Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Walking Dead—Season 2

Since the release of George A. Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead nearly 50 years ago, the zombie apocalypse has grown into a cultural fascination. The notion of the dead rising to eat the living was visceral and provocative, but audiences learned quickly that zombies were not only inventive villains but also a collective vehicle for pointed social commentary. Recent years have seen zombies again become a center of intrigue, as variations have surfaced across various media platforms—from remakes and parodies of Romero’s classics, to popular zombie books and survival guides. Even Romero himself has gone back to the well, having directed three new entries in his Dead series within the last eight years.

The zombie resurgence came to a head in late 2010, when the zombie apocalypse scenario was resurrected again; this time for the small screen. Adapted from the popular graphic novel series, The Walking Dead was the latest and perhaps most sweeping rendition of the undead phenomenon. It followed Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a small-town police officer who wakes from a coma at the height of the uprising and gradually regains his bearings, unites with his family, and leads a group of survivors. Despite its conceptual similarities to a myriad of previous zombie narratives, The Walking Dead worked because it had the budget and the freedom to realize and sustain its grim vision of a decaying world. In its short first season, show runner Frank Darabont (who also directed the first episode) and his team served up haunting images of cities deserted, hospitals abandoned, suburban neighborhoods turned into war zones, and hordes of “walkers” whose insatiable need to devour human flesh was graphically depicted.

The mounting dread the show deployed so effectively was not jointedly the result of its unsparing horrors of the undead feasting on the living as well as its a vivid portrayal of society’s crumbled institutions. These aspects fostered a level of authenticity to the proceedings, no matter how preposterous the notion of a zombie apocalypse may be. That it also explicitly avoided how the uprising occurred and offered only glimpses of life before it added to The Walking Dead’s pedigree. Darabont instead keyed on the immediate sensation of fear, survival, and the burden of facing the dangerous new reality into which surviving humans have been violently cast. In whole, the first season was remarkable for how strongly it evoked the feeling of witnessing a doomsday situation play out. Blending a realistic survivalist-type scenario with a far-reaching horror premise, it successfully transmitted deep-ridden collective fears in a way that felt fresh. The show went on to great ratings, making a second season inevitable. AMC extended the the episode count from six to 13, which granted the writers more opportunity to develop the core characters and also expand on the emotional canvas introduced in the initial six episodes.

Keeping in mind the first season of The Walking Dead, as well as the storied history of zombies in popular entertainment, let’s jump to the present. The show recently wrapped its second season, prompting many reviewers to evaluate the zombie-war finale through the lens of the entire season. (Of these I recommend reading Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece, which offers his usual breadth of insight.) Since this angle has been well covered, my aim here is place the show in a broader context. First, I will consider the second season as a companion to the first season, which, as it turns out, reveals major contrasts. Then, I will reflect on the show’s attempts to internalize the vast history of zombie apocalypse representations and how this has resulted in its struggle to offer something new to the lexicon. But let’s begin with how the second season takes shape in relation to the first.

Season two fundamentally shifts the show’s course away from sensation and instead explores the philosophical implications of this scenario. Most of its episodes establish some kind of ethical struggle that takes shape via the dialogue between characters. High ambition remains a trademark of the show, but its new emphasis on dialogue and conceptual ethical dilemmas makes for a decidedly choppier and less fervent affair.

Problematic signals are clear at the outset, where in the first episode the convoy of survivors break down on a highway and is greeted by a swell of walkers. Harrowing and racked with tension, the opener makes for a great start to a season that looked well on its way to delivering more of the ingredients that made the first season so compelling. But things start to unravel soon after this narrow encounter. There is something askew about how the characters interact in the early goings of the second season. Gone is the “Gee whiz, now what do we do?” aspect of their conversations. The sense of chance no longer feels genuine, due to the fact that nearly every line of dialogue serves an explicit thematic purpose. But this turns out to be only the beginning of the show’s problems, as it would later frequently and visibly strain to underline its philosophical dilemmas.

To the writers’ credit, they swing for the fences in terms of thematic depth. But the second season's problematic approach to narrative suggests that translating thematic depth into decent character drama is a greater challenge. The show too often comes across flat when it should sizzle. It leaves many viewers feeling frustrated by the soap opera-esque manner in which conflicts are introduced and resolved. This season serves up one protracted debate after another, in which characters collide over questions morality. These include (but are not limited to): “Should we bring a child into this world?”, “Do we let someone commit suicide?”, and, taking the Dark Knight prize for the most overt bludgeoning of the viewer, “Can we kill in order to prevent future death?”. Too often the same scenarios unfold in the same manner; characters bicker over an issue before something momentous occurs at the end of the episode, which, by the way, happens to relate back to conversations preceding it. Over 13 episodes, this becomes tedious.

As the season progresses, its blemishes become associated with the farm where the characters hunker down. Inhabited by a family that slowly becomes integrated into the main cast, the farm becomes a symbol of stillness, if not tranquility. While Rick and the others find refuge in the farm’s apparent isolation from the dangers of the outside world, tensions build between characters, notably between Rick and his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). The entire season, in fact, hinges on the contrast of how differently each of these characters approach the changing conditions of an increasingly menacing world. Whereas Rick is contemplative and humane, Shane is impassioned and instinctual. The actors portray this struggle convincingly as it gradually manifests in every major plot development. However, the philosophical battle between the two is undermined by Shane’s downward spiral into isolation and self-consumption. His steady decline into villainy thereby sullies the legitimacy of his position. Yet, while I am critical of the writers for creating this link, it is worth noting that by the end of the season Rick has lost his humanity and inevitably embraces Shane’s primal disposition.

Another complaint of mine centers on the added focus on Rick’s journey toward becoming the unchallenged leader the survivors. The season ends on Rick’s assertion of power, which feels misplaced, particularly since Rick’s transition over the course of the season is generally carefully handled. Each decision weighs him more as the stakes are raised, eventually to the point that he cannot make the key decisions the group expects of him. It is a relatable struggle that Andrew Lincoln handles with sensitivity. The frustration he expresses in the last episode is reasonable, but I remain perplexed as to why—after all the show had explored this season—it whittles down to a matter of leadership.

Rick’s character arc is one of many puzzling developments throughout the second season. Several other characters are given moments to shine, but the show’s general treatment of most characters aside from Rick and Shane is keenly uneven. Take Daryl (Norman Reedus), for instance, whose obsession with finding Sophia (the little girl they lose in the opening episode) becomes a highlight of the season. Alone in the wilderness, he begins having visions of his older brother, Merill (Michael Rooker), who taunts him and dogs his better nature. But after the Sophia plotline is resolved, Daryl all but disappears for several episodes, before emerging again in the final episodes as a viewer favorite. It is as if the writers had planned to do something with his character but then realized they were giving him too much focus and threw a blanket over him. Daryl’s trajectory epitomizes how The Walking Dead inconsistently draws and incorporates characters. Often not knowing what to do with the characters, the writers resort to using them as proxies for broader emblems of leadership, chaos, or humanity. (The notion of slowing down and isolating characters from the surrounding world is not an inherently bad one. Nevertheless, fans reviled the farm as the place where nothing happens and thus it became a symbol for the show’s weaknesses. While the farm is not the source of the show’s problems, it is entirely true that next to nothing happens there, and I don’t mean that in the Samuel Beckett sense. For more on this, see Starlee Kine’s spot-on review at Vulture.)

But even in failure, The Walking Dead is always interesting. As I alluded earlier, its thematic core—although wildly inconsistent—is deftly layered. If there is one organizing idea to season two, it centers on the destructive potential of the past and remembrance. It introduces several conflicts related to the troubled histories of different characters. Specifically, it articulates how the past distorts the ability to clearly see and engage the present. For example, Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) unwillingness to see walkers for what they are puts the whole farm at risk, while Daryl and Shane are dogged by past actions that each internalizes in a different manner. Meanwhile, Rick and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) have difficulty confronting the past of their own relationship. The significance and destructive abilities of past is not always woven naturally into the plot, but it remains an provocative concept that resonates throughout the season.

Although its wider trajectory is muddled, the second season of The Walking Dead will deservedly be remembered for individual highs. Even some the rougher episodes are capable of conjuring memorable bits of visual poetry, when everything briefly comes together and creates a beautiful image or moment. Sometimes these are self-contained. Elsewhere they are powerful expressions of a previously ill-developed concept. One of these instances is Sophia’s emergence from the barn as a walker. (In my view, this is the defining moment of the series and unquestionably the second season’s best moment.) Whether it is worth the long slog through the clumsy first half of the season is debatable. Nonetheless, the scene coalesces multiple threads and character arcs into a single emotional release. Particularly after having been primed by the dispatching of dozens of walkers since the show’s start, the death of Sophia marks a rare moment in which pulling the trigger feels both necessary and impossible. This melancholy theme is only intermittently addressed in later episodes, perhaps the most eloquent variation of which is expressed late in the episode “18 Miles Out,” when Shane looks out of a car window and sees a single walker pitifully roaming a field without aim or direction.

One of the notable elements from the first season that carries over well at times in season two is the portrayal of human death. With the possible exception of Sophia’s death, there is nothing here that rivals the sight of a woman transforming into a zombie while cradled in her sister’s arms, or Rick’s merciful slaughter of a helpless zombie without legs (both scenes from the first season). But death—or rather, the decision to end a life—still has transformative significance this season. For example, although it concludes a forgettable episode, the death of Dale (Jeremy DeMunn) is wrenching both due to its suddenness and the ghastly nature in which it occurs. In addition, Rick’s intimate embrace of Shane after impaling him is one of show’s lasting images: two bodies locked together under moonlight, one quivering, the other still. I have always been fascinated by the almost carnal nature of how a zombie devours its victim, which The Walking Dead has depicted innumerable times. Thus, the physical closeness the two share as one kills the other is no doubt an allusion to this violent, yet intimate imagery and a poignant moment. Unfortunately, elsewhere, death by zombies is not always handled so gracefully and threatens to become routine. This becomes apparent during the underwhelming finale when two minor characters are casually eaten. I suppose it is ironic that during what amounts to the closest approximation of a zombie war thus far in the series, the only two human deaths come across like parody.

The contrast in death scenes is an effective metaphor for The Walking Dead’s second season. Despite offering moments of profound effect, the show struggles to strike a balance between effective character drama and its keen sense of feeling. The show’s attempts to explore the ethics of organizing and surviving might have made for good television, were it not for the awkward character renderings and staggered pacing that left many episodes feeling too drawn out for too little substance. These visible flaws tend to threaten the show’s viability as a serial drama, evident in how the writers stretch plots and reduce characters to mere tools in a philosophical dialogue. Moreover, the pronounced drawbacks of the second season prompt reflection on the fine line the show walks in its attempt to spin a zombie apocalypse into serious weekly drama. After all, through 20 episodes of zombie action, the show is bound to sometimes feel like just another zombie gangfeast. This illustrates the main problem The Walking Dead is going to face in seasons to come. The premise is not itself unworthy of a television series. But if it is to explore the real implications of society undone, the writers would be wise to gently guide the narrative and allow its nuances to develop, rather than imposing sweeping philosophical dilemmas onto it.

Sacrificing the built-in immediacy of the material, the second second season wades too deeply into ethical dilemmas and philosophical quandary and, in turn, eschews the intrinsic sensation of living in a plagued world. Fortunately, the show is rescued by individual moments that break through the mess and channel a unique clarity of feeling. These moments remind that The Walking Dead can still draw on the spectrum of sensibilities it evoked so ardently in its first season, which was direct but subtle with its observation and narrative set-up.

There is not a lot of dramatic depth to the ethical implications of a zombie apocalypse. There is, however, infinite depth to the fear, despair, and other primordial states through which survivors of a world in ruin must realign. The Walking Dead is at its best when it taps into this void, which it does sporadically in its second season. That said, despite having its share of hiccups, this season is far from a train wreck. Indeed, it plainly bares the writers’ struggles to harness, stretch, and adapt a massive concept for the small screen. And yet there is vast, un-mined potential here that compels me to reserve hope that going forward the show will settle into a rhythm, leave the philosophizing to viewers, and get back to the flesh-eating viscera that distinguished it from other television fare in the first place.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Great reviews of the show! I'll be following as these, as I'm a tremendous fan of the show. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading more.