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 7.12 – 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 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 7.10 – New Best Friends

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Inexplicable “hell-raiser” walkers. There’s no sense or reason to most of this episode, and it is painfully disappointing.

This episode, titled “New Best Friends,” is a clear example of the best and worst qualities of The Walking Dead. The small character piece between Daryl and Carol after their long-awaited reunion demonstrates a tendency toward emotional and arresting tension, depth of character, and attention to human detail. On the opposite side of the coin is the introduction of the garbage pickers, a collective of horrendously one-dimensional personalities in an already crowded cast. In these scenes, Rick – one of the only, if not the only, immortal characters – is the one pushed into danger. We already know he’s going to survive, so we don’t care when he’s fighting the most inexplicable and improbable of creatures. Meanwhile, we have characters like Rosita, a small scar on her face, now reduced to a character who is solely defined by her anger.

Roughly half of the episode concerned itself with this new community, who have set up their civilization in a garbage dump. Few details are introduced as to how this community functions – unlike The Hilltop, The Kingdom, and The Sanctuary – and there is little rhyme or reason as to how their leader, a woefully underwritten character, has ascended to a leadership position among them. The stilted language of these people, the icing on the cake, makes the explanation of their survival in the zombie apocalypse even more confusing than their terrible choice of locale.

That’s the bad part. The show hasn’t completely lost its way, and there is a great deal of solid source material – the comic book series – that the television show has to draw from.

Carol’s character is one of the show’s most complex creations, with one of the most engaging character arcs, and actress Melissa McBride has delivered consistently powerful performances. There was a palpable emotional pay-off when she and Daryl are finally reunited, after having been separated for the space of an entire season. Chemistry is real – Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus (who plays Daryl) have it.

The show is setting up, as it often does, all of the chess pieces in preparation for a grand finale. It will likely be a satisfying spectacle, and there’s nothing wrong with moments of levity. It’s just that the show has a tendency to stretch the narrative beyond it’s audience’s patience. As things stand now, not only is the narrative being drawn out, but ridiculous and improbable scenarios are cluttering up the story.

No community is going to risk its safety pouring melted pewter over a walker’s head to create some kind of “super walker” pin-head confection, only to give it up as a sacrificial lamb. Additionally, there is no sense in a community committing itself to war against total strangers (The Saviors) when other strangers (The Alexandrians) arrive and show that they have the gumption to kill their pin-head walker. This isn’t how trust is established, and this isn’t how war is waged. Period.

Rick and the Alexandrians need lots of guns, eh? Well shucks, I guess that’s why Oceanside (equally as underdeveloped as the garbage heap survivors) was introduced during the front-end of the season. Whatever will Tara do? Will she eventually tell Rick? You betcha, she will.

Yes. We all know. She’s going to betray Oceanside’s trust, and they’re probably going to join the fray against The Saviors, too. Because? Plot. Transparent, predictable, underwhelming plot.

I think we all know that Carol is eventually going to learn the truth about her fallen brothers and sisters, too. Daryl might have had her best interests at heart, but the truth will out, creating dramatic tension between these two soul-mates, and it’ll draw Carol into the conflict we all know is coming. There’s nothing wrong with foreshadowing, and there will always be predictable arcs in a serialized drama, but The Walking Dead is going too far. The surprises are never major plot points, but only involved with “which beloved character is going to die next?”

It feels lazy. It feels like the show is disrespecting its audience’s intellect.

Why does it feel like that? Because it absolutely, one-hundred-percent is doing just that.

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