The Walking Dead: “What Lies Ahead”

Herd Instinct

The Walking Dead

AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM

“What Lies Ahead”

Written by Robert Kirkman

Directed by Ernest Dickerson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton

“There’s flesh caught in his teeth.” – Sheriff Rick Grimes

The Walking Dead begins its second season where it left off. The zombies exhibit whatever behavior the plot requires, regardless of what they did in the last story. The hero remains torn between his responsibilities as a leader and his own need for a leader. The other male characters act like comic book characters (Oops. They are comic book characters) and the women are worse: clueless airheads made of epic fail. The children fulfill their traditional role in schlock horror as annoying distractions or excuses for a search party; in any event they’re too stupid to live. Literally. Our one redeeming character, the only one I’ll come back for next week, is a backwoods redneck whose survival skills make him the true leader of this pack of idiots. But millions of viewers are (you should pardon the expression) eating this show up, so the following remarks are doubtless out of the mainstream.

“The CDC was a washout. We’re moving on.” – Rick Grimes

We open with a monologue, delivered by sheriff Rick Grimes into a walkie-talkie. Rick dismisses all of Season One, and its cliffhanger, by saying that whatever the doctor at the CDC whispered to him – the entire hook for that cliffhanger – didn’t matter. No doubt the writers fell about the room laughing when they poked holes in the audience’s expectations. But as a member of that audience, who faithfully returned after several months in order to cash in on those raised expectations, I was not amused. The remainder of the story proceeds over 90 minutes, at a snail’s – no, make that zombie’s – pace. The survivors leave Atlanta in a caravan, and soon find the freeway blocked by a massive auto wreck. Golly, who saw that coming? While they stand around grousing, Daryl the Redneck points out that they are in a forager’s paradise: food, water, gasoline, and other needed items will be in the cars. The crew fans out like teenagers at a mall, looking for stuff that will help them survive. But wait! Where’s our moment of moral crisis? Oh, here she is:

“This is a graveyard! I don’t know how I feel about this.” – Lori

Right there is what’s wrong with this show. A woman has been fighting off flesh-eating freaks for weeks, is hanging on like the rest of the group by her fingernails to life itself, the entire gang is running low on water, but her delicate sensibilities are offended by the idea of using supplies the dead will not need? Seriously? This is one of the most insulting portrayals of a woman, wife and mother I’ve seen on television in a long time. Lori was annoying last season, but this season she surpasses all patience. When she isn’t criticizing the others for scavenging, she’s chewing out her ex-lover for … something. I never could figure out exactly why she was so angry at Shane. If she really thought he attempted to rape her in Atlanta, why does she care how he feels about her? He tells her he’s planning to leave – why isn’t she jumping for joy? Instead, she chews him out for running out on her son. The guy she thinks tried to rape her should stay behind and build a good relationship with her son? This woman is stupid even by comic book standards, which aren’t high.

“Kids, don’t look.” – Carol

As they’re passing among cars holding corpses, Carol the abused wife cautions the children not to look in the cars. Which they mean to search for food and water and other supplies. I know Carol is not supposed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but this is irrational even for her. Nothing irritates me more than TV parents who try to shield their offspring from reality. Why not just kill them now and get it over with, before you send them out unprepared to meet the world? Carol’s not the only one with “seeing” problems; when Dale is assigned lookout duty, he somehow fails to see a herd of walkers until they’re within a few feet, despite the fact he’s standing on top of his RV with binoculars. This time last year, in the pilot, Rick tried to hide from zombies by hiding under a tank. They found him and tried to eat him. So naturally, when he sees a herd of zombies approaching, he makes everyone hide under cars. ‘Cause that worked so well last time, boss. Sure enough, one walker sniffs out young Sophia and chases her into the woods. Guess maybe she should have been looking. Or maybe her dimwit mother should have given her a few survival lessons, like “don’t scream when you’re running from zombies”.

“You want a lesson in tracking, or do you want to find that girl?” – Daryl

And now Daryl the backwoodsman shows why God invented rednecks. Rick manages to draw the pursuers away from Sophia and kill them; good for him. Unfortunately, the girl does not return to the group, forcing Rick, Daryl and others to search for her when they could be loading the vehicles and getting the hell out of Dodge. Only Daryl has the hunting and tracking skills to follow a lost twelve-year-old through dense woods. He’s the only one with a weapon that can kill silently from a distance, without alerting the other zombies to his presence. He’s the only one willing to enter a tent where a dead body rots. He’s already saved T-dog’s life twice with his quick thinking. He is not too squeamish to cut open a dead walker to make sure it didn’t eat Sophia. So at the close of the second day’s search, Rick sends him back to the highway as an escort to the other searchers, so Rick and Shane and Carl can continue searching the zombie-infested woods for Sophia. An intelligent man would have sent Shane back as the escort, and kept the one man who could track the girl in the search party. At this point, I can understand why many in the audience are rooting for the zombies.

“I could use a little something to keep me going.” – Rick

At one point in the endless search for Sophia, the team winds up in that cliché to end all zombie-movie clichés, a church with zombies in it. The same people who told the kids “not to look” have no trouble letting Carl watch his father and the other adults butcher the walkers. Carol calls a time out from her search for her daughter to address the crucifix (in a Southern Baptist church?) and beg God not to punish her by killing her daughter. What kind of God does this woman worship? Her little monologue tells us that she is an abused, cringing victim of spousal abuse – like we hadn’t figured that out last year – who conceives of authority only in terms of power and oppression. A little later, Rick takes his own time out to ask for a little faith. For one moment, it looked like he was asking for moral strength to lead his group, for faith and hope in the future – a little more sophisticated mindset than begging for favors. But then he turns around and snarls at Jesus to “send him a sign”, and we’re back in the 18th century again, religiously speaking.

“You took my choice away.” – Andrea

I had hopes for Laurie Holden’s character, Andrea. She’s depressed, yes, but she has retained enough spirit and enough fight to want to decide her own destiny. Last episode, that took the form of almost choosing suicide, a move foiled by Dale. Now, having fought off a zombie literally with bare hands, Andrea finds that Dale has “confiscated” her gun, on the grounds that she doesn’t need it (but really because he’s afraid she will use it on herself). I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so outraged at a TV character’s arrogance. First Dale endangers the entire group by failing to spot the zombie herd until they are within spitting distance. Then he lies to the entire group about the state of repairs, because he thinks they should stay and search for Sophia. Then he takes Andrea’s property because he thinks she is incapable of making her own decisions. In fact, it’s pretty clear Dale does not think anyone can make decisions except him, and he makes sure of that by lying to them. He’s manipulative, arrogant and pig headed, and in my opinion he is by far the most dangerous member of this team. He does not swagger like Shane or sneer like Daryl , but quietly undermines everyone’s freedom of choice but his own. That’s the attitude of a tyrant, and the sooner he’s zombie fodder the happier I’ll be.

“When did you start growing up?” — Lori

There were some good moments, usually visual. The lack of dialogue in a show about zombies makes perfect sense, and the focus on woods and wildlife was a good, subtle metaphor for the social wilderness these survivors find themselves in. I especially liked the sound of cicadas in the highway-wreck scenes; it spoke to me of summer in the South and the still, hot, oppressive atmosphere, perfect for shuffling walkers. The contrast with the vivid green, living forest and the dead corpses shambling through them was almost poignant. Nor were we allowed to fall into a sentimental wallow: in the most shocking moment of the show, young Carl sees a deer in the forest and approaches it in wide-eyed innocence. But since this is a horror show, he gets shot. I did not see that coming, which is a welcome surprise. So the show has some hope, especially if it continues to rely on the visual rather than the dialogue – a trope that should be familiar to comic book artists.

“We’d never go without you and your mom.” — Rick

I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong here. The zombies are just too fascinating for the writers. Why focus on boring real humans with complicated personalities, when you can show extras in dirty clothes and rotting-face makeup? The almost childish glee with which the zombies are presented onscreen (when did they learn to smile?) betrays the writers’ inability to craft believable characters: no one cares about the living. To make Rick, Shane, and the rest of the humans as interesting as the zombies would require understanding, and then writing about, real human characters. It would require understanding how people behave and talk. Worse, it would require understanding women, and it is very clear these writers do not. (It’s significant that so far there is not a single woman writer on this show.) The writers’ attention is on the exotic, scary zombies and not the characters the audience is supposed to be rooting for. The entire staff seems to be made up of people who know how to write comic books, but not television. But then, they are mostly untried. Executive producer Frank Darabont, the only member of the team with serious writing chops, fired the rest of the writing staff after last season. Then Darabont was fired. Now the show goes forward with two writers who have no credits at all in live television drama, and one whose claim to fame is mostly cop shows. Oy.

“What, you think I had some kind of epiphany?” — Andrea

The Walking Dead’s season two opener scored a record audience for basic cable; 7.3 million people tuned in to see it. This is the highest rated drama telecast in basic cable history. The 18-49 audience numbered 4.8 million; their elders aged 25-54 numbered 4.2 million (there’s some crossover in those numbers). But just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good. The same network that brings us award winning, crowd pleasing shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad has so far delivered a lot of gore but not much more. Zombies are monotonous. So was this episode.

Note: Sunday nights, AMC will be running a talk show after the first showing of The Walking Dead, devoted to the series. It’s called Talking Dead, and is hosted by Chris Hardwick (Nerdist; G4). It’s apparently an attempt to emulate chat rooms and other online forums, with celebrity guests, interviews with the creators, and behind-the-scenes clips. What it really felt like was those lame Saturday night local-cable shows where the hosts dress in costumes and introduce bad movies. Maybe you’re into that, but I figure Elvira retired that trophy long ago. In this case, all it gave me was a look at creator Robert Kirkman, who wrote this episode, and it was not encouraging; he could not even plausibly explain why the zombies who could smell living people last year can’t smell them this year.