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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The Walking Dead 7.16 – The First Day…

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So here we have it, the finale, titled “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life.” We’ve been waiting since the season opener for an episode centered around Rick, and I guess this is what we have to contend with. Last week ended with Dwight (played by Austin Amelio) visiting the Alexandria camp with a truce offering and a willingness to help take down Negan – but this story-line doesn’t really go anywhere here, not to anybody’s surprise. There’s always room for next season.

I guess.

Oh. And a betrayal by the garbage-pickers? Shocking.

<rolls eyes>

“We’re going to war.”
That’s all that really happened in this episode. Sasha died (we’d been expecting it) and Eugene is a coward (which we already knew). And we all knew that there wouldn’t be a conclusion to the ‘Alexandria Versus The Saviors’ plot in an hour-long episode. So we get to see an angry Negan, more tactical maneuvers, plotting, and intrigue in the next exhausting season.

I think I’m about done.
This is getting stupid.

Great finale. Huzzah…

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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 7.15 – Something They Need

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The Walking Dead is all about setting things up, generating tension, and looking forward to future episodes – to a fault. This isn’t more obvious than in the penultimate episode to their seasons. The chess pieces are set up, the dramatic tension is well-established, and the next-to-last episode is intended to leave audiences gripping their armrests and wondering what’s going to happen next. What we’ve learned about The Walking Dead, season after season, is that the “big reveal” probably isn’t going to happen during the season finale; the show-runners and AMC prefer to string audiences along, and the “big reveal” is left for season openers, not season closers. It’s so thoroughly unsatisfying and emotionally manipulative, I cannot believe it. This might be the reason why the show’s ratings have been flagging in a seriously significant way.

It can be exhausting, always waiting for a pay-off that rarely, if ever, arrives.

We already knew that Eugene’s poison pill was going to come back – because…plot – although I suppose few of us could have predicted that Sasha would be foolish enough to rush the gates, lock Rosita out, and run in for a suicide mission against Negan’s army. There will be a reveal, and Sasha will die, but it isn’t likely that the loss is going to affect audiences like the loss of Glenn & Abraham; in that situation (season seven’s opening episode), The Walking Dead really raised a high bar for shocking audiences, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to achieve that ever again.

Something I do find compelling, at least a little bit, is that Rick and his crew of Alexandrians rolled into Oceanside and took all of their weapons, leaving them somewhat defenseless. This paints Rick and his cohort with a brush that isn’t dissimilar to Negan – taking what they need, leaving innocent people vulnerable, and not really giving much of a damn. If the Alexandrians aren’t successful in their mission against The Saviors, there’s still this vulnerable colony, who haven’t actively hurt anyone, left completely exposed.

Descend on innocents, take what doesn’t belong to you because you feel you need it more, and leave. Is that Rick, or is that Negan? Interesting moral conundrum.

Fatigue is setting in for audiences with a show that doesn’t seem to have any end-game. There’s no narrative satisfaction when it feels like a show is doing is best to keep on going, indefinitely. Audiences want a beginning, a middle, and an end. This isn’t an open-world massive multi-player online game. This is a story. And with no end in sight, we’re getting fed-up, and the proof is in the ratings.

Negan won’t die next week. Sasha will. The conflict with the saviors will, at the very least, be drawn out over the entire next season. The Walking Dead is starting to feel like Dexter. Remember Dexter? It was a hot property for a good long while, until FX kept stringing audiences along, kept repeating the same tired formula each season, and the once-promising show is barely even memorable after it’s miserable and ham-fisted conclusion.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think history is repeating itself.

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The Walking Dead 7.11 – Hostiles and Calamities

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As mentioned in previous commentaries – and I like to believe that the issue is rather obvious – the cast of The Walking Dead has swollen to an almost unmanageable size. It’s a problem, because the idea of the world expanding, of civilization taking root after the apocalypse, is an intriguing one. It’s a great idea, in fact, and lives well on the page in the printed comic book series. But it appears to be more of a logistical and narrative nightmare to have this expanding world come alive on the screen.

We can probably assume, however, that the “All Out War” section of the story these recent episodes are building towards will cull the herd significantly. My fingers are certainly crossed that we eventually see some of the excess baggage cut loose. The garbage pickers, guaranteed, are going to be bullet-sponges; they are the least interesting, least developed characters, and they offer the least in the way of answers as to how their society functions, how they have survived, and why eighteen-months of story-time (roughly) has been enough time to influence the very structure of their language. Who is this Jadis, and through what mechanism has she achieved a leadership position? Raw physical power, charisma, persuasion, and extortion all seem unlikely – especially that ‘charisma and persuasion’ bit – her verbal communication skills have been reduced to two word, stilted sentence fragments. I predict that these characters will be quick to die.

But we all know who’s going to be sacrificed first though, don’t we? Why of course we do! It’s going to be none other than the young and lovable Benjamin from the Kingdom. Don’t remember him? Well, he’s the young one who has taken up the bo-staff under Morgan’s instruction. He’s baby-faced and sympathetic, trying his gosh-darned best to learn how to defend the kingdom like his father before him, all while taking on the responsibility of raising his younger brother. Morgan even appears to be influencing the young lad, injecting his philosophy of non-aggression. This kid was marked for death from the moment Benjamin’s sob-story character was introduced, and every little moment with him has been specifically designed to make audiences like him, pity him, and quietly root for him, so as to make his unavoidable – I guarantee it, unavoidable! – death a sad and meaningful one.

My guess is that Benjamin’s death is what’s going to change King Ezekiel’s mind about joining in the battle against Negan. I’d put money on it.

That all being said, this episode isn’t about the Kingdom or Hilltop communities at all. With all of the different communities and the bloated cast, all of this season’s episodes have been reduced to focusing on one group at a time, save typically for the cliffhanger-heavy outros. In this episode, we get more details as to how The Sanctuary functions, more specifically focusing on Dwight, who clearly appears to be having a change of heart regarding his position, and Eugene, who has recently been kidnapped and taken under Negan’s wing.

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It isn’t challenging to overlook characters like Eugene. Even dramatic moments – chomping Dwight in the crotch outside Alexandria last season – are easily funneled into humor, and Eugene has mostly been written as the butt of the joke. Despite this, actor Josh McDermitt turned in an exceptional performance. Throughout the episode, we are made to wonder whether he has some kind of secret plan to assist the Alexandrians (or maybe escape), or if he truly has accepted his role as one of Negan’s soldiers, along with all the responsibilities and, more importantly, with the sense of safety and all of the creature comforts. This question isn’t answered by the episode’s end, and I’m doubting we’ll have an answer until the season finale.

Negan’s fate is in the background of the whole episode. We wonder about Eugene’s allegiance, Rick and the Alexandrian’s are hunting for weapons and recruits to storm Negan’s compound, Dwight appears to be having second thoughts about his life with the Saviors, and even Negan’s wives are plotting to have him killed, requesting that Eugene manufacture poisonous pills. And, of course, just like Walter White’s ricin, we have some pretty obvious foreshadowing – lest we forget that we don’t ever see Eugene destroy the pills, even though he didn’t give them to the wives.

I’m guessing they’re going to make an appearance in the near future. Time will tell.

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The Walking Dead – “East”

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Carol and Daryl, taking things into their own hands, are the catalyst for a host of poor decision-making among the Alexandrians in this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” Carol, broken and weary, leaves a note behind announcing her departure, insisting that nobody come looking for her. Daryl, on the other hand, heads off in another direction, recklessly in pursuit of Dwight to avenge the needless slaughter of Doctor Denise. Rick and Morgan head out to find Carol while Rosita, Michonne, and Sasha head out to stop Daryl.

At this point in the story, “The Walking Dead” isn’t really a horror-genre narrative – it’s a study on survival on recovery. That being said, there are certainly horror tropes that persist, lest we forget that dead cannibalistic corpses continue to roam the countryside. Every character in the show that we have come to know as capable, dependable, and intelligent does the one thing you never do in a horror film: they split up, leaving Alexandria vulnerable. None of this is really in-character, but one might surmise that the storytellers are trying to cement the notion that the Alexandrians are prepared, have united as a community, can face any problem together, et al. But it falls flat. When all is said and done, the audience recognizes that this is an excuse to fragment the group, push forward with the character drama, and leave the principle characters in an exposed position for the [likely] explosive season finale.

The heart of this episode’s themes exist in the interaction between Morgan and Rick. We are reminded of the flimsy morality in the new world as the two characters explain why they have chosen their own particular path toward survival. Morgan refuses to kill the living and Rick sees killing as an inevitability; one message seems sage-like, the other authoritarian. As Morgan expresses how he sees everything as cyclical, explaining to Rick how he saved the Wolf who, in turn, saved Denise, it’s difficult not to view Morgan as the more sympathetic, morally upright person.

“We didn’t finish it like we thought we did, with The Saviors,” Rick says midway through the episode.
“No,” Morgan says. “You started something.”

And we know that Morgan is absolutely correct.

Watching these two talk reminds us that they represent far opposite ends of a moral spectrum. As members of the audience, we know that both of them are right in their thinking, and that it’s the circumstance that lets us know which course of action is the correct one. That’s what the jail cell Morgan built is all about: creating an option other than falling on routine and regular summary execution. The set designers didn’t build that room just for one small scene in last week’s episode – that jail cell is going to get some use. At least, that’s my prediction.

We’re also reminded that, even though Rick and Morgan view the world from radically different lenses, they are on the same side. There are several paths that can lead to the same destination. Thankfully, the end their conversation on peaceful terms instead of thrown punches; they know that they can learn something from one another, temper their philosophies, and survive together, even if this conclusion is explicitly presented.

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Is Daryl Dixon dead? Don’t count on it. That spray of blood was pretty spectacular, but super-fans have Zaprudered it, as have I, and there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the advertisement for the season finale clearly shows Daryl in a scene, so he at the very least isn’t dead yet. More importantly, he is a fan favorite with plenty of qualities rife for further exploration in this increasingly character-driven narrative. I have long predicted that Daryl would eventually be killed because he is one of the few characters who only exists in the television series (not the source material of the graphic novel), but I have actually reversed my position on this. As the show veers further and further away form the source material, characters like Daryl and Carol and Morgan are actually more essential than ever, allowing the show-runners and the writer’s room to keep the story distinct enough from the graphic novel as to keep the show unique.

Who was the man in the barn that Rick and Morgan happen across? He had a spear that was clearly forged by the blacksmith at The Hilltop, and Rick concludes that he must be one of The Saviors. But what about the peculiar armor he’s wearing? It’s my guess that this is the first hint at yet another community wrapped-up in the trade agreement with The Hilltop and The Saviors. It’s my hope that the seed is planted in the season finale – and the brief glimpse of an armored man on horseback in the season finale preview metes this out – and we start to learn more about The Kingdom. There’s no need to spoil anything here, because I could just as easily be wrong, but it’s certainly one of my hopes.

See you next time, after Negan crushes a few skulls with his barb-wired wrapped baseball bat, Lucille.
I’m guessing she’s pretty thirsty…

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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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