The Walking Dead
AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM
Written by Adam Fierro and Frank Darabont
Directed by Guy Feriand
“There is no hope, there never was…This is what takes us down. This is our extinction event.” — Jenner
In the year 73 of the common era, a group of Jewish resistance fighters under siege from the Roman army in the fortress of Masada committed suicide rather than be overwhelmed by the enemy. Had they been taken alive, their deaths would have been prolonged and cruel—probably by crucifixion, a favorite Roman pastime. They chose to die a quick death rather than a painful one. This is the situation faced by the surviving humans of The Walking Dead in the first season finale, which finds them holed up in the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The desperate band is surrounded by cannibalistic “walkers”, running out of fuel, power, and hope. Do they choose life, and take the chance on dying grotesquely and painfully? Or choose a painless death that will destroy the body, avoiding that betrayal of the flesh represented by zombies?
“That’s all we want: a choice. A chance.” — Rick
At the end of the previous episode, we were introduced to Ed Jenner (Noah Emmerich, White Collar), the last surviving technician assigned to the CDC. When an accident destroys all his research, he realizes that the last hope for discovering the cause of the zombie disease is gone. He reluctantly lets Rick Grimes’ group into the CDC, but does not tell them that the clock is running out on the center’s fuel supply, which powers the generators. He does not tell them that this power failure will be interpreted by the CDC’s controlling computer as either a breach or an attack, whereupon it will destroy itself and the entire building. While the refugees enjoy hot showers and Bordelaise, Jenner broods like the proverbial specter at the feast. When the refugees finally figure out that they have less than an hour until the CDC immolates itself, they react as we would expect: Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott,Brothers and Sisters) and Andrea, the emotional barometers of the group, choose despair; Rick the thinker tries reason, and Shane and Daryl the Feral choose violence. In the end, Rick prevails and Jenner reluctantly opens the doors, and the refugees (except for Jacqui) escape as the CDC goes up in flames.
“An end to sorrow, grief, and regret.” — Jenner
It’s a grand and noisy ending, signifying … nothing. Not a thing. Nothing has changed for this group, except that they have lost yet another member. We have only one minor development in the group dynamics, but otherwise nothing has changed. This is very lazy writing. The heart and soul of survival stories, whether we’re talking about The Road or Battlestar Galactica, is that the hero or group encounters new situations/dangers, learns something new about himself/themselves, and emerge a little wiser. The one thing that has to happen is that the challenge encountered by the hero/heroes is significant, that it forces some change in the dynamic of the whole. All I saw in this episode was a time-wasting pit stop for showers and booze, with a nice little animated tour of the cerebellum and some poetry thrown in. For all the good it did, for all the energy they expended to reach the Centers for Disease Control, the group learned nothing, achieved nothing, came away with nothing. They’d have done better to fort up in a Wal-Mart.
“Somewhere in all that organic wring, those ripples of light, is you. The thing that makes you unique and human.” – Jenner
Jenner (named, I wonder, after Edward Jenner, developer of the smallpox vaccine?) finally provides us with a few paltry answers to the question that has underlain the entire series: what is turning humans into walkers? Or at least, that’s the promise held out to us. What we get is a nice little animated sequence showing us that the zombie microbe, whatever it is, invades the brain, kills the host, and then reboots only part of the brain, the non-thinking part, the autonomic nervous functions. All this plays out with some nice poetry from Jenner, but in the end it has not told us anything we did not already know. Jenner tells them that there has been no communication with the rest of the world in over a month. The lack of helicopters, radio signals, or any other sign of modern communications would have told this to Rick and his group already. What holds that scenario together at all is Noah Emmerich’s subtle and powerful evocation of a man who has gone through despair to a kind of fatalistic calm, whose pride makes him dress up and shave and wear his badge of office as he faces death, whose commitment to his dead wife goes beyond self-interest and ennobles his sacrifice. He tells Andrea that he stayed behind to work, to see if he could help—this makes him, at least in Glenn’s eyes, a hero. But Rick sees further when he realizes later that Jenner is not conducting research so much as keeping a vigil, remaining with the last vestiges of his wife’s memory and work, working not for success but as a memorial to her. He never really hoped to succeed, because his primary purpose was remembrance. All of this comes clear in Emmerich’s richly layered performance, all the more admirable for being so brief.
“I didn’t lie to you, I didn’t! I took my ear and I put it on his chest and I listened for a heartbeat. And I did not hear one!” – Shane
The other great performance in this episode—if not this series—is Jon Bernthal’s Shane. Blunt, honest, louring, and brooding, he has been a man on a slow burn ever since we first met him. He’s a man of many conflicts, a man fighting an impulse to violence with a commitment to do what’s right. In the spectrum of human behavior represented in this group of refugees, he stands midway between the white knight Rick and the blood warrior, Daryl, between reason and impulse, hope and fear. The best scene in this episode, for me, was the opening, which finally showed us his final actions in Rick’s hospital room during the zombie attack. As I suspected, Shane did all he could to save his friend—in the space of a few minutes we see him trying to lift the heavier man, fumbling in confusion with the instruments keeping Rick alive, staying behind when everyone else runs. He only stops trying to save his partner when he is unable to hear a heartbeat and is convinced that Rick is dead. Even then, he does what he can to save Rick’s body from violation by the zombie horde, shoving a gurney against a door (and thereby unwittingly saving Rick’s life). We already know that not only did he save Lori and Carl, he pursued Lori in honor, believing as they both did that she was a widow. With Rick’s return, he finds himself torn between happiness at having his best friend and partner back, and jealousy over losing the woman he loves, the family he was happy with. He’s not a man constitutionally suited to moral or emotional conflict; watching him wrestle with overwhelming contradictions, I feel more pity for Shane than I do even for Andrea, who may have lost her sister but is not tormented by seeing her every day, happy with someone else.
With that background, it is not surprising that matters come to a head for Shane. Bernthal shows us a man coming to boiling point, step by step. Every scene where Rick and Lori are shown together and happy is followed by a scene of Shane agonizing, eating his heart out over Lori. His passion and pain erupt in a scene with Lori which ends in a near-sexual assault, one which shows how deeply Shane has miscalculated. The woman who happily engaged in a playful sexual ambush in the woods a couple of weeks ago is now fighting him off with both hands. Confused, angry, bleeding inside, Shane’s rage erupts when Jenner locks them in. Yet even then, he cannot bring himself to carry out his threat to blow Jenner’s head off, but fires his shotgun at inanimate objects. He is not yet Daryl, who tries to take Jenner’s head off with an axe; there is still hope for Shane. Through it all Bernthal gives us a rich portrait of a man in hell, a man who truly has no hope, but whose code of honor does not permit him to abandon those to whom he has made a commitment. My congratulations to Bernthal on a fine, fine performance.
“We don’t have to be afraid anymore; we’re safe here.” — Rick
So much for the anguished sidekick. What about more heroic characters? So far the bravest figure in this short season has been not Rick but Jim, who chooses a painful, lonely death at the side of the road rather than endanger his companions. The most compassionate character is Dale; the weakest by far is Lori Grimes, who is morally bankrupt. Having taken Shane as a lover, she then spurns him and tries to put off on him all the guilt and shame she feels, refusing to take any responsibility for her actions. She is surely one of the most despicable women presented to us as a “heroine” to date. Daryl is the most honest character, always acting in accord with the same few blunt rules, with no room for nuance in a world where the dead are more to be feared than the living. Norman Reedus’ bravura performance keeps Daryl from being the low-life caricature he could become, and makes him an effective contrast to the rest of the crew. Rick, the nominal hero of the piece, is almost passive; his buoyant optimism comes across as naiveté more often than not. Andrew Lincoln’s wonderful and underplayed performance does not rescue Rick from fast becoming a beige hero, conventional and predictable and boring. And possibly stupid.
“I see a chance for a new start.” — Dale
So what, exactly, was achieved by all this emotional drama and giant explosions? As I said: nothing. I will give Darabont this much credit: having ripped off the discovery-of-a-bunker scene from Lost, right down to a countdown clock, he does not then let the heroes have the run of the place for the next five years, turning the show into a soap opera about who sleeps with whom. He appropriately limits their resources, reinforces the threat outside, and provides a creepy custodian (Jenner) with an ambiguous agenda, whose closest companion is a computer voice, who talks to his dead wife’s portrait. There’s a rich vein of story to be mined there, even apart from the promise of finding a cause or even a cure for the zombie plague. We could have mined this location for a couple of episodes; in this seemingly secure environment, it would have been a perfect opportunity for characters to bond, let down their hair, explore the political tensions (who will lead? Who makes the decisions for the group?) in the band, and figure out a strategy. I fully expected that Rick and Shane would lead an expedition to find fuel to keep the generators going. So I was shocked and deeply disappointed when this entire setup fizzled out. Is it any wonder our last shot of the season is a column of smoke?
As I said: lazy writing. And we have pretty much one person to blame for that: Frank Darabont himself. Darabont not only adapted the idea for this series from comic creator Robert Kirkman, he wrote or co-wrote all six episodes this season. Last week he fired all the staff writers for this series and announced that they would not be replaced: the second season of The Walking Dead will be written by freelancers. This is a pretty arrogant stance, one which virtually ensures that either the entire second season will be an exercise in incoherent mediocrity, or will achieve consistency only because Darabont writes all the episodes himself. We can certainly kiss continuity goodbye if the first scenario prevails, and expect a stultifying sameness if the second does.
“Show me a sign! Anything!” – Shane
Since The Walking Dead has already been renewed for a second season, ratings seem a bit beside the point except to confirm the wild popularity of the show. I’m sure the finale came in at least as high as the 5.5 million viewers the show averaged in its six episodes, if not higher. Critics and fans alike have flocked to the show, and expectations are high for the second season, which will start in October 2011 with 13 episodes. I hope it comes back with less aimless wandering, more focus on the characters, and some kind of strategy about what these hapless humans are doing. Maybe the wholesale firing of the writing staff will change this; maybe Darabont can cobble together a stable structure for this show from freelancers. I hope so. Otherwise, the show will devolve into an exercise in mindless nihilism, and I’ve already had my fill of that.