'The Walking Dead' and 'Pretty Much Dead Already': A cheap thrill-kill, or new life for the season?

The Walking Dead closed out its mid-season last night, and things were not looking good for our protagonists, or for the series. The show has turned into a nighttime soap with occasional appearances by deceased but moving, flesh-rotting, flesh-eating cameo monsters. If I had to choose between another scene of Shane looking belligerent while talking in that affected drawl or one of zombies crawling all over him and eating Shane as he looks belligerent while talking in that affected drawl, I’d choose the latter. (It’s what he deserves after what he did to Otis anyway.)

How did we come to this? For one thing, the main characters slowly, steadily turned into Types: the strong silent one (Sheriff Rick); the long-suffering wife (Lori); the hot-head (Shane); the hot-head with arrows (Daryl); the blonde with a gun (Andrea); the wise old man (Dale); the wise young kid (Carl). None of these creations deepened in any appreciable way over the second season’s episodes thus far. The behavior of Glenn recently has been particularly, egregiously trite. The idea that he couldn’t keep a secret, even an important one such as Lori’s pregnancy, was played for laughs — oh, that Glenn, he just had to blurt it out! His puppy-dog love for Maggie is similarly unreflective or nuanced. Pretty girl + Glenn horny = a relationship? I’d like it to be a bit more complicated for Glenn, and Maggie, and by extension, us.

The show has not benefited from its move to the farm. At least when our survivors were in Atlanta, they were constantly on the move, a zombie around every corner, behind every car. On Hershel’s farm, there’s a lot of peeling carrots and potatoes, and idle time for Glenn to make out with Maggie. (As portrayed by Lauren Cohan, Maggie is one of the few humans in The Walking Dead who shows a range of emotions; I am pro-Maggie, even as I would bet she won’t be a regular by the end of the season.)

The final shot, however, redeemed some of the season’s general gutlessness thus far. In revealing Sophia as having hidden in semi-plain slight – one of the walkers in Hershel’s barn – that search can stop. But so does Sophia’s life. And in having Sheriff Rick pull the trigger on her (he, who had not participated in the slaughter of the walkers led by Shane), the dithering lawman/husband/father has at least drawn a line through his own code of morality: When it comes down to it, he’s closer to Shane than Hershel in his philosophy of (un-)life. He’ll kill, voluntarily. Unlike his wife, with her unborn child. Now, I realize there’s a world of difference between a zombie child and an unborn one, but this is the ethical thicket The Walking Dead itself had chosen to enter.

Rick can justify what he’s done as protecting his band of survivors, although I’m sure we’ll have to endure prolonged scenes of Sophia’s grief-stricken mother. (I’m not criticizing grief; I’m suggesting that The Walking Dead has a way of drawing scenes out beyond their useful dramatic purposes, to tug at our heartstrings or our bloodlust, depending on the scene.)

The search for Sophia had not been dramatic enough. Every week, it seemed, a passel of folks went out and rooted around for awhile, came back to camp, and everyone lives off the fat of Hershel’s land until it was time to go out and search for Sophia again. Occasionally someone reminded Rick they’re supposed to be headed for Fort Benning and he gets all huffy about not leaving any child behind. It became a parody of a Samuel Beckett play.

Then there’s the tendency of the show to botch truly dramatic situations. I’m thinking specifically of last week and Lori’s half-hearted attempt at terminating her pregnancy. Now, there are many reasons for her to be ambivalent about bringing a child into the world at this point, the two chief ones being, it’s Zombie-Land out there, and the child may be Shane’s, not Rick’s. And indeed, I’m sure many women do what Lori did last week: Decide to abort her fetus, and then have second thoughts. But does vomiting up the partially-consumed pills accomplish this? Certainly, taking “morning after pills,” as they were labeled, does not abort a weeks-old pregnancy — a fact that we have to assume the producers knew but chose to portray as ignorance on the part of Lori… who otherwise does not seem like an ignorant person. I guess we gave to factor the high emotions involved in all this, but still, it ended up seeming like a scene that was placed in The Walking Dead for an initial startlement of the viewer (“OMG, she’s going to abort her baby!”) only to have an immediate flip-flop (“Oh, she’s not going to do that!”).

The other controversial moral quandry is in that barn. Hershel has a fundamentally different view of the zombies than we’ve been trained to have by the protagonists we’ve been asked to identify with. Hershel thinks they’re people, people who should not be killed. He is, in this sense, positioned as the pro-life figure and thus redefines all of the heroes as being in opposition to that. Is it possible to define killing the walking dead as being “pro-choice”?

Being the sunny optimist that I am, I hope the rest of the season, when the series returns later this winter, gets a bracing snap of energy, a surge of forward momentum in its narrative. At least with what Rick and the others have done, Hershel may finally banish them from his idyll, and the series will return to the down-and-dirty surrealism that was its initial draw.

What did you think of the final scene of The Walking Dead this week, its implications, and the season thus far in general?

Twitter: @kentucker


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