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The Walking Dead: ask me how!

So, I’ve taken up watching The Walking Dead. Statistically speaking, according to a correlation I’ve just made up in my head based on the vaguest possible understanding I’ve been able to maintain of statistics, you are too. Little though I have paid any attention to what everyone has been saying about it, I was led to believe it was poorly written. Everyone was wrong.

(Discussion for all aired episodes is fair game, otherwise no real spoilers.)

Full disclosure:
I started watching TWD for Norman Reedus. Come for the Norman Reedus, stay for the Daryl Dixon, amirite? Anyway, beyond that I didn’t care particularly much, to the extent that I didn’t bother watching the first two episodes because he’s not in them. Yep. Still haven’t, probably won’t. I do believe everyone when they say that they are good episodes, but I’ve seen enough zombie movies – and know enough about the plot – to get it.

Also, I haven’t read the comics, although I’ve heard some chatter about the differences, and I only watched a few AMC promotional whatsits before realising there was no point. (About the only thing I’ve bothered tracking are these podcasts, because their dudely read on things intrigues and/or amuses me. They also had some thoughts on why TWD plays poorly to zombie-genre expectations.) So, for reference, these thoughts are what I can work out from watching episodes 1.03–3.04, once through in relatively quick succession, along with skimming through the show’s tv tropes entry, and yelling “nope!” periodically at the podcasts. I was spoiled for the big things as I watched, but from S3 forward have avoided spoilers altogether. The examples I mention are from the top of my head, and thus a fairly sound record of what stuck with me as relevant (and are open to correction if I misremembered).

So, the premise:
From what little I’d gathered before watching, I wasn’t expecting much from the writing. So it took me a few episodes to be certain I was noticing an unambiguous trend, before the S1 finale confirmed it, that was the same as early in the BSG reboot: the concept of the cost of survival pitted against the cost of humanity (which was what hooked me into BSG in the first place). TWD just went with zombies instead of cylons for its mode of apocalypse, so I guess I can see why there has been some confusion and disappointment, if it’s assumed to be a zombie story. It also made me reasonably hopeful that they weren’t going to drag us down the eye-stabbingly painful “when a human and a cylon love each other very much” route. This perked me up some, although not enough to abate my scepticism, since there are a host of other ways you can screw things up.

But they haven’t (so far). They started out slow, set up a clear structure, and kept it simple by centering the progression of the survival vs humanity theme around the one protagonist, before picking up the pace. Keeping it on a much more intimate scale also helps it all stay under control, although simple writerly discipline has to count for a lot there too.

The S1 finale was the point at which I went, oh, okay – the “walking dead”. Being spoiled for the “everyone’s infected” twist helped, making text of subtext, but the events themselves made it clear that these people are straight-up screwed, and that all three levels implied in the title are definitely intentional. The shuffling, ravenous corpses are the walking dead; the (infected) survivors wandering around are the walking dead; and in the middle of it all, Rick back-from-the-dead-coma is the walking dead double dutch. The whole world – everything, everyone – is a zombie, and this show is about tracking how the pre-apocalypse humanity rots away. Ultimately, it becomes a question of how far and how dark they’ll be able to take it. (Personally, I’d be ecstatic if they manage to take it all the way to the ALL DOOMED conclusion promised in the title and concept, but I’ll only believe that when I see it.)

Which meant the writers really did know what they’re doing, despite wide-spread claims to the contrary, so I sat up (a little) straighter, and kept an eye out for actual themes and structure built around the premise. And boy, did I get them.

Actual themes and structure:
So far what they’ve done is take each block of half-dozen-odd episodes – S1, 2.0, and 2.5 – and build them around a specific cluster of hopes, traits, or principles that represent the remnants of the survivors’ (and pivotally, Rick’s) humanity, and which prove ultimately to be illusory. I want to believe that each one is a single core theme, since that’s sort of pleasing and neat and makes sense from a writing perspective, giving unity to the variants that play out. But they don’t ever make it explicit and I haven’t worked through them all yet (seriously, I really was watching for the Daryl, I am that shallow), so I guess we’ll see. I’m pretty sure they’ll be keeping to this structure going forward, and the general shape of the theme for 3.0 is emerging, but like I said, they don’t make anything explicit, and you have to look back over the narrative as a whole in order to nail the specifics.

They set about breaking that piece of humanity down over the course of the episodes, until the survivors are forced to choose to relinquish it in order to continue to survive. The risks the survivors take, what endangers them, the root cause of loss of life, the mini-arcs, the parallel groups and Rick analogues, and the priorities and goals they work toward are all predicated on it. And each finale and mid-season finale so far has seen Rick, as protagonist representative and leader of the survivors, consciously jettison it. The other survivors travel at different speeds relative to the median line of survival on that issue, shooting ahead or lagging behind (straying too far in either direction usually punished by death), but the pace and judgement of the show is the pace and judgement of Rick.

The Dixon contra-theme:
Interestingly – or perhaps confusingly, since it does muddy the waters somewhat – watching for the Daryl pays off, since he is exempt from the theme altogether. He doesn’t actually belong to the story at all (notably, he isn’t in the comics), which is part of what makes him such a compelling and literally independent character. Not only is he already perfectly suited to survival, he is, as he says, better on his own. The humanity tradeoff doesn’t apply to him; more than that, while the zombie apocalypse is killing or stripping the humanity from every other character at various speeds, Daryl is on the opposite trajectory – in his choices, he is gaining humanity. So he is objectively more sympathetic to the audience, even while retaining our admiration as an unmitigated badass. There’s no set way he participates in the themes, he’s essentially a wild card. Wherever they go with this story, if they’re smart they will keep him that way. Additionally, depending on what they’re doing with S3 and Woodbury, they will hopefully give Merle some of the same mojo.

S1 themes and thoughts:
So obviously S1 had to do a couple of things, like establish the whole zombie apocalypse setting, but other than that the theme seems pretty straightforward: salvation (vs survival). The future. Hope of rescue, restoration, fixing the problem that was created.

The season begins with Rick’s miraculous return to life, and ends with him learning that everyone is already infected, running for the group’s lives from the erstwhile bastion of science (and progress), of explanation, of a cure. The season’s action takes place around the characters needing to rescue one another (contra-theme watch: Merle rescued himself, but only by hacking off a piece of himself ... ha, which Daryl then retrieves, and uses to terrorise someone to get what he wants), the lengths and risks they go to in that. The driving goal is returning, reuniting, retrieving – and when that should be achieved (Rick with family [+1 Shane], Merle on the rooftop, bag’o’guns on the road, Glenn and Vatos, Andrea waiting to execute her sister until after she turned, Morgan ... something, I only heard about him and his zombie!wife), it’s not what it was, not what it seemed, not what was expected.

Over and over, the action is saying that life is not, cannot be, will never be what it was. The survivors who skipped too far ahead on that gave up and accepted death (Jim bit, the black chick and Jenner at the CDC). The suvivors who lagged behind (Vatos’s nursing home, the family that split off from the group) are either unknowingly nursing zombie time bombs or likely got overrun. And presumably died. The group itself paid in lives when the best fighters left in the attempt to rescue Merle and the guns, then got sidetracked in rescuing Glenn. (Ed, thinking nothing had changed and he could still abuse his wife and child, got beat on by Shane and then zombie-eaten. Nice when the zombie apocalypse goes both ways.)

Jenner, in his version of a mercy-kill, insists on blood-work; the price of admission into the soon-to-implode CDC is him being sure that there are “no surprises”. That is, being sure that they are all infected, rather than the other way around. (Which is a secret the show sat on for another entire season, which makes me perversely happy.) And of course, there is no hope and no safety for the survivors in the preserved civilization of the CDC, even if its hot showers and wine promise so much of what the suvivors’ future could hold. No safety from each other, and not from their fortress. Jenner, the contrasting Rick-analogue who watched his wife turn and put a bullet to her, chooses the humanity of a clean, painless, final death – dying human – for the group. Rick achieves survival for the group, at the narrative cost of a cure (all hope gone with the CDC, and presumably any other facilities like it), at the personal cost of his outlook of hope for the future, at the cost of condemning everyone in the group to becoming zombies when they die and/or the horror of doing what Jenner and Andrea had to do – what his son has now had to do twice. (And it’s not coincidental that Andrea was one who decided to stay, until Dale forced her to live.)

And Jenner’s little zombie-science show-and-tell in the CDC sums up the metaphor beautifully: the brain dies. The frontal lobe, everything that makes a person a person, goes dark, is lost. Forever. But animation doesn’t stop; the body continues, the infection that brought death still firing along the old synaptic pathways at the most basic level of bodily function, of survival drive. Why and how it happened doesn’t matter; this is what is. (Contra-theme watch: Daryl doesn’t give a shit, he wants it “in English” – what it actually means in practical terms.)

S2 themes:
Okay, so, this is where it gets a little bit more tricky, because while both 2.0 and 2.5 were much more thematically streamlined, I strongly suspect the whole of S2 is actually one underlying theme, played out in two successive variations. Each block of episodes is serving both the theme and its specific sub-theme, and there’s a little bit of double vision going on. Best I can tell, I think that underlying theme is: preservation (vs survival). There’s no hope for the future, so the survivors turn to trying to preserve the remnants of the past, and seek their safety in that. Which is why the season as a whole was settled on a farm (agricultural society, before devolution into scavanging/hunter-gatherer society), around a barn (storehouse of the past harvest), before that symbolic structure also goes down in violence and flames.

2.0 themes and thoughts:
This theme was basically screaming off the page: sanctity (vs survival). The desperate hope that some things are just sacred, and can, will, should be preserved even in this horrific new world.

The two big, obvious ones there are the parallel delusions – one for each group – of sanctity of childhood with the search for Sophia (and Carl getting shot), and the sanctity of family, homestead, community, duty-of-care, with the barn’o’walkers. And okay, I do get why a lot of viewers found this too drawn out and frustrating, especially with the pacing bumps of the creative overturn, but it makes perfect emotional sense. And I think it was supposed to be frustrating. We’re watching two groups of people clinging to obviously decaying hopes that are, at their core, the hope that there is safety in something, that they can be safe. Which is a very human thing to do, especially in the face of the scale of loss they’ve endured.

That frustration is also why the mass execution at the barn, culminating in Sophia (of course she had been there the whole time), was so cathartic – it was the joint recognition and destruction of their illusions of sanctity – of safety from the horror.

Sanctity was also wrestled with things like Hershel’s faith, Lori’s pregnancy (in that case whether preserving sanctity means abortion, a potential ideological snarl in itself), her and Rick’s marriage, Rick concentrating on doing anything (including herding walkers into the barn) to preserve a “safe” place for his family, Andrea and Dale’s arguments over suicide, Shane sacrificing Otis (punishing him for violating sanctity), and the Cherokee Rose myth (where, note the exact wording, the growing of the rose didn’t keep the indigenous people from virtual annihilation, it was simply a sign of the gods recognising the tragedy of it; sorry, Carol, and, Daryl, there are several contra-theme reasons why none were growing for Merle). And ... keeping your own water supply unpolluted, I guess?

Which is really what should tip us off that we’re intended to see these attempts to preserve sanctity as understandable, but based on delusion and the emotional need of the survivors rather than reality, and often really, really stupid. I AM LOOKING AT YOU, LORI. AND EVERYONE AROUND THE WELL. GLENN. THIS IS NOT A VIDEO GAME. YOU WALKER-BAIT IDIOT. And while not all of these instances are pitted directly against survival, those which are lose out. The other instances have later repercussions.

And for those playing along with the contra-theme watch: Daryl’s childhood puts him waaayy ahead of the game in terms of illusions of sanctity generally – he learned a long time ago to survive a world where there is none. But there is one sanctity he’s nursing, deep down – it is, possibly, his one and only illusion – that of his own mother. In the course of S2, his progress in humanity reclamation involves rejecting Merle’s framing of his worth and identity, and very gradual acceptance of connection (family-type ties) within the group (2.0: Carol voicing his worth; 2.5: increasing loyalty to Rick’s leadership and the group’s needs).

2.5 themes and thoughts:
Fresh off having to execute Sophia’s walking corpse in front of her wailing mother, and his leadership repeatedly putting the group in danger for the illusion of sanctity and safety, Rick takes refuge in the next preservation sub-theme: individual rights (vs survival).

He only got into all of this to keep his family safe, but de facto command of this little group somehow came with that, and the weight of it really hit hard at the end of 2.0. So Rick quickly turns to principles of rights and democracy and jury vote and equal voices as a way of avoiding the brutal inhumanity required of ultimate authority, as well as the hope that other people’s input will allow him to focus on his family’s safety and let the group take responsibility for themselves. With Rick’s abdication of leadership, pretty much everything that happens comes from everyone going off on their own tangents, following their own priorities. (Wonder why, all of a sudden, after half a season of searching for one lost child, nobody could keep an eye on the other damn kid? THIS IS WHY. I’m not big on autocratic measures myself, but people, in the zombie apocalypse, leashes are your friend. I’m just saying. Right Michonne? Yeah girl. Michonne knows what's up.)

Straight off, Rick shows he’s all over the lack of safety by not hesitating to put down human threats (who had zipped right ahead on abandoning the whole “other people’s rights” thing), while collecting Hershel (and, more pertinently, Hershel’s veterinary skills) from Hershel’s abdication of his own place of leadership among his people and fierce exercise of his right to get hammered.

Then followed a half-season of everyone doing what they damn well please, from attempted suicide (and right to suicide being used to show her that’s not what she really wanted), adrenalised car secks, Carl learning to shoot because sanctity is gone, but indulging childhood curiosity by chucking rocks at swamp zombies, gender-coded rejection of stay-in-the-kitchen power plays in favour of proving-myself guard duty, half-cocked running after husbands and getting into car accidents, et cetera. Including my personal favourite, Daryl getting in Lori’s grill for assuming he’d just trot off at her say-so to fetch three men who were perfectly capable of looking after themselves if they felt like it. (Although, contra-theme watch: this was a return to form for his indepenent-survivor mode, not an embracing of the individual rights concept. Before 2.5 is over – long before anyone else – he’s acting off the good and survival of the collective group. He acknowledges his membership in it, however reluctantly, attending the group meeting, even while rolling his eyes at the “everybody votes” crap, backing Rick up even before Rick is at the point of accepting the realities of leadership.)

And if they weren’t doing that, they were agonising over the rights of some kid (stored in the barn, as singularly representative of the issue of rights) who may or may not pose a threat – someone who shows himself blatantly ready to surrender his individual principles and rights to follow the leadership of anyone going, if it means he lives. The arguments about humanity vs survival come to a head, and we lose Dale (Rick-analogue with all the breaks on, doomed by his insistence on humanity over realities of survival, via zombie, via Carl indulging his own humanity, asking to die human by leaning into the mercy-kill) and Shane (Rick-analogue with all the breaks off, doomed by driving his best friend inescapably to the pointy end of the survival question, then proving to Rick beyond doubt that everyone’s infected by turning, and getting dropped as Carl’s first zombie, Carl embracing the reality of “no more kid stuff” by shooting a man he loved, admired, and who taught him to shoot, in the face). Meanwhile, Rick is still angsting against the responsibility for killing his best friend, and unable to dispatch Dale.

It’s not until the farm is overrun, and the entire group scatters every which-way in a complete panicked debacle of their own goals (and arguments in every car), and the two “leaders” are left waiting uselessly with their abdicated authority at a theoretical-at-best rendezvous point, that Rick is forced to face the lethal futility of individual rights in the zombie apocalypse. Leading the remnants of a group trimmed of all redshirts to a sheltered spot to gather around a campfire, he talks over the top of dissenting opinions and desires to split off and declares a unilateral Ricktatorship (I don’t know where that term came from – I heard it on the podcast – but it is a joy).

Meanwhile, on the contra-theme watch: Dale is mercy-killed by Daryl, for whom it is both an act of humanity (sparing both Dale and Rick their fears of losing their own) and a step toward it (supporting Rick’s leadership, calling Dale “brother”, indicating that the group as a whole has become classified as family and come under his protection). During the rout of the farmstead, once he couldn’t do anything more to help, Daryl sits on his argument-free-zone motorbike and detachedly watches the barn burn, until he hears Carol’s cry. Kicking into gear, he picks her up and then, off-screen, proceeds to round up all the remaining survivors and delivers them in convoy to their leaders. BECAUSE DARYL IS AWESOME, ALWAYS FOREVER, THE END.

... Aaand I think that’s enough blithering about themes for now. Coming later (probably): hey, look, TWD character and S3 musing (aka why Lori was both annoying and well-written, and why wild cards are handy).


( 4 speakses — have a speak )
Nov. 11th, 2012 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh man, it's funny that you've started watching this show because I've spent the past two weeks utterly obsessed with it (and by 'it' I mean the BAMF Daryl Dixon (and Norman Reedus, who I blame for making me watch and thoroughly enjoy Boondocks I and II)). I mean, I've been watching The Walking Dead since it premiered and have read the first eighty comic issues, but it was only when season three rolled around that it grabbed me by the throat and gave me a proper shake.

Only, after reading this post I kind of feel like a lazy, shallow fangirl, because I can only nod and go "yes, yes, yes" to everything you say, and know that I will never be able to summon up enough energy for such an in depth analysis myself (beyond "Oh, that's my favorite character and I ship him/her with him/her for, y'know, reasons"). But a big YES to everything you've brought up here.
Nov. 12th, 2012 01:00 am (UTC)
Ahahahaha, EEEARS!!!! I love it. And if that's wrong, I don't want to be right.

Oh man, it's funny that you've started watching this show because I've spent the past two weeks utterly obsessed with it

I just saw your post! :D

it was only when season three rolled around that it grabbed me by the throat and gave me a proper shake.

I'm convinced I came along at the exact right moment for maximum enjoyment. Compressing the watching time to roughly the equivalent of the time passing on the show helped immeasureably, I'm sure.

(and Norman Reedus, who I blame for making me watch and thoroughly enjoy Boondocks I and II)

He's beguiling that way. Although the Sean Patrick Flannery factor was not insignificant.

Only, after reading this post I kind of feel like a lazy, shallow fangirl

Seriously, this is just what my brain does when it detects structure, plus like I said, the compressed watch-time helped make everything much more obvious, I think. If I could find the off-switch....
Nov. 12th, 2012 05:24 am (UTC)
I'm convinced I came along at the exact right moment for maximum enjoyment. Compressing the watching time to roughly the equivalent of the time passing on the show helped immeasureably, I'm sure.

Oh, definitely! Following the show live made season two seem to drag on forever. I looked it up the other day and was a bit surprised when I realized that it only took seven episodes for them to find Sophia. It felt like ages (or, well, seven whole weeks). Daryl stomping through the woods was pretty much the only thing that kept me tuning in regularly (2x05 helped massively).

He's beguiling that way. Although the Sean Patrick Flannery factor was not insignificant.

I love their bromance. I spent all weekend on YouTube watching Boondock Saints panels. Though I have to admit that sometimes SPF is such a huge ham that it seriously scares the massive introvert in me.
Nov. 12th, 2012 08:59 am (UTC)
I love their bromance. I spent all weekend on YouTube watching Boondock Saints panels. Though I have to admit that sometimes SPF is such a huge ham that it seriously scares the massive introvert in me.

It's adorable! My favourite is the way they do things for each other, like I saw one where Reedus shared his Starbucks with Flanery. But yeah, SPF can come on a ... bit strong. I only watched a few panels, but it's clear he doesn't mind being intimidating as he feels like.
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