Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

April 11, 2014

Let’s discuss The Walking Dead (Part 2).

Hey, welcome back.  Did you get yourself some tasty snacks?  Good. 

Now, in a move that will surprise absolutely no one who’s read this blog for more than eight minutes, I have to make an assertion: the “gritty story” model might be broken.  I say MIGHT because there’s always the chance that a movie, or a game, or whatever will come my way that makes me eat my words.  If that day is coming, then in light of The Walking Dead, I can tell you right now that said day is pretty far off.

USGamer’s Jeremy Parish -- whose words you should be reading when you’re not reading mine -- took a look at Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and raised a legitimate complaint about one of its issues (independent of it being a $40 $30 demo).  Apparently, GZ takes a dip into some seriously seedy territory, and it takes the franchise -- a goofy-as-hell franchise, more often than not -- to a very dark place, and a place that The Phantom Pain might not be prepared to tackle.  Or illuminate, or explore.  It remains to be seen how events will be handled, but Parish makes his point while pointing to some of the problems gritty fare runs into: sometimes they’re not prepared to go into those depths, but do it anyway because…well, that’s just a thing you do with a gritty story.  Go dark or go home.

And trust me; there are times when I wish some stories would just go home.  As you can guess.

Make your first move, so what’s it gonna be?
You’re trapped in the new world of SPOILER Fighter III!
Fight for the future, so what’s it gonna be?
The 3rd Strike, y’all, it’s SPOILER Fighter III!

Side note: did anyone notice that I called Andrea "Angela" at first?  Did anyone think to themselves that it only slightly matters?

Stuff like the “go dark or go home” mentality is what makes me wary -- and weary -- of grit.  By design, it feels like they can box themselves in.  They’re working with a smaller toolbox than stories that can go to plenty of other places.  Something like Avatar: The Last Airbender can get away with showing some laughing kid with an arrow on his head riding a ball of air and crashing -- and in another instance, show a different kid getting his face burned by his father for some noble insubordination.  A gritty story can’t.  They’re limited, and as such they put themselves at risk.  I’m not saying that it’s a game-breaker, but it’s not enough to just go “GRITTY TIME!” and expect dollars and accolades to rain down.

As I’ve said before, the purpose of a gritty or dark story is to explore ideas and themes that lighter fare can’t.  That’s not to say that lighter fare can’t explore themes (see: Kamen Rider Wizard…and OOO…and W…and -- you know what?  Just go watch some Kamen Rider); it’s just that they do it with a different style.  In a lot of ways, gritty stories are harder to work with.  The margin of error is slim, and there are plenty of elements that require skill and nuance -- and beyond that, an earnest desire to explore ideas without being limited by expectations or conventions.  It’s paradoxical, then, that the quest to go without limits ends up limiting them regardless -- at least those that don’t have the execution for it -- but again, it doesn’t have to be a game-breaker.  It just takes a steady hand.  Sensibility.  Respect for the audience’s intelligence, and a refusal to use grit as more than just a gimmick, or proof of “maturity”.

I’m beginning to think that TWD doesn’t have that.  Not consistently.  And not with “The Grove.”

TWD may have had the sense (or cowardice) to spare baby Judith, but it went al in and decided to kill a pair of little girls.  With her sense of reason and morality distorted, Lizzie decides to kill Mika so they can be friends with the zombies.  Or something; I don’t know, I’ve never been an insane little girl.  Carol decides that there’s only one option left, so she takes Lizzie into the woods, tells her to look at the flowers, and shoots her dead.  The events in the second half or so of the episode were shocking, sure, but it’s an indicator of exactly what I was talking about last time.  Killing those girls was the only choice the show had, but the problem is that it was still the wrong choice.

Lizzie and Mika barely registered as a presence in the show, at least for me.  I know they had scenes, but they didn’t affect the plot or the cast at large as much as, say, Carl.  So I can’t say that I was very attached to them, and as such didn’t feel much besides a little shock when they wound up dead at episode’s end.  I didn’t react because those characters died; I reacted because little girls dying is bad and wrong and makes me feel bad.  I don’t want to say the show did it JUST for shock value, but it sure feels that way; even in their episode, Lizzie and Mika were just offshoots -- a means to characterize Carol and Tyreese by way of making them their guardians.  So technically, it was the adults’ episode instead of the kids’; hell, I found myself pretty much hoping that the scene would cut to someone else -- anyone else -- when Lizzie or Mika were talking to each other.   Guess my wish came true in the worst way possible.

One misstep feeds into another in this show.  The characters might have left the farm (and the prison) physically, but mentally it feels like they’re still there.   Again, it’s a result of the problem TWD hasn’t been able to shake yet, and the backbone of plenty of other problems: THE ZOMBIES ARE NOT A THREAT TO THESE PEOPLE.  I would say that the show is aware of this, given that in earlier episodes Rick would stab a zombie in the brain with as much effort as he would peel off a band-aid, but that doesn’t work when other scenes have the show trying to sell them as lethal killing machines -- even when there’s just one or two on the scene at a time. 

Even in “The Grove”, Carol, Tyreese, and the two little girls -- little girls -- form an impromptu firing squad and shoot down the zombies lurching toward them.  So I guess recoil doesn’t exist in this universe?  I would have guessed that the gunfire would blow the kids flat on their asses -- if not dislocate their shoulders.  Similarly, has there been a discussion about where these guys have been getting their ammo?  Okay, I would think that Team Rick raided Woodbury for supplies, and the prison probably had some, too.  But when everyone gets scattered, the only one who’s run into ammo problems yet is Carl.  Why not everyone else?  Or anyone else?  A pointless tangent, sure, but it still bugs the hell out of me.

Shows like this are what suggest to me that the “zombie fiction” model is broken (especially those that double-dip and go gritty as well).  As a viewer, I’m in no danger of getting mauled by the show’s “walkers”, and in most cases I know that the cast isn’t, either.  The action isn’t compelling, because these headshot-scoring, head-slicing, brain-stabbing survivors don’t have any reason to fear a fight with even a horde of the undead.  They’re completely calm in a lot of instances -- so why should I be panicked if they aren’t?    Yet the show keeps trying to suggest that “things are bad” and “there’s no hope”; even if I take the zombies as a threat, these people ant this show still keep falling back on the same old arguments and the same old ideas and the same old progression, over and over and over again. 

I advocate highs and lows in a story, but TWD’s integration of both comes off as clumsy at times -- and in the worst-case scenario, an outright lie.  Things are going to be (or will eventually default/reset to being) as bad as it can get.  But then there’ll be a glimmer of hope, as the team comes together and finds a light in the darkness -- an act of defiance against the big bad world!  And then it all goes to hell.  It’s like somebody’s gone out of his way to set up a line of dominoes, and gets to celebrate his hard work for a few seconds before some doofus with a hockey stick slapshots them all over the room.  Again, and again, and again, and again.

Repetition is what hamstrings TWD, and in more ways than one.  See, one of the reasons that I think zombie fiction is -- or is at least close to being -- a broken model is because, at the end of the day, what’s the end goal?  I would imagine that even people tuning in for the gore and horror have their limits with the show (and plenty of others, I’d bet) because A) they have to sit through almost 83% of an episode to get to the action they crave, and B) if the only card the show’s willing to play outside of a few instances is “ZOMBIES AND THUMPING MUSIC NOW!”, even gore enthusiasts might lose their goodwill.

But more importantly, I have to wonder about just what zombie fiction’s trying to sell.  Premise, theme, ideas, whatever you want to call it -- at the end of the day, what is the show about, if not zombies?  What’s the lesson it’s trying to impart?  Without structure and society, humanity will default to chaos?  People will go to extremes to survive, but they can still hold on to hope?  Creature comforts are what keep us quiet and under control?  Okay…so what?  Why are those ideas that need to be shown to us -- extensively -- by zombie fiction?  Aren’t there bigger and better ideas that can be capitalized on?  Something more unique?  Something more thoughtful, personal, emotional, whatever?

Zombie fiction is supposed to not be about the zombies.  And that’s fine.  I get that.  But TWD doesn’t make a good case for its genre at all.  It’s not about the zombies, because they’re not a threat.  So by that logic, it should be about the humans and their trials; as such, you can think of it as a drama built on personal struggles and relationships -- but that doesn’t really work either, because a lot of the show’s conversations and characters leave me grinding my teeth. 

So the alternative -- the backbone -- should be focusing and developing the ideas present, and using the toolset created by the show’s particulars (a broken, lawless world) to make a fresh and exciting product.  Only that doesn’t work either, because they’re saying the obvious, saying something we’ve seen a thousand times before, or saying nothing at all.

I said as much when I talked about Infinite Stratos and how the harem model is broken, and I’ll say a remixed version of it here: the best way to write a zombie story is to not write one at all.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, and there are stones that a willing creator could flip over.  But right now we’re not doing anyone any favors by cribbing on zombies for success.  You don’t need zombie fiction to explore relationships or create drama.  You don’t need it to build a world (or use it to substitute world-building vis a vis the excuse of “IT’S JUST OUR WORLD, ONLY SMASHED UP!”).  You sure as shit don’t need it to create tension.   I would have thought that was obvious by now, but the fact that TWD has proven consistently how wrong it can go -- even when it’s firing on all cylinders -- I’m about ready to tell anyone who tries making one to shut off their computers, chain up their hands, and go stand in a corner for an hour.

But let’s set that aside, and get back to TWD.  I’ve realized that there’s one question I have to ask: is it just me, or are these characters getting stupider?

More and more I suspect that TWD is in sore need of some self-awareness, but I suspect you could say the same about a lot of zombie fiction.  You need to put in a shitload of effort to make the zombies du jour terrifying (see: Attack on Titan), because, again, they’re not that threatening of an enemy no matter how much you hype them up with a pounding soundtrack. 

We have all done this dance many, many times before.  Conventions can’t be held up like holy grails -- and among those conventions, the one thing that I would have thought no sensible writer would do is predicate events, skirmishes, and even deaths on characters acting like morons.  Pro tip: if your enemies are only deadly because your cast has the common sense of a wicker basket, then just go.  Just fucking go.

I’ve heard about the infamous well episode in Season 2 (via the fantastic Your Movie Sucks video series on it -- seriously, go check it out sometime).  And while I’ve probably talked a bit about some of the less-than-enlightened choices the cast has made in previous episodes, for the most part I was willing to look past that for the sake of the story and not obsessively dwelling on it. 

But with Season 4.5 in the record books, I can’t help but feel like things are getting worse in terms of these survivors doing what it takes to survive.  An issue that could once be set aside now threatens to headshot the suspension of disbelief.   If anything, it should be progressing in reverse; the world’s been broken for years now, so you’d expect these people to make decisions under the assumption that they DON’T have plot armor.  Yet in recent episodes, the “tension” only pops up because the episodes threaten to play out like a farce.

What do I mean?  Well, I’ll gladly explain…with the proper music, of course.

--Okay, so let’s try to trace the progression of events here.  Carl decides to go off on his own while Rick is in some kind of sickness-induced coma (or something), and encounters some zombies.  He thinks he’s some kind of tough guy, but when actual zombies come after him, he panics and almost bites it.  He survives, of course, but the ordeal shocks him so much that he pukes out of fear.  So given that, why would Carl spout off a cocky one-liner like he’s some kind of action hero?  Does he still think he’s a tough guy?  Is he just going to pretend that his near-death experience didn’t happen?

--Daryl admits to Beth that he’s done things he doesn’t regret thanks to alcohol.  So why is the first thing he does once they find a safe haven is get some alcohol into his system?  Shouldn’t he have stopped himself while he was sober?  Shouldn’t Beth have stopped him, or at least told him to hold off?

--Why would Daryl and Beth burn down their safe house?  I know it was for symbolic purposes, but aren’t they concerned that they’ll start a fire, seeing as how they’re in the middle of a forest?  Even if they weren’t, why would they burn their safe house -- a house that will keep them safe from roaming zombie hordes -- in the middle of the night when visibility is low and they need to sleep?

--Why in God’s name would Daryl open up the door and let in a bunch of zombies based on the assumption that the dog was barking again?  Why did he do so without even looking through the door?  How long could it have possibly taken him to react to the sight (and presumably sounds and smells) of zombies?

--If you’ll let me mirror the sentiments of the AV Club review, why would Tyreese and Carol leave Lizzie and Mika alone?  Shouldn’t they have traveled as a single group?  What did they need to do that required the attention of both adults, given that when they’re heading back they’re just laughing it up and telling corny jokes?

--I know that media tends to play fast and loose with the way guns work -- no recoil, no loudness -- but am I the only one who thought that it’s one hell of a bad idea to shoot a gun just a foot or two away from a baby’s head?  Wouldn’t something like that blow her damn eardrums out?  Come to think of it, could the cast at large be suffering from loss of hearing?

--Did I miss something in regards to Maggie’s plan?  Did she seriously think that her best bet to survive, be spotted by Sasha, and camouflage herself amidst the zombie horde was to lay right next to them like bed mates?  I know these people have been living in/traversing flat land for years, but does “higher ground” not mean anything to them?

--I sincerely hope there’s a special level of hell set aside for whoever thought the tunnel bit was a good idea.  So Glenn and his makeshift team -- Tara, Duke Nukem Ford, some scientist guy, and an improbably-dressed female soldier-type -- come across a dark tunnel full of zombies.  Glenn wants to go in because he thinks that it’ll be faster, and that Maggie went through the tunnel as well.  Ford immediately tells him that it’s a stupid idea, and that they’d be better off using the area above/around the tunnel because…well, it’s not a dark tunnel full of zombies.  But Glenn and Tara go in anyway because -- actually, there’s no good reason for this.  What makes him think that it’s best to venture in?  If we follow his line of reasoning, then what makes him so sure that Maggie thought it was best to venture in?  If speed was an issue, then shouldn’t the fact that Glenn double-timed it help resolve the issue?  Aren’t they going to the same place, anyway?  Why take such a stupid, pointless risk, even if it is for loooooooooooooooooove?

--Should I be pissed over the fact that Glenn and Tara actually went into the tunnel?  Or the fact that despite Tara hurting her ankle (because it’s a dark and poorly-kept tunnel full of zombies), everything works without a hitch?

--Don’t you just love how when Ford Duke Nukem and Glenn get into a fight, doctor scientist (or Eugene, if you prefer) takes a gun and tries to shoot some incoming zombies, and ends up shooting their vehicle?  Why does the show choose that moment to care about aiming skill and recoil?    Also, why does Eugene not run over to the others and shout “Guys?  Zombies!” instead of using his inside voice to try and warn them?

--Even if he didn’t want to shout, why couldn’t he just run over there and pat Tara or the short-shorts soldier on the shoulder?  Beyond that, why would the show throw acid into the wound and have Eugene say to Duke Nukem “I’m smarter than you?”  Do these people have the memory span of a goldfish?

--So Jim’s band of roving bandits parks themselves in the safe house Rick, Carl, and Michonne were using.  Carl and Michonne are out on a supply run, leaving Rick to escape and warn them before they walk into a trap.  Fair enough.  But while Rick’s hiding under the bed, two bandits get into a fight over who gets to use the bed -- and that fight leads to one of them getting killed.  That’s just…what?  No.  Don’t these people know by now -- the several-year span of society’s end -- that if you kill a person, it’ll turn into a zombie?  Is the bandit not even going to bother doing anything with the body?

--Wait a minute.  Jim is a charismatic but brutal leader of an enemy gang, which ends up hunting Rick to avenge their fallen comrades (even though it stopped being a good idea after the first ten minutes of searching).  Meanwhile, Rick is a now-grizzled -- and scraggly-bearded, and white of course -- survivor who‘ll do anything to protect his child, even though he’s the main character and “golly gee whiz, main characters don’t do stuff like that!”  And meanwhile again, underneath its cheery exterior Terminus is revealed to be a den of thieves and heavily-implied cannibals?  Why do so many of these story beats sound so familiar?

All right, look.  I know -- or at least want to believe -- that there are explanations for some of the actions these people take.  Or if there aren’t, then I want to believe that these…lapses in logic don’t matter.  They’re the means to an end -- circumstances designed to lead to maximum horror, and thus maximum entertainment.  That’s just how zombie fiction works at times, and we just have to deal with it.

…Is what I would like to say.  But that’s a fat load, and you know it.

We don’t have to deal with a goddamn thing.  Drama and conflict shouldn’t come from these people acting like idiots; if it does, it’s a compromise of the story, and puts a damper on the seriousness that’s on display.  Comedies and characters like Homer Simpson can get away with it, because they’re not bearing down on you every step of the way.  A show like TWD can’t.  It just can’t.  And these people certainly shouldn’t survive on a regular basis -- outside of mid-season or full-season finales -- because they bumbled their way into or out of a situation.  If they do, then it’ll seem like they’re wearing well-polished plot armor with pride.

Yet here we are.  Or if not that, then at the very least, here I am.  I don’t mind getting swept up in the pace of a story, and being more likely to overlook lapses in logic (see: Pacific Rim).  In fact, I appreciate it -- because being 100% logical 100% of the time is impossible.  You’re going to screw up eventually, or have a point nitpicked by an impartial audience.  That’s why it’s the creator’s responsibility to make sure that the story beats and styling compensates for that.  Act as a soma, so people will overlook the faults.

I will gladly admit that TWD can do that.  But too often, the show proves that it’s just as capable -- eerily capable -- at jettisoning me out of the proceedings because of more tensionless fights, more pointless arguing, and more saddled weight by way of turning what should be an impactful journey and struggle to survive into a slog.  And if I’m not being offered that soma, then I’m more likely to notice the faults.  The faults in the characters stick out -- and the moments of sheer stupidity make them even worse by highlighting those faults, all while popping up like a spike through my heel.

There was a comment on this blog a while back (incidentally, on the subject of The Last of Us) that made a legitimate point.  I was still willing to play the game, despite my displeasure, out of goodwill and out of a desire to see some supposedly-amazing -- if controversial -- ending.  But the comment I got back suggested that even if that ending was amazing, it still wasn’t enough to justify all the time spent -- or wasted, if you prefer -- trying to get there.  It’s all about averages; even if there’s a TENOUTTATEN moment in a story that’s barely managed to break past two, then when all’s said and done the final score’s going to come out closer to one than to that ten. 

By and large, the same applies to TWD.  There are good moments, but the more I watch, the more I realize it’s not worth it.  Not if I have to consistently wait for something good, try my hardest to shrug off what’s terrible, and tolerate everything else in between.  And this is coming from someone who, once upon a time, was willing to give the show a chance to impress and overwhelm me, despite my complete lack of knowledge of the show -- and despite the fact that I jumped in during Season 2.

But I realize now that I shouldn’t have to wait for the show to get good.  I shouldn’t have waited that long in the first place.  I’m all for a rise in quality, but when those are offset by basic, well-engraved issues, regular lapses into stupidity or inanity, and a general lack of self-awareness that borders on self-parody, it makes me think that I’m a sucker for giving it a shot.  My time has not been well-rewarded -- and even if things have gotten better, it only reminds me of how bad, however retroactively, the show was just to get to the point of “tolerable”.  And that’s “tolerable on average.”  Not thanks to some sudden outlier that tries as desperately to convince people that they’re in for a harrowing hour of television as the next episode promos.

I’ll be frank.  I know I’m being harsh.  I know I’m being critical.  I know that what bothers me might not be enough -- and ideally, shouldn’t be enough -- to make others give pause.  I should be satisfied with TWD.  But I’m not.  When I care more about the goals, affairs, and state of the newly-introduced Duke Nukem than characters I’ve known for months, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the situation.  I would try and figure out what that is, but I can’t.  I just can’t do it anymore. 

So that’s it, then.  I’m done with this show.

I’d like to think that this is the last TWD post you’ll ever see on this blog, but given my track record, ti’s hard to know for sure.  Likewise, I know I’ve made my stand, but I suspect that I’ll still watch a episode or two of the next season; if I’ve got a buddy over and he wants to watch it, then I won’t try to slap the remote out of his hands or anything.  But just because I’m watching doesn’t mean that I’m caring; at this stage, I don’t see myself getting invested in the canon.  Not anymore.

I think that the only way I would be legitimately excited to watch an episode -- or go out of my way to see it -- would be if I was going to poke fun at it.  As if I intended to point and laugh -- or if I took a page from my brother’s rationalizing and treated it as I should (i.e. as a horror movie where the only merit comes from the creativity in the kills and gore…and in the gore itself).  But I probably won’t.  TWD tries to take itself seriously in a lot of cases, so why wouldn’t I?  What good would it do to refuse to engage in its terms, or watch it as it was intended to be watched?  I can’t do otherwise -- but caving to its demands isn’t an option anymore.

Well, I guess it’s not so bad.  TWD might not be worth it anymore, but there’s still plenty of stuff out there that is.  All told, I need a new show to get into; both How I Met Your Mother and Raising Hope left the airwaves -- in the same week, as if I needed two kicks to the balls -- so there’s a spot open in my heart.  Maybe this is my chance to start looking into Mad Men.  That’s supposed to be good, right?  Plus it’s got Christina Hendricks a deep and engrossing story bound to satisfy anyone with refined tastes.  And there’s a healthy archive of episodes for me to get into by this point.  Or maybe I’ll just get in deeper with Kamen Rider.  I’ve seen the first few episodes of Kiva, and the sheer amount of “I don’t even” makes me eager for more.  So I’ll figure something out eventually.  No need to feel bad for me.  I’m feeling fine.

And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys around.

The Last of Us porn.  Damn.  You’re killing me, internet.  You’re killing me.

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