Our TV Roundtable on the Season 3 premiere
Near the beginning of this week's third-season premiere of The Walking Dead, T-Dog--a character who only appeared in Season 2 when the writers felt the need to remind us he existed--actually got a line of dialogue. So when he complained, "It's like we spent the whole winter going in circles," it was both a small vindication for The Walking Dead's most underwritten character and a tacit acknowledgment that up until this point, the series has often spun its wheels. Fortunately, this new self-awareness is a major step up from last year's humorless, meandering second season--and a major step for The Walking Dead in general.
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The smartest decision by The Walking Dead's writing team was to kick off the third season's story after a seven-month time jump, which allows the series to hit the reset button on some of its most irritating characters and story lines. Last season, Lori was so inconsistently written that she felt like a totally different character from episode to episode, but the time jump pushes her to late-term pregnancy, which gives her an actual, coherent motivation and increases the stakes for everyone else. For most of the series, Carol has had no personality and nothing to contribute. Now she's developed a sense of humor and learned how to use a gun. And Carl didn't even wander off and do something stupid to jeopardize the safety of the group.
Many of this episode's strengths spring directly from the "Ricktatorship" established in last season's finale, which has evolved quite nicely. In the time that's passed, the survivors have become a seasoned, disciplined unit, with clearly-defined roles in the group. There's something effectively creepy about the way the now-experienced survivors talk about walkers--which are, lest we forget, former people--as "herds of 150 head." When it comes to taking the prison, everybody has a role to play, and everybody plays their role well. The Walking Dead hasn't convinced me that to care about its characters, exactly, but I didn't find anyone completely irritating, which is a huge improvement. And whatever else you can say, The Walking Dead certainly has suspense down cold; it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be drawn in enough by the two cliffhangers at the episode's end to tune in again next week.
But outside the prison: I'm undecided on Michonne, who's the only new character to get any significant screen time this week. In an episode packed with zombie kills, she scores the week's grossest (and therefore best) when she decapitates two walkers with one sword swing, leaving a severed zombie head chomping uselessly on the ground. From her swords to the armless zombies she keeps as pets, Michonne is so pulpy and bizarre that she sort of suggests an endgame for the whole zombie-apocalypse thing--the kind of person you'd have to become to really survive. Maybe that's where Rick is headed. But right now, it feels like Michonne dropped in from a looser, crazier show than the one we've been watching. And it doesn't help Michonne's case that she and Andrea end up having one of those conversations - "you should go," "I won't leave you," etc.--that are so absurdly clichéd that screenwriters should be required to sign a pledge not to write them anymore.
Overall, though, I'd say this is much improved--an episode that shows off The Walking Dead's strengths and avoids most of the pitfalls that had dogged it in the past. What did you guys think?
Having watched Season 2 in a compulsive iTunes marathon over the summer, I think I was less bothered by the pacing than you (and pretty much the rest of the TWD-watching world) were, Scott. Without having to wait between episodes--at all, let alone for a week--what apparently felt dithering and wheel-spinny to most people ended up seeming more languid and anti-thrillery to me. My reaction: The Walking Dead wasn't just reinterpreting a genre; it was displacing the role of that genre in the overall story--putting zombies at the center of the narrative but moving them to the periphery of the action.
That move felt deliberately tentative and unsustainable, of course: The group could only take refuge on Hershel's farm as long as walkers didn't overrun the place en mass; and by the very first episode of the season, we'd already seen that, to the group's astonishment, walkers were now moving together in sizable herds. (Scott finds the term "herd" creepy; I'm more inclined to find it plain-language.) Given the basic vulnerability of the farm, I think, we knew that this herding among the walkers meant the inevitable collapse of the semi-bucolic story arc set on the farm--and, along with it, the very fragmented normality that the group tried to establish there.
At its best, The Walking Dead isn't just a thriller; it's a drama that uses the tropes of a thriller to imagine human existence at he end of the world. So I didn't mind the second season's hesitant plotting. For me, it resonated. Without the structures and roles and meanings that orient us, faced with horrible loss, and with our lives in chronic danger, our own stories would take on some of the same qualities; they'd be radically uncertain, halting, anxious.
What bothered me was in the details: Everyone on that farm knew as well as we did that the number-one existential threat to the group was the prospect of a herd of walkers overrunning it. But while Rick and Shane beat away at their moral-philosophical meta-dispute about physical survival vs. the survival of their humanity, the security measures they took never got beyond maintaining the same wooden fences that Hershel used to keep his cows from wandering off the property. The whole debate about whether to exile or execute their prisoner, Randall, felt forced; why not just keep him as a prisoner? If we're going to make this farm work, we need to turn it into a fortress; that means disciplined protocols and regular supply runs, some longer-distance, not random strolls into the woods or serial, ad hoc trips to the ruins of the town pharmacy. It means thinking a few moves ahead. If guns are our best defense against walkers, but we can't use them outside of total emergency circumstances because the noise risks drawing the walkers to us, let's find or make some silencers. Let's take this apocalypse seriously.
I know we're meant to understand that the farm's isolation kept the group without access to much beyond it; and I know we're meant to accept that Hershel's denial about what the walkers are, and his attendant "rules" about what would and wouldn't be acceptable on his land, constrained the group's latitude. But the writers could have done more to show us a Rick with a compellingly hardcore sense of priorities.
It drove me nuts, for example, that Rick let Shane's deepening psychosis drive the conflict between the two of them to the high level of abstraction it got to--or that he let Hershel's stubborn refusal to accept that the walkers had changed the world stand as long as it did, effectively validating Shane's contempt--rather than direct their energies in fiercely pragmatic ways: We may or may not need to execute Randal, Shane, but we definitely need barbed wire around this perimeter. Keeping this farm outwardly unchanged may feel like it means the preservation of your humanity, Hershel, but it won't save your daughters when a zillion walkers stumble out of those woods--which they will, because we've seen them start to form herds.
These were real conflicts latent in the story The Walking Dead's writers were telling us over Season 2, grounded the world their characters were now trying to negotiate. If the writers had gone farther to integrate the defining details of this world into the story they were telling, I think that story might have felt a lot more convincing, even to people who watched the show week-over-week.
Which is why after this week's premiere, I'm as encouraged as Scott is about Season 3: The writers seem to be making a point of developing characters they previously ignored (T-Dog, Carol, even Carl); the group is super-focused on the strategic and operational demands of survival (silencers! finally ...); even the potentially annoying specter of a big, forced Ricktatorship drama that we saw at the end of Season 2 seems to have given way to the kind of practical problem solving, and more-or-less reasonable discussion, that a functional group of people trying to survive the collapse of civilization would need. Yes, Rick is the group's leader, but when they're trying to figure out alternatives to yet more wandering as Lori's pregnancy advances, Rick hardly goes all duce on everyone. Hershel raises some objections; they talk them through.
As it turns out, they then stumble across the answer: a prison. The practical complication is that the place is overrun by walkers. But if Rick and the group can secure it, the group will finally have a fortress that can give it viable security in a world where a herd of walkers will eventually find you, if one hasn't already. Of course, it's also a big metaphor for what survival will mean in this world, as long as the walkers keep coming. Hershel's Season 2 insistence on maintaining a don't-fence-me-in ideal for his farm was a disaster waiting to happen. But now that you're fenced in, you're prisoners. And now we have a story grounded in the essential reality of The Walking Dead.
Maybe Scott's right, meanwhile, that the parallel plot line with Michonne feels like it's "dropped in from a looser, crazier show than the one we've been watching." Those armless, jawless walkers she's dragging around on chains are far-out. But otherwise I find it hard to argue with her style, particularly her use of a katana. That thing works.
You guys have too many thoughts about zombies to address in one post, but let me try to respond to a couple of things here. First, Scott is right: The Season 3 premiere is tighter and more coherent than much of Season 2. Writing actual words for T-Dogg to speak, rather than having him play the traditional passive-black-guy-waiting-to-get-axe-murdered-in-a-horror-movie role was an improvement, and I was waiting with trepidation to see how long it would be before the writers again felt a need to advance the plot by having Carl do something idiotic--more idiotic than an actual kid living in a post-apocalyptic environment would do (not that I really know how a kid in a post-apocalyptic environment would behave, though I have a clue from Holocaust literature--and yes, I'll be getting to the Holocaust in a future conversation, because that is what The Walking Dead is actually about). But they didn't make Carl do something stupid. Instead, they've made him a competent, if still part-time, killer.
I can understand Scott's ambivalence about Michonne, who is more of a comic-book character than anyone we've seen so far. But I would only point out that we're watching a live-action comic book. And I have to note that Scott must have a high tolerance for the crazy in remarking that "it feels like Michonne dropped in from a looser, crazier than the one we've been watching." Dude, this is a show about the zombie apocalypse, caused by a disease that reanimates the dead and turns them into cannibals. This is not Mork and Mindy. (I know, I'm dating myself.) I think Scott makes a good point, though: Rick's overly precious effort to stay human, even when it means repeatedly risking the lives of his loved ones, seems less annoying to me when I'm reminded of exactly what survivors of a zombie apocalypse would most likely have to become to stay alive.
John, your point about the decision by the group not to turn Hershel's farm into a survivalist compound (or non-decision--it doesn't even seem to have come up) is an excellent one. Over and over again I've asked myself such questions as: Why aren't they all skinny as sticks? Where do they get the batteries to power their flashlights? How did they find clean water over seven months of running? I think these questions attest to the fact that the show is realistic enough (within its insane framework, obviously) that holes in its logic are worth questioning. And yes to silencers! Or anything! By the way, I think the reason we're so focused on the practical aspects of survival in a post-apocalyptic environment is that we work in journalism, so we already know all about living through the apocalypse.
Now to the killing. I think this episode advances a disturbing idea that I haven't yet seen (though maybe I just missed something). In the group's initial foray into the prison, they seem, for the first time, to be enjoying the killing. This struck me as a realistic response to their work, and also, for some reason, incredibly disturbing. Maybe it's just the beginning of a crucial pivot. Which is to say, the survivors, in order to survive over the long-term, can't simply play defense. Eventually, they're going to have to eradicate the zombies if they're to re-create civilization in some sort of meaningful way.
Anyway, like I said, too much to discuss. One last question: The show is getting way more disgusting, no? Or do I not remember Season 2 very well?
As far as grossness goes, I don't know, Jeff; it'll be tough to top that bloated zombie in the well from last season. But it's pretty impressive that Greg Nicotero keeps finding ways to take his insanely good makeup and effects work to the next level.
You guys were far more forgiving of The Walking Dead's pacing problems last season than I was. To be clear: I complain because I love. I spent most of last year annoyed that The Walking Dead was a good show that should really be a great one, because its narrative and pacing problems were so easily fixable. As I reviewed the second season week-to-week, I felt kind of like a parent with a smart kid who was getting C's. Come on, Walking Dead, you could accomplish so much if you would just apply yourself!
To that point, I'm with you, John: The details are everything in a show like this. And I think we got some pretty good ones tonight: The riot-gear zombies, the prisoner zombies locked in their cells, the group's gourmet meal of owl and dog food. The Walking Dead--and zombie fiction in general--has gotten so popular, in part, because it's a lot of fun to think and talk about how you'd survive a zombie apocalypse, so the more specific the show gets about survival techniques, the better. And Jeff: I'd agree that The Walking Dead is a live-action adaptation of a comic book, but I'm less convinced that it's a "live-action comic book." For better or worse, The Walking Dead tends to take itself super-seriously, and while I like the idea of a katana-wielding, zombie-leashing badass, she's still a departure from last season's typical M.O. Fortunately, it's a departure that will probably move the show in a more interesting direction.
Quibbles aside, I think we're all agreed that this is a very, very promising start to the season. Looking forward to exploring the post-apocalypse with you guys.