Our TV Roundtable on character, plot, and politics in Season 3, Episode 11, "I Ain't a Judas"
Since the series returned from its midseason break two weeks ago, I've been our roundtable's resident Walking Dead apologist. As you guys have fired shots at The Walking Dead's lazy writing and slow-moving storyline, I've praised the show's meticulously staged action scenes and contrasted its relatively minor flaws with the major flaws of season two. And last week's episode ended on a terrific note of tension, as the Governor's army unleashed a salvo on our heroes that begged for an immediate response. For the first time in a while, The Walking Dead had ended an episode on a cliffhanger that actually had me hanging, and I couldn't wait to see this week's installment.
And now that I've actually seen it, I've officially come around to your way of thinking.
What happened here? Tonight's "I Ain't a Judas" was a dreary mess that recalled the glacial pace of season two by doing almost nothing to move the show forward. We harped on The Walking Dead's writing plenty last week, so I'll be brief, but Rick is a borderline-unhinged dictator, like he was last week. Everyone is worried about it, like they were last week. Andrea is torn between the Governor and our heroes, like she was last week. Daryl is torn between Merle and our heroes, just like he was last week. The only thing in "I Ain't a Judas" that even resembled forward momentum was the acceptance of Tyreese and his friends into Woodbury, but that's some pretty lean plot development for an hour-long drama -- and we have absolutely no stake in those characters anyway.
The Walking Dead's priorities are fundamentally misplaced. The show can't spare a minute to give Tyreese -- played by the magnetic Chad L. Coleman, who's been utterly wasted in the role -- a scene that hints at any semblance of personality. But it can spare the time to show, with loving detail, the process by which Andrea and Milton disarm and defang a wayward zombie. It's maddening to think about how much better The Walking Dead could be if it was as committed to character development as it is topping its own gory special effects, and I keep hanging in there because this show's problems are so eminently fixable: Kill off the poorly conceived, badly written characters, and introduce new ones that are more interesting from the start. The Walking Dead certainly has the first part down, but it needs to work a lot harder on the second.
I could go on, but to keep this response from turning into a full-on rant, I'll leave you with a question: For all of the characters that The Walking Dead has killed off, is there anybody you really miss? Even Shane, the most interesting of the show's deceased characters, overstayed his welcome, which telegraphed his death a half-dozen episodes before it actually happened. If Lori had been a better character, we would have felt some of the same joy and relief that Rick felt at "seeing" her again last week -- and not just the annoyance we expressed at what we all agreed was an unconvincing plot device. There are characters I would miss on The Walking Dead -- yes, even Rick -- but the more I think about it, the more I'm struck by how little the show's abnormally high body count has actually affected for me.
We are now facing yet another predictable development in the Walking Dead saga: Scott's unhappiness with an episode axiomatically means, of course, that I will like it. I am not embracing "I Ain't a Judas" wholeheartedly, because I can't deny its underlying banality and incoherence, but at least it makes an attempt at character development, and it seems to move the story along incrementally. Hope filled me early, as the monochromatic Carl confronts his father: "You should stop," he says. Rick asks, "Stop what?" Carl responds, "Being the leader." A wrenching thing to watch, but a portent of something excruciating and complicated to come? No, of course not: This moment is left unexploited by the writers, who allow Carl's words to cure his father instantly. This is apparently an extremely convincing kid.
It's not easy to for me to argue against this miracle cure, because last week I suggested that this most recent run of episodes would be more interesting if Rick would actually be allowed to parent in an apocalyptic environment (what, for instance, does a father say to a child after the world has ended? I would like to know), and now we have been promised an episode in which Rick and Carl (and Michonne) are going to be doing some zombie-land bonding. But still, imagine for a minute what a David Chase could do with this father-son relationship, and then despair at the missed possibilities.
And speaking of HBO, I could not agree more with Scott on the matter of Chad Coleman. He was utterly magnetic on The Wire, and, as Scott says, utterly wasted in the role of Tyreese.
Allow me to introduce another subject into the mix: The show's increasingly obvious political conservatism. Andrea, the civil-liberties lawyer of dubious character, ventures to the prison from Woodbury on a misguided mission to make peace between Rick and the Governor. Andrea, like any good liberal, believes that dialogue between two warring parties will inevitably lead to understanding and compromise. "I cannot excuse or explain what Phillip has done but I am here trying to bring us together," she tells Rick, who answers, "There's nothing to work out. We're going to kill him." This exchange echoes a common debate we have in post-9/11 America: Can we come to agreement with Iran/the Muslim Brotherhood/the Taliban -- take your pick. These debates are interesting, in part, because, though we can have our obvious suspicions (as I do) about the incapacity of, say, the Iranian regime to compromise with the United States, we cannot know with 100 percent certainty whether such compromise is, in fact, impossible, because we have only an imperfect understanding of Iran and its leaders.
On The Walking Dead, however, there is absolutely no doubt that Philip (the "Governor," as we more commonly know him) is a perverse and psychotic murderer who possesses not a single redeeming quality. We've seen too much to think anything else. Which means that the writers of "I Ain't a Judas" are very ostentatiously painting Andrea as a blithering idiot, in order to make a point.
Unless they aren't trying to make a point. I think there's a reasonable chance that they've simply lost control of their characters, and are simply winging it, minute-to-minute.
On the other hand, I found the scene in which Andrea and Milton defang a zombie quite riveting, in a self-help video sort of way (you never know when you're going to have to curb the undead, and I'd like to get it right).
And to answer your question, Scott, it's Shane I miss. You're right - he had to be dispatched, after his demise was telegraphed repeatedly. But I still found something compelling and complicated about him. It's too bad Rick isn't as interesting.
Well, that's easily the most interesting plot twist around The Walking Dead this week: Meslow and Goldberg trading prosecution and defense. I can't really add anything to what Scott says, not having changed positions since last week and so now (for now) finding myself on his side of the critical courtroom. I'd just dissent on one point: It would be letting the writers off way too easy to let them kill everyone and start fresh. You're bloodthirsty, Meslow. But TWD's writers have given us an imaginary world; they need to make good on it by bringing it back to life. (Man, it's tough to avoid inadvertent bad puns with The Walking Dead sometimes.) Yes, it's a world defined by death, and we should expect the show to punctuate that reality by killing characters without mercy. But if they do that for any reason other than to move the story forward, including to make up for having written thin characters and boring plots, it'll feel to us as exactly what it will be: desperate story telling.
Jeff, you've attributed a conservative posture to The Walking Dead before, and I'm glad to see you picking this thread up again. It's a good exercise for relating our world to the The Walking Dead's. I think you're right that the show highlights the, let's say, profound limits of liberal instincts in a post-apocalypse dominated by predatory, brain-dead cannibals and charismatic psychopaths. But that's not, it seems to me, political conservatism. I take your point that you can draw parallels between the Andrea-skeptical position among Rick's group at the end of "Ain't I a Judas" and some (some) of the more hawkish dispositions in U.S. foreign policy in the decade-plus since 9/11. For the show to give us real political conservatism, though, it would have to make a much stronger connections between zombies and pure psychosis, on the one hand, and the threats the U.S. faces in the age of Jihadist terrorism today. Neither is it clear to me that those connections would make the show stronger. After all, The Walking Dead is as compelling as it is, at the level of its basic dramatic conceit, for imagining a human condition, and stakes for human conflict, that are shockingly extreme for us -- even knowing what brutality and evil stalk the world today.
Image: Gene Page/AMC