Coronavirus Diary: Supernatural Episodes 1-3

I, like a lot of wordy people out there, have been wondering what to do to document America in the Time of Quarantine as it happens. I am still working full time, so I don’t have tons of time to devote to such a project, even if I weren’t riding the edge of anxiety and depression all the time. Plus, just about everything is shit: It was my birthday yesterday; today my beloved guinea pig died; I haven’t seen my mom closer than ten feet away in a month. I have no bandwidth for reading anything that offers less than an unequivocal happy ending, so I don’t feel up to going back through my to-read pile of Nebula winners and other thoughtful stuff I have on deck. It’s just not going to happen.

So, you know, I started watching Supernatural. Obvi.

I probably won’t have anything new to say about a show that’s gone 15 seasons and has spawned roughly 8 gajillion reaction gifs. I’m not even watching that closely. But this here may or may not become my shelter-in-place exercise. It’s entirely possible I’ll give it up or try something else next week. That’s fine too. So, without much further ado, here are my scattered thoughts about epis one through three of the first season of Supernatural.

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

Like many, or even most pilots — especially on network television — the pilot episode arm-wheels its way through both character development and exposition. It’s chock full of “As you know, Bob” style dialogue, and character conflict that feels not just manufactured, but fake. There’s a genuinely scary opening with a nuclear family that ends with mama on fire and a young child taking his infant brother out of a burning building. Flash forward twenty something years: Younger brother Sam is visited by older brother Dean in such a way as to make Dean seem like a creeper. Dean is gross about Sam’s girlfriend, insulting about Sam’s field of study, and generally passive-aggressive. Hey dad is missing, you should come with me, etc. Sam reluctantly sets off with Dean to find their dad, and, like fight some demons or whatever. They bumble into a vanishing hitchhiker situation that’s equal parts exploitation film and freaking creepy. They vanquish the ghost, and when they return to Sam’s apartment, he finds his girlfriend on fire, magically, the same way his mother was, fade to black.

This was a good pilot in many ways. I thought the supernatural stuff (ahem) was well done in terms of stagecraft (or whatever this is called in television) though a little overdone in terms of exposition and explanation of the occult occurrences. You could see the writers reaching for that twist, which is fine, if a little obvious. Frankly, we cut the cord so many years ago (indeed, about the time Supernatural began airing) that I’m sometimes surprised by network television’s storytelling styles. Everything is so bald and open, and so much of the run-time feels like filler. A network season has 20-ish hour-long episodes to fill with neat narratives of rising action and denouement, which definitely affects how an evolving narrative is told. Supernatural, even just in its opening episode, feels X-Files old school, like I can predict that there will be several episodes that are monster-of-the-week, cut with one that’s more mythology heavy. Maybe that will change in later seasons, but that’ s what I’m going to expect from season one.

When you put the pilot of Supernatural up against, say, the first episode of Killing Eve (which is probably not a fair comparison, but I watched it real recently), it’s notable how much text is subtext and the other way around in their requisite storytelling styles. Episode one of Killing Eve has this running joke about a birthday party from which Eve and some of her co-workers are suffering hangovers. The party wasn’t planned! It was impromptu! all the party-goers keep exclaiming. Eventually it clicks that one dude in the office — an officious dickish manager type — wasn’t invited to the birthday party, is salty about that, and everyone who was at the party is trying to pretend they didn’t plan and participate in a party without him, on purpose. This is never spelled out explicitly; you just have to figure it out for yourself.

Supernatural, but contrast, enacts the most drearily obvious dialogue, where one character announces his motivations, and then the other one does, on and on, in addition to explaining both internal and external states explicitly. Every single physical object and clue is carefully laid out; all motivations made clear in dialogue. The supernatural is completely legible, it just takes a Buffy-ish search of the public library microfiche to divine its motivations. As bad as this was, the parts of the opening episode that detail the supernatural — most of which are without dialogue — are scary and effective. So far, this is the stuff to keep watching for.

Season 1, Episode 2: “Wendigo”

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s generally true: having more than a little knowledge about a specific subject means you’re not going to accept sloppy, half-assed bullshit about said subject, even if it’s “just fiction”. (Which, don’t get me started about that one.) I am not going to pretend to have any real expertise in the folklore of Native America, but I do know, as a lifelong resident of Minnesota and a student of folklore, that literally everything about the monster of the week in this episode, the Wendigo, is completely hot garbage. They lampshade this a little in the episode when Dean announces that he’s never seen a wendigo outside of the upper Midwest, but they’re in Colorado so shrug emoticon. I do not understand why this episode wasn’t set anywhere from northern Minnesota to upstate New York — that’s the range for the source material. A cursory google will turn this up.

That Native American folklore and culture is treated shabbily ends up becoming a theme of the first season, if the first half dozen episodes are any indication. It’s all completely confused if not blatantly racist, treating the hundreds of cultures on the north American continent as interchangeable, throwing language, customs, and beliefs of wildly different native peoples together in an insulting mishmash. Imagine a story about a creature called a rusulka who lived on Mt Olympus and could be vanquished with a stake through the heart. Now imagine that story was being told by a member of culture which committed genocide upon the entire continent where those stories originate.

The Wendigo is understood to have been born in hunger. It is a human transformed by cannibalism into a monster that preys on humanity. That the Winchester brothers bumble in, and work to protect bunch of stupid, ill-prepared white people from its vengeance feels tone deaf if not cruel. Especially because the Winchester brothers are the absolute worst godamn hikers of all time. Look, I’m not even especially outdoorsy, but I grew up in an outdoorsy family so I know some stuff about not freaking dying on a hike in a state park. You need water, a liter per day per person at minimum. If you’re going on a more rugged hike, off the marked and groomed trails, you need the bare minimum of gear to pitch some horrible lean-to if the weather goes south and you have to bunker down for the night. The hike the brothers are going on is described as challenging — the sister of the lost hikers has gone so far as to hire a guide — so it feels nuts that they show up with a duffel bag full of guns, and nothing else: no water, no food (except for some half eaten bag of snacks), bad shoes, leather jacket.

So, this episode is dumb, but at least I got all excited about seeing not one but two! Canadian actors I know from DaVinci’s Inquest, a police procedural set in Vancouver which I was obsessed with some some reason in the early 00s.

Season 1, Episode 3: “Dead in the Water”

While there were some aspects of this episode I did not enjoy — I loathe the trope of the traumatized slash autistic child who learns to communicate through the self-serving ministrations of some rando — “Dead in the Water” began to make the folkloric source material work for it, and not the other way around. There was a legitimate plot twist concerning the motivations of the monster of the week, one that looks at first to be some version of the Loch Ness or Lake Champlain Monster.

“Dead in the Water” also features a fresh-faced Amy Acker, presumably in the interregnum between Angel and Person of Interest. She manages to take a stock “mama’s worried about her boy”- style character (which we will encounter a lot in later episodes) and complicate her feelings and motivations. Largely, those worried mama character serve as light romantic possibilities for one of the brothers, and that holds true here. (This time it’s Dean.) But she lends a moroseness and almost resignation to the character which I liked, even if it was impossible fully to transcend the self-serious and overly expository dialogue. Complaints aside, “Dead in the Water” was still the best episode to date.

Three is a magic number for a lot of series: the third season is often the best, or, conversely, where the show goes completely bonkers and just starts doing whatever. Sometimes this is one and the same. I feel like the writers only start getting comfortable with the Winchester brothers at the very end of the season, but episode three is where that begins to coalesce. Sure, fine, I’ll keep watching.

I Hope the Smoking Man’s in This One: Every Sigh, The End

Do you remember, back in the day, when the X Files was young and not stupid, and the absolute thrill you would get out of the paranoid conspiracy and narrative sleight of hand? The clock was ticking, loudly, on the end of the millennium, the Y2K bug was creating hysterics in op-ed pieces everywhere, and the dot-com bubble was foaming its way to Bethlehem to burst. (Sorry, I know it’s cheap to mis-quote Yeats here, but I can’t help it.) The actual turn of the millennium was something of a collective sigh, when the planes didn’t fall out of the sky or the reactors didn’t melt down.

I remember lolling in a hotel room on the afternoon of Dec 31, 1999, watching footage of the celebrations in Australia and Myanmar, having the non-chemically induced sense of vertigo when you realize that the date as we have constructed it, globally, begins in a specific place, and then sweeps inexorably over the earth. If, for some ridiculous reason, something did go wrong on the Date Line, the rest of us would just have to sit and watch as the day crawled toward us. (Before you freak out: yes, I know that stuff like international airlines are oriented to GMT, but I’m on the other side of that, and the world revolves around me, ‘kay?)

So the millennium came and went, and we swept up the confetti, folded up our cargo pants – seriously, I have wacky theory about how all of the late-90s paramilitary fashion was some sort of collective sartorial acting out of our apocalyptic anxieties – and then went back to work. (See also: Hummers.) Then came 9/11, and the other shoe dropped hard and indisputably. It was the end of the world as we knew it. I remember watching a shitty made-for-tv movie called Y2K in November of 1999, and howling with laughter while Ken Olin, in the world’s longest sweater, raced to, I don’t know, find his kid and stop a nuclear melt-down, intercut with the worst CGI in the world of planes dropping like stones once the date caught up with them. Fly, pilot, fly! But you can’t outrun time! Muhahahaha! But then the planes did fall out of the sky. Worse still, they didn’t fall, but were flown out, with malevolent agency.

In many ways, Every Sigh, The End by Jason Hornsby is a period piece about the turn of the millennium, but one that could only be written after the hard historical fact of 9/11. I think I’m about the age of the author, so all of the post-college melt-down, the Xer almost-resignation towards generational uselessness, the keg-stands, band t-shirts & cheerless stoner depravity rang true. The plot has a wigged-out, origami-like feel that evokes the best of the late 90s paranoid fantasies (again, before they got stupid): X-Files, Matrix, Dark Skies. Only this time without the sweet outfits, sense of purpose, meaning, or human affection.

Zombie stories, are on some level, about the way narcissism veers uncomfortably to nihilism, and this doesn’t veer so much as drive headlong, with motherfucking agency. I don’t mean to imply that Hornsby on the side of the terrorists – hi FBI – but there’s some smart commentary in here about tragedy and voyeurism; the ways in which death & degradation are used as a spectacle solely for the purpose of personal catharsis of the protagonist/viewer-by-proxy.

This sucks, of course, compromised by the dangerous vanity that the suffering of others is an extension of personal ego, and therefore other people are unreal. The idea of conspiracy is so satisfying precisely because it confirms that we are so important that it takes an entire shadowy government agency to thwart our inherent awesomeness. (Hi FBI!) Hornsby charts these uneasy themes with an understanding towards the genre conventions that goes deeper than the usual fast v. slow, space rays v. viruses, bothersome physics of the worst of the genre.

BUT there are some things I didn’t dig, like the fact that every instance of the word end is in bold, or when anyone sighs it’s accompanied by some variation of the phrase “a horribly unoriginal gesture”. Okay, I get it, put the mallet away. The opening section is tedious, with way too much banter, floundering, and essays about genre. There are good reasons for the way this plays out, really, better than most: We’re meant to submerge ourselves in the douchebag ennui of the protag – called Holden by his girlfriend, natch – but I felt kind of pruny and overheated by the time I got out of the hot tub and into the blood bath.

And my most shallow complaint: this has the most vomitous cover, truly awful. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for putting a book this good in a cover that crappy.

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

Resurrection, and the Returned: “I’m not sure it would be a good thing.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched network television, I realized halfway through the premiere episode of Resurrection, which is the newest revived-from-the-dead offering on tv. (Though I’m not bothering to google this, there are several such shows in production at the moment, I am given to understand.) Though I kind of can’t imagine network tv taking on the latent and blatant nihilism and grimdark nature of the zombie show – despite Walking Dead‘s cable ascendancy – I could see the more domestic concern of people in a small town returned years after their deaths working as a sort of Lost-ish mystery show. Who returned Laura Palmer?

Network television can pull off the Gothic melodrama, with even creature-of-the-week procedurals like early seasons of the X-Files bending towards the childhood traumas and interpersonal machinations of the principles. Alas, what I got from Resurrection was a whole mess of anxiety about whether the viewer was even going to buy the premise. The cold open works as an image – this boy in the rice paddies and his collapse in a Chinese town – but once the cut-rate X-Files agents get involved, it all goes downhill. A seriously put upon agent of ICE, which might be the least sexy of all federal agencies, picks up a boy who has been repatriated to the US because obvs he’s an American? Why are we being showed this travel time? Start in China, switch to the small town. Also no, the agent doesn’t just haul off to magical New England town just on the say-so of some rando kid.

The thing that killed me about Resurrection was how arm-wheeling the emotional and social problems are, all of these painful conversations with ICE ICE agent, man of exposition and explication, reiterating over and over how obvious the stakes are. The childhood friend of the resurrected boy now a priest, stuttering through his homily as the boy’s mother ushers him into the pew. The fact that every single person in Stars Hollow appears to be related to the resurrected boy, down to his doc. Also, you are seriously not allowed to put a lynching joke in the mouth of Omar Epps in a show this white, no. After the joke, my husband yelled, “Omar Epps, everybody!” Sorry, that’s a fail.

There was altogether too much hugging, speechifying, and shaming going on in Resurrection for my taste. I do not even get why everyone ragged on resurrected boy’s dad for not believing this miraculous kid was his, even though the boy was unchanged after 20 years and reappeared on the other side of the planet. I get that Americans don’t like skepticism or science, but this is beyond the emotional pale for me. I’m going to need some time, DNA tests notwithstanding, to accept this manifest creature of a family’s grief as something other than its shocking reiteration. Quit mansplaining what I should think, ABC, sheesh. (Also, total waste of a few of my favorite character actors, especially the boy’s parents.)

Which was why the first episode of The Returned, “Camille”, was so damn good. The events occur in a small town in the French Alps, with four or five – its not entirely clear – people returning to their lives after years of the absence of death. Camille dies in a bus accident with 38 other people. Years later, we watch a group therapy group consider the monument to the loss that is to be installed in order to enact their dubious healing. Camille comes home and her mother follows her through the house, shaking, getting her a robe, pulling down the half-considered shrine on her dresser. “Why did you rearrange all my clothes?” the girl asks, and the mother doesn’t answer. A creepy boy keeps being framed through glass. A morpho eugenia butterfly, pinned to a display case, flutters, and then breaks free.

a morpho eugenia butterfly

There is little dialogue in The Returned, more a series of reaction shots and tight Gothic interiors interspersed with tight Gothic landscapes: a reservoir, a row of suburban alpine houses, an underground walkway with flickering lights. None of the relationships are telegraphed in megaphone dialogue, but in subtle nods of the head. Camille’s parents are divorced now, but were not 4 years ago when she died. “Tu fumes?” she asks her dad, as he pinches a shuddering cigarette with his ex-wife beyond the glass of the sliding door, hissing at each other, what are we going to do? What do you even say, years past someone’s death? How awful would their return be, a tearing of all the scar tissue, both personal and societal?

I don’t mean to keep hat-tipping Twin Peaks, even though I do, but there’s something here that reminds me of that. Not in the pin-wheeling grotesquery of Lynch’s middle America,  but in the Gothic dread of the small town, the flickering iteration of civic grief, and the half-careful invocation of the supernatural, like a shrine swept suddenly into a drawer. (Also because the cinematography is gorgeous.) When the priest avows the durability of the human soul and then demurs about the resurrection of the body – “I’m not sure it would be a good thing” – I was all in. I suspect there will be fewer answers in The Returned than there will be in Resurrection, which I count as a good thing. There is no answer to grief.

Review: Walking Dead: 30 Days Without an Accident

Walking Dead offers very few meta moments where the writers tip their hands and remind you this is a show. It’s far too earnest for that, blending tightly constructed spectacle against the almost drearily telegraphed lack-of-soap operatics of living post-apocalypse. So it was fun to a see a little fan moment, where Carol and Daryl are chatting about Daryl’s new standing as trusted badass with the new members of the prison group, and she tells him to accept the love. She also calls him pooky. This was a just adorable nod to Reedus’s fan-favorite status, and threw a bone to us Carol/Daryl shippers who want acknowledgement that Carol and Daryl are going to get married and have like a million babies.

As far as the rest of the episode went, it was a fairly perfect example of the things Walking Dead tends to get right with just enough stuff to worry me about what the writers think they are doing that I’m not too comfortable. Which in some ways is meta in it’s own way. This season looks to be about how the prison population has adjusted to the new normal with a modicum of safety and competence, and how that’s going to go to shit. Everything from the cold open, which was, per the best of them, wordless and packed with meaningful detail, to the almost casual beginning as the group goes to loot the Piggly Wiggly shows how our group has built strategies and coping mechanisms for their new world. They’re not running anymore; they’re not just sitting still; they’re building.

One of the things Walking Dead has always knocked out of the park are their gory action set-pieces, and “30 Days Without an Accident” delivers in spades. Because of the Big Bad last season, many of the set-pieces felt small or freighted with emotional weight that the characters cannot deliver (though the actors sometimes could, despite writing failures.) The zombies-as-threat had given way to humans-as-threat, which is a perfectly cromulent dramatic shift, but I don’t think Walking Dead has ever pulled off character work that convincingly. Too many torture sequences, too many growled conversations, too much posturing, not enough fucking zombies eating your face. There was too much set in the set pieces, like the zombie MMA sequences that felt like they were occurring on a sound-stage in Burbank.

But the Piggly Wiggly sequence: this was awesome. My husband and I screamed and sang “It’s raining zombies!” though the whole thing, shrieking when the bodies hit the ground, doing that thing where you shift out of the way like you can make the character see the zombie coming right for them! It was glorious and disgusting, and maybe more importantly, it established the themes for the season. So yeah, you’re clever with drawing out all the walkers with a boombox wired to some car batteries and you’re tight formation but you didn’t factor in the rotting infrastructure of a World Without Us. (One of Weisman’s observations about what happens to human-built structures with no maintenance: if you want to take down a house, cut an 18 inch square hole in the roof and stand back. About a year should do it.)  The crew have adjusted to zombies, but they haven’t adjusted in many ways to the changing parameters of the world. The rot isn’t just in the splashing bodies, but in everything, even the living. We’re all just meat sacks in the end. We kill or we die. Or we die and then we kill.

Which brings me to  the disease outbreak in the prison. This storyline has a lot of potential, and seems a logical extension of the whole zombie mechanism we have here. If anyone who dies turns, and anyone can die from even mundane illnesses, you have a situation were there needs to be a lot more security even within relative safety. But I’m a little perplexed by the conversations about naming things – the pig, then the walkers – and what this was supposed to be about. Here we are, three plus years from the zombie apocalypse, and people (though admittedly children) are having conversations about the relative humanity of walkers? Who even does that? If this is supposed to be some broad semaphore that the kids from Shelbyville are out of touch, then that’s pretty lame, given what they’ve undoubtedly been through since the shitshow at the end of last season.

Rick’s conversation with Crazy Irish was a similar mix of good stuff and perplexing. I liked her truncated and obviously obfuscating stories about what happened to her and her group after the world went to hell, but this sequence (fairly long sequence) didn’t do much other than set up an unsurprising reveal, and did almost nothing for Rick’s character that hasn’t been done before. (Also, thanks for the bullet point conversation with Hershel. “I could be her” indeed, Rick.) I did like the bit where Rick didn’t even go to look at the zombaby, because in a world of horrors, who needs another one? But like the conversations between Glenn and Maggie, this was mostly wheel-spinning retreading of “conflicts” that have never had much juice, and are getting thin with reiteration. If that isn’t a mixed metaphor. Moving on.

I think I’m in the stray observations part of the essay. I’m pleased to see Michonne both smiling and joking! – who even knew that was possible – and I liked seeing Beth doing something other than having huge liquid eyes. She’s given a boyfriend and a fairly interesting monologue after he’s dispatched, which makes me wonder if she isn’t bullseyed for death next episode. Walking Dead has a fairly annoying tendency to dispatch minor characters right after they are given absolutely anything to do – RIP T-Dog, and mustached pedobear, and every black character not still living, and Milton – so I don’t have much hope for her continued survival. I still hate gravitas-mouthpiece Hershel with a white hot intensity. The dude who got stuck under the wine bottles: this was a fairly hilarious sequence where he’s obviously telegraphing his temptation to the drop and then WHAM, a huge metaphor just fell on your legs. I almost took joy in it, because it was so ham-fisted.

This episode felt mostly like scene-setting, which I don’t count as a bad thing. Here is our new normal, and here are the threats to that normal. So far, I don’t see anything (or anyone) arising as the new Big Bad – Michonne’s obviously off on a hunt for the Governor, but that’s not given much time. I’m not sure that’s a problem, exactly, because Walking Dead seems to falter when drawing out conflicts based on personality or (God help us) philosophy. I would be incredibly happy to see a season based on more mundane, personal, physical survival mechanics, the heretofore interstitial pieces like Carol’s knife lessons given more prominence.  Much as I like watching them die, I want to see how they live, and not as some abstract conceptual piece, but on a nuts and bolts level. We’ll see how that goes for me.

Review: Walking Dead: Welcome to the Tombs

Man, I’ve really blown it posting the review for the third season Walking Dead finale, Welcome to the Tombs in a timely manner. Sorry. Here it is now!

I’ve never been much of a gamer, and I think some of this was the clumsiness of some of the earliest video games in their storytelling. I freely admit I haven’t engaged in the newer, more complex narratives – the barrier to entry in cost of platform and the games themselves is too high – so I’m going off of the oldschool stuff like LucasArts games from waaaay back in the day, Myst, and Mortal Kombat. I wanted to set my 386 on fire when, in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I had to pilot a fucking balloon over some fucking thing, and my clumsy letter-punching resulted in that balloon being on fire. Which, good. You be on fire, asshole.

The real problem was that, before the burning dirigible section of the game, Fate of Atlantis wasn’t really about flying a godamn balloon, but about poking around and having conversations and solving puzzles. Or take Mortal Kombat. I loved fighting my sister or my bff Suzy (who is a very serious gamer) through the game, trash-talking and trying to figure out the fatality sequence that would make that one dude suck your near defeated enemy’s bones out. That was fresh. I even went so far as to play against the computer, and made it all the way to the big boss.

The problem with the big boss (which may or may not be pictured above, as my googling skills are not great) was that he was so much unbelievably harder to beat than anyone ever. Johnny Cage? Girly-man. Sonja? Take that. Boss man? OMIGOD YOU HAVE SIX ARMS AND NOW I’M ON FIRE. There was no steady escalation of skills, no smooth leveling up, but fighting a bunch of people and then getting murdered. I never did beat that jerk, and I ended up resenting having to go back through a bunch of drudgery just to get to him and get murdered over and over again.
This season on Walking Dead has been a fair amount of drudgery and then getting murdered. On some level, I respect it. When the Governor turned his gun on his own people, absolutely destroying the possibility that the big conflict between Woodbury and the prison was ever going to take place, I did admire the balls it took to screw my expectations that hard. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor?) But I also felt like I was in that godamn balloon again, with it in on fire, wondering why a narrative that has been setting up this big boss conflict between two dudes would then make it about whatever that shit was about.
You could put it in the bank that Walking Dead would have an explosive finale, so I don’t even know what’s going on. Which is not to say I didn’t like aspects of the episode. Despite being frustrated by Andrea’s complete inability to multi-task – seriously, you can try to pick up that damn pliers while talking – the locked room conversation between Andrea and Milton redeemed her character some, and ended with a phyrrhic sadness that represents the best of the downbeat possibilities. They are all infected. We kill or we die. Or we die, then we kill.
I am still busy hating some characters though, like Hershel, who is, as my friend Rachel pointed out, the reincarnation of Dale. I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to view him as the moral center of the group, what with all the bible-readin’, but he’s a narc and dork. I didn’t read Carl shooting that kid in the face as a cut-and-dried murder at all. He told the guy to drop the gun. Reaching closer with the gun is not dropping the gun, and could switch to shooting you in the face in less than a moment. I also get the impression we’re supposed to see this as a counterpoint to the Governor’s zombie daughter – if I’d been like this, she’d still be alive, etc.
I also think the scene where Michonne openly forgives Rick for selling her to the Governor is serious white dude wish fulfillment bullshit.
However, the episode gave me some shocks, confounded a lot of my expectations, and sets up a much more interesting mix for next season. Now that all the fighter-types are dead, how are they going to manage the prison community? Much about the Walking Dead – end of the world and zombies aside – is really very conventional storytelling, with very conventional plots. Surprising me beyond the mechanical – omg, they’re killing Lori in episode four?? – takes something, and this episode was a surprise. Boo!
I am still mad about the flaming balloon though.
Sonja wins.

Walking Dead: This Sorrowful Life

This Sorrowful Life starts with a complete character disaster of epic proportions, and that it ended with something approaching an honestly emotional moment was really something. At first, literally all of the white men in the prison group sit around discussing the fate of the only black woman like she were property, and it is a violation on a number of levels that Rick was even considering turning her over to the Governor. Putting aside the repulsive sexual and racial politics of all these conversations – and I am right tired of Gandalf’s rheumy-eyed speeches – this is not a choice Rick would make. Sure, I get that they’ve been running all this grief insanity with him, but he has always and ever been a boy scout. Coming hard on the heels of their interactions in Clear (the last time they interacted on screen), it makes zero sense that Rick would pull such an about face.

Even while I loved the details of Glenn’s proposal to Maggie – “I hope he really washes that ring,” my husband said after Glenn cuts it off a walker – I kind of don’t understand what’s going on with the proposal at all. Glenn and Gandalf have been hugging and crying together a lot after Maggie was sexually assaulted by the Governor, which is sweet in some ways, but in others makes my right eye twitch. Why is it that every “choice” by a woman gets made beforehand by a couple of dudes? Why is it about how they’re so cut up by her assault? Why is the concept of marriage even a thing during the zombie apocalypse? But whatever, Americans are completely loony about marriage, in general, and my head has been exploding reading the Supreme Court’s oral arguments today. That Walking Dead, which has been completely crappy with gender largely and writing female characters specifically, has goofed an engagement plot is no great shocker. All that said, I will ship til the end of time for Maggie and Glenn. Hearts.

But even though the opening is seriously bad, once Merle and Michonne get on the road, things improve drastically. Some of the most successful post-apocalit is in the vein of the road trip novel – works like The Road or The Reapers are the Angels – with the enforced conversation of the travelers in their solipsistic bubble run against the pit-stop that draws dangerous (in)humanity around the principles. I’m still on the fence about how Gurira has been playing Michonne, though I admit most of it is how little actual character work she’s given, but I love her fierce physical competence in this episode. She, like Merle in some ways, is a pragmatist, though unlike Merle, she is unwilling to allow her pragmatism to be used by others.

While I don’t understand why Merle lets her go, his final blaze of glory is a sight to behold. I couldn’t figure whether this was a regular highway robbery location for Woodbury – is this just a place on the road where they waylay the living that Merle would know about? – or is it a pre-arranged place for Rick to drop Michonne? Either way, Merle’s assault was the kind of clever that only drew the lightbulb for me once he dropped out of the car and rolled. Before that, I was seriously wondering what was up with this cracker with his whiskey drinking and walker mob. Good tunes though, Merle. The musical cues have been great this season.

There’s a pretty wonderful eulogy for Merle over on Slate, and while I disagree with some particulars – mostly I think Merle was a shitty stereotype redeemed by the redneck grace of Michael Rooker’s performance – I am sad to see him go. Rick’s stupid choice to send Michonne to the Governor was meant to knock the white hat off of Rick’s head, and it was badly, baldly done. But the characters with no hats at all are always going to be more compelling. As a pragmatist, Merle has been speaking truth much more often than other characters, because the truth is the purview of the hatless.

You go on, give him that girl. He ain’t gonna kill her, you know. He’s just going to do things to her. Take out one of her eyes, both of them most likely. You’d let that happen for a shot? You’re as cold as ice, Officer Friendly. 

Amen, you asshole. Out of the mouths of the hatless, you have my problems with this show in a nutshell. You’re gonna write this character-voiding choice just for some frisson  just as a first act setup? In defiance of established character? That’s cold.

And poor fucking Daryl. When they bother to do character work, like they have intermittently with the brothers, that’s when this show works. So good on that. I don’t feel like I’m ready for whatever barn burning bs they’re going to pull for the finale next week, but it’s not like we’re ever prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Walking Dead: Prey: or Syke! Let’s talk about In the Flesh instead!

Heya. Looks like I dropped the ball on writing about Prey in anything resembling a timely manner. So here’s the quick and dirty about that episode: it’s totally fine, and managed to get me to stop hating Andrea every minute of my life. Like Clear  two weeks before it, the focus of the episode is on a smaller group of people and actually has a coherent beginning, middle, and end. This focus had been lacking in episodes previous, and the wheeling around all over Georgia checking in with everyone dissipated the stakes. Good on them for tightening up.

Andrea also shows some competence, which we knew she must possess to survive as long as she did, but shore wasn’t in evidence recently. (Although, how come she doesn’t steal the Governor’s car when she pulls the trick with the stairway zombies? I don’t get it.) The small character work between Georgia Gandalf and Milton last week paid off in a better understood Milton – he’s the one who torched the pit zombies, yeah? And altogether people seemed to have coherent actions. Neat.

But the biggest shift may be the Governor, who is *finally* acting like a really big psycho. My husband observed that he’s been like this all along: telling people what they want to hear about what he’s planning, and then tossing people in the “screaming pits”. (Have we seen those again? Since they were first mentioned? Or is that the pit zombies?) Morrissey has a lot of presence when you get him moving – he’s so damn tall, and there’s this sense of inevitability when he strides around – and it was great to see that in action, especially coupled with the slightly corny but still creepy whistling.

But I come here not to talk about Walking Dead, which I apparently did anyway, but to freak out about BBC’s In the Flesh, which is so amazingly good and doing just the weirdest things with zombies.

Kieren is a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer – god, I love these mordant acronyms I find in zombie fiction, like Colson Whitehead’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) – who has been rehabilitated from his flesh-eating state, and is preparing to be sent home to the community where he hunted and killed. His grim Northern English town is the center for the band of activist zombie hunters who helped stem the tides against the undead, and probably not that great of a place to return. Some of the townspeople came off as clumsy caricatures – and the sister rankled a bit – but lordy was that final scene with the old woman taking out her contacts and looking up at the mob come to kill her effective and brutal.

Obviously, the narrative goals of In the Flesh and Walking Dead are dissimilar, but I’m completely impressed with the way the zombie metaphor could stretch to be about rehabilitation and social conformity, disability and possibly even immigration politics. Many monster narratives end up boiling down to but the humans are the monsters OH DO YOU SEE. This is a perfectly fine stock message for justifying some bloodbath and great set-pieces, and one third season Walking Dead is relying on pretty heavily. But man is it cool when pretty much everyone is the monster, and the flinching, grainy remorse of In the Flesh really got me.

Review: Walking Dead: Arrow on the Doorpost

Well, it’s nice to see that Walking Dead, after the tense and almost claustrophobically personal episode last week, managed to get back to treading water until they waste a bunch of poorly drawn characters in a big barn burnin’ like the end of last season. Certainly, Arrow on the Doorpost was better structured than we’ve seen in the the latter half of the third season, where it seems like characters just bump around and have conversations until some walkers attack and then the whole business ends…for now. 

Despite a lot of growling and posturing, not much was accomplished by the meeting of the Governor and Rick. I actually started laughing when they framed Rick like a gunfighter on Main Street – subtly done, guys. Bravo. I haven’t brought up the comics in a while, because so much has diverged that it can be a bad comparison, but at this point we were getting a sense of an almost relaxed sense of home at the prison. They had planted crops, which were beginning to come to fruition, and were setting into a round robin of love triangles and stuff. They’d stopped clearing the yard because they were more inward focused, living their lives. They had driven in stakes, which was why there were stakes at all in their stand with the Governor. But this lot? I’m not seeing much invested there, short of constant gestures towards Judith.

While I still like Morrissey’s purring sociopath take on the Governor, I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t, um, wrong for the part? The man’s got so much gravitas and there’s something mountainously immobile about him, which sits in strange contrast with the jumpy long-haired meth-freak of the comic. The townspeople of the comic were obviously afeared of the Governor, held in check by fears of expulsion or worse. The comic Governor was a warlord and a despot, and I get why people were afraid of him. Morrissey’s Woodbury though? Not so much. Dude’s obviously batshit, but no more batshit than Rick, and possibly less so. Comic Gov’s people never would have been honking at the barricades to let them out; they were in the care of a madman and they knew it. It’s possible the writers could do something interesting with Morrissey’s soft sold approach…lol, no, it really isn’t.

I liked the sequence of their lieutenants chest-beating and then falling into soldiery camaraderie, as well as Gandalf talking stumps with Milton. But godamn it, Andrea! Here’s the problem: she’s totally right, as is Merle when he’s all like, I’ve got a gun in my room, let’s go cap him right now, but the writers are so damn invested in this big mano-a-mano dick-measuring situation between Rick and the Governor to the detriment of character. They have undercut the secondary characters, so hard, so far, that when Rick tells Andrea to get out because the men are having important men-talk, I just laughed instead of getting pissed off like I should. Such unbelievable gender bullshit.

Anyway, I don’t feel like I have a ton to say, partially because next to nothing happens in this episode. Oh, but I did make this lolGovernor that I’m pleased with. You’re welcome.

P.S. I’m glad Glenn and Maggie finally got laid again. Big hearts for those two.

Review: Walking Dead: Clear

Well, whoo boy, that is why I watch this show. Spoilers, as usual.

I’ve been slipping into bitching in the last couple episodes of the third season of Walking Dead. There’s been too much – what? – high level bullshit about society and human power structures and blah blah blah. Zombie stories can be attuned to this sort of thing. They are lifeboat situations with a leaking raft of incompatible people struggling for the oars, and while I think this sort of thing can be fun, I have been unimpressed so far with how that high level stuff has been dealt with this season. Or, really, ever on this show. It’s not even so much that I disagree, which I think I do, it’s that I think the whole question has been framed wrong.

But, Clear manages to hit all the interpersonal harsh realities that I love so very much about the end of the world. In fiction anyway; the world hasn’t ended yet for me. Rick, Michonne and Carl are in their lifeboat car when they drive past a hitchhiker on the road. They don’t even rubberneck, like we do at a car accident, and just the passengers even register what is going on on the edge of the road. They get hug up on a snarl, a single walker crushed under the edge of a vehicle, until the walkers all come, banging their hands on the glass. It’s iconic, in a way, inside and outside, same same. Rick rolls down the window, tells everyone to cover their ears, and it’s almost comic that we don’t see the zombie clearing sequence, just an aftermath of bodies in the grass.

Rick and Carl have a conversation about Michonne well within her earshot – it’s almost like the end of the world makes people stupid to the life happening just right there, and Clear is absolutely the first episode of Walking Dead to give Michonne something like a character and humor. You can see her thinking, I have to win this this kid, and when she does it is a revelation. Carl’s been doing the pre-teen of death thing for a while now, stalking off, being smarter than his elders, and when he does it here, it’s funny to see someone calmly play equal or confident. Of course it’s for Judith you’re doing this, Carl. Of course. And here is your rainbow consolation prize!

I am jazzed to see Morgan, whom we haven’t seen since the pilot, Days Gone Bye, when Rick stupidly called out to a walker in front of his house and Morgan’s kid hit him with a shovel. Morgan has obviously had a hard time of it, losing his son to his zombie wife, like there “wouldn’t be a reckoning,” as he says. Maybe this is a larger metaphor for Rick and the crazytown he’s been building, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like two fucked up, traumatized people fighting hand to hand with grief, with each other and their simple likenesses and differences. It felt like what should be happening with the Governor but isn’t.

But here’s the thing that moved me about this episode. The opening shot is a sign, strung with ribbons, that reads, “Erin, we tried for Stone Mountain.” It’s facing the wrong way, so probably our protagonists never see it, and moments later, a walker with a bracelet that reads “Erin” bangs on the window of their car. Not so long ago I read Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypse, which was put together by the fine folks at Lost Zombies. The end of the world by needs is epistolary, the electricity gone, the computers bricks. We need to write our damage on the walls and signs, the last articulations that only humans can understand. Literacy is what separates us from the walkers; grief is something that can be written, and, pray hope, can be read.

So again, whoo boy, that was nice. Keep it up, Walking Dead.