Monday, 8 November 2010

Two Walks

This has been a very good week for me (or a very bad one, depending on your perspective) zombie-wise.  Not only did I get to see the first episode of the television adaptation of The Walking Dead, but I also picked up and read the sixth volume in the hard cover series, containing issues #61 to #72.

Obviously this ghoulish glut is the perfect opportunity to wax lyrical about Kirkman's baby and Darabont's treatment of it.  The first half of this post contains a few very vague spoilers for the pilot episode.  The second half will spoil the ever-loving shit out of "Fear The Hunters" and "Life Among Them", along with all that has gone before (though rejoice! Blogspot has finally added the ability to hide things after the jump).

On first viewing, the Walking Dead series seems to have worked out exactly what it needs to be doing; taking the bare bones of a fairly decompressed 22-page comic and using it as a blueprint (indeed, from what I can gather from the Wikipedia article the first series is six issues long, which may or may not mean the season ends in the same place as "Days Gone Bye" does). It manages to very successfully tread the fine line between offending purists and being very much its own story.

In fact, it's potentially telling that the best scenes in the pilot are those that owe least to what's contained in the comic.  Morgan and Duane's predicament in particular - the regular return of the "walker" that was once wife and mother - is genuinely affecting, and makes a fascinating character out of someone who existed for almost nothing more then exposition in the comic version of "Days Gone Bye".  I already care what happens to these characters, whereas the comic took most of the first two chapters to convince me that it was anything other than a pale retread of 28 Days Later.

Speaking of which, the pilot episode retains the most obviously cribbed idea from Danny Boyle's film; hero-wakes-up-in-abandoned-hospital, but Darabont has enough fun with it to make it entirely forgivable.  Especially pleasing is the pitch-black stairwell descent, a four-match journey in which you're sure that each light struck will reveal something monstrous; only for Rick to escape unmolested into an ocean of filled body-bags and a wrecked military outpost.  It's a nice way to avoid cliche and/or impose reality, much like not having anyone throw up at the sight of dead bodies or having gunshot inside a tank cause ear damage (the one mis-step: a couple who killed themselves after writing "GOD FORGIVE US" in blood on their own walls. This seems to be a traditional part of post-apocalyptic fiction, but I refuse to believe that anybody would ever actually do it.)

Further, Rick himself works better than I'd expected.  I've generally had a hard time taking Andrew Lincoln seriously as anything other than a well-meaning, immature bumbler (This Life, Teachers), but he might just be able to turn me around this time.  He hasn't sold me yet, but nor does such a sale seem impossible to imagine.

In short: so far, so good.  Can't wait to see what happens next.

(I mean it, people; MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead)

Of course, if the show lasts long enough, we already have a good idea what's going to happen eventually: "Fear the Hunters" and "Life Among Them". I wasn't massively impressed with Volume 5 (Chapters 9 and 10), in all honesty.  "Here We Remain" just about held itself together as a pause for breath and a counting of the cost after "Made To Suffer", but it's hard to imagine it working over a six-month period.  "What We Become" was a little better'; taking us another step further down the road of Rick's dehumanisation, but beyond that, its only two new ideas (as oppose to the standard "look for food/argue about where to stay/fight zombies" process we all know by heart at this point) is the concept of zombie "herds" (nice idea; stupid name) and the arrival of new survivor Eugene, who claims to be a DC shed-head with classified information on how the zombie outbreak started.

This seemed a really clever idea to me.  After nine chapters (or fifty four issues, or four and a half years, depending on how you want to count), Kirkman seemed like he was ready to move on from simple tales of survival and onto the situation behind the scenes (think of it as progressing from Dawn of the Dead to Day of the Dead; with presumably similar chances of it all working out in the end).  Not only would this potentially satisfy (or at least silence) people like me who enjoy a bit of mystery solving with their horror, but it also gives the survivors a goal.  As Commander Adama points out to Laura Roslin all the way back in the BSG miniseries; it's not enough to just survive.

Onwards, then, to "Fear The Hunters", which is very much about what happens when survival is all you can still imagine.  When the "real world" is so much of a distant memory that your thinking process changes.  I'm not sure I particularly buy Ben's sudden transformation (dissected cats notwithstanding) to the amoral murderer of his own twin, but it makes a certain grim sense: he simply never had anyone to explain to him why killing is wrong, and has watched everyone at everyone's throats for over a year. 

Ben's devolution of morality (which immediately leads to Carl's decision to do what needs to be done; humanity be damned) mirrors the entire group, of course.  If their time living in the prison persuaded Rick that they themselves were "the walking dead", then "Fear The Hunters" is about the realisation - already hinted at but finally dawning on everyone - that survival and morality may be mutually exclusive.

This is probably why Dale, one of only a handful of characters to have survived since "Days Gone Bye" finally meets his end.  Through everything, Rick has had three different voices to act as facets of his conscience; Dale, Tyreese, and Lori.  But Tyreese and Lori are both dead now; and Dale is the only person left with any real chance (or perhaps desire) to temper Rick's increasingly paranoid and bloodthirsty outlook.  Well, to paraphrase Principal Snyder, that's exactly the kind of woolly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten by zombies and cannibals (in that order).  Rick's planning and fearlessness ensures our heroes get the jump on their cannibalistic stalkers before another life is lost, but for the first time there is a distinct implication that Rick is acting in revenge, rather than just the need to survive.  Killing the cannibals probably was necessary (though other options existed).  Tying them down and mutilating them?  Harder to see anything but vengeance in that.

But then, this has always been one of the overall themes of the book.  Each time Rick and his companions meet a new bunch of villainous survivors, they lose a little of themselves in the fight.  They become infected, as surely as if they were bitten by a roamer.  And now, there's no-one left to keep Rick from succumbing completely.

That's what makes "Life Amongst Them" so heartbreaking.  Rick's company finally find themselves a genuine refuge; a gated community near Washington D.C. with food, power, and hot water.  A group who (in general) welcome them almost without reservation (their only demand: that no-one walks around armed).  Finally, a semblance of normality is once again possible.  It's so remarkable a development that I can almost forgive Kirkman for revealing Eugene never knew anything about the outbreak to begin with, though even so I'd point out that whilst a science teacher pretending to be a zombie expert is an excellent survival technique, it isn't necessarily going to be a well-received development after readers have spent a year impatient to know what exactly is going on.

It is, then, the first time that our heroes have come across other people in better straits than themselves, and who more importantly haven't had to survive in the same way.  After fourteen months fighting off ever more vicious foes, Rick has ended up surrounded by people more civilised than he is and he can't work his head around it.  This time he is the disruptive influence.  He's the guy who you need to keep an eye on. As his new hosts give him razor blades, clothes, duties and food, he plots ways to spy on them.  As they host a party to celebrate his arrival, he thinks of ways to steal back his guns. Everything points to this situation building to a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Kirkman always promised that Rick would end up unrecognisable from how he started off in issue #1, and this is the next step.  The Walking Dead started off with his greatest enemy being the zombies.  Eventually that changed, and what kept him awake at night was the fear of other survivors.

Now, though, his enemy is himself.  And if he doesn't work that out quickly, he's going to lose, and he's going to lose big.

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