“You were wrong. I’m still here.”
Hello again, faithful readers (all several of you)! As usual this time of year, my reviews have been delayed by a sojourn to sunny Los Angeles, and the Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention. Consequently, I’ve missed covering two eps of The Walking Dead since it returned from its mid-season break, so I figured I’d do them both in one bumper post – with this week’s to follow tomorrow – jetlag permitting!
Thankfully, the show hasn’t repeated its bizarre contrivance after the destruction of Hershel’s farm, whereby all our heroes inexplicably ended up at the same place despite not having prearranged such a thing. No, after the orgy of destruction visited on the prison by the Governor’s forces in ep8, the show’s return finds them scattered about the surrounding countryside, with no guarantee (initially) of who has and hasn’t survived.
These first two eps, then, catch us up on where various of the scattered parties have got to, as they reflect on the failure of the prison community. Despite not stinting on the Walker attacks (and the obligatory head-slicing/squishing/shooting), these were very much character pieces, using the situations to delve into where our heroes’ heads are at.
I like it when the show does this, as I actually think they’re well-drawn characters in a bleak, desperate situation trying to make the best of it. I think there’s a lot of dramatic mileage in that. However, viewers hungry for more of the tension and all-out action that characterised the climax to the mid-season break will probably have found the slow movement of these eps a mite frustrating. And if you’re one of those who just doesn’t like or care for the characters at all (and I know there are plenty), these eps may have just bored you…
They didn’t bore me though. In fact, in Michonne’s case, I thought ep 9 did a great deal to flesh out her character. The TV version of Michonne has been criticised for being “too comic book” compared to the more realistic takes on the characters of Rick et al, but Danai Gurira has always done well at hinting that there’s more to her than we see. Here, as she wandered alone through the countryside after leaving the ruins of the prison, we got to see more of those depths revealed, partly in flashback, and partly by her current behaviour. And who was the scriptwriter responsible for giving her more depth than she shows in the comic? That would be Robert Kirkman. The writer of the comic.
With Michonne’s chunks of the ep involving her in no interaction with anyone but Walkers, and almost no actual dialogue, this was a pretty impressive performance from Gurira conveying a great deal without the benefit of words. What lines there were occurred in a slightly startling flashback/dream sequence – startling because, while the show has done flashbacks before, they’ve never gone as far back as to show the world BEFORE all of this.
So, we saw Michonne having dinner with her brother and her husband – but as the dream progressed, the sunlight faded and they lost their arms and jaws. Yes, just as in the comic, they were the ones who eventually became her armless, jawless zombie ‘minders’, something hinted at but never explicitly disclosed before. We also learned that she had an infant son, paying off her trauma when looking after baby Judith before the mid-season break. No word yet on what happened to him, but given her state of mind, it can’t have been anything good.
So, manufacturing a new pair of ‘minders’ Michonne found herself wandering the forest with a herd of aimless Walkers. The direction paid clever attention to one that looked remarkably like her – whose appearance eventually led to her realisation that, if she continued on this path, she might as well be a Walker herself. Cue much katana-based head-slicing and her picking up the trail of fellow survivors.
The fellow survivors in question were in fact Rick and Carl – the ep neatly switched between Michonne and them, with the rest of the cast nowhere in sight (except for a dead David Morrissey and a disconcertingly convincing severed head of Scott Wilson). With Rick at death’s door after the Long Big Punchup with the Governor, he spent most of the ep comatose on a sofa, which meant that this strand of the ep was carried almost entirely by Chandler Riggs as Carl.
And as with Danai Gurira, Riggs pulled off an excellent performance with almost no human interaction. He did interact with a fair few Walkers though, and pulled off the neat trick of being a surly, infuriating teenager but still being a sympathetic lost child in a horrific new world. You alternated between wanting to slap him and wanting to hug him.
Particularly affecting was the sequence when, exploring the suburban house he and Rick had chosen as a refuge, Carl found himself confronted with the mundane reality of the World Before – a child’s bedroom, complete with comfy bed, big TV screen and X Box. There was a heartbreaking moment when he gazed longingly at the blank TV, before accepting that it would never work again and using the connecting cables for the more practical purpose of tying the house door shut against curious Walkers.
Carl’s character journey, undertaken while his father lay insensate at the house, led him to realise that, Shane-like pragmatism aside, he’s not ready to survive on his own in this brave new world, either physically or emotionally. The ‘physical’ part was made abundantly clear when he tried to take on three Walkers alone, with a dwindling supply of bullets, and found himself nearly pinned under the weight of the corpses.
The ‘emotional’ part? After expressing ‘king of the castle’-like glee at being sole inhabitant of abandoned suburbia, boredom, loneliness and despair set in. When he returned to find his father apparently reviving as a wheezing, shambling Walker, he’d reached the point where he just sobbed, “do it!” It was an amazing performance – though unlike Carl, I didn’t believe even this show would off its leading man at this stage in the proceedings.
It was a sedate ep, despite a lot of Walker presence; but the next one made up for it somewhat, as we caught up with some of the other survivors. Told in a non-linear way by giving us near-simultaneous narratives for each party in each act of the ep, Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell’s script cleverly set cause and effect in reverse in a sort of Robert Altman/Quentin Tarantino style – for example, Act 2 showed us how the Walker that attacked Daryl and Beth in Act 1 came to be there.
Daryl and Beth? Yes, the scattering of the survivors has led to some interesting combinations of characters that probably wouldn’t have occurred back at the prison. Act 1 saw us reunited with Daryl while Beth’s diary entries from the early days at the prison narrated with a cruelly ironic counterpoint about hope Daryl no longer had.
Act 2 was the turn of Tyreese, accompanied by Lizzie, Myka, and (in a not unexpected reveal) baby Judith. “I wish Carol was here,” wailed Myka at one point – and lo and behold, she turned up from her previous exile after killing Tyreese’s girlfriend. It’s great to have her back, but the wary look on her face when explaining to the still-unaware Tyreese suggest there’s trouble ahead.
Though not half as much trouble as is suggested by the increasingly bonkers Lizzie, who now seems definitively responsible for those dismembered animals that turned up round the prison. Thank heaven Carol turned up when she did, as Lizzie’s attempt to keep baby Judith quiet (holding a hand over her mouth) was looking distinctly dodgy. Creepy little girl alert!
Act 3 gave us the combination of Maggie, Sasha and Bob (who thankfully had no access to booze). Dragged along by Maggie in her unswerving quest to find Glenn, they spent the bulk of their part of the ep in a tense set piece as they encountered the prison bus, now full of Walkers, and had to let them out to determine whether Glenn was among them.
Plenty of gore and some tense moments ensued – but none of the tension related to whether Glenn was actually dead, at least not for me. Because unusually, the ‘throw-forward’ at the end of the previous ep had shown him very much alive. Normally these snippets of ‘next on…’ don’t give away vital plot points, but this time it had, which kinda ruined the suspense of the otherwise excellent bus sequence. Bad AMC.
So it was no major surprise that the next act caught us up with Glenn – though it was slightly surprising to find him still in the thick of things at the overrun prison. Alone as he was (at least initially), Steven Yeun had no one to play off, instead getting a somewhat overextended wander round their former domicile to gaze mournfully at the smoke-filled cell block they’d called home. Still, things livened up in the next act, as he discovered the regretful Tara was also still there, silently waiting to die behind a fence.
Putting one of the ‘heroes’ together with one of the ‘villains’ was an interesting touch (though the show’s usual ‘shades of grey’ morality meant neither was unsympathetic). Tara also revealed that, having shot the Governor, Lilly was killed by Walkers. That kind of offscreen death, especially for a character so important, smacked of “we couldn’t get the actor back even though we wanted to”; a little unsatisfying.
At least Glenn and Tara’s vignette ended with the surprise arrival of some new characters – though if you’re a comics reader, they won’t have been new to you. Visually truer to their originals than the Governor (even down to the army truck they were driving), it was time to welcome another comic favourite, Sgt Abraham Ford, and his compatriots Eugene and Rosita. Michael Cudlitz made an immediate impact as Abraham with only one line; he’s excellent casting.
Gore of the week(s)
Plenty of the usual Walker-based head trauma, but I have to say that by now it’s so familiar, little of it really stands out. Tara got the usual ‘pound a Walker head to mush’ task, employing a rifle butt rather than the more common boot:
And there was a nicely gruesome touch when one of the headshot Walkers tumbling onto Carl spewed masses of maggots from the bullet hole; though it did make one wonder how it functioned if its brain was already eaten:
Top marks though, have to go to that unnervingly accurate undead Hershel head. Not only nasty, but given Hershel’s ‘beloved character’ status, it had a real emotional heft to it as well. As an obvious consequence of his beheading, I was glad to see Kirkman didn’t leave that particular bit of business hanging.
Despite a plethora of Walkers and a few tense sequences, these eps were basically character pieces, and slow moving plotwise. How much you enjoyed them probably depended on how much you have invested in these people – I know some have criticised the characters as two-dimensional and unlikeable. The first criticism I’d outright reject – these seem like well-drawn, developing characters to me. Likeability, though? That’s in the eye of the beholder. And I can’t deny that pretty much all of them have done stupid/cruel/outright dickish things in the course of the show. But then, doesn’t everyone in real life?
Still, we did get some tidbits of where the plot might be going. What is this mysterious ‘sanctuary’ Tyreese and Carol’s party are walking down the rail track toward? What is Abraham’s ‘mission’? And how long before Lizzie just goes the whole hog and becomes a serial killer? There are plenty of plotlines being seeded, along with portents of much character conflict. It’s just that right now, all they’re doing is setting them up, and that can be laborious. But after a season and a half establishing the prison-based ‘format’ of the show, this is a great opportunity for The Walking Dead to reinvent itself (again) and stay fresh.