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 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 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 – “No Way Out”

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“The Walking Dead” returned on Sunday from the mid-season break and, in the show’s well-established style, nobody is safe. Alexandria’s wall has been breached and we watched while various citizens were predictably devoured by the walking dead. This might actually be what’s most problematic about the series; despite interesting turns and high-tension moments, the show’s rhythms and repetitions are overwhelmingly obvious. Previous seasons have routinely established a pattern in which the core characters appear to find long-term safety, only to be pushed out by larger and larger herds of walkers or competing survivor groups. The countryside of Atlanta, Hershel’s Farm, the State Penitentiary, Terminus, and Alexandria have all fallen in a predictable series of missteps and misfortune. Corrupt and despotic leaders have also become a common element, from The Governor to the cannibals of Terminus to the still-mysterious (but soon-to-be-revealed) Negan.

If “The Walking Dead” has common themes of corruption, perennially unsafe shelters, and the promise of “unkillable” characters being killed, then the shocking moments become less shocking. We still care, but we see the writing on the wall. We oscillate between moments of sadness and moments of relief, but with less and less impact. In an attempt to ratchet-up the stress, the show has begun playing unfairly to our emotions. The incident with Glenn and the dumpster is our best example. It was a relief to see the show’s most loved character pull through, but it was an unnecessarily manipulative cheap shot. The story should be able to achieve these levels of emotional impact by itself, not through slights of hand.

The show still has tremendous momentum and consistently delivers strong performances, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need something to change in order to disrupt these increasingly played-out patterns. This may have already begun to happen, of course, as we consider how the early episodes of season six began to fragment the timeline. The architecture of the narrative has changed dramatically as the story has been compressed, telescoped, and as the moments of decisive action have begun to occur with greater frequency. Where in the beginning a season would take place over several weeks or months, the whole of season six has (at least thus far) taken place over only a couple of days. We also have one unique 90 minute episode that looks backwards in time, showing us how Morgan transformed after a chance encounter with a kind loner. It is truly a magnificent episode that could just as easily have been a stand-alone film.

The best “zombie” features actually focus little on the zombies themselves. Rather, the best zombie stories are preoccupied with exploring humanity. “The Walking Dead” is no different. Most of the story is about a group of people struggling to reason and fight their way through an extraordinary situation. This is a survival story, in which disparate personalities collide, pecking orders are established, and drama unfolds. Everybody in the zombie apocalypse wants the same thing: to live to see another day. But everybody has their own idea how to accomplish that goal. Others have the opportunity to seize control, become leaders, ascend the dictator’s throne, or become sacrificial and selfless. That’s what is so darn good about “The Walking Dead.” We all watch these characters, study their struggle, and we all have an idea of what it is we would do if placed in that situation.

George A. Romero’s original zombie masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” set the stage. It’s a brilliant thought experiment as we watch a half dozen strangers, marooned in a  farmhouse, arguing about the best course of action. Zombies occupy less than five minutes of screen time and most of the violence is implied. The script was written like a brilliant one-act play, and the moral questions are so compelling that we barely realize there’s hardly any action driving the plot forward, just words.

“The Walking Dead” could be a compelling television show even after the last walker collapses in dry-rot and melts back into the earth; the world is still a wasteland, filled with roving bands of survivors, scavengers, and highwaymen. Civilization still has to be rebuilt, infrastructure established, townships reclaimed. If the show can find a way to break out of it’s rinse-repeat cycle, it could be around for a long time to come.

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