The Walking Dead 7.11 – Hostiles and Calamities

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
ALL WALKING DEAD MERCHANDISE HERE

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.

– – –

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.

READ LAST WEEK’S REVIEW
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

The Walking Dead – “The Same Boat”

Maggie postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

This week’s episode of “The Walking Dead” demonstrates precisely how a ‘bottle episode’ should be executed. Almost all forty-two minutes take place on a single cramped set, but the emotional complexity and character-driven dialogue keeps the pace lively and the tension palpable. With Maggie and Carol held hostage by a small contingent of Negan’s foot soldiers, the entire episode concerns itself with how they are going to escape. What distinguishes this episode is how Negan’s group is portrayed. These aren’t throw-away two-dimensional “bad guys.” Rather, they motivate us to consider, for just a moment, that this group may be no better or worse than the Alexandrians.

This is also an episode that focuses on a predominantly female cast, with the leader of Negan’s group serving as a dramatic foil to Carol. The two women have been traumatized by the loss of their children, have both traveled down a blood-drenched path of self-interested survival, and have both managed to make it this far. The only difference? Carol still struggles with her morality, she has a strong attachment to her people, she is riddled with remorse. So, just as we began to suspect that Carol has crossed into territory from which she will be unable to return, the past two episodes of “The Walking Dead” have provided her with some sharp turns. Struggling with the people she’s killed, once again forced into violent confrontation, she escapes her captors wracked with sadness; she doesn’t want to kill any more, even though she knows she has to. She intentionally wounded her male captor, rather than kill him outright. She wanted to give Paula a chance, and was devastated when her hand was forced.

We already know how brutal characters like Carol and Maggie can be, but this episode was relentless. Trapping and burning people alive, Maggie caving-in the skull of one of her captors with the butt of a handgun. The violence of this episode is counterbalanced by constant reminders of Maggie’s pregnancy, and reminders of Carol and Paula’s lost children. These are all mothers, and we see how each of them reacts to their situation based on their individual experiences as nurturers. Paula lost her soul along with her children, Carol struggles with her morality in a world without her family, and Maggie fights tooth-and-nail to defend her unborn child.

This was an emotionally charged episode, revealing a growing exhaustion among the Alexandrians. And we haven’t even met Negan, seen his camp, or have any idea how many people he has.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

The Walking Dead – “Knots Untie”

Daryl Dixon postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

“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.

– – –

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

The Walking Dead – “No Way Out”

Carl's Eye postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

“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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER