Post-Apocalyptic Parenting in 'The Walking Dead'

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Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 10, "Home"

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Goldberg:

Man, wasn't that surprising, when those gunshots fired by the Governor and his henchmen loosed Rick from the clutch of hallucination?

And how surprised were you that Merle and Daryl appeared just in the nick of time to save our beleaguered heroes from certain death?

And how astonished were you to learn that the Governor broke his promise to forgo retaliation for Rick's raid on Woodbury?

And shocking that the harmless, sweet-tempered Axel would lose his life just as Carol, who oozes haplessness, is nearly ready to sleep with him.

The show is at its best when the survivors are on the road, in part because the road holds the promise of a better future--or at least of radical new circumstances.

As the ratings for The Walking Dead keep rising higher and higher, the show becomes more and more predictable. I'm sure Scott will rebut this -- he's far more sympathetic to the predicament TWD's writers have created for themselves than I am -- but I spent most of "Home" trying to understand why I'm finding this recent run of episodes so dreary. Poor character development is one: Glenn, in particular, isn't making much sense to me anymore. Maybe it's just that his dark turn is depressing me; as Scott pointed out last week, he has reasons to be grim. Still, I don't find this grimness convincing. And the Governor has become uninteresting, in the way that monochromatic psychopaths become uninteresting. His perversity is utterly reliable.

I don't mean to go on, so I'll quickly suggest two hoped-for fixes: The first is movement. TWD is much less flaccid when the survivors are on the road, in part because the road holds the promise of a better future -- or at least of radical new circumstances. The second has to do with Rick: The writers had two choices, post-Lori. Derangement was the more obvious choice, and it's the way they went. But I would like to see Rick -- who was built up, over two seasons, to be the most capable hero in all of television -- actually be allowed to adjust to a new, complicated, and dramatically interesting role, as a father in a post-apocalyptic environment. Post-apocalyptic parenting seems like an fascinating subject to me (as well as a great name for a magazine), and I'm waiting for him to meet the challenge. Mainly, I'd like to see our merry band escape, because what I'm not interested in seeing is yet another skirmish between Woodbury and the prison.

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Gould:

Yes, the TV Roundtable -- or at least two-thirds of it -- continues to struggle with The Walking Dead.

At its best, this has been a powerful show that's taken the zombie genre, whose campy take on a primordial kind of horror is now familiar to almost anyone with access to American pop culture, and used it to tell an elaborate story about day-to-day life in a possible human condition that's spiritually accessible to almost no one with cable TV: the end of civilization. But TWD has never succeeded as drama -- or as serial entertainment, anyway -- by realism about the idea of post-apocalyptic life alone. And the genre has always implied more than brain-dead cannibals as culturally recognizable representations of that idea; it's implied dramatic expectations about plot and action. One of the central challenges the writers face is keeping their story and their characters emotionally authentic to the reality of post-apocalyptic catastrophe while keeping the story moving. Which it's not.

Jeff, I like your two suggestions here -- though I'm less sure about the necessity of the first. It may be that the story will pick up when our survivors literally pick up and leave, but those two kinds of pacing can be independent. For now, though, Jeff's right; no one's really going anywhere, and we're going more or less nowhere with them.

The zombie genre has always implied more than the idea of post-apocalyptic life; it's implied dramatic expectations about plot and action.

But I agree entirely about Rick: Let him adapt, or in any event change / be changed in meaningful ways. (For now, I prefer this to Scott's ruthless alternative of killing Rick off.) Writers, heed Goldberg: You have pretty much one shot, max, at the perilous Derangement Option. If you take it, do not try it again. The ringing-phone thing was okay, but Rick's sudden visions of his dead wife in a white dress? This just de-powers the story. A distinct, straightforward "hallucination" feels to viewers like the writer's device it is; and the white dress itself is an annoyingly vague visual cliché. (Or, I mean, maybe if she'd been wearing her wedding dress, that would be weird and possibly interesting; but no, Rick's mind gave her some kind of satiny evening gown, cut low in the back, because ...?)

And I love the idea of post-apocalyptic fatherhood as a theme. Since the end of Season 2, Rick seems mainly to have resigned himself to Carl being forced into premature adulthood. There have been alternative treatments of the theme, meanwhile: Hershel, resiliently, with his daughters and now his adopted son-in-law, Glenn; the Governor, pitiably, with his unparentable zombie child. There have been parallel treatments of related theme, too: the idea of post-apocalyptic leadership. There is Rick, among our survivors; anti-Rick, over in Woodbury; and now Glenn, who is earnestly asserting himself in Rick's psychological absence, as well as Andrea, who last week spontaneously asserted herself in the Governor's physical absence -- with a bad but, by fiat of our writers, somehow effective speech reassuring an doubting group of town extras. Now the Governor is playing her up for it, apparently on the neo-Machiavellian maxim: Keep your friends close, and make your enemies think you're promoting them. Let's see what happens there.

Just one addendum among our fix suggestions from me: Conveying a complex, difficult reality in just over 40 minutes a week requires an artful efficiency of language. Can we try to tighten up the dialogue and avoid throwaway cliché lines? E.g.:

HERSHEL
We're stuck in here with walkers.

CAROL
Trapped between a rock and a hard place.

<-- What?! Why have Carol say this? Tell me you don't have to be an editor to find this terrible. Can you be an editor and not find it terrible? ...  Scott?

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Meslow:

For the second week in a row, I find myself standing up for The Walking Dead, even as I agree with most of your complaints. Like Jeff, I'm bored by the new, infinitely less nuanced villainy of the Governor, and I'm disappointed that this is the way the writers have decided to play Glenn: The series didn't need another glum, mumbly person stomping around and throwing rage-tantrums, and Steven Yeun plays upbeat and helpful more convincingly than he plays pissed off and vengeful. Like John, I'm turned off by the lazy symbolism of Ghost Lori and the similarly lazy dialogue; these writers should avoid clichés like, er, the plague (or whatever cause this zombie apocalypse).

So maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome that's keeping me in The Walking Dead's corner -- but I have to ask: If you guys are getting impatient with the show now, how on earth did you make it through season two? Yes, The Walking Dead has produced better episodes than tonight's "Home" and last week's "Suicide King," but it's produced far worse. (Remember the six episodes we spent looking for Sophia?) For all its faults, this episode had two extremely well-staged action scenes and the surprise death of Axel (better known as recognizable but expendable character number 17). At the risk of damning the series with faint praise, that's pretty good for The Walking Dead -- and we're set up for a stronger episode next week, as our heroes decide how to strike back at the Governor and bring both Daryl and Merle back into the fold.

Rick may be checked out as a father, but the rest of the group is doing a pretty good job in his place.

That said, I like both of your proposed fixes, Jeff, because this show has always needed fixing. The prison has generated a lot more story than the farm, but a full season is a long time for this show to spend at any one location, and I'll be ready to leave its crumbling walls behind. And we're all in agreement that Rick is in need of a fix; though I stand by my case that it's time to kill him off -- if only to inject some of the unpredictability that Jeff is looking for. I'd be happy to see his character evolve into a better father/leader, which would be more plausible and interesting to watch than his current detour into crazy town.

While we're on the subject of post-apocalyptic parenting: Isn't the show tackling it already? Rick may be checked out of the whole fatherhood thing, but the rest of the group is doing a pretty good job raising Little Ass-Kicker: Glenn and Maggie go on formula runs, Daryl and Beth take turns feeding her, someone who's probably not Michonne makes time to change her diapers. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise the child of a ghost-chasing lunatic, and I like the way that Judith has become a rallying point for our heroes. It's basically what they tried to do with Sophia's disappearance, but with actual dramatic weight.

But even as you guys turn on the show with all the ruthlessness of a zombie biting into a forearm, I have to say, this is the most I've been looking forward to an upcoming episode of The Walking Dead in a while. Merle remains an enjoyably implausible powder keg, so I'm glad he's back in the mix, and I'm genuinely curious to see how Rick and company decide to strike back at The Governor. As always, The Walking Dead is far from perfect, but at least it's still moving.

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Gould:

I think Jeff and I would be more likely to say we're turning on The Walking Dead with all the ruthlessness owing to something that's trying to eat our brains. But the truth is, I still believe The Walking Dead is good TV with great promise -- as much I expect as you do, Scott, in your despite-all-its-flaws defense of the show. That's right, I protest because I love: I love what the show has done with serial drama and genre, and I love its sometimes-realized potential to mean something as much as it entertains.

I think you're right, too, to see signs that the theme of catastrophe parenting has already been emerging -- and that however we end up reacting to next week's episode, we won't be bored.

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Photo credits: AMC

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