Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Chaos Theory, As Applied To Zombies

This here is a collection of thoughts about last night's Walking Dead, "Judge, Jury, Executioner".  I'll try to keep comic spoilers out of it, but obviously, the show is going to be discussed in detail, especially the game-changing ending.  You have been warned.

So much for my second-favourite character, then.  It wasn't a total shock (despite it being a major change from the comics); the entire episode seemed to be leading up to Dale whistling for crabs [1].  What's interesting though is why it needed to happen, and why it didn't happen at all in precisely the way I expected.

What I assumed was going to happen, and I've since learned from Wikipedia that Cyriaque Lamar agrees with me on this (though on nothing else), was that Dale's passionate speeches about the importance of keeping Randall alive would work, only for the boy to escape and slit Dale's throat in the process.  Lamar calls this "poetic symmetry".  I think it would add another layer of complexity onto the argument.  Let's recall our Keynes here, and also Lawrence Miles.

Lawrence Miles, for those who've not come across him, is a very smart, pretty funny, and exceptionally unpleasant man who dwells somewhere in the deepest bowels of the internet, firing off bitter tirades against those who have wronged him (mainly those involved in the new incarnation of Doctor Who [2]) which are actually usually very good indeed.  His most controversial entry regarded Mark Gatiss's "The Unquiet Dead", an episode in which the Doctor berates Rose for automatically assuming creatures inhabiting the dead bodies of people must automatically be hostile, only to apologise to her when it turns out they are.

Miles was furious over this, pointing out that modern Britain is undergoing an unprecedented level of immigration right now, and having a heroic character apologise for not being automatically suspicious of "alien" habits is somewhere between breathtakingly irresponsible and actually racist.  I'm happier with the former description than the latter, myself, but really, I don't think I'd frame it quite like that at all.  What Gatiss clearly was guilty of was bad storytelling, stemming from a misunderstanding of how the intelligent mind should function.

Which brings me to JM Keynes.  Keynes argues in A Treatise On Probability, and I paraphrase a great deal here with full apologies to the man, that how good a prediction is is entirely independent of whether the prediction turns out to be correct.  If someone holds a gun to my head and tells me I'll be shot dead unless I successfully predict the score on two dice he's about to roll, shouting out "2" is a dumb idea even if he turns out to get snake eyes.  The guy who sells his house and sinks the cash  into lottery tickets isn't right to do it even if he somehow manages to win.  A prediction can in itself be stupid, and a prediction can be reasonable based on evidence to hand that then turns out to have not been correct after all (say if you have good reason to trust the word of someone who is actually lying on this occasion), but none of this is affected by what actually happens in the end.

Rose's evidence is that an alien race from a destroyed planet wanted to emigrate to Earth, using our dead bodies as vessels.  Declaring them suspicious on the basis of that isn't cool, and doesn't become cool because later on it turns out they do have hostile intent.  The evidence possessed by those at Hershel's farm is that a young man was travelling through exceptionally dangerous terrain with a group of people willing to threaten those who oppose them with firearms, and willing to shoot those who kill their own.  When Dale tells them that's not nearly enough to justify killing a prisoner in cold blood, he's dead right (no pun intended) and crucially, he'd still be dead right if Randall turns out to be just as bad as Rick, Shane et al think he could be [3], though in that scenario clearly internal security would need work.

That's kind of what I'd sketched out in my head whilst I was watching the argument in the farm house, in any case.  The right decision is to risk it, whether or not the risk pays off.  I even thought that the way things were going, Andrea might even come out and say that after everything went south. Hardly anyone ever does in fiction (or out of it) - the only example I can think of is Professor X's insistence that he won't give up trying to rehabilitate mutants just because Sabertooth proves beyond help, and even then he made that promise before Creed escaped and tore Psylocke near in half - so it would be nice to see.

Instead, Dale is done in by a random walker.  From one perspective, that's a really frustrating way to kill off a main character (especially as the "character turns to find monster behind them" cliche was applied).  On the other hand, that's part and parcel of the whole zombie apocalypse deal; characters evade every walker they encounter, until they don't.  Sooner or later, one of them just gets lucky.

It's also a mistake I think to take Lamar's position and argue that not having Dale killed by Randall is a wasted opportunity.  That depends very much on the opportunities the Randall storyline will bring up later on. For all we know, it may throw up something much, much more interesting (I'm already wondering whether Randall may end up taking Martinez's role from the comic's fifth trade paperback, which the show will be dipping into next season).  The argument that not killing Dale with Randall should have meant not killing Dale is far stronger (though Shane too could have ended up being the one to pull the trigger, which is what for a while the show seemed to be heading to), but that's a different point.

What really bothered me about Dale's death was that it was the zombie Carl encountered that killed him.  Did Carl not think to let people know there was a walker nearby?  Didn't Rick or Lori noticed Carl's gun was missing?  What was he doing off on his own in any case; what happened to "stay where I can see you, honey"?  In other circumstances, this kind of thing bugs me.  When it's used to kill off one of the show's most interesting characters, it rises to the level of deeply aggravating.  There's a distant connection between the Randall situation and Dale's fate, in that both are about major long-term ramifications of a single decision - Carl taunting a zombie, Rick choosing not to shoot Randall - hence the title of this post, but when one of those decisions is so clearly major at the time, the link isn't really all that strong.

Overall, consider me unimpressed at how Dale was dispatched (though watching Daryl take the gun from Rick was a nice way of showing his interest in returning to the group).  On the other hand, the ramifications of losing Dale are very interesting.  As he himself said a few episodes ago, he knew he was living on borrowed time, not just because of his age but his attitude, but he was content in the knowledge that when he died, it would be with a clean conscience, and without this new world dragging him down.  That, in fact, was exactly what happened, but the question becomes: what happens to the group without Dale's input?  Glenn has more than a few flashes of empathy, but he'll be going it alone now, until and unless Andrea pulls her head from out of her arse. How long before everyone starts seeing things the same way Shane does?

After a whooooooole lot of treading water in the first half of the season, the show seems to be getting into part of the original aim of the comic books, to show how characters change as the ongoing apocalypse takes its toll.  I'm very interested to see how losing Dale feeds into that, even if the loss itself wasn't nearly as good as it could, and most certainly should, have been.

Still, at least now Jeffrey DeMunn can go back to working with Frank Darabont.  I'm more intrigued than ever over Darabont's new show, L.A. Noir, which basically seems to consist entirely of actors from The Mist and the original cast of Walking Dead, plus Simon Pegg.
[1] Best Slovenian saying ever.  Of the three I know.

[2] Strange to think that at this point the new show has been going on longer than the combined tenures of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, in terms of years if not screen time.

[2] A slight side issue here, but what the fuck is up with Hershel?  From refusing to countenance the idea of killing zombies to letting house guests decide whether to murder actual people on his land?  I get that the barn massacre has shaken his faith, but his abstention in the "do we start executing prisoners" debate really pissed me off. 

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