I should be satisfied with The Walking Dead.
I’m about ready to declare that (outside of some currently-unseen yet supposedly-amazing first season) the show is the best it’s ever been. There’s no wallowing in despair and having go-nowhere arguments on a farm; there’s actually a goal now, and the cast -- and the show -- has proven as of Season 4’s finale that they’re moving toward something. These characters are actually trying to be characters instead of by-proxy survivalists and badass zombie slayers…well, as badass as you can be when your main opponent day after day is less threatening than an incensed sloth. And as if my thoughts in my Attack on Titan posts changed the fabric of reality, the show is trying -- trying, if nothing else -- to inject some hope into affairs.
So don’t let anyone tell you that I can’t be positive about things out of my comfort zone (even though I hope I’ve proved that by now). If there’s something I like, then I’ll bring it up. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll bring that up, too. Let it be known that I can give praise to The Walking Dead as needed.
Let it ALSO be known that, were the show a living, breathing person, I would slap it across the face. Multiple times.
You are now entering The Spoiler Zone…though that should be obvious, I hope. Then again, this is coming more than a week after the Season 4 finale, so I’d hope that by now you’ve had time to digest. I sure have.
Side note: I sure hope this doesn’t date the post months down the line when people find this blog looking for anime boobs or The Last of Us porn. And on that note…seriously, internet? Seriously?
If for some reason you’re reading this and aren’t up to date with everything before/including the S4 finale -- and to a lesser extent still trying to wrap your brain around TLoU porn -- then here’s a VERY abridged recap of pretty much whatever comes to mind. After the exile of The Governor and the fall of Woodbury (and Angela’s death, I guess), Team Rick takes the refugees into the prison to start trying to build a new society. Unfortunately, a virus starts tearing through the ranks, forcing the group to figure out how to deal with it.
Thanks to Hershel and the rest of the team’s tireless efforts, the virus gets brought under control, but the group is left severely weakened -- and as such, easy targets for a shot at revenge by The Governor (posing as just some guy named “Brian”, but quickly slotting into the role of leader once more as he gains a following). The Gov brings his team -- and a tank -- to Rick’s doorstep, and a fight ensues. The end result? The prison is ruined, Team Rick gets scattered, Hershel and The Gov are killed, and Rick and Carl saunter off in tears, believing that baby Judith was just another victim.
So begins the second half of Season 4, wherein the groups have to come together and pick themselves up in the wake of the prison’s fall. There are two major threads of note: the first (and the one handled by season’s end) is that there’s apparently a safe haven called Terminus, where “those who arrive survive.” The second thread is that a soldier by the name of Abraham Ford (who my brother and buddy affectionately call Duke Nukem) intends to take a scientist-type to Washington, on the grounds that there might be a way to cure the zombie outbreak. Unfortunately, he and his group has the misfortune of running into the remnants of Team Rick, who have to decide what they’re going to do -- whether to go to Terminus, or try to rough it in the wilderness. Or wherever they think might make a good safe house.
The fragmented team deals with a slew of separate issues; indeed, the episodes in the back half of the season become something like short stories. Rick and Carl have to iron out the issues that have bubbled below the surface for seasons; Glenn and Maggie become obsessive in their search for one another, usually to the dismay of their travelling partners; Daryl falls in with the wrong crowd just as he learns to open up to Beth; Carol and Tyreese (and Judith, and the other kids) try to eke out a life together before things go south. Ultimately, though, the majority of the groups come together in Terminus…and just as you’d expect, it doesn’t go well. The season closes out with Terminus revealed to be a den of deviants, the team sealed away inside a train car, and Rick passionately declaring “they’re screwing with the wrong people.”
My feelings about TWD at this point are…well, let’s go with complex for now. I’ve said in the past that I’m about ready to drop the show if it doesn’t deliver, or justify either its presence or the time investment needed. I stand by that. Indeed, when I said as much in the Attack on Titan post, I did so while half-assuming the show wouldn’t go to a good place. Things weren’t going to get any better, and I could safely give it up without feeling guilty. So of course, the show tries its damnedest after that to keep me ensnared. On some level it must have succeeded, given that I finished out the season.
But that’s the problem, and the question that needs to be answered -- if not for others wrestling with their feelings and opinions, then at least for myself. This show can ensnare me, for one reason or another (goodwill, at times, and not much else), but can it entertain me? If not for dedication to seeing it through to the end, would I keep watching TWD of my own will? Is it something I’m genuinely excited to watch, week after week? If it is, will it continue being something I’m excited to watch? If it isn’t, then why am I watching it? Why am I being an enabler to a show that’s so very, very flawed?
I guess this post is a way to answer those questions and more. So let’s just see how it goes.
I think that the biggest problem with TWD (or at least one of its biggest problems) is that it’s in a catch-22. And in more ways than one. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s just start with some of the plot elements. I remember reviews and comments wondering if the show had the guts to kill off a baby in response to the fourth mid-season finale, but I didn’t really have that concern. Not because I didn’t care; because…come on. Killing a baby? That’s a line you probably shouldn’t cross. And I didn’t expect the show to cross it; lo and behold, my guess was right, even if it took an episode or two to prove it.
But the problem isn’t directly connected to infanticide. The problem is the lasting effect. If Judith died, then it would cast a shadow over the show in ways I doubt it’s ready to tackle, in-universe or out of it. (What was the aftermath of Angela’s death? Pretty much just one conversation in the last episode or two of S4, as far as I know.) On the other hand, if Judith DIDN’T die, then that would mean the show just went for a cheap cop-out. A lot of people probably knew they wouldn’t do it, and their suspicions were proven right. In a show where “anyone can die” is in full effect -- barring plot armor -- and the world is a cruel and oppressive place, it feels like a misstep to suggest that a character died, only to screech “THAT DIDN’T COUNT!” just a couple of episodes later.
Whether Judith lived or died, I’m not wholly convinced it would be that big of a game-changer. I’m not saying that to be cold; I’m saying that because TWD rarely gives me evidence to the contrary. As a baby, she doesn’t contribute much to the cast besides symbolic importance for the story and the characters. If she lives, the story goes on as intended. If she dies, characters will be sad for a while (see: the S4.5 opener with Rick and Carl visibly disturbed), but then the story goes on as intended. In a way, it goes beyond more than just being a catch-22, because that implies that there’s a loss either way. With TWD, I feel like the only loss is lost time on the viewer’s part. At times, it feels like I’m not gaining anything from the show that’s worthwhile.
This is pretty obvious with the S4 finale. There really were only two ways that could have gone down: either Terminus was as peaceful as suggested, and Team Rick (or some outside force) would make it all go to hell come next season, OR Terminus turned out to not be the sanctuary everyone hoped it would be, and Team Rick only gathered there to get into trouble and demand the sorting-out of problems next season. There could have been minor shifts in the plot/events, sure, but it was written in stone the moment they used a name like “Terminus”. If the characters ever find a 100% safe haven, it would mean the end of the series. I’m pretty sure that’s something AMC would want to avoid, at least for a little while longer. For obvious reasons.
Either way, that level of inconsequentiality seems baffling for a show where anyone can die (or so they say). Being able to predict story beats isn’t a game-breaker in its own right; if that was the case, then pretty much every story ever featuring a hero and a villain would be worthless. But I should be able to care a lot more than I do about the cast, and what they do. More to the point, I shouldn’t be actively hoping that characters would die just to give the show the shake-up it needs -- even if that shake-up doesn’t get capitalized on even half as much as it should.
So I appreciate that Hershel ended up cementing his role as a voice of reason, ethics, and hope -- even if it has a tinge of retroactive fixing/pedestal-placing a la Aerith and the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7 -- but I feel like there could have been at least a little more done with the character before literally putting him on the chopping block. And even with him dead, I feel like if it wasn’t for flashbacks, most of the cast wouldn’t even care or bother to remember him days/episodes later.
If the show is trying to push the cast as a familial unit, then I would have thought that they’d be more into it when their bonds were severed by the multitude of enemies out there. Why should we mourn Andrea’s death when no one else feels like it? Why should we remember Lori when no one but the Grimes boys even bothers paying lip service to her? A few months into the next season, what’s the impression of Hershel going to be? Will he even get one? Or will he be as forgettable as Dale?
Now, I will be fair. It’s up to the characters to try and show us why we should care -- about them, about their world, about their struggles, and about the show at large. That’s a given. So on that note, I’m glad that as of Season 4.5, there have been more focused attempts at showing who these people are and what makes them tick. They gave a chance to care about them, and let us see their struggles while pushing toward the end of the line vis a vis the plot. It’s what viewers need so they can think of these people as more than just survivors going against the odds. So on that note, I’m thankful that TWD put in that effort, and I’m thankful that they’re trying to add more to the story than just long-since-tired zombie kills. I want to like these people, and the world they live in.
And indeed, I have found things worth liking. Recommending, to an extent (assuming people are watching it for more than just gore, AKA the wrong reason). I’m happy that Carl finally got to lay into his dad for failing to protect everyone -- the team, their new home, his mother, and his sister more recently. Granted I wish that Rick was actually awake for all that so the viewer could get more than just one-sided whining, but it’s definitely something. Beyond that, I’m eternally grateful that Carol came back, because she really is one of the more interesting characters -- a dangerous balance of kindhearted nurturing and ruthless pragmatism. I’m glad that Tyreese and Bob are establishing themselves as more than just T-Dog 2 and T-Dog With a Vengeance. But the thing that makes me happiest is that Beth, who has barely been a blip on my radar, actually became someone worth watching in her time with Daryl.
And then she got kidnapped and pulled out of the show for the rest of the season.
…Well, baby steps.
Bit by bit, these characters are showing sides to themselves that I’ve been looking for since the moment I first started watching. Characters create opportunities, after all; in order for the show to fulfill its potential, the cast at large has to fulfill theirs. If ever there was a time for them to start doing that, it’s now. I’m hoping that Season 5 and beyond takes lessons from the back half of Season 4 and uses them in the future -- because that’s what we need most.
But there are still problems. Once more, TWD is caught in a bad situation by design. The first problem is an obvious one, and proven so readily by Michonne. It should go without saying that I’m glad she’s actually started showing emotions and having a personality. When I think back on Season 3 and compare her to her current incarnation, the difference is staggering. The issue I have is this: why did it take so long for these developments to happen? It’s true that in Michonne’s case it was a part of her character and her character arc; she was nothing back then, but she’s something now. But I can’t help but think about what Tycho of Penny Arcade once said about Final Fantasy 13:
“I don’t understand the thinking behind giving me lead characters, which the narrative can slowly alchemize into gold. Why don’t you give me gold characters, and then refine them into platinum?”
Wise words, indeed -- even if they are from an eyebrow-raising source.
I’d like to think that my game-playing hasn’t corroded my brain so much that I can’t even remember the sentence I wrote before this, but it seems like any time I have to remember distinct details about these characters I’m left wanting. I’m struggling to come up with anything distinct to say about Daryl, even now. I gave Glenn -- and Maggie, to a lesser extent -- the benefit of the doubt before, but with another season down I’m starting to question their characterization. Episode after episode, Rick goes out of his way to prove that he’s the show’s weak link; he gets the actual character arcs, but they’re full of problems in their own right. Season 4 ended with him coming to terms with his nature as a desperate survivor who’ll do what it takes to survive, which should be a key moment for him…and it would have been, if that hadn’t been proven countless times before up to that point.
Remember when Rick killed his best friend Shane? Or when he got in a gunfight with those enemy survivors? Or when he raided Woodbury and went all Call of Duty on some asses? Or when he went apeshit on Tyreese? Or when he killed one of the members of Jim’s gang that very season? It’s a dilemma that has merit, no question -- but the time to bring it to the forefront has long since passed. The only thing Rick’s recent outburst had going for it was a sudden burst of shocking violence.
And I feel like “shocking” is just barely the right word to use here, because TWD has established itself as a world built on violence since the start. You can’t even use the excuse “But he did it to living people!” because, again, Rick has already attacked living people. And he’s going to do it again, and again, and again. So once more, TWD puts itself in a tight spot. If the show plays to Rick’s awareness of his duality (as a nurturer vs. murderer), then it’ll spin its wheels again. If it doesn’t, then it’s going to diminish the impact of each stolen life -- and each thriving life -- even more.
And Rick’s issues are just a cross-section of the issues of the show at large -- which is to say it highlights the second, and MASSIVE, problem that it has yet to tackle. Like I said, I appreciate that the show is trying to do something with the characters, and make them more than just pieces to move across the board from one dull-as-sand zombie skirmish to the next. There’s potential in there, and I hope that the show keeps capitalizing on that. It’s a show about zombies, but also not about zombies; it’s about the drama these people have to face in a world that’s dead. So the logical course would be to -- again -- make the audience care about these characters.
And there’s the problem in a nutshell. The back half of Season 4 gave us a chance to get to know the characters better. Unfortunately, it gave us a chance to get to know the characters better.
The assumption with these short stories -- these focused insights into smaller handfuls of characters -- is that they’re supposed to make us like these people more, so that A) we can get invested in the story, B) we can be happy when they succeed or survive, and C) we can be legitimately disturbed if/when one of them dies. That much is obvious. And indeed, TWD CAN get it right. Hershel’s death meant something to me, and it sucks to know that he’s stuck with flashback duty or playing Obi-Wan, if that. And believe it or not, I actually miss Merle’s presence in the show; he may have been a knife-handed scumbag, but he had a level of charm and style that the show could have used -- and sorely missed when he made his exit.
As of this post, I can say that I’m actually starting to care about Beth (even if her character moment/development hasn’t done much else besides raise a mile-high death flag for her). I want to see what else she can offer as a character. Unfortunately, her episode forced her to be joined at the hip to Daryl -- the character who needed a vignette the most, but had his botched almost beyond repair. I have a hell of a hard time believing that Daryl would be the character to start playing the “There’s no hope left!” card, given that he’s been Rick’s muscle for months; I do expect a level of stiffness from him that keeps him quiet, but never to a point where he turns into a standoffish ass. I certainly don’t expect him to turn into a furious, assaulting drunkard (after just a couple of drinks?) so he can complain about his life, harass Beth, and end up breaking down almost in one fell swoop. Also, let’s not talk about the suggestions of a deeper relationship between these two. Shippers, fanfic writers, and the Rule 34 zealots will handle that.
Lest you think I’m a Daryl hater, I can tell you right now that he’s not the only example. I like that Bob has stepped out of the crosshairs (for now, at least), but his episode with Maggie and Sasha also had its fair share of problems. We got to see what it was like for Bob before he joined Team Rick, and learned that he’s desperate to not be alone any longer than he has to. That’s good. That’s fine. Unfortunately, that character development was in the same episode that had these characters having more inconsequential arguments.
And it was especially inconsequential; Maggie was pretty much saying “We have to keep going! There’s still hope!” Sasha went “You’re dumb! There’s no hope! Let’s just survive!” And by episode’s end -- through the magic of plot-convenient run-ins -- they all do pretty much what they were doing at the start of the episode: heading for Terminus to find Glenn. Because “We have to keep going! There’s still hope!” It’s a good theme, but it feels like TWD has force-fed it to us to compensate for everything before. It doesn’t feel as natural as it does in, say, Attack on Titan, because at least there, the people had a legitimate reason to lose hope and fall apart. Their enemies couldn’t be thwarted just by moving to higher ground or building a moat. It’s like these people haven’t learned a thing from their good buddy Dracula.
And then there was “The Grove.” Oh boy. This is gonna be fun.
So much fun that I’m going to hit the pause button for now. Admittedly, I don’t have that much to say about that episode, but there are other topics that I could probably bring up. Also, as of the sentence before this, you’ve just finished reading about 3600 words. One of these days I need to figure out how to stop myself from violently spewing words from my mouth. Hands. Mouth-hands.
In any case, go on and get yourself some snacks. When you get back, you can look forward (?) to another post on this show. And the way things are looking, it’s going to be the last.
Well. That wasn’t ominous at all.