survivalist sentiment. Reflecting the perceived mores of its middle American audience, it's essentially conservative in its point of view. "Stay the course" is, in a thousand variations, what the characters say in mindnumbingly repetitive fashion. "If we just stay the course, we'll make it through all of this." And anyone who, heaven forbid, tries, instead, to adapt by adopting an overtly survivalistic outlook is demonized. That theme is at the core of the current A-plot. In "The Distance," Rick was suddenly reinvented as a paranoid, dangerously stupid thug whose jaw-droppingly dumb decisions--born of those nasty survivalist concerns--nearly get everyone killed. At the beginning of "Remember," this new version of Rick was interviewed by Deanna, the congresswoman who oversees the Safe Zone. Of the world outside, he tells her, "People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live." In typically ham-handed TWD style, this turned out to be Rick warning her about himself--that opening scene is bookended by the final moment of the ep wherein Rick says "We’ll make it work. And if they can’t make it, then we’ll just take this place." At the beginning of the next and most recent ep, he, Carol and Daryl are plotting to steal a cache of guns from the Alexandrians for the purpose of militarily taking over the Safe Zone "if necessary." All the while, the would-be coup-sters are quite full of themselves, talking about how "lucky" the Alexandrians have been to have survived so far and how "lucky" they are that Rick's group has turned up, a degree of hubris as extreme as it is dangerous.

It's been somewhat depressing [1] to watch the internet discussions of these developments and see so many reflexively adopt the viewpoint of the plotters, parroting their scripted rationalizations and angrily insisting Rick and co. are merely being "cautious" and looking out for the best interests of the community. Would-be dictators always think they know what's best for their community, and one of the things nearly all of them share is that they never actually do. The Alexandrians have done just fine for two years; the group under Rick's leadership certainly can't say the same. Rick perceives the Alexandrians as "soft." Deanna tells him she wants them there specifically because of their experience on the outside. The last two eps have exposed both significant potential weaknesses in the security of the Safe Zone and the inexperience of its population. Our regulars have pointed out a few problems and made some suggestions for correcting them but they're certainly not sounding any alarm bells or suggesting any major overhaul of anything. Instead of working with the population, Rick is conspiring to take over, to make himself the Governor.

The survivalist conspirators have been made to look pretty bad. Aside from their plot, Rick has also developed a crush on a married woman. Nearly kissed her in a room full of people. After everything he went through with his own wife and Shane, Rick sees the lady walking the streets of the Safe Zone with her husband and at the sight of the other man reaches back and fingers the purloined pistol he's stashed in his waistband in the small of his back. When his co-conspirator Carol is stealing the weapons, her activity is observed by a child and she proceeds to offer a long, sadistic monologue about how, if the boy stays quiet about what he's seen, she'll make him some cookies, but if he should tell anyone she'll kidnap him and tie him to a tree outside the walls so zombies will slowly tear him to pieces and eat him alive. It's a situation that could, in better hands, have been treated with a blackly humorous twinkle; on TWD, from which humor is banished, it's played entirely straight, Carol, who lost her daughter, who taught the children the use of weapons and who needlessly murdered people to protect them, is suddenly terrorizing a child.

In the course of the ep, Aaron, who brought our heroes to the Safe Zone, gets chummy with Daryl and offers him a job as a recruiter for the community. Aaron wants him because, as he explains, Daryl is a guy who can tell the good people from the bad. Daryl, to his credit, proves him right--when the conspirators next meet, he refuses to take any of the weapons Carol has stolen.[2]

Unlike most of TWD, all of this makes for some relatively good television, even if that judgment is dependent upon "Forget"-ing the series prior to the last 3 eps. As noted earlier, the plotters have a significant segment of online fandom endorsing their "reasoning," a segment that, it seems to me, is bound to be disappointed by whatever is to come.[3] To have future episodes eventually side with them would break all precedent but it would also be quite interesting and utterly deplorable. And quite interesting in the way it is so utterly deplorable. So, very unlikely.



[1] Though not surprising--while TWD's writers were demonizing survivalist platitudes by turning Shane into a deplorable villain and having him mouth them, there emerged a significant contingent of pro-Shane viewers, sympathetic to those survival concerns regardless of their source.

[2] Showrunner Scott Gimple has always liked Michonne and never liked Rick; Michonne has been presented as a voice of reason, someone who is ready to give the Safe Zone a chance, someone who would be horrified by the activities of the plotters.

[3] I probably am as well. I have no confidence in these writers' abilities to handle in a compelling manner anything of any real complexity.

APPENDIX: The Eight Ricks

[Note: This is adapted from an earlier article, upon which I've freely expanded]

In the first five seasons of TWD to date, there have been eight major versions of Rick. 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, none of them organically growing out of the earlier versions.

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. This is the Rick who can't get off the pot on the matter of Randall, who herds dangerous zombies right through the camp where everyone sleeps in service of the delusions of an unreasonable old man.

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 so 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 (I prefer the former--easier to keep straight). 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 to slowly torture to death, even as he admits it won't help anything. He gives a speech at the end of the season and relinquishes his throne.

The next to appear was Rick 6.0, 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. This is the Rick who, when called to the fence by GINO, limply declines at first, asserting there's a council that manages things now. When he does slink down to confront his foe, steely determination and matter-of-factly laying down the law would have won the day, but instead he weeps and begs like some pathetic weakling and the prison is lost.

Rick 7.0 appears at the end of that same season, when Rick throws himself into a melee and tears out a guy's throat with his teeth. This is hardcore Rick, who has realized it's a harsh world and has finally gotten in touch with his inner Mean. When they screw with him, they don't know who they're screwing with. Hard but pragmatic, he plots to violently free Beth from the hospital but is still smart enough to listen to a more pacific solution if it will work. When Michonne suggests they should go to D.C. on the assumption that there must be other survivors there in shelters, places in which they could build a life, he recognizes the wisdom in this and leads everyone forward.[*]

And that last is the big turning point. 7.0 led them toward D.C. on that assumption and then when the possibility of a shelter presented itself, he was not only uninterested, he was initially violently opposed to even looking into it. From pretty much the moment he punched Aaron, he's suddenly 8.0, the paranoid and dangerously stupid thug Rick described above, who, among other things, began conspiring to steal the Alexandrians' guns in order to eventually take over the Safe Zone, totally dumping on the trust of the people there absent any real motive and toward no conceivable positive end. Entirely arbitrary characterizations pulled straight out of the writers' asses.


[*] He's also willing to indulge idealism to the point of impracticality--he takes the group on the 400-mile trip into Virginia to return Noah to his home, even though he doesn't really believe it will still be there, because that was a Beth's wish.


  1. Fine article. Rick's "character" to me is the biggest failure of the show. Seems like the least thing one should long for in a series is a consistently written lead character.(the comic version springs to mind)

    I got to wonder though.. The Rick that appears in the flashback of the episode "A" from season 4. Shouldn't this be considered some kind of 4,5 version?

    I went back and checked and in your review for that episode you noted that what we we're presented with in the flashback couldn't be squared away good with what we were presented with in the beginning of season 4, most notably because the Flashback-Rick seems to be completely all right meaning no signs of Crazy-Rick and no signs of Farmer-Rick.

    1. "Seems like the least thing one should long for in a series is a consistently written lead character."

      Yes, one shouldn't have to watch any show and long for something so basic to competent narrative construction.

      Yeah, Flashback Rick is what we who are into comics call a retcon; introduced to serve a narrative purpose in the present, he can't be made to fit with the existing continuity in any way.

    2. Well the "retcon" didn't really help then because Flashback-Rick wasn't just able to not be squared away with where we left Rick in season 3, but also to not square away with where we pick up in season 4.

      Furthermore I believe another big problem the series have is their need to transform characters in the face of a "major event". Pathetic-Rick 2,0 transformed into Ricktator 3,0 at the whim of him killing Shane. While events such as this should change people, doing it in such a rushed, non-sensical and in-your-face way is lazy and unconvincing.

      Take Rick in the comic for example when he loses the prison, Lori, Judy and his friends. He is crushed by it and we get to see how it changes him, but an obvious transformation into a completely different being never occur, ever.

  2. great article JR - especially the appendix of the Ricks...