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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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 – “The Next World”

Jesus Saves postJesus saves. Or does he?

After spending a painful amount of time on the lives of the Alexandrians – the first half of season six takes place over only a couple of days – we break with the comic book narrative and jump ahead two months. The comic spends time watching the community develop while Carl is bedridden, but we begin here with Carl upright and able-bodied, albeit with a certain lack of depth perception.

“The Walking Dead” hasn’t ever taken such a positive turn. We see domestic quibbles over who used the last of the toothpaste. We see clean-shaven faces and signs that the community has tethered it’s resources and established a new sense of unity. There’s a confidence in this new-found domesticity and cooperation. It’s something that viewers haven’t seen since Hershel’s farm. And even back then, there were serious problems.

It feels alien to have the show’s trademark ‘horror film’ violin music fade-in for the opening credits when nothing bad has actually happened. Quite the contrary, we’re actually left chuckling at Rick’s ultimate redneck honkytonk music as he and Daryl drive off in a plume of dust on a scavenging run.

Given how the story of “The Walking Dead” has unfolded, it’s unlikely that this newfound repose will last. The real question is, what terrible thing is going to happen to disrupt the peace?

Is Jesus going to be a savior? Doubtful. Fans of the comic book will be delighted that this mysterious new character has been introduced, and it’s the opinion of this writer that the nature of Jesus need not be prematurely revealed here.

One of the wonderful things about “The Walking Dead” is that the writers have gone to great lengths to change key plot points. This is likely an effort to keep the story relevant and prevent fans of the graphic novel from spoiling the television show. In the end, both formats have strengths and weaknesses, and the adaptation to the screen exploits every opportunity to remain it’s own distinct experience.

In the comic book, for instance, there isn’t even a Daryl Dixon character – he was written for the early episodes and was never intended to survive. He become such a beloved character so quickly, the decision was made to keep him in. Similarly, it’s Michonne who first encounters Jesus, at the gates of Alexandria, and not Rick and Daryl out on the road. And no, Michonne doesn’t share an intimate moment with Rick at all in the books. Chances are, the producers felt inclined to bend to the will of the fans, who have been more than vocal about their desire to see the two hard-core survivor-leaders, the two characters with the thickest skin, fall into bed together. It’s pleasantly disarming to see these two, hardened warriors both, actually smiling – a lot. In a world so broken, with characters who have endured as much tragedy as these two, it was something akin to relief to see them come together in one peaceful moment.

Will it last? Who is Jesus, and does he have anything to do with Negan and his band of highwaymen? It is true that he wasn’t carrying a weapon, and he didn’t attack Rick and Daryl. He might have stolen from them, but he didn’t hurt them. Hell, he even managed to save Daryl from a walker. Is he going to play a larger role in “the next world” he makes mention of? Are there really other communities out there that can be trusted? Only time will tell. The one thing we do know is that the show leaves us with more questions than answers, and it definitely keeps things interesting.

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Bonus factoids.

  1. Rick is no longer wearing his wedding ring.
  2. The comic book we see Carl reading in the woods is “Invincible,” another comic series penned by “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman.
  3. You can see Glenn’s name scratched off the casualties list at the beginning of this episode.
  4. In the comics Jesus’ real name is Paul Monroe. It’s changed to Paul Rovia to avoid confusion with him being a member of Alexandria’s Monroe family.
  5. Rick shares a passionate kiss with Andrea, not Michonne, in the opening to ‘Volume 16: A Larger World’

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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