Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Zombies! Part One: The Walking Dead

In a series of three posts, I want to kind of "clean house" as far as my thoughts on various aspects of the current  zombie craze. Then, hopefully, I can bury the zombies once and for all.

Hold it. Before I start I should alert you that I am not going to post "spoiler alert" every time I write something. So read on at your own risk. I will spoil as needed about Mad Men, The Walking Dead TV series and the Walking Dead comic book series. Sorry if you learn something you didn't want to know..

I put out a post a few weeks ago entitled "Am I Done with AMC's The Walking Dead?" In short, the current answer to that question is "Well, not yet." After what I saw as a low point in season 2, the show put out some serviceable episodes at the end of the season. Also, the principals have finally left that farm. Looming next season are the shadowy figure of Micchonne, the specter of the prison and the rumored casting of the Governor. There is a LOT to work with there and we'll see whether or not the show can pull it off.

My hopes are not high, though. The second season was slow paced and the poor writing showed an unwillingness to really make the audience feel anything outside of what we were told to feel. A case in point on this was the death of Sophia. After the midseason finale bloodbath, our first episode back (which had HUGE ratings) spent time with characters saying things like "I miss her" and "but this was Sophia." It's a good thing that last line was there because, honestly, she was forgettable. She disappeared before we had any idea who she really was. I would have loved to have seen her fight to survive, being courageous and ultimately failing, but instead she disappeared so early that, without the swelling music and the reactions of the other characters, I'm not sure I would have recognized the zombie teen who came out of that barn as Sophia. It was a precursor of disappointments to come. Characters did stupid things like let Carl wander off or drive off by themselves in the middle of the night unaccompanied. The confrontation between Rick and Shane was on again, then off again, then on again, until its fatal conclusion right before the season finale. The show seemed to wander like we imagine Sophia wandering, unable to find its way, stumbling toward its inevitable death. The last two episodes of the season give me hope, but the show better take lessons from its intellectual lineage: AMC and the comic series by Robert Kirkman.

Let's start with AMC. I've been watching Mad Men on Netflix over the past couple of months. I just watched the season 3 finale, which saw a complete shift in the premises of the show. Don will no longer be married and he will be a partner. Pete, too, will be a partner. It looks like Sal's not coming back. It was earth-shattering and world changing. And it was done with subtlety throughout, a buildup three seasons in the making where, when Betty finally confronts Don, you don't see it coming yet you recognize it as both shocking and inevitable.

Walking Dead TV Lesson One: Show, don't tell! As an English teacher, I know you've all been told this before, but comparing Walking Dead and Mad Men makes this clear. Mad Men shows all the time. You'd better be paying attention when you're watching because that little tug by Betty on Don's secret drawer in his study is building to her stumbling upon the key to that drawer. And that money that Don tried to give his brother is now in that drawer looking suspicious. And those pictures. And that divorce. And the deed to that house. It had all been building for three years and 36 or so episodes. Incredible.

Compare that to The Walking Dead's handling of Shane and Rick. Shane slept with Rick's wife when they both think that Rick is dead. Rick returns. Lori thinks that she can just move on and ignore what happened (like Don Draper!). Shane wants to cling on to whatever they had. He thinks he loves Lori. But instead of letting this slowly build (like it does in Mad Men), The Walking Dead's writers see it as adding excitement to reveal these secrets. Lori tells Rick. Rick admits he suspected it all along, but that baby is his. Okay, time for  confrontation. There's nothing left to be said because you writers have let it all out. You've TOLD us what people are feeling and have let the secrets out. But no confrontation and no stewing. Shane tells Lori that the baby is his and that Rick can't take care of her. Another secret. Another chance to let things stew. Instead, at episode's end, Lori tells Rick what Shane had said and makes him out to be a threat, and Rick, who has shown a capacity for killing those who threaten the farm, stares menacingly into the distance. Time for confrontation. So they confront and beat each other up and Rick says "let's move on and put this behind us." WHAT? Whatever happens, there is nothing more here. One of the two will have to kill the other, but now there is no tension to build. The tension was released in the confrontation. Either have a new tension drive them apart or have them follow Rick's advice. But no. That's not what happens at all. Instead, Shane tries to engineer an assassination attempt. The confrontation finally happens, and it's pretty good (especially Shane's zombified return), but it could have been so much better than a series of false starts and stops.

I can't decide if Mad Men has a natural advantage because there are so many characters and a city of millions of potential characters surrounding them. Maybe that means everything is subtle because you are so concerned with your image. Maybe it's the telephone that allows semi-secret (and semi-public) conversations (like Roger's phone conversation with Joan while his drunken twentysomething wife lays on the bed beside him), and the Walking Dead characters are forced together in close quarters, which means their conversation is always, ironically, more public. But I think that's something of a cop-out. Don Draper really has no one. Neither does Rick. Don's perceived (by us, the audience) moral ambiguity is fed by his unwillingness to share things. He doesn't need the phone. He just needs to be silent and to never let others see him sweat. Rick should be the same way. Instead he constantly opens up thematic conversations that just don't work, like the awkward conversation with his son about how everyone dies or the many conversations where he tries to work things out with Shane. Moral ambiguity is at the center of both stories. We are meant to sympathize with characters who are doing things that we may not agree with (Rick kills people; Don sleeps with them). And the more that AMC's The Walking Dead can play with that ambiguity, the more it can make Rick's actions something we both agree and disagree with, the better the show will become.

And that brings us to The Walking Dead, the comic book. One of the striking things about the comic book series is that its characters are so morally ambiguous. A number of characters walk through the story, most die, some few remain. We are drawn to sympathize with Rick and to root for him to survive, but many of his actions are ones that we either cannot agree with or are ones that we can only agree with in the darkest recesses of our vengeful souls. The Rick of the comics is too bossy and too violent. And we are constantly forced to ask ourselves whether or not his actions are justified by the unique circumstances brought about by the zombie apocalypse.

AMC's The Walking Dead struggles with this concept. It tries to present moral ambiguity but instead presents moral inconsistency. It might not even be moral inconsistency that is the problem. It may be a confusion of moral ambiguity with an ambiguous state of sanity.

Rick ends season two by saying to the rest of the group, "you made me kill my best friend." Comics Rick would never have said that. He would have said "I killed Shane. I had to do it and I'm not sorry for it. Deal with it." Instead, television Rick comes off a little whiny and a little crazy (wait -- maybe he's taking on the characteristics of Dale!). We end up questioning whether Rick is sane, not whether what he did is right.
Rick's moral ambiguity is only interesting if characters are there to confront him and disagree with him. Without these viable consciences, the question does not become "was Rick right in killing the men in the bar?" or "was Rick right in killing Shane?" It instead becomes "is Rick going crazy?" It is not and should not be that simple a question.

In the comic book series, Rick has a number of personified consciences confront him. One is the character Tyreese who questions Rick's edict that "You kill; you die." He also confronts and fights with Rick over his decision to kill a decidedly dangerous prison inmate. Who is Rick's Tyreese in the television series? At first, I thought it was T-Dog because of their similar names and ethnic backgrounds. But Tyreese was an ex-NFL star, a man whose physical presence made him tower over Rick and whose physical abilities in a fight made him a powerful ally (at one point, in order to work out the grief over his daughter's death, Tyreese kills a gym full of zombies by himself using a hammer). This also gave him a presence that Rick had to listen to. But T-dog has almost nothing to say. He's not large. He's not that much of an asset in combat (as shown by his inept maiming of himself when confronting the herd at the beginning of season 2). And the writers have given him fewer and fewer lines, to the point where his silence is deafening.

Another conscience for Rick is Dale. In the comics, Dale is gruff and blunt, and Rick values that. There is no nonsense, only a "listen, son --" presence to which Rick responds. The Dale of the comic series ends up in a romantic and sexual relationship with Andrea. And it's believable! Dale is stable; Dale is strong; and Dale is there. But the Dale of the television series came across as whiny and a little crazed. When presenting his case for their need to maintain some moral conscience in the new society they were being forced to form, the television Dale launches a harangue that basically says over and over again "I can't believe no one is on my side." Then Dale dies.

TV Rick's one successful conscience was Shane, who unfortunately was a murderous psychopath. This not only allowed us to dismiss his thinking at some level, it also allowed us to see Rick's seeming crossing over into violence as mode of protection as a crossing over into madness. Rick of the television show is too hopeful, then makes a switch to violence that seems uncharacteristic and seems to mirror the decidedly murderous Shane. Rick of the comics combines the characteristics of both the Rick and Shane characters of the TV show. At times, comics Rick is murderous in his defense of his son and of the group. He is a bit paranoid. But he is also the only consistent vision of hope the series has to offer. He is the strength that allows the group to survive. But he is also the other dangerous, violent side of that strength. It was somewhat interesting to have Shane and Rick debate between hope and pragmatism. As I said to a friend after the mid-season finale, "Shane was right, but if I got separated from the group, I'd want Rick on my side." The Rick of the comic books is more interesting, though. He would fight hard to protect me, but would kill me himself if I endangered the group. And that's interesting. And what else is interesting is that I sympathize with him. I want him and his son to survive. And I want him to find some kind of peace.

My hope, in the end, is that the newly violent TV Rick will succeed in raising the interesting questions that the comic series has raised. Have Rick perform his actions and leave me to debate them. But the writers' constant need to have characters hash out these underlying arguments in an overt and overly simplistic way leaves me little hope. But, you know what, I'll consider that faint hope my own Sophia. And I probably won't abandon the show until it finally comes shuffling out of that barn and leaves me in despair.

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