Posted March 19th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
As a nerd with Internet access, it's hard not to get caught up in the drumbeats of war over our favorite shows, movies, or games—Mass Effect fans are doing so as we speak over the ending to Mass Effect 3. Fans of The Walking Dead began beating that drum shortly after a decently satisfactory first season, when news hit that showrunner Frank Darabont was unceremoniously dropped from the show. Perhaps because it was announced in tandem with budget cuts, fans were equal parts furious at the change and terrified that the second season would suffer for it. And suffer it did. The interminable campout at Herschel Greene's farm is as cruelly stagnant as one can imagine a show about zombies could be, with any budget. It only picked up in the second half of the season, capping off with last night's finale.
But the first half of the season? When nothing substantial happened for full episodes at a time? That's when Frank Darabont's influence was still guiding the show. Glen Mazzara's takeover didn't fully take effect until the mid-season return this spring. And aside from a major hiccup in Episode 11, it has largely exceeded expectations under his watch. So maybe there's a reason to look forward to a third season that can not only outdo the second, but also make up for it. There is certainly reason to think so after the major dust-up of Episode 13, "Over the Dying Fire."
After a recap, it's time to evaluate the season as a whole and whether it's worth it to keep trudging through zombieland with these people. As always, spoilers ahead.
It isn't the most graceful or seamless plot device ever incurred, but can you blame The Walking Dead for just throwing a thousand walkers at the farm to tear it down? That's what we all wanted, right? If there's one thing to say about the finale, it's that it doesn't waste time bridging the gap to season three.
Viewers, it seems, must swallow a certain amount of lunacy in exchange for the kind of excitement that The Walking Dead can deliver, and in this case it comes in the form of seasoned World War Z veterans not having the slightest evacuation plan in the case of an inbound zombie horde. The payoff for this stupidity is a frenetic mass of confusion and terror, with splintered groups fleeing for their lives without knowing if anyone else is going to make it. And despite the utter cowardice in only allowing the two most faceless farmhands to die (Jimmy and Patricia, whose names I wouldn't even know of if not for Talking Dead's recap), for a few tense moments it seemed like Carol, Andrea, and Herschel might be facing the chopping block.
The only drawback in the whole scene is that they left the goddamn auto-aim on. Listen: the walker massacre at the barn that ended the first half of the season? That was the time for perfect aim. On top of the practical reasons—firing squad positions in broad daylight, with targets marching right towards their guns—it was also a scene that emphasized Herschel's pain in seeing some form of his loved ones getting gunned down. It was not the time to be afraid of the walkers. But when hundreds of walkers are swarming the farm and everyone is caught up in a panic? This is the time to be afraid of them! Seeing Glen hanging out of the passenger-side window of a moving vehicle, shooting indiscriminately at a field full of walkers in the middle of the night, and scoring one headshot after another is a laughable bucket of ice water poured on top of the scene. In the words of Red Letter Media's Mr. Plinkett, when you turn the laws of physics into a cartoony farce, the tension evaporates.
Nevertheless, once the group is on the road, it's amazing what a change of scenery can do. Suddenly paranoid about every inch of surrounding woodland, unsure about where to go, and utterly bereft of supplies, things start looking like a proper zombie apocalypse again! I find myself actually caring what characters say to one another, because it feels like it will matter. Suddenly living moment-to-moment again, the group is as splintered as ever. Rick's twin confessions about killing Shane and withholding Dr. Jenner's secret (everyone holds a dormant form of the infection and will reanimate upon natural death) rock his friends' faith in him, and Rick in turn doubles down on his claim of authority. The episode ends with his chilling my-way-or-the highway moment: "This is not a democracy anymore."
As a bonus, Andrea is cut off from the group, which finally makes her screentime interesting. Actually, her portion of the episode—being chased through the woods with dwindling ammunition and energy—is arguably the most well-executed. Although it's utterly beyond the bounds of what we've seen The Walking Dead willing to do so far, Andrea's desperately fight with the last of her power makes it easy to imagine she is actually about to add her name to the deceased. And then the weirdest fucking thing on the show happens.
The sudden appearance of a hooded katana-wielding figure towing two armless walkers—who Talking Dead identifies as Michonne, a fan-favorite—is maybe the first time the show has betrayed its comic book origins. Don't get me wrong. I like comics. But they don't always translate very gracefully to the screen. There's just something silly and unbelievable about a character in a hood whose face is completely obscured in shadow, like they just walked off of an anime (or are attempting to cosplay one). Despite all the stumbles and the fact that the show revolves (in theory, at least) around the concept of dead people walking around, everything thus far has felt like an approximation of reality. Nothing yet has felt so close to a video game or comic book adaptation.
Either way, there isn't much else to make of it. Like the final shot revealing the prison, the appearance of Michonne is really just a quick smoke signal to fans of the comic. It's the blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of The Phoenix at the end of X2: X-Men United, a wink of what's to come for people in the know. Those who haven't read the comic can only check their mental notebooks that something potentially interesting is on the horizon.
So, the question becomes: do we tune in for season three? Does the show deliver on anything beyond its unique premise? And if not, is the premise enough to carry it? Here are some of my thoughts on what appears to be encoded in The Walking Dead's DNA, for better or worse; things we can expect will not change anytime soon.
1. The Walking Dead
You may have noticed this show is not titled "Southern assholes fight over paternity." So, we can expect the walkers to be the focal point. When they don't figure in the show's major events for episodes at a time, it can feel like they aren't. But when they do appear, they steal every scene as expected.
In my opinion, this is entirely due to the efforts of the makeup department and the walker actors themselves. There is not a single thing that The Walking Dead does that lives up to the work of special FX make-up designer Greg Nicotero and his team. With make-up that goes beyond its Tom Savini heritage and smart, subtle use of CG effects, the walkers are the very image of a shambling, rotting corpse hungry for human meat. They are disgusting and mesmerizing, an absolute standout feat on television today.
The problem is that the grotesque image of the walkers alone can't bear the full weight of their role, and in most other ways they are underused. I don't mean there aren't enough of them, either; lately, the show has been lousy with walkers.
The problem is that the damn things simply aren't scary, in spite of their appearance. Of the show's many consistent failings, this one rubs me the worst. It seems like I could stomach a lot more of the chatty bullshit if I had a lingering dread that at any moment, a walker could lumber onto the scene and tear shit up. Every quiet dialog becomes a potentail setup for a sudden slasher scares. But unfortunately, walkers are treated about one step away from domesticated animals.
Here's a good rule of thumb for movie/television monsters: Can a child kill one with a single shot in the middle of the night? If "yes," they aren't scary.
Somehow, The Walking Dead has taken a nightmare of a monster that never sleeps, never tires, and never hesitates in its efforts to cannibalize humans, which can withstand any attack save a killshot dealt directly to its brain, and it has rendered them into fairly manageable nuisances. And it's because every single shot fired finds its way directly to the walkers' lone weak spot.Coupled with the clear indication that showrunners aren't willing to let go of their lead characters at the random roll of death's dice (which, from what I've heard, is a major strength of the comic), the walkers become nothing more than ugly cockroaches that characters have to stomp out now and again. And until we get a clear signal that things have changed, we can look forward to another season where walkers only inspire tension specifically when there is a ticking clock: a character incapacitated or otherwise trapped. But a few classic jump scares—I had expected one when Glen abruptly asks Maggie to stop the car to talk about his feelings, as classic a setup for gruesome death as I can imagine—would help elevate the walkers to their proper station.
Beyond the walkers, where is the danger of simply living life in a new frontier? Rick and co. don't appear to be in much danger on the whole.
Just look at what has happened this season. T-Dog cut his arm to hell, and began succumbing to the resulting infection. Carl got shot in the abdomen by a hunting rifle. Rick suffered severe blood loss in the fight to save Carl. Shane sprained an ankle and then ran home on it. Daryl fell down a cliff twice, impaling his abdomen with an arrow, and had a rifle bullet wing his skull. Randall had his leg torn to shreds. All of these people not only got better, but had no telltale signs of someone who had recovered from a serious injury.
Despite repeated run-ins with hostile armed gangs, nobody has been seriously injured or killed.
These people do not visibly worry about food or water, despite sweating like pigs in a ridiculously oppressive Atlanta sun. Not even after evacuating the farm that ostensibly provided them such an infinite supply of sustenance that they could spare the expense of feeding chickens to the barn walkers, or close off one of three wells without much worry. Will it be revealed that the dormant infection everyone carries makes them as impervious as the walkers, or what the fuck is going on here?
The problem is, when something cold happens like Dale getting disemboweled by a walker, and everyone instantly backtracks on all evidence of survivability that we have seen these people exhibit, it smacks very heavily of "Dale went back to his home planet (and died on the way)." It feels incredibly scripted, and falls flat. Which leads me to...
3. The Payoff
This is one of the oddities of The Walking Dead. They have plenty of aces up their sleeve, but they just throw them out there with all the subtlety of a drunken whore. There is an inability to either execute, plan, or even realize the need for building a solid hand first. So it's almost bittersweet to see them let go of those big-ticket plot points without maximizing the payoff in the conclusion or the aftermath.
Take Otis' death, for instance. A huge shock early in this season, a secret full of dark promise, which went absolutely nowhere. Out of the blue, Dale accuses Shane of murder, and Shane hints he may be right. Dale tells Lori, who questions Shane, and he again hints that Dale may be right. Lori tells Rick, who questions Shane, and... then appears to forgive him for it. Daryl seems to suspect as well, but doesn't follow up in any way. And that's as far as it goes. No big group reveal, like the comparatively innocuous issue of Randall. No real consequences when Shane tries to pull the same trick with Randall. It's easy to imagine that the events that followed could have just as easily transpired if Otis had actually sacrificed himself in the way Shane described. There is a lot of running around the issue, building up tension, but then it just kind of dissipates.
The huge walker attack on the farm is the opposite problem. There is literally no setup at all. They just... show up. A cold open reveals that following the direction a helicopter was moving for five seconds led a massive hoard from Atlanta, without any obstacle greater than a wooden fence, directly to Herschel's farm.
Yep, that's it. No plotline about a defensive system of fences and guards that the group uses to fend off small patches of walkers throughout the season, with arguments and fears about weaknesses in the perimeter. No ominous warnings about how the farm is safe from one direction thanks to the swamp quicksand, and well-fenced on the others, except for a big open spot to the south. No divisions amongst the group about how to address that weakness (birth control, suicide attempts, and other dilemmas lifted from teen mom dramas taking up all available discussion time). No uneasy overconfidence that the guard on top of the camper has a perfect view of the south side, and with plenty of ammo at hand can easily pick off dozens of walkers from that direction. And then when the hoard arrives, the doomed attempt to do just that, a long struggle to hold back wave after wave of the massive hoard before finally succumbing to panic.
Nope, none of that. Rather, we get "Oh, walkers? Hmm. Weren't expecting that."
And they had no reason to expect it, since only two walkers made their way onto the farm this entire season (the walker in the well, and the walker who kills Dale). So walkers show up, everyone hums a few bars of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," and then they leave. There's something hollow about watching a group of people ostensibly surviving in dark times, but actually just flying around by the seat of their pants.
The way the show under-capitalizes on long-running plots and payoffs, there is really no reason for it to have such a firm commitment to its serial format. I for one wouldn't mind if it had more of an episodic format; events like Carl's gunshot could be contained to one episode that is focused entirely on the issue. Randall's arc, similarly, could be handled in one taut episode. And then for mid-season or end-of-season finales, we could get a two-parter with major consequences for the serial over-arc of the show. The enjoyable episodes of the show already work like this; the only difference is there is about 20 minutes of distraction as we get updates on every character regardless of whether they're doing something interesting that leads anywhere or not.
All of this leads back to the characters. To its credit, The Walking Dead showrunners put a premium focus on the people. They seem to generally understand that all stakes are raised when viewers care about the people on the show. And even if this comes with the unfortunate misunderstanding that our concern for the characters' petty squabbles will ever eclipse our concern for their basic survival, it's for the best that they don't assume they could just toss a bunch of mannequins into a zombie jungle and assume viewers would root for them to live.
But this runs into a bit of a brick wall when it turns out that absolutely nobody likes the characters on this show, and for good reason. Half the time any given character speaks up, my Twitter feed pops up with people updating their "who needs to die first" list. My wife, who dropped her plans to be a surgeon because she could not stand the sight of a child cadaver, weekly expresses her desire to see Carl get eaten. These are not good omens.
It's fine to have negative characters. Shane was a negative character, and he helped drive the show. Dr. Jenner was a negative character, and he was an interesting focus of his self-contained episode. But you can't have a show full of characters that viewers plainly don't want to see, ever. But the problem goes beyond the awful characters like Lori, Carl, and Andrea. Because the characters people like are not nearly good enough to balance them out.
The sad fact is, there is not a single interesting character on the show. There are passable characters, sure. I like Glen and Daryl especially, and I like Rick when he isn't acting like a huge asshole. I even liked Dale and Shane. But by and large, they are likable because they are inoffensive. I wouldn't want to be put on the spot to describe them. "Glen is a shy young guy who gets tongue-tied sometimes but he's generally nice? Daryl is a slightly racist hardass who seems bipolar?" They don't rise above the show and pull it up with them.
Characters like Dexter Morgan from Dexter, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Don Draper from AMC's own Mad Men stand out as consistent, fully-realized people who command attention. The only fully-realized, consistent characters on The Walking Dead—Dale and Shane—are now dead. Everyone else is flat enough that they could be bent into the convenient position of wanting to kill or exile Randall out of groundless fear, despite it being contrary to at least half their personalities.
The lack of strong characterization makes it hard to care what these people say and do. If Lori is a big ball of negativity no matter what news Rick delivers to her, it's no wonder the only interest viewers have in her is how soon she will die. If we don't know anything about Carol despite spending months with her, what are we to make of it when the show pushes her and Daryl together? If Carl is an irritable, stupid little piece of shit, how are we supposed to empathize with Rick's mission to keep him safe? I want all these characters to die, and soon, so I really don't get anything out of the parts of the show that feature them.
T-Dog still hangs around, with no attempt to make him seem more than a walking totem of television's racial disparity. Beth's suicide attempt is actually positioned as an episode's secondary plot point, despite no work putting into making us know or give a shit about Beth at all. Jimmy and Patricia bite the dust after hanging around in the background for a full season, and it elicits less of a response than Dave's death after spending only 10 minutes with him.
This is a remarkably awful track record for a show that, from what viewers can surmise and from the producers' explicit intent, is about the characters. It's possible that a new location will bring about plenty of interesting characters, including Michonne. But considering how unrealized half of the new characters this season were—to say nothing of the carry-overs from season one who we still barely know—it's an open question. How does a show keep interest when it devotes so much time to people viewers don't want to see?
So, with all this said, is it worth coming back for season three? For TV junkies, sure. It has its moments, and the premise enough has a lot of magnetism. But does it ascend beyond its premise? Fuck no. It's at-best as interesting a show now as it was when it first premiered and we knew nothing about it.
And that may be the best way to look at season three: we know very little about it, and the season two finale packed in a lot of promise for what's to come. With Shane gone, it seems likely that Carol and Maggie are going to push their men to challenge King Rick. Michonne looks pretty badass, and she might even make Andrea tolerable to watch. The prison could be full of interesting new characters that clash with the usual cast. And the cast could be in very real danger for awhile before finding the safe haven that Rick is searching for. If it lives up to the promise, season three could be great, and even make us forget the lull of Herschel's farm.
I am not a TV junkie, however, and it's hard to argue with the wisdom of simply sitting season three out and binge-viewing it afterward if the buzz is good. But in spite of its chronic problems, and my chronic bitching, the show has made decent strides in the second half of this season—it's entirely possible that losing Darabont actually freed The Walking Dead from its sluggish pace. All said, it's probably worth using the season three premiere as the barometer to keep going. After all, Robert Kirkman confirmed that either Morgan, his son, or Merle will be back.
I'm betting on Merle, and a one-handed crazy racist meeting up with a black samurai sounds like good television. Plus, it will finally give T-Dog someone to talk to again.
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