Thursday, October 9, 2014

Geek TV: The Walking Dead

I wanted to wait a while before posting about The Walking Dead. I wanted to work my way up to it, save it for a special occasion. But the new season starts THIS SUNDAY!!!!, and I JUST. CAN'T. WAIT. SQUEE.

It took me a long time to realize that TWD is my favorite show on television. Like, ever. Ever, ever. For most of my life, if someone asked me what my favorite show was, I'd hem and haw and give several answers. I had a favorite comedy, a favorite drama, a favorite this show a favorite that show, and these would all change year by year as new shows came on and old ones went off the air.

Now, though, I can finally say with confidence: My favorite television show of all time, of all genres is The Walking Dead.

Here's why.

(Spoilery goodness ahead.)

(No, srsly, you've been warned.)

(Last chance.)


Well, duh. As a genre fan, and as a fan of dystopias, the zombiepocalypse nightmare in this show is right up my alley.

The exact time of TWD is never made clear -- maybe it is in the graphic novels? -- but it's obviously either the present or the not-too-distant-future. I love that, it makes the whole thing much more immediate, and terrifying.

Now, a lot of people are so over zombies. I'm not -- and probably never will be, because zombies are awesome and totally not scary -- but that's not why I like the show. In fact, after the first few episodes, the show is only a little bit still about zombies. First, like Rick waking from his coma, we get used to the new world around us, one overrun by zombies created by some sort of fast-spreading virus. As the season goes on and as the show grows into subsequent seasons, the general story becomes less about the zombies/walkers/geeks/biters (name depends on who you ask) and more about the survivors: what they do, how they live, how they go on, what and who else they encounter in this world. It's a show about people, so much so that the zombies become almost background noise. Sure, it's called "The Walking Dead," but it's not about that. Really.

"I don't hear anything. Why do you ask?" - Rick, at his arguable hottest

Moral Ambiguity

When it comes to dystopias, or post-catastrophic worlds, it's very easy to have Good Guys and Bad Guys. Though I love "The Hunger Games" trilogy, there are very clear heroes and villains in Panem. Even the "Mad Max" movies have a "Man vs Society" theme running through them. TWD is much more subtle than that, though.

Not all survivors are good. Not all survivors are bad. Nearly every character on the show grapples, at some point or another, with their conscience. This is because in the fight for survival, the zombies -- or "walkers" -- aren't the only enemy. Some survivors are not all about helping others. Some survivors have resorted to their baser instincts. Some survivors are simply not trustworthy or good-hearted. This is best exemplified in the three questions former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes, de facto leader of our group of survivors, asks other survivors he meets in season 4: "How many walkers have you killed? How many people? Why?"

With those three questions, Rick hits the moral ambiguity nail on the head: of course, most survivors will have been expected to kill some walkers: that's simply a matter of human survival in this world. But he then asks how many people someone has killed...and why. Was it for survival? To protect your own people? Or was it for greed, or selfishness?

And, for that matter, what is "selfish" in a world with such moral ambiguity? In season 2, Shane sacrifices Otis to the walkers so he can escape with the medical supplies Hershel needs to save Carl. Though Shane -- one of the show's shadier "heroes" -- did what he thought was right in order to save Carl, even he has to grapple with the consequences of his actions. In this case, he was injured and they were being persued by an enormous group of walkers. He could have given the supplies to Otis to take back to Hershel's farm, sacrificed himself to the walkers, and gave Otis an escape. But he doesn't. Instead, he shoots Otis, lets the walkers have him, and returns to Hershel's farm as the hero. He never tells Otis's family the truth of what happened, but the torment of it clearly eats at Shane from the inside as we see him glare at himself in the mirror and shave his head -- a possible reference to days past when prisoners were shaved before being executed.

Why did Shane do this? Does it harken back to the days when Rick was still in his coma and Shane became Carl's new "dad?" Is it some sort of misguided way of redeeming himself for his behavior toward Lori at the CDC? Who knows?

"I look totally innocent and good guy now. Everything's coming up Shane!"

As a graphic example of the show's descent further and further into a world of grey areas, the group's moral center, Dale, dies a horrible death at the end of season 2, taking a certain goodness with him. There aren't a lot of clearly right answers on the show, and not a lot of clearly wrong. That makes for quite intelligent entertainment.

Character Development

All the characters still around in season 5, who have been there either from the beginning or almost from the beginning, have undergone enormous transformations in personality. Enormous. Rick has gone from archetypical hero, to scary dictator ("This is not a democracy anymore!"), to battle-weary veteran, to victim, to Superdad. Andrea went from kind of a badass to kind of a pain in the ass. Shane went from quasi-good guy to total bad guy. Daryl's heroism has risen to the surface and made him one of the show's most beloved characters. Even the Governor tried to change for the better, but could not win the battle against his lesser nature.

"This morning I woke up and I said to myself, I said, 'Self, today you are NOT going to be
a homicidal, psychopathic, manipulating fascist.' Ooopsie."

The three characters that have undergone the most significant changes though, in my opinion, are Carol, Glenn, and Hershel (RIP).

Let's start with Hershel Greene.

When god closes a Dale, he opens a Hershel.

When we first meet the unassuming veterinarian farmer, he's understandably protective of his family. He won't allow Rick's group to stay inside his house and only reluctantly allows them to stay on his property while he attends to Carl, who has just been shot. Even with a dying little boy on his hands and two frantic parents, Hershel is wary of Rick, Lori and the others. So far the plague that's affected the rest of the world has mostly left them alone, and he's fine with that. His theory is that there is safety in seclusion, and he's mostly right: things seem pretty OK for the Greene family when we meet them. As time goes on and events unfold, Hershel is forced to come to terms with what's happening in the outside world. Whether he likes it or not, this is the new reality. He can either fight it, or die. By the time season 4 rolls around, Hershel has stepped up to his duties to his family. He's joined Rick's gang and taken on the responsibility of group doctor. His no-nonsense personality has finally made the shift from denial to acceptance, and his death was one of the most heartbreaking on the show.

Then there's Carol Peletier.

When we first meet Carol, she's a mousy abused wife. Once her bullying bastard of a husband is [correction] beat to a pulp (by Shane, in the first of one of his many, many morally grey-area incidents), and then killed by a walker, Carol blossoms into a much more developed character. She speaks up. She makes decisions. She becomes part of the group.

In season 2, when Carol's daughter Sofia goes missing, it would have been very easy to turn Carol into a hysterical worrywart. And of course, any parent would worry themselves sick over a missing child under any circumstances. Carol, though, eventually puts one foot in front of the other. She delves deep down and learns to keep her life moving forward, even while she tears herself up inside with anxiety. In what I think of as one of Daryl's greatest storylines, he goes off to search for Carol's missing daughter while Carlos stays with Rick's gang at Hershel's farm. When it's discovered that Sofia is one of the walkers being kept inside Hershel's barn -- because he is certain there will be a "cure" for the zombie plague and everyone will be able to go back to normal -- Rick steps up and puts the poor child out of her misery. Carol has to watch.

So, not only did her daughter go missing, but Carol's worst nightmares about her fate have come true. And they've come true in front of her. She's not presented with some sad proof of Sofia's death. She doesn't hear about it secondhand. She sees her daughter as a walker, and sees her shot in the head to be put to rest. That's...a LOT for a parent. And, rightfully so, it changes Carol. It changes her HARD. She not only becomes protective of all the other children who join the group, she takes it upon herself to teach them, in secret and against Rick's wishes, how to defend themselves with weapons. This, of course, will come back to bite her in the ass in season 4, in one of the show's all-time most emotional and hard to watch scenes. But it's honest, and it's truthful, and it's a pretty realistic idea of what a woman like Carol would go through under these circumstances.

I need a poster of this. Srsly.

Finally, we get to Glenn Rhee.

I've said to my husband that I think Glenn has the most character development on this show, and maybe most shows in existence. He starts off as kind of a stereotype of the "helpful, nerdy Asian," complete with baseball cap. We first meet him in the show's first episodes as he guides Rick out of the army tank and into the safety of the department store. He's set up to be almost like the comic relief because of his one-liners ("Nice move there, Clint Eastwood.") and because he's just so silly. He distracts the walkers by setting off a car alarm -- and then going for a yelp-filled joyride in a sports car. Cute.

In season 2, Glenn finally comes into his own. He meets Maggie, Hershel's daughter, and in the context of the world they live in he bypasses the sweet infatuation stage with her and falls in love. And it's not some rom-com unrequited love, either: Maggie really falls for him back. Hard. As their relationship grows, Glenn also takes on some of the leadership role in the gang, like Carol -- making his voice heard, making his opinions count. He's done with the bullshit. He's done being passively ordered around. He's done being the errand boy, the comic relief, the fallback guy. He grows and matures, over one season, from a little kid to a grown-up. By season 3 he's realized his hero potential in time to take on a walker WHILE TIED TO A CHAIR and escape the Governor. That's pretty badass.

"This is my angry face."

I'm in awe of Glenn, and of his and Maggie's relationship. No matter what, they never doubt their love or one another. They stay together in the face of ridiculous odds and find each other with a single-minded relentlessness when they're separated. Their love is so optimistic in such a bleak world that you just can't help but root for them.

Fully-Realized "What If?" Situations

I've saved one of my favorite elements of the show for the end. What's great about TWD is all the different "what if?" situations our group comes across in their journeys. As I said above, we have Hershel -- and probably others like him -- who are convinced this whole thing is a sickness that can, and will, be cured, and are waiting for that to happen. For these people, walkers aren't enemies to be put down, they are patients in need of quarantine until the cure magically appears.

There are people in the group who do not get along. There are people in the group who are *toxic* to the group. What do you do with them? In the second episode of season 1, Rick handcuffs Merle to the roof of a building and leaves him there; Merle, a redneck, racist, sexual harasser that no one likes ("No one's going to be sad he didn't come back,"). Was Rick right? Wrong?

What do you do if a new outbreak happens in your group?

What happens if you make it to the Center for Disease Control, only to be told by the last survivor there that there is no cure, you're all fucked, and he's about to blow the place up?

At least everyone got a shower. And wine.

There are thieves and rapists, taking advantage of the anarchy and chaos to feast on the weaknesses of other survivors.

There are con artists, like the Governor, who rally other survivors behind him in a misguided attempt at a "new normal" life for everyone, but who are really just control freaks looking for more and more power.

There are weirdos like the woman early on in season 4, who kept her walker husband's head and wants to join him.

It's going to get way weirder from here.

There are fierce warriors like Michon.

There are optimists like Beth.

There are children.

There are babies.

There are people whose motives are unreadable, and decisions that have to be made at a split-second regarding what to do about them.

In a morally ambiguous world, nothing is clear-cut, and the show does an amazing job of showing us the endless ways in which people will cope with the unthinkable, what taboos they will break, what lengths they will go to in order to survive and to protect their loved ones.

Hello, darling. Have you missed me as much as I've missed you? I still love
you and all, but can we please talk about the hair? And beard?

I love this show because every single episode is a good one. Some are really, really great. Some blow my mind. All of them make me think, make me wonder, make me gasp with joy and horror and surprise. I'm never bored of the show. I never wonder when it will end; I hope it never does. I think about it constantly when it's not on. I count down to when it comes back. Most shows reach a point where they become either hollow parodies of themselves ("Glee," "ER,"), or have traveled so far away from their origin point that they are unrecognizable as the show I once loved ("Mad Men," "Sex and the City"). The Walking Dead has managed to avoid either of those fates by giving each character depth, fully realized details, and thoughtful storylines, and by upping the moral and ethical stakes with each season.

YES x infinity

Now, I've never read the graphic novels on which the show is based, and at this point I probably won't ever. I just can't read the source material once I've seen the show/movie. At least, this is my general rule. For The Walking Dead, I might have to make an exception.

Do you watch The Walking Dead? What do you think about it?

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