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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Wrong Eye, Carl – The Walking Dead

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Ever shot a gun before? No? Well let me speak an obvious truth – you need to be able to look down the sights in order to hit your target. In this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, titled ‘Something They Need,’ we see a wee-little mistake, as Carl Grimes looks down the barrel with his dominant (right) eye, which doesn’t actually exist – he lost his eye after a rogue bullet glanced his face while the group was attempting to navigate through a horde of walkers in season six.

In a show celebrated for its attention to detail, this is one little example of where they dropped the ball. It’s not an indictment – it seems to me that the stance of the various characters in the scene was designed for the director of photography, for visual composition. It might not look realistic if a naturally right-eyed and right-handed actor had to pantomime or pretend at being newly handicapped, but these are the details that hardcore fans notice.

I would also reference how insanely accurate Shane was, in season two, firing his sidearm at a swinging log while trying to train Andrea – rest her soul – how to shoot. He hit his moving target, with a 9mm handgun – a moving target, at distance – every single time. A well-trained officer might be able to achieve this, but it feels unrealistic how quickly he turns from admonishing her timidity, then draws his weapon, and effortlessly & with no time to aim, hits his target –  all in a fraction of a second.

Few people are that accurate with a handgun.
Just sayin’.

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The Walking Dead 7.13 – Bury Me Here

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If you haven’t watched the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, I’d advise you to stop reading. As we approach the final episodes of the season, we are definitely in ‘spoiler’ territory.

You’ve been warned.

As I’ve mentioned in previous analyses, it always seemed to me that Benjamin’s character was doomed – doomed right from the beginning. The writers were excessive in their attempt to make his character the most tragic, sympathetic, hopeful, and kind character in the show, especially for a tertiary character. At the top of the episode, I actually wrote in my ledger “this is the episode where he dies.” What was the clue that did it for me? Not only have we established that his father died in battle, that he is the caregiver for his younger brother, and that he has taken up the bo-staff under Morgan’s tutelage, but now we learn that there’s a girl in his life, too.

Final nail in the coffin. There’s nothing more that could be added to the pile a saccharine sweetness that is Benjamin. Time for the firing squad.

Predictability aside – and I could spent the rest of this review on that topic – this is one of the best episodes of the season, from the framework construction in the episode’s editing (it’s refreshing to have an opening ask more questions than it answers, and I kept wondering what the deal was with one single melon) right down to the acting. Lennie James, who plays Morgan, was the stand-out performance; just about every episode that focuses on Morgan’s character has been pretty phenomenal. After the death of Benjamin, after Morgan left Carol’s cottage, the audience knew that Morgan was a broken man – again. When the show takes the time to build complex, layered, and motivated characters, we wind up with exceptional writing and acting – Carol and Daryl would be another fine example.

The episode isn’t explicit, but my suspicion – as it has been for weeks – is that the death of Benjamin will be the trigger that motivates The Kingdom to take up arms against The Saviors. Now that Morgan has explained to Carol exactly what The Saviors have done, and how many of her friends and loved ones have died at the hands of Negan, I imagine that she’s going to become Ezekiel’s general in the fight to come. Her character has been neutered for far too long, and we all know what she’s capable of.

Unlike some characters (Daryl, Rosita, or Sasha, to name a few) Carol isn’t impulsive. It was a striking moment when she learned the dreadful news and didn’t immediately grab her gun and storm out into the forest half-cocked. Sadness washed over her, but she remained calm as she absorbed the news. This is incredibly effective story-telling, the scene pregnant with tension. I can only guess that she will meet with Ezekiel and help formulate an attack plan. It’s this kind of character development that we like to see. Contrast it with Rosita’s pouty face and gnashing teeth, and you’ll know what I mean.

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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 – Who Is Michonne?

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Something’s always going to happen when resources are tight and survival is the game. With our stalwart knife-slinger, neo-samurai Michonne holds her cards close to the vest, which is part of her appeal. “The Walking Dead” has let her tragic back-story leak in, in slow deliberate drops. She is the ultimate stoic – even by Rick Grimes standards – laying in the prison doing crunches while discussing the group’s next move. She is the unsmiling guard above the gates to Alexandria. She is unattached, emotionless, and lethal.

Until recently.

She has had her moments, crying alone, caring for the wounded, considering the odds and calculating her risks. We appear to have entered into a new chapter, a new age of domestic bliss with Rick and Carl. But it isn’t going to last. Nothing ever does in “The Walking Dead.” Negan is out there, and the communities on the hill will add muscle to Alexandria, but Ezekiel’s tiger – spoilers – and bigger numbers won’t necessarily be enough.

The ‘next world’ is nascent. Michonne won’t be hanging up her sword anytime soon.
That’s a promise.

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“”Everyone has a job and that job never stops. You work until you feel like your back is going to break and then you collapse and sleep like you’ve never slept before. And that’s only if things are going well, which almost never happens. We had some shit go down…it’s hard. There’s no time to think about what happened to you, or what you did. You just work.”

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