A Fistful of Zombies: The Walking Dead
For someone who bases their livelihood on knowing crap about pop culture, The Walking Dead was a considerable blind spot in my knowledge. Up until last month, that is: after attempting to start the series twice before, the show finally grabbed me from the first episode and I’m now very nearly caught with what was once one of the best shows on televsion. With four series and a mountain of characters to deal with, I’m going to split this review into two parts-the good and the bad (I think we’ll all agree that Michael Rooker is the ugly, but more on that later).
There is a lot to recommend to Walking Dead. By the end of the first series it had cracked my top ten favorite shows; in fact, it’s only the middle dip of the fourth series that made me waver. I think what I like so much about it is that the zombie apocalypse is largely incidental, and, for the first series in particular, the show has more in common with the Western genre (the sheriff protagonist, deliberate visual nods such as said sheriff riding up to a ghost town in full regalia and behorsed) than the horror one. What matters is character and conflict, which makes for a show of far greater longevity.
The show focuses around a group of people who survived the apocalypse for whatever reason-families, individuals, both bad and good. This group is constantly changing-both in terms of actual people and in terms of dynamic-which gives the show a freshness with a revolving door of characters and the promise that everything could change at any time. I had a map in my head as to where I thought various characters would end up at the end of the first series-by the last episode, the neat lines were covered in insane crayon scribbles and zombie brains. I like that unpredictability. It also helps that many of the characters have been excellent.
Two of my favorite characters come in the form of violent men, so make of that what you will. The first is Shane; played by Jon Bernthal, who can’t really act but….
His subdued performance and the writing for the character somehow works as a spectacular example of a fall from grace. His relationship with Andrew Lincoln (the lead, Rick Grimes) is a credit to both actors, and the conclusion of their arc is devastating-a powerful but entirely logical way for the story to move on. It also marked one of the first times the show killed off an excellent character purely for storytelling purposes-having him around would undermine the potency of the plot, and killing him off was brave but utterly required. It’s done it since, and I always find it impressive/gutting when my favorite characters die.
Then there’s Merle. Merle gets a lot of hate from critics because Michael Rooker doesn’t DO subtle. The below shot is what Micheal Rooker considers “underacting”;
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Walking Dead is rarely a show of subtlety. It can be, and can do it well, but the most thrilling and brilliant sequences are the ones where shit hits the wall and it all goes mental (even in it’s weaker fourth series, the show’s eye for action never wavers). Merle is the embodiment of that. A racist, sexist, drug-abusing, amoral piece a’ redneck shit, Merle is entirely out for himself. That makes him unpredictable, and eminently fun to watch-a reminder that the zombies left behind some people they shouldn’t have. And Rooker always looks like he’s having a whale of a time-standing around cackling and torturing people, he makes Merle likable purely through manic energy and a DIY knife-arm. This is the show at it’s highest camp, but also providing it’s finest entertainment value per square minute.
The third character is Carol.
Carol starts the series as a wife and mother, and a victim of domestic abuse. Then her family dies. Huge kudos must go to Melissa McBride for her spectacular performance in taking Carol from a nervous, beaten-down creature into the Valkyrie she turns into-a strong, powerful, almost ruthless character with nothing if not the best intentions. She stands out as one of three decent female characters in the entire series’ run, but it’s her transformation that marks some of the finest writing and most interesting character development in the whole show.
A shout-out must go to Chandler Riggs, also-playing the son of the lead character Rick, he was only ten when he started playing Carl and he managed to evade annoying child syndrome, even turning out to be kind of an asskicker. He also gave way for Andrew Lincoln’s catchphrase- a bellowed “CARL!” that started out as a gruff roar and wound up a ten-syllable accented mish-mash of “CWARURLURURGHL!”.
I was really wearing the rose-tinted zombie specs for the first few seasons of the show, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. Budgetary constraints glared through in a bunch of uber-talky season 2 episodes; for some reason, they took forever to draft in any vaguely okay female characters. My case in point would be Lori, Rick’s wife- a foul, poorly acted “character” who’s only personality was based upon other people’s actions. Similarly, group member Calamity Andrea couldn’t do anything right-either she was accidentally shooting one of their own in the face or having raunchy intercourse with the blatant antagonist.
And SPEAKING of antagonists, we were treated to a turn from brilliant British character actor David Morrisey in the role of the Governor-and he was a glaring disappointment. On numerous occasions, they tried to humanize and sympathize with The Governor-and it didn’t work. He was best when massacring his own people or forcing people to fight in a pit of zombies-even David Morrisey looked bored by all the emotional pish, which managed to fill up TWO WHOLE EPISODES in the fourth season. A layered character is interesting when you make those layers interesting. Here? I wanted to see him wearing an eyepatch and roaming around in a tank. And therein lies the main problem with the show.
As it went on, The Walking Dead became a little self-indulgent. Plots slowed down where once they had been breakneck, characters were backgrounded where once they had been brilliant. Stories were dragged out, it seems, to fill airtime while they thought of something else.
And for a show which was spectacular in it’s prime, that’s a sad thing. But we can all console ourselves with this entirely warranted….oh, fuck it.