The Walking Dead – “Twice As Far”

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With only two episodes left in the season, I think it’s safe to assume that the terror that is Negan won’t be revealed until the season finale – probably during the final act of the episode. This defied expectations that the “All-Out War” narrative from the comic books would consume the back-end of this season. This is not wholly disappointing – it shows that the producers and writers are deliberately building tension and plan on spending more than half a season on the group’s confrontation with Negan and The Saviors. Chances are, “All Out War” will take up the full-run of season seven.

This week’s episode, titled “Twice As Far,” has revealed that the writers have completely flipped the script, leaning further and further away from the source material in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to keep the story engaging. After last week’s encounter with The Saviors, the episode opens with a ‘clockwork’ montage, showing the guards at their posts, doing rounds, keeping watch on inventories, and exchanging knowing glances with one another. Alexandria is keeping watch on the walls, and things take on a slightly tense, ‘business as usual’ tone.

Morgan has built a jail cell in his downtime, an obvious attempt to inject some civilization into the violence of Alexandria’s leadership. In a brief exchange, Rick looks around at the cinder-block cell and asks Morgan why he built it. “It’ll give us some choices next time,” Morgan responds. We’re reminded what happened with the Alpha Wold that Morgan captured, the division it created, and the danger it presented when the Wold absconded with Doctor Denise.

The world is getting bigger, and it dawns on us that a holding cell, an interrogation room, even a permanent prisoner residence may eventually become necessary. Summary execution is a quick solution, but the world has gotten bigger. The exchange between Morgan and Rick transitions back to Carol, fingering her crucifix, smoking cigarettes on the porch swing, clearly conflicted after slaughtering the small holdout of Saviors in the previous episode.

There’s a lot of heavy-lifting with the narrative of “The Walking Dead,” but the show transitions between Eugene and Abraham over to Rosita and Daryl, escorting Doctor Denise on a pharmacy run, with ease. With so many characters getting screen time this week, we’re reminded of how securely the fates of the Alexandrians are tethered together. Father Gabriel with his rifle, Sasha at her guard tower, Morgan practicing his martial arts in the grass, Eugene thinking much more ‘big picture’ with his plan to manufacture bullets, the newly-erected jail cell – this episode, despite some spoiler-heavy action, is largely quiet, representing the planing stages, the quiet before the storm.

Dwight knows where Alexandria is, we discover during a tragic encounter on the train-tracks outside of town. If Dwight knows where Alexandria is, Negan won’t be too far behind.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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I don’t have any Irish blood – at least not to my knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s challenging not to celebrate a holiday that – in this sick, sad modern world – is predicated on beer drinking and revelry. Every year, my own personal tradition is to watch “The Boondock Saints.” The sequel may be a train-wreck, and director Troy Duffy may not have any more to give us, but I never tire of this delightful little film.

For you, I raise my glass and present you with an illustration inspired by the film.
Cheers!

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The Walking Dead – “Not Tomorrow Yet”

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The most recent episode of “The Walking Dead” once again establishes a sense of peaceful domesticity for the citizens of Alexandria, this time focusing on Carol. It opens with her going through the food pantry, plucking cans from the rack, and gathering acorns in the forested area outside the town walls. The pleasant jaunty folk music doesn’t pause when Carol has to…to machete a walker who interrupts her errand. She sighs at the blood spray on her white blouse in a manner one might expect from tracking mud into the house; there’s a nonchalance, a sense of normality, a sense of frustrated routine.

What the episode establishes here, with it’s folk music & baking montage, is still relatively new. It’s contrasting Carol’s struggle with adapting to living a real life (as opposed to the life she and the group have been forced to live, trying to survive on the road). From the third-person omnipotence of our living-rooms, we already know that Rick and the group are on their way back to the community from The Hilltop. We know that the people of Alexandria are going to have to prepare for war. We know that Carol is going to have to put down the cookies. It’s going to be time to kill people – again.

Carol has her moment with Tobin, we see her smile for the first time in what seems like an eternity, but then the RV pulls up. Her peaceful moment comes to a halt. And these are the rhythms of “The Walking Dead.” As director Greg Nicotero explains: “It becomes ‘Die Hard’ from here on out.”

And he isn’t joking when he says that.

Rick rallies the troops and they plan their attack on Negan’s outpost. A lot happens in this episode, but we still get the feeling that the writers and show-runners are still just setting up all the chess pieces. Glenn loses his innocence by killing his first living human, an action that coincides with plot-points in the comic book. Does this loss of innocence put a target on Glenn’s head, or will the television series diverge from the events of the (already-published) graphic novels in order to keep the audience guessing and the narrative fresh? If so, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

And what of Abraham? Since the beginning of the season he’s been showing greater and greater signs of caving into survival stress. He appears unable to adapt to his environment, has private emotional fits, and struggles to understand how or why Glenn & Maggie would actually elect to have a child in this brave new world. There have been moments of drunkenness, abandon, and pathos, as well as moments of unnecessary risk-taking. There was also the PTSD fever-dream on the rooftop with the RPG-strapped walker (an encounter which ultimately saved his life during the encounter with Negan’s foot soldiers on the highway). The show reintroduced Abraham’s problems in last weeks’ episode, and we now see him turning his back on Rosita in a brutal, heartbreaking fashion. He’s a fighter, there’s no doubt, and certainly not a bad man. But the show has gone to great lengths to illustrate that he is a man slowly coming undone. My prediction is that we had all better start saying our goodbyes; he isn’t getting out of the season alive.

If you think I’m wrong, feel free to let me know what you think is going to happen in the comment section below.

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The Walking Dead – “What?”

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It takes something special to make the audience laugh at violence, but that is precisely what the writers achieved with their most recent episode of “The Walking Dead.” Inured with struggle and bloodshed, Rick Grimes and the group are hardened fighters. Like the group portrayed in the show, the audience is accustomed to the necessary violence that the characters endure. This is why we are able to laugh when Rick, bathed in the blood of a man who tried to kill him, looks around at the benumbed villagers of The Hilltop – people decidedly not accustomed to violence – and says “what?” as though what he had just done was nothing more than cracking his knuckles, brushing his teeth, or tying his shoes.

It is also something of a disarming slight-of-hand that the writers have successfully pulled off. We know we shouldn’t be so amused by what we’ve just seen, but we are. A writer that has perfected this little trick is Quentin Tarantino – I’m reminded of the burning theater in “Inglourious Basterds.” We see the face of Hitler being gruesomely mutilated by machine-gun fire, and we celebrate. A look at a room of people condemned to burning alive, and it is difficult to not find it funny. They were all Nazis, after all.

The show is slowly evolving, breaking from the routine of “find sanctuary, lose sanctuary, hit the road, rinse, repeat.” We haven’t even met Negan yet. Believe me, things are about to get much, much more violent.

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The Walking Dead – “Knots Untie”

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“Your world is about to get a lot bigger.”

These are the words of Jesus, the previous episode’s newest addition to “The Walking Dead.” And he isn’t joking. The world is about to expand for all of the Alexiandrians as news of other settlements is revealed. As the back-half of season six leaped forward in time, we’re also beginning to get the sense that the walkers are getting ready for a massive die-off. This is hinted at in the comic book series as well; most walkers were made during the initial wave at the beginning of the series, and a rotting body doesn’t last forever. Those who have carefully observed, each season has brought with it walkers in more and more advanced stages of decomposition. The walkers in season six are soft, sticky heaps of bone, showing evidence of butyric fermentation and advanced decay.

It can safely be assumed that walkers, while eminently dangerous, are becoming less of a threat. The more significant threat comes from other survivors, scrambling to organize, secure resources, and defend themselves. We already know how dangerous The Governor was, and we know what happened to the settlement at Terminus. The apocalypse appears to have polarized the survivors, splitting them into one of two distinct groups: weakened survivors (like the Alexandrians) and ruthless tyrants and bands of highwaymen (like the leadership at Woodbury, the cannibals at Terminus, and the raiders led by Negan). Rick and his group have managed to stay somewhere in-between these two extremes, and “The Walking Dead” is constantly examining the morale, and moral turpitude, of the group.

At the invitation of Jesus, Rick and his cohort embark to a community called “The Hilltop” with hopes of striking a trade agreement to solve their food shortage. With the threat of famine looming over them, they have little choice than to risk following their new acquaintance.

The roads aren’t swollen with walkers, but the group is wary that Jesus may be planning an ambush. Rick’s caution is understandable. In fact, the entire ‘Alexandria’ story arc of seasons five and six was intended to illustrate Rick’s developing instincts. We watched him become the capable alpha, a charge he is at first reluctant to assume over the coddled, frightened residents of Alexandria.

In “Knots Untie,” we see who Rick has really become. No longer wrestling with his morals, he is literally baptized in blood. It is perfectly natural for “The Walking Dead” to invite violence immediately upon the group’s arrival at a new sanctuary. The people of The Hilltop are cautious, weak survivors, not unlike how the people of Alexandria were. When one of The Hilltop’s scavengers attempts to assassinate their leader, Gregory, in exchange for the release of his brother (who has been kidnapped by Negan), it is Rick who swiftly intervenes. After knifing a hole into the man’s neck and a literal bloodbath – a spectacle of violence unfamiliar to the stunned villagers – Rick looks around, practically shrugging, and says, quite earnestly, “What?”

It’s a laugh-worthy moment, but a telling one, too. It explains exactly how Rick and his people view the world, from a firm black-and-white perspective: try to hurt me, I will kill you. Period.

The incident is off-putting to the people of The Hilltop; after all, Rick killed one of their people, even the man ultimately was a danger to the community. But this doesn’t prevent the two groups from coming to an agreement. Burdened with paying tribute to Negan in exchange for peace, The Hilltop has been existing under the thumbs of a tyrant. Rather than attempt to broker peace with the Negan and his gang, Rick accepts a kill mission. In fact, he is the chief architect of the kill mission.

“We’ve never had a problem with confrontation,” Rick says. And we know that’s true. The group has a base of operations, lethal skills, and an offer of protection for The Hilltop in exchange for foodstuffs. All-out war is on the horizon.

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The tension is building quickly. Abraham’s narrative begins to resurface – a thread that was dropped before the mid-season finale – and we’re reminded of his tenuous grasp with reality. Along with his irrational risk-taking while guiding the mega-herd away from Alexandria, we see him wearing that curious smile once again. As the bloodshed we expect from the season finale approaches, it wouldn’t be surprising to see our militant slugger marked for death.

We also see Maggie taking a leadership role, acting as the chief negotiator with the knife-wounded Gregory. She recognizes that The Hilltop’s leader, a lecherous coward of a man, has little leverage. She confronts him head-on, standing her ground, reminding us that despite being visibly pregnant, she is a force to be reckoned with.

The group is comfortable with violence. We know this. Combat with Negan and The Saviors is acceptable if it means forging lasting peace with The Hilltop. Establishing safe trade routes between farming communities is the next step toward long-term survival. But I think we all know that the group is underestimating how dangerous Negan really is.

Time will certainly tell.

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The Walking Dead – “The Next World”

Jesus Saves postJesus saves. Or does he?

After spending a painful amount of time on the lives of the Alexandrians – the first half of season six takes place over only a couple of days – we break with the comic book narrative and jump ahead two months. The comic spends time watching the community develop while Carl is bedridden, but we begin here with Carl upright and able-bodied, albeit with a certain lack of depth perception.

“The Walking Dead” hasn’t ever taken such a positive turn. We see domestic quibbles over who used the last of the toothpaste. We see clean-shaven faces and signs that the community has tethered it’s resources and established a new sense of unity. There’s a confidence in this new-found domesticity and cooperation. It’s something that viewers haven’t seen since Hershel’s farm. And even back then, there were serious problems.

It feels alien to have the show’s trademark ‘horror film’ violin music fade-in for the opening credits when nothing bad has actually happened. Quite the contrary, we’re actually left chuckling at Rick’s ultimate redneck honkytonk music as he and Daryl drive off in a plume of dust on a scavenging run.

Given how the story of “The Walking Dead” has unfolded, it’s unlikely that this newfound repose will last. The real question is, what terrible thing is going to happen to disrupt the peace?

Is Jesus going to be a savior? Doubtful. Fans of the comic book will be delighted that this mysterious new character has been introduced, and it’s the opinion of this writer that the nature of Jesus need not be prematurely revealed here.

One of the wonderful things about “The Walking Dead” is that the writers have gone to great lengths to change key plot points. This is likely an effort to keep the story relevant and prevent fans of the graphic novel from spoiling the television show. In the end, both formats have strengths and weaknesses, and the adaptation to the screen exploits every opportunity to remain it’s own distinct experience.

In the comic book, for instance, there isn’t even a Daryl Dixon character – he was written for the early episodes and was never intended to survive. He become such a beloved character so quickly, the decision was made to keep him in. Similarly, it’s Michonne who first encounters Jesus, at the gates of Alexandria, and not Rick and Daryl out on the road. And no, Michonne doesn’t share an intimate moment with Rick at all in the books. Chances are, the producers felt inclined to bend to the will of the fans, who have been more than vocal about their desire to see the two hard-core survivor-leaders, the two characters with the thickest skin, fall into bed together. It’s pleasantly disarming to see these two, hardened warriors both, actually smiling – a lot. In a world so broken, with characters who have endured as much tragedy as these two, it was something akin to relief to see them come together in one peaceful moment.

Will it last? Who is Jesus, and does he have anything to do with Negan and his band of highwaymen? It is true that he wasn’t carrying a weapon, and he didn’t attack Rick and Daryl. He might have stolen from them, but he didn’t hurt them. Hell, he even managed to save Daryl from a walker. Is he going to play a larger role in “the next world” he makes mention of? Are there really other communities out there that can be trusted? Only time will tell. The one thing we do know is that the show leaves us with more questions than answers, and it definitely keeps things interesting.

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Bonus factoids.

  1. Rick is no longer wearing his wedding ring.
  2. The comic book we see Carl reading in the woods is “Invincible,” another comic series penned by “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman.
  3. You can see Glenn’s name scratched off the casualties list at the beginning of this episode.
  4. In the comics Jesus’ real name is Paul Monroe. It’s changed to Paul Rovia to avoid confusion with him being a member of Alexandria’s Monroe family.
  5. Rick shares a passionate kiss with Andrea, not Michonne, in the opening to ‘Volume 16: A Larger World’