The Walking Dead 8.01 – Mercy

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When a show reaches a seventh, an eighth, a ninth season, we often begin to notice some changes in the pacing of the story and in the quality of the writing. Truth be told, it’s usually around the fifth season that things start to smell a little funny. This is typically because the show creator, the writers’ room, and the show runners may not, at the very beginning, expected the show to have lasted for so long; the stories become more outlandish and improbable, themes start to repeat themselves, and what may have once been an incendiary and addictive plot begins to wear thin.

This has happened countless times before. When a show proves to be a consistent draw for audiences and ad revenue is consistently high, a show like Dexter or Lost will be renewed for additional seasons again and again, kept on life support until audiences grow weary, until viewership declines and the show dies the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

One antidote to this kind of ‘viewer fatigue’ has been the revitalization of serialized story-telling and television show anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story, and Fargo, where each season is itself a self-contained story. A story can’t grow old and tiresome if the story only lasts for one season.

The real question for our purposes today is this: Is The Walking Dead beginning to overstay its welcome?

Almost all signs point to “absolutely not.” There have been some misfires along the way, but The Walking Dead seems to have maintained it’s momentum. The most common complaint, stretching all the way back to season two, is about the so-called ‘filler episodes.’ This is a legitimate complaint. The pace of the show slows down, audiences suffer emotionally manipulative cliffhangers, and a tremendous amount of time is spent halting the progress of the story. This has certainly been problematic, but it hasn’t made the story measurably less engaging.

In some regards, these ‘filler-episodes’ have been used to exquisite effect, allowing the writers time to explore the emotional depth and complexity of certain characters. Take, as an example, the season six episode “He’s Not Here,” a flashback episode that reveals Morgan’s journey from the edge of madness and back, after a chance encounter with a lone survivor in the woods. This stand-alone episode, with an extended run time of 62 minutes, was undeniably strong and served to temporarily slow the pace of the show.

One of the main reasons The Walking Dead hasn’t lost its luster is because the story isn’t being improvised season-to-season or episode-to-episode like so many other television shows. Like True Blood and Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead is based on material that existed before plans were ever made to adapt it for television. The narrative connective-tissue is already in place; there is already a tried and true blue-print in place before each episode is scripted and before principle photography begins. In fact, some of the more recent problems with The Walking Dead are directly related to story elements that don’t exist in the graphic novels – like the “heapsters” that live in the landfill. The reason it doesn’t feel like these characters have a place in The Walking Dead is specifically because they didn’t originally exist in the source material.

This is one of the main reasons Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to really get on its feet.

All of that being said, season eight starts things off with a bang, a radical shift from the season seven premier. Where one season ago the group was fragmented, weak, and kneeling in the dirt, we now see unification, strength, and resolve. After the despair at the onset of season seven, this is an interesting way to get things rolling. Shifting back and forth with a bearded Rick in an idyllic suburban home, to Rick standing over the graves of Abraham and Glenn, to Rick delivering a rousing speech before mountain an attack against The Saviors, to Rick with battle-weary red eyes speaking of ‘mercy’ (where the episode gets its title), there is still a pattern of emotional manipulation that most fans will find familiar.

We don’t have a clear idea, with these shifting timelines, precisely what’s going on. We don’t know if ‘old Rick and the cane’ are a fantasy or if they’re a vision of things to come. We don’t know if he’s reflecting on his fallen comrades before the assault on the saviors or reflecting about these events sometime thereafter.

The things this episode does, without digging too deep into the plot, is sets the pace for the ‘All Out War’ narrative from the comic books. It starts things out with a bang, with the unified communities organizing a take-down of Negan and his Saviors. We’re still met with the grinning psychopathic confidence of Negan, and it’s difficult to tell how intense the struggle is going to be. But these are fun questions to ask ourselves – questions that will certainly have people tuning in to see what happens next.

One prediction I do have is that the red-eyed Rick with the glint of light dancing on his face will be seen again in the season finale. I believe that this is the moment when the battle with The Saviors is won. When Rick whispers “my mercy prevails over my wrath,” I am confident that the mercy he speaks of will be a mercy he bestows upon Negan. This episode went to great lengths to remind us that Rick has promised to kill Negan personally. My prediction is that Rick won’t kill Negan – that Negan will find a new home in the cinder-block jail Morgan began building back in season six.

Mark my words, reader. Let’s see if I’m right.

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June 30, 2017 – The Mission Creeps

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To close out a month of images of performers, musicians, circus acts, and poets, I decided to reach back to the Zombie Prom and the band The Mission Creeps, and a photograph of lead singer James Arr. The following is lifted from their website, which describes their style and method more effectively than I imagine I could:

“Hailing from Tucson, the same diverse music scene that spawned Calexico and Bog Log III, The Mission Creeps spin tales of a different, darker kind of desert, one of lonesome highways and ghost stories. Inspired by art and film noir and horror movies, The Mission Creeps take their cues from bands following similar inspirations, such as The Cramps, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joy Division, and Deadbolt.

Rue Morgue Magazine described their sound as “awash in surf guitar” and noted singer James “Arr’s ability, much like Nick Cave, to switch between seductive narrative and a raving yelp.” Supported by the throbbing rhythms of bassist Miss Frankie Stein and drummer George “of the Jungle Beat” Palenzuela, a scary good time can always be had at their shows. With six releases, they continue offer up musical tales populated with witches, killer gnomes, and parties for the undead while providing beats that keep the body moving and the demons at bay.”

Every performance is memorable. These guys don’t phone it in.

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The Walking Dead 7.12 – Say Yes

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The last several episodes, in my humble opinion, have been misfires. This is pretty apparent if you’ve read through my previous write-ups. It isn’t as though fans aren’t aware of the abundance of “filler episodes” in the show, and it isn’t as though any of us are unaware that there can be an effective use for these episodes when it comes to illustrating the growing connections and tensions between the show’s characters. The trend that I’ve noticed is that all of the material invented specifically for the show – rather than material taken directly from the comic books – straight-up isn’t as dynamic, interesting, or well-thought-out. And no, this isn’t “fan boy” territory, as though I personally would want to see on television exactly what I’ve already read in the comics; that’d make watching the show exceedingly boring. I adore that the writers and show-runners are actively trying to make the television show distinct from the comics in several inventive ways in order to maintain interest among pre-existing fans, create suspense, and keep audience members guessing.

The point is this: the “Oceanside” and “Garbage Picker” (as I’ve come to call them) communities have absolutely no personality to speak of, no heart or soul, and no reasonable explanation as to how they even exist. They deserve little, if any, sympathy from the show’s established communities, or from the audience. How does Oceanside surveil their town? And why haven’t they migrated to territory further away from Negan’s clutches, where they’re less likely to be discovered by scavengers under Negan’s employ? And no men, you say? At some point, this community is going to realize that the trauma delivered by The Saviors won’t be enough to quell a woman’s need for sexual intimacy – at least not indefinitely. And what of the Garbage Pickers? Surviving after making a home in the most unsanitary place they could find, a landfill, despite a massive shortage of medical professionals, medical supplies, not to mention clean food and water? In a landscape filled with rusted nails, rotting food, pack rats, and flies? Yeah – that makes perfect sense. And how are we to honestly believe that they’ve forgotten how to speak English less than two years after the collapse of civilization? No linguist is going to accept that any new form of distinct English dialect would surface from a semi-isolated community in such a painfully short period of time.

The following is a transcript, verbatim, of the words spoken by Jadis, the inexplicable leader of the Garbage Pickers, at the time when Rick delivers several dozen new firearms: “Operational? All? Yes, yes. But operational? No. Not enough. Enough to fight your fight. Us. Nearly twice. Need nearly twice. No. Our guns to take. Our deal. Still on.”

Following that ridiculous, truncated word salad is a negotiation between Rick and Jadis regarding how many of the guns Rick can keep in order to protect his people while they search for even more guns. During the negotiation – as a part of the negotiation – Jadis demands Rick give back the wire cat sculpture he took from the dump – the dump! – after his gladiatorial fight with pin-head, to give to Michonne as a gift. How could such a trivial, stupid goddamn thing enter into a serious negotiation about armaments?

Because of these things – and many, man more – these communities haven’t really earned any empathy; audiences aren’t devastatingly concerned about what’s going to happen to them. This is specifically why I think both communities are going to be decimated in the war to come. The introduction of these new communities feels almost like an afterthought. They absolutely reek of the same wooden, unsympathetic personalities that we see in Fear The Walking Dead, the ill-begotten spin-off series. Why do these things – the Garbage Pickers/Oceanside characters and the Fear The Walking Dead characters – feel so similar, you might ask? Once again,  because they aren’t inventions of Robert Kirkman, who created the whole Walking Dead universe. With no solid source material, there are no solid characters.

None of this means there isn’t an awful lot to celebrate about The Walking Dead, and it would be overly cynical of me not to admit that this week’s episode definitely got a lot right.

The series has spent far too many episodes neglecting the impact of Abraham and Glenn’s deaths on Rick’s emotional well-being. In some ways, I suspect that the season premiere – focused predominantly on Negan breaking Rick’s spirit – was intended to do just that. At the same time, I think it would’ve been better to sporadically reinforce how Rick is (or isn’t) managing his emotions in a few little ‘reminder moments’ scattered throughout the season. He is, after all, the main character of the series, and the audience largely sees the world through his eyes. It was a breath of fresh air to finally see him opening up about that sarcastic young pizza delivery boy, Glenn, who saved his life in the very first episode, when he was trapped inside that immobilized combat tank.

This episode made for wonderful character progression for Rick and Michonne. It has been a long time since we’ve been able to feel this kind of sympathy for Rick. He’s typically written in such a way that we almost always know he’s going to survive: outliving his wife, outliving a rival in love (Shane), making it through the governor’s assault, the swine flu, the hacking off of his girlfriend’s arm when Alexandria was overrun by walkers, and persevering when he had to fight that ridiculous pin-head super-walker for the Garbage Pickers earlier this season – and that’s just to name a few. A very few. And it even happens again in this episode, when that love-struck fool tries to shoot a deer in the middle of a walker assault and gets himself trapped by an encroaching wall of the stumbling but savage undead. The saving grace here is that the majority of the episode was executed incredibly well.

We are finally reinvigorated, seduced yet again into wishing for success for Rick and the gang. We want them to overcome the horrors they’ve endured. Episodes of The Walking Dead are always wonderful when they remember to let the audience see the characters smile and enjoy a small victory, despite their bleak surroundings. It’s affecting to have a moment of levity in an episode (or a whole season) mired in struggle and heartache.

How often do we actually see Michonne smile in The Walking Dead? We see her smile just about as often as we ever hear any character actually laugh (unless, of course, it’s a mustache-twirling villain preparing to bash somebody’s brains in). Hearing Rick and Michonne cackling just after falling through the roof is arguably one of my favorite moments of the episode. It was unexpected bliss, rather than an unexpected jump-scare or a tragic and untimely death.

The episode ends with the Garbage Pickers insisting they still need more guns, despite the cache delivered by Rick and Michonne. And, how convenient that we have Tara at the end of the episode – the only one who knows about those well-armed ladies in Oceanside – with something important to confess. How unutterably convenient. Ten bucks says that this plot-line won’t be addressed, at all, in next week’s episode. We’ll have to wait a week or two, if not several months into the future when the next season begins.

Cliffhangers aren’t even cliffhangers anymore. Not in The Walking Dead. You won’t tune in next week at the same bat-time, same bat-channel, and learn what happens to our heroes next. No, no. We’re all going to learn something completely unrelated, in one of the other communities, about a whole group of other characters.

In the words of foghorn leghorn: I ga-rohn-teeeee!

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The Dream Figure

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Irrationally peculiar dream figures – my loose, ‘armchair’ understanding of things is that most people don’t have recurring dreams, or even recurring themes or personalities in their dreams. It’s a popular trope in story-telling, which makes perfect sense – haunting dreams are a wonderful expression of foreshadowing, a device to inject a sense of inevitability, foreboding, or fate. The reality, of course, is far more banal. Those of us who encounter recurring dream figures ought not take too much from them; the general consensus in the psychological community is that they are completely happenstance, and may represent nothing more than a single event in one’s history – not even a particularly important event – that managed to get stored in our memory in such a way as to appear and reappear, like a skipping record.

This particular dream figure has been visiting me for the better part of a decade. I’m assuming she’s some remnant of my college days, which I spent at the University of Arizona. She reminds me of art school girls at house parties, smoking cigarettes in used clothes bought at Buffalo Exchange, a haven for hipster women looking to spend twice as much on a pair of pre-worn jeans than the original price-tag when they were brand new and not covered in holes.

This apparition – and she really feels like an apparition, an uninvited ghost that only I can see – is never aggressive, she never threatens me, never harms me. But I always recall feeling an extreme unease when she walks into the room. She usually walks around a corner, and it’s usually when I’m trying to leave and get outside. In most of my dreams, I turn around and nurse a drink, taking little sips, and make small-talk to the gaggle of faceless others around me, glancing occasionally to see if she’s still there.

She’s always blocking my path. And I spend my time hoping for a chance to scoot by and get outside.

Nothing bad ever happens. No gore. No evil. Just a faceless, toothed, unsettling creature.

I’ll let the psychoanalysts in the inter-webs analyze this. In the quiet of night, unable to sleep, I decided to scribble-out a picture from my dreams.

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Carl – We Have An Eye Donor For You

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It didn’t take long for the inter-webs to begin flooding with outcry after the latest gruesome death in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but this outcry is a little different than usual. Most of the time, the audience is saddened by the unexpected loss, or horrified when pivotal characters are presumed dead – let us not forget the miserable weeks when Glenn’s fate was left completely up in the air. While several plot-lines have been changed in order, presumably, to keep the narrative fresh for fans – and to prevent comic book enthusiasts like myself from spoiling upcoming events – Mr. Abraham Ford was spared the eyeball-skewering he was destined for.

Abraham Death

The problem? His replacement on the post-apocalyptic chopping block was Doctor Denise, one of the series’ only gay characters. If fact, it was only two episodes ago that Denise told her girlfriend Tara before an extended supply run that she can’t go. “I need to be here,” she said. “I’m the only doctor now. I can’t. But I want to.” This week, Denise admits that she could have gone, that she could have confessed her love to Tara, but was unable to because she was afraid. The moment she appears to arrive at romantic clarity – and the humorous macguffin of the orange soda is satisfied – Denise is killed.

The macho alpha-male is spared his scripted death, replaced by one of the only gay characters on the show. Given the nature of the show, one likely has nothing to do with the other, but that doesn’t prevent message boards and conspiracy theorists from beating their chests about what this may possibly imply.

The show has gone off-script in a variety of ways, in a calculated and creative attempt to make the content as surprising and narratively strong as possible. In this instance, the turn of events may be as easily explained as the availability of an actor on set. Tara (played by Alanna Masterson) is off for the foreseeably near-future because of a pregnancy, preventing any resolution with the Tara/Denise subplot by the end of the current season.

It ought also be noted that Denise doesn’t survive the comic book, either. She makes it much further on the written page, sure, but she is no more immune than any other beloved character. Additionally, the Denise character is straight in the graphic novel, not gay. But a little bird tells me these tidbits likely won’t quell the current outrage.

I can’t speak for the writers, producers, show-runners, or anybody else on “The Walking Dead,” but I’m guessing that the current insult was unintentional. Besides, there’s still that lingering speculation that Daryl is gay, so we may yet be able to reexamine this topic as the story continues to unfold. And what’s that, I hear? Jesus – you know, that devilishly handsome blue-eyed little thing – might be gay? Time will tell, I suppose…

For the time being, let’s raise a glass while we mourn the loss of yet another undeserving victim. The loss is always hardest to accept when the character is so intrinsically good. Let’s hope she is avenged. It couldn’t happen soon enough.

Cheers.

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So Long, Carol – It’s Been Fun

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Well, somehow the lion-hearted warrior woman we’ve come to know and love has left us. Only a few episodes earlier, she was the one to strike fear into the hearts of children, travel incognito through a swarm of Wolves with a bloody ‘w’ on her forehead, and even come to blows with Morgan over his peacenik philosophy.

Carol is an enigmatic character, a wonderful dramatic foil to Daryl. In many ways, the two of them were abused, tamped-down by their life’s circumstance. Daryl was abused by absentee parents and a bully older brother, Carol by a husband’s fist. The characters have evolved organically, and are unique to “The Walking Dead” television series. Neither character exists in the comic book, so there’s no source material they need to adhere to. I think this is one of the reasons why they stand out, and why there’s been such a pronounced outcry from fans that the two develop a romantic arc. But those aren’t who these characters really are. They are more open and vulnerable with one another than anybody else in the community, and their intimacy doesn’t hinge on bedroom antics – there’s something more concrete and serious about how they relate to one another.

I think we all know we’ll be seeing Carol again. She won’t be dismissed this unceremoniously. I’m guessing she gets herself kidnapped by The Saviors, hastening a confrontation between communities. The incident on the railroad tracks will require a response from Negan and his people, and it’ll be swift and bloody. But hey, maybe they’ll like her cooking.

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Happy Pi Day!

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Forget the smattering of delicious home-baked goodies swarming social media. “Pi Day” will always remind me of the pseudo-noir psychological thriller from esteemed director Darren Aronofski. It’s a difficult plot to summarize, but suffice it to say that it has the feeling of an experimental film, shot in cheap black-and-white film-stock with golf ball sized film grain that serves to hugely influence the dark tone of the film. The main character is a supremely brilliant mathematician that becomes obsessed with the number Pi, an obsession that leads him down a severely dark path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly, highly, recommend  it.

In honor of the day, I sat down and hammered out this illustration, which is now for sale at my online storefront.
Cheers!

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