“Last Day on Earth” — The Walking Dead S06E16 Review

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Well, it’s been a week since the season six finale of The Walking Dead aired. How’s everybody doing?

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The second half of this season has been all about getting ready for Negan, the new villain who finally appears in the finale, although not until the last ten minutes — out of ninety. The bulk of the much-too-long episode is filler, of course, making it frustrating and often boring to watch. Most of the dialogue feels like it was written solely to kill time, as every conversation is stilted, bloated with long pauses, and takes twice as long as it should. The episode that promised to be an epic, gory finale ending with the death of a beloved character at the hands of the most blood-chilling villain yet in fact featured:

  • three conversations about gasoline
  • repetitive establishing shots of the RV driving down country roads (I stopped counting after nine), and
  • three awkward inclusions of the episode’s title in the dialogue.

When Negan finally does show up, it’s to deliver yet another monologue wherein he takes a very long time to say very few things. The phrase “pee-pee pants city” makes me less scared and more, what’s the word…burst out laughing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly a wonderful actor — I did enjoy the moment where he pointed to Glenn and said, “I get it,” and his dazzling smile hardened into the briefest of death glares — but it’s too little, too late at that point. And instead of delivering the promised character death, we see the infamous beating for a few seconds from the victim’s point of view before the screen goes black. It’s all a big mess, but in being a mess it’s a fitting end to a completely mishandled season of television.

The terror I’m supposed to feel as Rick and the rest kneel to the ground to receive their judgment is mitigated by the lingering frustration and confusion that’s built up over the course of these sixteen episodes, because it barely makes sense that our characters are here in the first place. The episodes leading up to this finale were clearly working hard to demonstrate Rick’s overconfidence, but the annoying thing is that it doesn’t make sense for Rick to be overconfident. His arrogance comes off more as sheer stupidity, and Rick’s not stupid. It didn’t make sense for The Group to agree to wipe out the Saviors so quickly, with so little information about them. It didn’t make sense for Daryl, Glenn, Rosita, and Michonne to scatter themselves outside Alexandria, and Dwight somehow getting the jump on Daryl definitely made no sense at all.

In this episode, it doesn’t make much sense to load up all of the remaining best fighters into the RV when they know an enemy attack is likely imminent. Carl and Aaron even have a brief exchange on the road where they ask each other why they came along, as if the writers (Scott Gimple, Matthew Negrete) anticipated the audience not buying it. It still wasn’t clear to me what their reasons were — who does Carl “owe?” Abraham and Eugene? What does Aaron specifically “owe” Maggie for? Helping his boyfriend when he broke his ankle way back in season five, maybe? They could’ve used some of that ninety-minute run time to better explain themselves.

Elsewhere, we see Morgan kill a Savior to save Carol, which should be a powerful moment, but the scene building up to it is so drawn out that it detracts from the impact. They’ve done a generally terrible job of telling Morgan’s story this season; aside from his stand-alone flashback episode he’s largely been sidelined, which is a waste of Lennie James as an actor. I got so tired of waiting for the conversation about killing to go anywhere that I stopped caring if it ever did.

The entire side plot with Carol and Morgan was inaffective. No amount of Melissa McBride’s superb acting can justify Carol’s odd and rather sudden shift. It’s not that struggling with having to kill other people is an uninteresting or unbelievable experience for these characters to have. But it’s surprising that she’s going through it now, rather than, I don’t know, when she killed two of her stick friends in the prison just in case they spread their illness. Or after she killed Lizzie. After everything else she’s done, why is she suddenly having an emotional breakdown at the thought of killing clearly evil people who want to hurt her loved ones?

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On the list of things that work (it’s short), the featured actors all deliver fine performances in this episode. Andrew Lincoln skillfully takes Rick from arrogant swagger to shaky, sweaty panic, through the various stages in between. And as problematic as the final scene with Negan is, everyone plays their parts well. Sonequa Martin-Green looks terrified, Lauren Cohan is pale and shaking. It’s rough seeing Daryl so beaten up, gaunt-faced and covered in his own blood, and Norman Reedus manages to emanate rage while also looking up at Negan with dead, broken eyes. Finally, for as little as I typically care for Abraham, there’s one note that’s always rung true for his character: bravery. I felt a small swell of respect watching him sit up straight and look directly at Negan, unafraid.

Abraham’s goodbye hug with Eugene is touching, and this key moment in their relationship manages to feel significant while not overdone. There’s a nice tenderness between Rick and Maggie in the RV as he assures her everything will be OK. The episode was filmed in the winter, and the gray skies and bleak landscape did add a sense of darkness and eeriness, though not enough to make up for the failings of the writing overall. This, of course, is the really frustrating thing: seeing these little bits and pieces that work, seeing a talented cast undercut by poor material. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

The story would have been better served if they had introduced the Saviors in the first half of the season. Leave the Wolves out entirely. The Saviors attack Alexandria, and the tension between Morgan, Carol, and Rick could just as easily develop over keeping a lone Savior alive as prisoner. Lace the first eight episodes with these cat-and-mouse interactions with the Saviors, gradually building a sense of dread while also keeping them far enough away to be mysterious. Maybe scatter some of those creepy roadblocks throughout the episodes, rather than jamming them all in at the end, so that the Saviors seem good at something other than being continually mowed down by our heroes. Negan shows up in the mid-season finale, and they might even get away with the ridiculous cliffhanger (since the winter gap is much shorter than the break between seasons). Then the second half of the season takes off full force into the conflict with Negan, introducing the new key characters, and properly laying the groundwork for season seven. Cut out all the stalling, all the meaningless side plots, and get right down to the story they’ve been wanting to tell this whole time. 

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In reality, they could not get the pacing right this season. It always felt as if they were intentionally killing time or taking huge narrative leaps and bounds, often clashing with established character behavior, in order to get everyone where they wanted them to be for the finale. The characters should drive the story, not the other way around, but these days it seems all that matters is dragging the characters — and the audience — along to the next finale, the next premiere, the next villain, the next cliffhanger.

It’s exhausting. I’m tired of the gore; I’m tired of the special affects; I’m tired of the show trying to top itself with ever-bigger walker herds and ever-more-complex set pieces and ever-more-comic-book-y elements (Abraham, “pee-pee pants city,” etc.). It’s “a larger world,” The ads for the second half of the season proclaimed, as did the characters themselves: Jesus telling Daryl and Rick that this is “the next world,” Glenn commenting to Michonne that the world is “bigger” than they thought. The guys on horseback who find Morgan and Carol are speculated as being part of yet another community called The Kingdom. From day one (which lasted, what, four or five episodes?), The Walking Dead in season six has been bigger, that’s for sure.

But it’s gotten too big to manage. With the near-constant stream of new characters, new communities, newer, gorier, weirder variations on the walkers, and now a new villain, I can’t help but feel that Rick’s rapid unraveling in the finale is an apt parallel to how the series itself is spiraling out of control. The best moments from the finale featured intimate character interactions: Rick comforting Maggie in the RV, Abraham and Eugene’s hug, even Sasha and Abraham’s brief conversation about starting a family — I still don’t feel any chemistry there, but it’s always nice to see Abraham acting (and talking) like an actual person. The show finds strength in these smaller, tender, human moments; that is, when it actually gives these characters the attention they deserve, and attention that the actors are more than capable of handling.

Variety published highlights of a conference call in which show runner Scott Gimple gaslighted his audience answered questions about the finale, and the following comments stood out to me:

I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.

I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.

I am skeptical, but only because this season taught me to be skeptical. I want The Walking Dead to be good; that’s why I’ve kept watching through all of this nonsense. But this season has reinforced time and again that for Gimple and the other higher-ups making the big decisions, the ends justify the means. In this case, the “ends” are the ratings, the media coverage, the finale, and the next season. Instead of attempting to tell a good story the entire time, we are told to wait, to endure the tedium and the confusion, and to trust. Season six lost my trust.

It’s a damn shame. They’ve got a great premise, talented actors, and plenty of money. But they are too focused on the next big bang or comic-book-level, crazy plot twist, and so they squander their chances to find depth and meaning in the smaller, more human moments that have the most potential of resonating with viewers.

Even so, The Walking Dead trudges along undeterred toward its seventh season, massive and forceful while also somehow lacking vitality. It’s impressive at a glance, but upon further inspection it’s clear that there’s not much underneath sustaining it. The Walking Dead has never been a perfect show,* but now it’s merely a remnant of whatever worked about its former self. It’s a shadow of what it could be, and what it has been in its better moments, propped up by high production values, excessive stunts, and endless gallons of fake blood.

SIDEBARS

  • Negan’s asymmetrical leather jacket is cool.
  • Aaron actually has some screen time this episode, reminding me that I like Aaron. Too bad he’s mostly been forgotten this season.
  • Negan calls Carl a future serial killer, but I’m pretty sure that title belongs to Judith. Best case scenario, she ends up as a high-functioning sociopath with severe detachment issues.
  • Enough with the whistling. We get it. 
  • Fr. Gabriel asks Rick if he’s comfortable leaving him in charge of security. Well, let’s see: it’s either Fr. Gabriel, what’s-his-face who’s sleeping with Rosita, what’s-her-face who runs the pantry, a teenage girl currently locked in a gun closet, or those nameless Alexandrians who’ve had less screen time than this RV. So…yeah, I guess it’s cool to leave Fr. Gabriel in charge.
  • I’m not going to get too far into theorizing about who is or is not dead, but I will say this: many suspect it’s Daryl, but I don’t think he’s a goner. Personal bias will always make me hope for his survival, but the writers have been unsure about what to do with his character for the last couple of seasons, and through his interactions with Dwight they seem to be laying the groundwork for something more substantial. And while Dwight claimed to have been aiming for Daryl when he shot Denise, he merely injured him in the previous episode in what would have been the perfect opportunity to kill him, so it feels like there’s more going on with his motivations. In the comics, Dwight eventually becomes an ally to Rick against Negan, which may play out through his relationship with Daryl.
  • Negan’s tangent about knocking down Rick’s door reminded me of Walter White’s infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech, which — fun fact — was a hundred times more chilling and ten times shorter than this one.
  • *see Breaking Bad
  • Guys, just watch Better Call Saul. It’s an AMC drama that respects its characters, its audience, and itself. 
  • However, if you want to actually enjoy yourself while watching something Walking Dead related, I recommend two large glasses of wine and the Honest Trailers.

“No Way Out” — The Walking Dead S06E09 Review

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Nothing can replace Daryl’s crossbow, but wilding that rocket launcher sure looks cathartic.


I’m not going to bother with a spoiler warning anymore. You know what you’re getting into.

“Faith without works is dead.”

So reads the Scripture passage on the wall of the church Glenn and Enid search for weapons to help their friends defeat the walker herd. It becomes the theme of “No Way Out,” our mid-season premiere, which finally puts an end to the Longest Week Ever (and a batch of episodes laden with poorly written dialogue and shark-jumping gimmickry — the Glenn fiasco — that was less interesting to me than any of the oft-criticized season at Hershel’s farm). The premiere also sees the surviving Alexandrians rise above their weaknesses and show signs of becoming characters we can actually root for. Even Dr. Panic Attack falls into a zen-like action mode while patching up the hole in Carl’s head where his right eye used to be (I’ll get to that); it’s noteworthy that she’s the one talking sense into the usually clear-headed Michonne, who wants to leave Carl’s side to help Rick on his rage-induced rampage. “This is his son,” Denise says, calm and firm. “Give me a second.” By the end of the episode, the characters come together like a walker-killing machine to take on the herd in a Power Rangers-style supercut of sword slashes and skull smashes.

But let’s backtrack a bit. The episode picks up with Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham facing off against Negan’s biker gang on the road. (Hey! It’s actually in the episode this time!) It proves to be one of the show’s better cold opens in a while. The back-and-forth of whether or not the unnamed leader (wonderfully played by Christopher Berry) was going to shoot actually got my heart rate up.

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After all, Sasha and Abraham are not Glenn are secondary enough that it’s plausible they’d be killed off. This guy is clearly unpredictable, switching  from calm and almost charming to sinister on a moment’s notice and giving feeling that he chooses his kills basically on a whim. I was sad to see him go (although it was inevitable that Daryl would come to the rescue) because in five minutes he was already a more interesting character than anybody back at Alexandria.

Speaking of the town that can’t catch a break, we caught up with the rest of the characters still surrounded by the walker herd. Carol and Morgan, unconscious in the cell that previously held the Wolf, awake to learn of the Wolf’s escape with Dr. Denise as his captive. Carol is furious at Morgan, telling him that protecting the Wolf was selfish; he did it for him, not for the good of the group. “I should’ve killed you,” she says coldly. Then things get a little interesting. “You had a child, right?” Morgan asks, broaching a subject that isn’t often discussed. “A husband?” Well done on the writing here, as it’s all the dialogue necessary to call to mind what Carol used to be and what she’s fought to overcome. Perhaps she’s still fighting it; these interactions with Morgan over the Wolf’s fate have not exactly shown her to be fully calm and in control. On the contrary, the image of Carol brandishing her knife at Morgan in the mid-season finale, tears in her eyes, hand shaking, read more as desperation than strength.

We’ve seen hints of this before. Back in season four, during the flu outbreak at the prison, she tries to justify her killing their sick comrades. “I was trying to save lives,” she tells Rick. “I had to try.” A similar conversation plays out with Daryl in season five, when they return to Atlanta to search for Beth in “Consumed.” After Daryl catches Carol trying to sneak away from the group, they follow the car with the white cross back into the city. Daryl stops her from shooting Noah as he flees with their weapons. “I don’t want you to die,” she argues in defense.  “I don’t want Beth to die. I don’t want anybody at the church to die, but I can’t stand around and watch it happen, either. I can’t. That’s why I left; I just had to be somewhere else.” Telling choice of words: I cant; I had to. Carol’s actions in the present are still, understandably, influenced by the trauma of her past and her lack of action to combat it. In many ways, this is a good thing, as she’s realized her capacity for strength and resilience. But sometimes, it seems, she pushes too far — her insistence on trying to kill the captive Wolf while in the midst of the largest walker invasion yet, for instance.

Carol always has the greater good in mind, and she’s willing to kill people, even innocent people, if she thinks it might save those closest to her. She’s also willing to psychologically traumatize a child — Sam — in an attempt to protect her friends. Her brutality makes her valuable, often necessary, to the group’s survival in the midst of life-and-death situations. But when things are a little more morally gray and danger is less imminent, the show explores the notion that such brutality is not always justifiable, notably through conflicts with Rick and Daryl. Even in the apocalypse, there are still moral lines that can be crossed, but the question is where those lines are drawn. Our heroes are not always united, and that’s interesting to watch. Perhaps Carol’s methods are not sustainable; after all, she’s been banished from the community before. Perhaps she crosses the line and does more harm than good. Sam’s breakdown in the midst of the walker herd with Carol’s threatening words replaying in his mind link Sam’s death, and the death of the rest of his family (and, arguably, Carl’s injury) directly back to Carol.

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That gory sequence, straight from the graphic novel, makes quick work of the Anderson family, but more importantly it makes Carl’s character potentially interesting again. Here’s hoping that losing an eye propels him out of his annoying teenager phase.

Elsewhere, Enid climbs up onto the lookout post to help Maggie while ever-selfless Glenn draws the walkers away with a single handgun. For a few seconds I almost thought my prediction was going to come true and that Glenn had come back only to die as Maggie watched helplessly, but of course he is saved at the last second by Sasha and Abraham. How they manage to gun down all of those walkers (in the dark) without hitting Glenn is beyond me, but that’s not the point.

The point is that Glenn has now impossibly survived two near-death scenarios, and after last week’s close call it’s clear that the writers have no intention of actually killing Glenn any time soon.  Glenn’s death once had the potential to be powerful and surprising, but now the smallest hint of it is tiring. Any time he’s is in danger I just feel like the writers are toying with me — there’s no realistic threat anymore. Of course, that leaves us all wondering: with Negan on the horizon, a major character death is likely on the way. So who will it be? (Please not Daryl.)

SIDEBARS

  • The jump from broad daylight to complete night was a bit jarring. It gave the impression that Rick and the rest were wandering around among the walkers for hours.
  • I get that they needed the Andersons outside together so Sam could melt down and get them all killed, but it wasn’t totally believable to me for Jessie to let her emotionally fragile son come with them instead of going with Father Gabriel to the church. He was clearly a liability.
  • Pretty weird that Glenn left Beth off of his “People I’ve lost” list. I mean, he’s going to include Andrea and not his own sister-in-law?

“Always Accountable” — The Walking Dead S06E06 Review

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I’ve been chatting with a Facebook friend throughout season six so far who has repeatedly told me: they’re setting up the pieces. They’re arranging everything to come together in a big way later on. Be patient.

We’ll have to wait and see how elements of previous episodes do or do not come to fruition later on, but “Always Accountable” seems to most clearly be setting the stage for the rest of the season. While the action was front-loaded and the Sasha/Abraham bits were fairly boring and poorly written (more on that in a bit), they’ve introduced what everyone on the Internet is convinced will be The Saviors — a rival group from the comic books, the leader of which (Negan) has already been cast and will apparently make his first appearance in the season six finale. 

The opening few minutes of the episode are great. Just as Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham hit the twenty-mile mark and break off from the zombie herd, turning to head back to Alexandria, they’re ambushed by unseen attackers (with vehicles and guns). After a quick car chase, our trio is split up as Daryl heads into the woods to escape. Injured and bleeding, he stumbles through a burned and blackened area of the forest, which is visually effective not only due to its mystery — what exactly happened here? — but also because it takes a setting we’re so familiar with in The Walking Dead (the woods) and makes it new, creepy, and unsettling. When Daryl collapses onto the blackened ground — next to an incinerated walker wearing a motorcycle helmet, no less — and the camera takes in the entire ominous scene from high above, it’s clear that something bad is looming close by.

Most immediately, Daryl is knocked out and tied up by three frightened, scrawny characters who become the catalyst to our first encounter with the Other Group (The Saviors, allegedly). These three — two women and one man — reveal that they are the ones who burned the forest back when the outbreak started, that it was overrun by walkers, that this is where they used to live. They think Daryl is an assassin sent by the group they’re running away from, who sound like bad news based on the vague, foreboding things these three have to say about them: “You made the choice to kill for someone else,” the man says to Daryl, “to have them owing you for a roof over your head and three squares.” Later, he adds, “We should’ve never trusted you people to begin with.” Daryl temporarily escapes his captors only to find an insulin cooler in the duffle bag he takes with him; the blonde woman, at one point referred to as Tina (the only one of the three runaways named in the episode), is diabetic. Daryl returns the insulin, of course, just in time for the Other Group to show up.

They catch up to the runaways in the woods but never get too close. Their leader is absent, referred to (not by name) in the third person, and someone named Wade (whose face is never shown) seems to be calling the shots on this, shall we say, roundup mission. From what we see, they’re clearly organized: they have manpower, vehicles, weapons, and rules, which one of the women calls “batshit.” It’s not unlike Joe’s group, the one Daryl got mixed up with at the end of season four. This Other Group has rules, a clear code, but they’re obviously bad. In this world, you need a code to maintain some semblance of civility and combat the chaos, but a code does not always translate to morality. It’s a motif we’ve seen before: the Governor, Terminus. Organized groups or individuals who establish their own rules and systems to survive but are anything but virtuous. Sometimes these systems merely mask an underlying chaos and depravity. Maybe, then, having a code is necessary to make it in this world (at least, if you’re living with other people), but it’s not sufficient to make it out with your humanity intact. With Negan’s promised appearance at the end of the season, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this Other Group and what their particular brand of evil/crazy is before too long.

Of course, Daryl Dixon fits into this puzzle beautifully. He has his code, but it stems from his goodness, discernment, and loyalty. When he sees the insulin in the bag, we know what will happen next because we know that Daryl does the right thing. Tina dies a ridiculous death anyway, practically throwing herself onto the reanimated corpses of two friends they come across in the woods. It’s meant to be an emotional scene, with the build up of her realization that these friends didn’t make it out alive like they thought, and then the other woman weeping over Tina as she bleeds to death, but I simply didn’t have the capacity to care about this character I just met. (It’s like, I don’t know, two thirds of the people at Alexandria all over again.) While burying Tina’s body, Daryl tries to recruit the other two runaways for Alexandria, but he’s wary of making a mistake and risking the vulnerability. “Why the hell did you come back for us?” the man asks Daryl at one point. “Maybe I’m stupid, too,” Daryl responds. So it’s a blow when they turn on him in the end, stealing his iconic crossbow and riding off on his motorcycle (thankfully, he retains his angel-wings vest).

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Meanwhile, Sasha and Abraham hide out in an insurance office and wait for Daryl. Sasha says the best way to find a tracker is to let him find you, which is a fair point and legitimately seems like a smart move on their part, but after last week’s speech-laden episode I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of watching more characters sit around talking. Their dialogue is pretty awful, full of overblown metaphors like “We don’t need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” “play chicken with the ground,” and “the table is set for the rest of our lives.” Who talks like that?

Abraham decides to take a stroll, and in a cartoonish twist ends up finding both a rocket launcher and a box of cigars. He unleashes some of his pent up rage by screaming at a walker, but while I understood the concept of the scene I didn’t find it very affecting. In fact, everything with Abraham felt a little off to me. For the first half of the episode he was almost acting like he was drunk, swaggering around and smiling at Sasha as if they hadn’t just been ambushed and almost killed. Maybe he was drunk in a way: on the overwhelming chaos and the rush of killing walkers, as Sasha confronts him about (chiefly via clumsy, confusing metaphors) in the insurance office. It’s his escape from their new Alexandrian reality, where he might have to actually make choices and be accountable for their consequences. This seems to get through to Abraham, and it also prompts him to proclaim his attraction to Sasha, which she smoothly defuses, although doesn’t outright reject. (And I don’t really care enough to look into it in detail, but wasn’t Abraham with Rosita? Was that just sort of a casual on-the-way-to-D.C. thing? I don’t remember how clear their relationship was, but I do remember them sleeping together at least once.)

Anyway, Daryl finds a fuel truck and rolls up to Sasha and Abraham at the end of the episode. On their way back to Alexandria, Daryl radios out for anyone to respond, and in the final moments we hear a single word reply: “Help.” Of course, it could be anyone, but it didn’t sound like Glenn to me.

Before I wrap things up, I have some more thoughts on Daryl.

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In an interview with MTV earlier this week, Norman Reedus said that this episode kicks off a new trajectory for Daryl: “He goes to a very dark place, and that place just gets darker, and darker, and darker.” Scott Gimple et al. have also been saying that everything is significant, that the ramifications of everything that is happening will come back again to affect these characters.

And as I’ve been reflecting on this episode, I’ve gotten nervous that the show is maybe, possibly setting up Daryl’s death. I mentioned this fear to my husband before we sat down to watch the episode together (my second time viewing it), and when we got to the shot of Daryl lying in the forest between the walker and his motorcycle, my husband said, “Oh yeah. Daryl’s dead.” When I asked him to elaborate, he said, “You don’t collapse into a cruciform onto the ground in a scene of death without dying yourself pretty soon.” He has a point: the imagery in this episode is undeniably bleak, and there’s also speculation swirling around that Daryl may die at the hands of Negan when he’s introduced in the finale (in the comics, Negan kills Glenn with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, but some are wondering if perhaps Daryl will take Glenn’s place). Of course, the fate of any character is anyone’s guess at this point, and the more the show can tease us about who might die next, the more viewers they’ll draw.

It’s Daryl’s goodness that really makes me fear for him. In thinking of possible ways he’d be killed off, he’s too skilled to get surprised by a walker or lose in a fight. Of course, while the “anything could happen, nobody’s safe” rule always applies, if they want a death that makes sense with how they’ve built the character, there’s really only one option: Daryl will die so someone else can be saved. He’s already willing to sacrifice himself for his friends; he told Joe without hesitation to kill him instead of Rick back in the season four finale, and when he and Aaron were surrounded by walkers in the car (due to the Wolves’ trap in season five), he offered without a second thought to lure them away, and surely die in the process, to give Aaron a chance to escape. Maybe he’ll willingly sacrifice himself for someone else, or maybe the sacrifice will be inadvertent (such as Negan choosing to kill Daryl instead of Glenn or someone else in The Group — assuming Glenn turns out to be alive, but I’m pretty spent on that strand of speculation by now).

Daryl has grown so much as a character over the course of the show. He’s come into his own as a leader, someone people trust and rely on, Rick’s right-hand man. By his own admission, his life pre-apocalypse was pretty meaningless. When the world collapsed, the things that limited and marginalized him before collapsed along with it, so he now has the opportunity to become the type of person he always had the potential to be. In this way, Daryl reminds me of Jesse on Breaking Bad, AMC’s other hit drama; both characters are, to an extent, victims of their circumstances, but given the right opportunity they demonstrate their potential for goodness, which makes any losses they suffer hurt all the more.

It sounds like they’re planning some losses for Daryl in the coming episodes; perhaps he will harden his heart and shut off again now that his attempt to help these strangers turned out so badly for him. He’s in a delicate place personally, because he’s had to be tough and cold most of his life in order to survive. It takes a lot for him to open up, to trust others and trust himself. Because of all of this, the stakes are high for Daryl. He’s got more to lose because he’s gained so much — respect, self-worth, people who care for him, a family. We get invested in characters like this. We want their goodness to be rewarded, but as I’ve said before, The Walking Dead is not known for rewarding its virtuous characters.

This episode’s dropping a lot of hints about what lies ahead, for Daryl and everyone else, and it doesn’t bode well. If they’re looking for a character death that will really hurt, they’ll be aiming at Daryl.

In the meantime, I’m watching with my fingers crossed.

SIDEBARS

  • The “convenient plot device” walkie talkies continue to pick up only two frequencies: Static or Cryptic Cliffhanger.

  • OK. Seriously. It’s time for Daryl to get a haircut. All I saw in this episode was hair.

“Just Survive Somehow” ⎯ The Walking Dead S06E02 Review

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Beware of undead spoilers!

Note: this article is republished here because the original posting site is no longer available. Enjoy while I’m working on my review of “Always Accountable”!

After five seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, it’s easy to feel desensitized to the walkers. While they’re frightening in large numbers, the initial shock of their existence has worn off, despite the ever-increasing gore factor as the undead continue to decompose. In contrast to the in medias res opening of last week’s season premiere, this episode begins with a quieter type of horror sequence as we saw glimpses of Enid’s backstory. The recurring sound of distant thunder, the walkers groaning off-screen, and watching Enid wander silently alone through the world effectively revisit the isolation and dread that made the pilot so gripping.

After we see a traumatized Enid finally reach Alexandria, the opening credits run and we’re back in the present day: most of The Group’s star characters – Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn – are out herding zombies, so the first third of the episode hovers over those remaining at Alexandria. About thirteen minutes in, I started to wonder: where’s the action? After the premiere, which felt essentially like a ninety-minute trailer for the second episode and ended on the blaring-horn cliffhanger, I was expecting to be dropped immediately into zombie-filled chaos this week. Just as I began questioning the episode’s pace, though, we see Shelly cut down by the Wolf with a machete, and the attack on Alexandria begins swiftly.

This is especially not great news for Denise, who has replaced Pete as Alexandria’s doctor. She went to medical school and planned to become a surgeon, but after she started having panic attacks she switched to psychiatry. As she says to Tara and Eugene, “I’m here now, and I only kind of want to throw up.” She jokes about being pretty sure she can’t kill Tara while diagnosing her headache. Obviously, this heightens the dramatic potential when the Wolf attack begins. Surely this will go badly.

Soon enough, Denise, Tara, and Eugene are standing together over an injured woman, Holly, who is dying due to internal bleeding. Denise knows this, but she lacks confidence in her surgery skills and hesitates out of fear. Tara reminds Denise that everyone is there to help each other. “Help her!” she shouts. Eugene steps forward, awkward and emotional, and delivers one of the weightiest lines of the episode: “You don’t want to be a coward. I know.”

It’s a tense and powerful scene. Eugene is now a fan favorite, but no one – least of all Eugene – has forgotten that he became a part of this group by lying in order to save himself and letting others risk (and lose) their own lives for him. When he finally confessed the truth in season five, Tara was one of the first to defend him. Having been given a second chance, Eugene rose above his mistakes, saving Tara after she was injured and knocked unconscious in the warehouse. On that same run, Nicholas’ cowardice got Noah killed, but despite that – and his trying to kill Glenn at the end of season five – our protagonists are cautiously giving him the opportunity to redeem himself, too. As Maggie said in the premiere, Tara was also on the “opposite side of the fence” once, when the Governor attacked the prison and killed Hershel. All of this now informs their short exchange over the dying woman, in which the show forces another character to face the question: how will you choose to respond to your fear? Tara and Eugene are the perfect characters to help Denise in this moment, as they know what it feels like to make the wrong choice.

While the scene in the infirmary is moving and significant for the characters involved, Carol and Morgan are the two characters really showcased in this episode. Many fans and critics spent the summer speculating over a potential ideological face-off between Morgan and Rick. Perhaps that is yet to come, and it was certainly touched upon in the premiere as the two discussed Rick’s executing Pete for being a killer. “I’m a killer, Rick,” Morgan points out. “I am and you are, too.” Yet in this episode, Carol and Morgan’s were the clearly conflicting viewpoints. The contrast of these two is quite interesting, as they seem to stand on two sides of a fine line. Both are skilled fighters and courageously take action whenever necessary, but Carol kills attackers without hesitation while Morgan prefers beating them up to instill fear while letting them live. As characters, they are opposite responses to Enid’s mantra, represented by the recurring “JSS” markings in the beginning: just survive somehow. That is a central question of the show: to what extent are the characters willing to go in the same of survival? Which lines are acceptable to cross, and which are not? Can you be merciful without being weak?

And do Carol and Morgan take their respective approaches too far? Is Carol too quick to kill? Is Morgan too merciful, even in the face of such brutal, senseless killers as the Wolves? Sometimes the show doesn’t allow us the luxury of pondering such questions; certainly, Carol’s grit and willingness to kill without delay has saved The Group before, most notably at Terminus. But Morgan’s character may open up a conversation on the show about what that does to a person, and whether it’s always necessary or worth the cost. Of course, Morgan letting those few Wolves live – and escape with a gun – promises to cause problems in the future. Maybe it will also provide some further exploration of the consequences of Morgan’s no-kill policy. But I have a feeling that next week’s episode will be another walker-palooza. Let’s not forget about the herd now heading straight back toward Alexandria.

SIDEBARS

  • I loved the scene between Maggie and Deanna outside the walls. Maggie demonstrates strength and kindness as she looks steadily at Deanna, reminds her of what matters, and hands her a shovel. “There’ll be some sore backs and tired feet,” Maggie says. “That’s how you know you’ve put in a hard day’s work.” Ah, it’s like Hershel’s still with us.
  • Wolf attack = time to kill off all the unnecessary Alexandria extras!
  • Hopefully this episode will finally put to rest the “Can we trust Rick’s group?” questions from the Alexandrians. They’re clearly the only ones prepared to respond to such an attack. Well, Aaron can hold his own, but he’s always been one of the few competent (read: least annoying) Alexandrians.
  • Why did Carol have to kill the Wolf who was already subdued and bound by Morgan and Fr. Gabriel? Wouldn’t it be useful to keep one for questioning?
  • “Maybe we can share the church,” Tara suggests to Eugene when he expresses his desire to use it for a lab or game room. Fr. Gabriel’s easy to hate, but I appreciate Tara’s non-partisan defense. We also got a glimpse into potential redemption for Fr. Gabriel in this episode. I hope they do something interesting with his character.

“Here’s Not Here” — The Walking Dead S06E04 Review

here's not here 1  Contains spoilers.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard that this week’s episode of The Walking Dead was going to be focused on Morgan’s backstory. (I figured they were going to hold onto the is-Glenn-dead-or-not reveal for a couple of episodes, at least.) Though I wasn’t totally excited, either. I haven’t been captivated by Morgan as a character so far, but it’s nice that he’s now more rounded out and less mysterious. Sunday’s episode also ruminates on the sorts of questions that appear to be becoming motifs this season: Is it necessary to kill in order to survive? Can you retain your humanity in the zombie apocalypse? Is a vegetarian in a world full of flesh-eating walkers just too ironic to sustain? (Answer: yes.) The episode explains the origins of Morgan’s no-kill philosophy and takes a softer, more contemplative look at it and the various questions it raises than we’ve gotten so far.

The opening few minutes I loved. It was as if Morgan was the only person left on earth, and it felt like watching Cast Away with zombies. I’ve come to miss the eerie isolation and impending doom felt when watching a character wander alone through the end of the world (I enjoyed the opening sequence of “JSS” for this very reason). Also, Morgan choking that man to death with his bare hands is one of the most savage things I’ve seen on The Walking Dead in a while, so that was effective.

The ninety-minute length didn’t seem necessary (I got bored at a few points), and my biggest critique of the episode is its central premise. It is extremely convenient that PTSD-riddled, madman Morgan happens upon Eastman, a former forensic psychologist who specialized in determining if convicts were fit to reenter society (so he can deftly explain Morgan’s trauma and motivations for the audience). Eastman now seems content mentoring any lunatic he meets according to his aikido-driven “no slaughter” code (as well as living the Vermont country dream—plus zombies—with all his talk of falafel and chocolate and homemade cheese). I get that they needed to explain Morgan’s extreme character transformation in a short amount of time, so some narrative gymnastics were probably unavoidable, but this asks the audience to suspend disbelief too much.

Lennie James’ and John Carroll Lynch’s performances as Morgan and Eastman are so good, and Eastman as a character is so damn likable, I think they mask some of the episode’s weaknesses. The “locked door” metaphor/non-metaphor is about as on the nose as you can get (Morgan thinks his cell door is locked and then realizes he had the power to walk through it the whole time!). I have to say, though, it is so refreshing to experience a character like Eastman with a real, human being personality. (That’s why Eugene is often so likable, too.) Hey writers! Thanks for remembering that characters can be funny and quirky sometimes, even in the zombie apocalypse.

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OK, on to the code. In his recap for The New York Times, Jeremy Egner makes a valid point: a “no slaughter” policy is all fine and good until you remember that without slaughter we don’t have a show. Of course, the characters who start to represent any sort of moral high ground end up dying off—Dale, Hershel, Beth, Glenn(?). It’s almost comically predictable now: if a character starts talking about giving people second chances and valuing human life, they’ve just given the audience the cue to not get too attached. We see this very clearly with Eastman, whose value for human life and desire to save Morgan ends up getting him killed, as he pushes Morgan out of the way of a walker and himself gets bitten.

The overall message has been, then, that it’s nice to have some kinder-hearted characters around to sing songs and say prayers and help us feel less dirty, but at some point their goodness will be repaid with evil, and its the ones willing to do the dirty work who get to keep their names in the opening credits live to fight another day.

Still, I have to appreciate the show at least attempting to explore and even validate an alternative mode of responding to the zombie apocalypse. A long-running theme of the show has been this idea of doing whatever is necessary in order to keep going. Just survive somehow. But now that our heroes have made it this far, the show is presenting a question that’s absolutely worth asking: do we want to “just survive”?

Eugene had a great line in season four (back when he was still lying about being a scientist): “After I save the world, I still have to live with myself.” Surviving these days comes at quite the cost, and it’s interesting to meet characters who’ve decided that maybe that cost isn’t worthwhile. Maybe survival isn’t the ultimate good. But as it’s been demonstrated by those in The Group whose chief goal is survival at all costs, brutality certainly seems necessary to make it in this world, often because our protagonists continually face off against ever more brutal adversaries.

Which brings us to the end of the episode, back to present-day Alexandria where the tables are turned and Morgan faces off with his own murderous maniac: the Wolf I was pretty sure he’d killed two episodes ago, but it turns out Morgan just imprisoned him. Unlike so many viewers on Twitter, though, Morgan’s backstory failed to give this Wolf “all the feels,” which will of course lead to another scenario in which Morgan’s code can be tested. It’s a smart plot device, because however it plays out, it will prompt further examination, introspection, and likely conflict among the main characters.

SIDEBARS

  • I thought Morgan tossing the peanut butter-dipped apple slice to Tabitha was the most human and touching scene in the whole episode and powerfully representative of his healing and returning to himself. Less is more.
  • Did anyone else find the training montage to feel almost like an emotionally manipulative commercial? Something about the quiet, repetitive piano track combined with inspirational one-liners made me half-expect the logo for BP or Chipotle to fade in at the end. (Maybe that’s more a jab at emotionally manipulative commercials than anything else.)
  • YES YES YES GO TO AN ISLAND. That is an amazing idea and I’m shocked no one’s mentioned it before now. Hey Rick! You don’t have to worry about any massive zombie herds wandering onto an island!
  • I wonder how Eastman’s falafel is? It’s not easy to make from scratch.
  • I don’t remember which moment spurred him to comment, but let the record show that my husband totally called Tabitha’s death. “Aw, man,” he said early on. “Why does the goat have to die?” Call it Chekhov’s goat, I guess.

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“Thank You” ⎯ The Walking Dead S06E03 Review

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Spoilers! Don’t get trapped in a dead-end alley with all of these spoilers!

Wow.

The first three episodes of season six have still not taken us beyond a single afternoon in the show’s timeline, and it’s been quite a day.

Let’s dive right into this week’s episode, “Thank You:” Glenn. RIP Glenn. Or…RIP Glenn? I’ll get to that in a minute.

The scene in the alley is more gripping and intense than anything that’s happened so far this season. We’re all over walker gore by now, and while the Wolf attack was surprising and brutal, it never seemed like any of the characters we care about were in real danger. The direction, sound effects, and acting of this scene, as the drone of the herd fades out and Nicholas reaches his breaking point, are all excellently done. The switch to slow motion as we see things from Nicholas’ harrowed perspective makes the sequence feel like one of those panic-inducing dreams in which you’re trying to run away from something but can’t get your legs moving fast enough.

When Glenn finally shakes Nicholas out of it (sort of) and he says “thank you,” for those few terrifying seconds I was almost sure Nicholas would revert to his old ways and push Glenn into the herd to try and save himself. While he’s been obviously trying to redeem himself of his cowardice, he’s still basically a loose cannon, demonstrated by his recurring moments of panic and uncertainty in this episode. And then he kills himself and there’s a second of relief, but then they both fall and the terror is back. My husband and I both shouted “Oh no! Glenn!”

It was an emotional roller coaster of a scene and delivered an outcome that was truly unexpected; I’ve gotten so used to the methodically-kill-nameless-annoying-Alexandrians formula that I guess I’d been lulled into a false sense of security, because a major character death was not on my radar. I was more expecting Daryl to ride up at the last minute and save them than for one of our beloved Groupies to die. (Who was the last major character killed off? Tyreese? Noah doesn’t really count.) Turns out, as my husband said, “That looked like an impossible situation…and it was.” So this scene proved to be better horror and drama than anything The Walking Dead has thrown at us in a while.

Which is why I’d be a little disappointed if Glenn somehow, miraculously, makes it out alive in the end.

walking-dead-thank-you 1Before I expand on that, I must address the speculation that’s spread like wildfire across the Internet that Glenn is not dead.

I thought he was pretty clearly done for, but after re-watching the scene I guess it’s plausible that, as my husband pointed out, the zombies are feasting on Nicholas’ body, which landed on top of Glenn when they fell. Maybe Glenn could hide underneath Nicholas’ body until something else draws the walkers away…maybe. But there are just so many, and in a relatively enclosed space like that? Glenn did seem to be screaming in pain as the walkers feasted on intestines, but it’s not like we saw a walker bite his neck out, and we know that Nicholas’ body is also down there. They’re obviously leaving it ambiguous enough to make a Glenn comeback plausible, no matter how unlikely. But, as I said, I hope that’s not the case.

The tone of character deaths on The Walking Dead, and how we as the audience respond to them, has evolved over the course of these going-on-six seasons. In earlier seasons, while it was still shocking to witness lead characters die, the writers often left just enough uncertainty about their fates until the final moments to make it suspenseful (Lori, Andrea, Hershel). There was this overall feeling of “anything could happen, nobody’s safe.” The longer the show goes on, the more attached we grow to the ones who survive, and we start to get comfortable with them. We don’t genuinely expect one of our core Groupies to die (Glenn, Rick, Carol, and Daryl are who I’m talking about here). At least, I don’t. Maybe in some huge finale later on, but not now. Not like this.

For this reason, this week’s episode is, in my opinion, the best so far of season six (and I know I keep saying it, but really the best we’ve seen in a long time) due to its suspense, surprise, and emotional vigor. The events of this episode and its dismal ending as we lose a lead, only three of the people we see at the beginning stagger back to Alexandria alive, and (at least) one’s fate is still left uncertain brings us back to the “anything could happen, nobody’s safe” place the show used to inhabit. Surely, we think, they’ll kill off the newbies and let our favorites make it back safely. Surely, they’ll make it out of this impossible-seeming situation due to some equally impossible-seeming, last-second plot twist. Surely, this can’t get any worse.

And then Glenn falls. And then Rick’s injured. And then the RV won’t start.

As devastating as it is to see these horrible circumstances keep getting worse for our heroes, it makes for some properly powerful television and it feels legitimate for the world that The Walking Dead has created, much more legitimate than last-second rescues and improbable escapes. Seeing Glenn die in such a mundane way—getting swarmed by zombies is, after all, mundane for The Walking Dead—also feels valid and appropriately bleak for the show’s universe. There are only so many psychopaths, each crazier than the last, that I can endure before it all starts to feel like pointless shock value. Crazy for the sake of crazy. The Governor, the Terminus cannibals, the Wolves. By opting for an infuriatingly simple death-by-walkers rather than a extravagant end at the hands of another bloodthirsty psycho, the show actually elicits more shock, more emotion, more grief.

In many ways, this episode is a reminder that any day, any wrong turn, any choice could be our characters’ undoing. As Hershel said, “Nowadays, you breathe and you risk your life.” This is the zombie apocalypse. Even if you’re smart, and brave, and a good fighter, this world is crazy. This is war. And sometimes things just go wrong in too many ways and you can’t escape it.

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Going back to Rick’s injury, that seems to be another potential red herring. My husband thought that Rick was bitten on his way back to the RV. We re-watched that scene also, and again, I was pretty sure about how it went down: Rick accidentally slashed his hand with his knife as he took out a walker. At least, that’s how it looked based on the angles and how he was moving. But upon further inspection, we don’t really get a good look at his injury, and Rick is pretty mad about his wound for some reason, and then he drops to his knees and seems to be preparing himself, perhaps to cut his hand off? And, as reviewer Erik Kain at Forbes points out, there are also those moments in the RV when Rick presses some tissues to his wounded hand, again gathers himself, and is about to say something else—something apparently significant—into the walkie-talkie, but we don’t hear it because the Wolves burst in (of course). Again, it’s a tough call, and they intentionally leave it uncertain.

However things turn out for Rick, it’s refreshing to see him legitimately panicked as the walkers close in and the RV won’t start. For a while now, nothing’s really been able to phase him, and the show’s been using his cold, almost clinical killer tactics as a means to build drama and add tension, even among his allies (neither Glenn nor Michonne adhere to his pirate’s code-style if-they-fall-behind-leave-them-behind command). Finally, things are going so badly that even Rick is breaking. I’m enjoying sitting with the characters’ panic and tragedy in that masochistic way only fans of The Walking Dead can.

Anything could happen. Nobody’s safe.

Sasha, Abraham, and Daryl get minimal screen time this episode, but I was interested in Daryl’s struggle over what to do: stick with the plan or turn back to help his friends at Alexandria, whom he knows are in trouble? Seeing the sign for Alexandria pushes him to turn around. It’s his home now, and he wants to protect it. After Daryl’s emotional despondency in the wake of Beth’s death last season and his initial hesitancy to settle into life at Alexandria, this is a big moment for him.

Daryl’s a soldier, and he has always been motivated by his immense loyalty. (Even at the expense of his well-being and perhaps against his better judgment, like when he chooses his abusive, dangerous brother over the Group for a short spell in season three. He’s still human, after all.) So in these moments, despite having very few lines and too little screen time (what can I say? Daryl’s been my favorite character since his first foul-mouthed, surly appearance in season one), Reedus effectively portrays his inner struggle. It’s not the first time Daryl’s questioned Rick’s judgment about what’s best for Alexandria (in “First Time Again,” he disagrees when Rick says they shouldn’t look for people to join the community anymore). It’s still frustrating seeing such a great character suppressed for three huge episodes, but hopefully the writers will pay us back later on, when everyone finally makes it back to Alexandria so we can regroup, figure out exactly what’s happened, and see what the survivors will do next.

But with how they’ve stretched things out over these three episodes, who knows how long that will take?

SIDEBARS

  • I’m kind of glad they dispensed with the escaped Wolves quickly, instead of letting that loom in the background for a long time. Are there even any Wolves left now? Did our heroes kill them all off in two episodes? If the Wolves are gone, then I’m left wondering even more about what will happen with the rest of this season.
  • The ambiguity of Glenn’s death could mean something interesting for Maggie. Their mutual hope in each other’s survival is what kept them both going after the prison fell, so until Glenn’s death becomes abundantly clear (after all, no one else witnessed what happened), the smallest possibility of his survival could keep her going.
  • I have a plot twist proposal: Maggie’s pregnant. They’ve dropped hints that something important and unspecified is going down with Maggie and Glenn. In the premiere episode, Glenn tells Maggie to stay at Alexandria to keep an eye on Deanna. “That’s not the only reason,” she says. “Yeah,” Glenn responds. “It isn’t.” Now in this episode he talks about how he needs to get back to Maggie; maybe it’s just me, but it felt like there was another reason other than “I want to see my wife again.” We’ll see, but I’m putting money on a little baby Rhee. And if Glenn turns out to be a goner, Maggie being pregnant would be a satisfying way for the writers to twist the knife even more (and maybe help motivate her to keep going).
  • Other weighty lines:
    • Michonne: “We have no choice. We’ve gotta keep going forward.”
    • Glenn to Rick over the walkie-talkie: “Good luck, dumbass.” A surprisingly sweet callback to Glenn and Rick’s first meeting in season one.
  • I pointed out to my husband last week that we’ve got another Breaking Bad-style RV on the show now. “All that’s missing are the bullet holes.” When Rick shot up the side of the RV to kill the remaining Wolves, my husband turned to me and said, “Well, there’s your bullet holes!”