Sunday, 8 December 2013

Too Soon Returned?

"Who's that new guy behind Tyreese? He's never been in the show before.
I certainly hope nothing bad happens to him!"

Collected thoughts on the first half of Walking Dead season 4? That'll be chock-full of spoilers, then...

A Better Wildfire

Since these eight episodes were very much an ordeal of two halves, let's bow to generations of tradition and tackle them in chronological order.  The flu epidemic that formed the backdrop for the first five episodes was basically fantastic. The show could definitely stand to spend time thinking about obstacles for our survivors to face that don't stem directly from a zombie horde or a bunch of antagonistic jerks, and a once-manageable virus killing with abandon in the new world order certainly fits that bill.

It was a particularly smart choice - one the comics never thought of - to use the virus to turn the very insular security the prison offers into a source of oppression. Combine with some savvy direction, and a typically wonderful turn from Scott Wilson (the show will miss him a great deal, I think) and you get an episode like "Internment", a strong contender for the best episode the show has delivered so far; all constricted corridors and poor lighting. The show is finally hitting the horror beats it's been circling around since it kicked off, helped along by the score. McCreary seems to be channelling the spirit of Romeo's Dawn of the Dead, which strikes me as eminently sensible.

Another obvious benefit here is to force the survivors to run through a completely different set of equations regarding how to stay alive.  Not everyone seems to be happy with Carol's sudden switch from a woman desperate to keep people safe into a callous and short-sighted murderer, but I thought it worked perfectly well.  The way people react to a virus would be very different to how they react to being chased by shuffling undead monsters. Besides, the whole focus of Carol's arc over the last season has been how she has become more ruthless in how she treats enemies of her adopted family.  The question of what happens when one of those family members becomes the enemy was always going to lead to some unpalatable answers.

(It also laid bare something that has been lurking beneath the surface since the show began. In this new world, the only options available for transgressors are forgiveness, banishment, and execution. Having such a limited number of options, and with no clear consensus of which should be applied in any given circumstance, it was only ever a matter of time before problems bubbled to the surface.)

That still leaves the problem of how implausible Carol's solution was, of course. This feeds into what is probably the most sensible criticism of these episodes - once again, our heroes seem to be acting like utter idiots.  Whilst to a certain extent shouting at the TV over poor decisions feels a little like armchair zombie-surviving, there's no question that, for example, failing to lock the cell doors of fatally ill people who could turn at any time was obnoxiously stupid, making the subsequent zombie outbreak feel utterly cheap.  More to the point, it was completely unnecessary; the second iteration was both far better shot and structured, and came at a point where so many were dead and dying of the flu that the failure to contain the resulting walkers made far more sense.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Really, though, the biggest problem with the initial flu outbreak, and for that matter with the Governor's assault in "Too Far Gone", is that the show has gone back to the lazy approach it took with "Vatos" all the way back in season one, whereby survivors never seen or heard of before suddenly start showing up in the background of shots so that they can be killed off later in the episode.

I hate this approach in horror.  It's just a way of upping the body count without having to engage in any consequences.  It's particularly galling in this genre, because one of the central themes of the zombie post-apocalypse is that so humans remain alive that every death is a tragedy.

The comic gets this entirely.  I may be forgetting someone - I haven't gone back to check -  but I don't believe there is anyone, save active antagonists, who dies in the comics without us knowing their name until, at the very least, volume nine.  Every death is a gut-punch.  Surrounding Rick et al with one hit-point nameless mooks weakens the show, and was something I'd hoped it had moved beyond. The tendency to introduce new survivors who almost always die before the episode is out doesn't help here either. It takes the show away from the "no-one is safe" atmosphere of the comics that makes reading them so harrowing.

(Of course, maybe you don't like your fiction harrowing.  That's a perfectly valid viewpoint. But in that case, are you sure zombie TV shows are really for you?)

Re-Rise of the Governor

The three episodes chronicling the return and assault of the Governor seem to have gone down quite badly in some areas.  The suggestion has been put forward that having the finales to season 3 and the first half of season 4 both revolve around the Governor attacking the prison is an odd choice.  Why not just have the original attack succeed rather than spend eight episodes dallying?

Whether or not this is a convincing argument depends on how much you thought of the flu arc.  For my money, that was a sufficiently well-told story that forcing the survivors out of the prison eight episodes earlier and thus not being able to tell it - at least in the supremely atmospheric manner the prison allowed - would have been an obvious mistake (there's also been groundwork here for what looks like the show tackling one of the most uncomfortable story-lines the comic ever tried). So too would have removing the battle against the Governor at the end of season three.  A little cathartic release and a genuine victory for our heroes was just what was needed in a show where so little ever goes right, and a conclusion in which neither side really gained anything would have felt very anaemic and unsatisfying after a whole season's build-up to a confrontation.

So I'm not persuaded by those who see a problem in Prison Assault 2.  A more difficult criticism to knock aside is whether there was any need for us to spend two episodes trapped inside the bleak soap opera "What the Governor Did Next". The idea of attempting to redeem the Governor never seemed like a good one, and in the end the show didn't really go in that direction anyway.  Did we really need to see two episodes showing how the Governor got a whole new bunch of people to follow him just like the last group of suckers did?

I'm going with yes.  The execution might be lacking, but I can't complain about the show not giving enough of a damn about its cannon fodder and then bitch that we got to know the Governor's new army a little bit.  "Live Bait" and "Dead Weight" only really fail if you assume they exist entirely to chart the progress of the Governor.  As soon as you consider Libby, Tara and Megan as characters of interest in themselves, the complaint starts to lose its strength.  If nothing else, having people we know and sympathise on both sides of the prison shoot-out offers more than the simple Us vs Them mentality of the previous prison battle (Alisha's fate is particularly saddening in this light).

Even the Governor's arc itself, certainly the weakest aspect of these three episodes, is not without merit. In practice it proved a mess, granted. I know I wasn't the only one to marvel as he screamed about not wanting to be a leader anymore as he was killing the current leader. The reasons why he changed his mind on the issue were barely even sketched out. The loss of his "adopted daughter" to a zombie (which was impeccably shot - watching Libby watch the walker as it tried to cross the river was superbly shot) while he was off making war on the grounds he was protecting her was sledgehammer subtle.

Dig through all that, though, and what was aimed for perhaps becomes clear.  It seems to me that the Governor's problem is that he has no interest in leadership, but that he simply cannot allow anyone else to make a leadership decision he disagrees with.  He doesn't want the responsibility, actively rails against having it, but he can never allow anyone else to make a call different from the one he would choose.

It is this - forgive me - cyclops-like focus that makes the Governor more than just a hissable villain. He is the dark mirror of Rick not so much because Rick is sane and the Governor is crazy - there's no question Rick is unbalanced, nor that the Governor was genuinely more helpful to Tyreese's group than Rick during season three - but because Rick was able to relinquish power and the Governor wasn't.  Nor can he let go of grudges. He insists on talking to Rick even when he learns Grimes isn't the leader of the group anymore.  He still wants to punish Michonne for what she's done, so he makes his point instead by killing Hershel, even though by any rational measure Michonne is the greater threat to him whilst she remains alive.

It's this comparison of two men who went to war a few months earlier that makes the last three episodes of this half-season work, I think. That and it gives the Governor's ultimate death more meaning for it coming at the hands of someone we know he's wronged, rather than simply a henchwoman turned against him. I hope we see more of Libby and Tara after this.

Oh, and for the record? Turning your enemies into a zombie pond: flat out awesome.

A Bloody Basinet

One last thought: is Judith really dead?  Generally in such shows the rules are simple: don't see a body, they ain't dead. One wonders whether even this show would have the balls to show a baby snatched by zombies, however, which makes it difficult to know whether the show is teasing her return or simply showing some restraint.

Of course, if it's the latter, then I'd really rather the show had shown more restraint and not killed Judith off. Far too many TV shows tend to shuffle babies off-screen as quickly as possible (The X-Files and Angel are simply the first two examples that spring to mind); it would be nice for a show to follow through on the idea for once rather than tossing them aside so as to have more free reign.

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