Review: Walking Dead: Walk With Me

I know I’m supposed to be serious and say some stuff about the arc of this series, but I really want to talk about rarr, Michael Rooker. He was used ridiculously badly in the first season, showing up as Daryl’s older, racister brother, given wholly lame scenery chewing speeches about how racist racist racist he was. Racist. But godamn, the man is Michael fucking Rooker, so I’ve been absolutely gagging for him to show back up. As something other than Daryl’s fever dream. Not that that isn’t hot too.

Though I have read the comic compendium that arcs through the Rickocrats sojourn on the farm and the prison, I haven’t really had a problem separating page from screen until now. So many things were different in the beginning, from Shane’s continued survival to general character shuffling. Which is mostly awesome, except for Lori. Andrea and Michonne fall into the sketchy utopia of the Governor’s town, and it’s pretty neat how softly David Morrissey plays a dude who is obviously going to turn out to be evil. But then maybe I’m just saying that because I’ve read the comix?

No, no, for sure, any show has to have an antagonist, and there is only one Rick in the Ricktatorship. As close to the edge as Rick is, the Governor’s calm and soft-spokenness reads as a warning. Seriously, folk, screaming your head off might be the right reaction to the zombie apocalypse, and barring that, as it might draw out the walkers, some eye-bugging might be in order. Anyone drinking tea should be watched.

Which brings us back to the spectacular Merle. He was written for shit first season, but he finally makes sense here as a bigger psychopath’s lap-dog – the “hammer” as he’s characterized by a somewhat wobbly-played mad scientist. Splendid Mr. Rooker’s swaggering and Ash-esque brandishing of his stump is neat within a community of larger, fell purpose, where it wasn’t all by its lonesome on a department store roof. Someone like Merle only makes sense in context. Yeeee haw.

Which brings me to Michonne. I have a several page rampage about how her character arc works out in the comix – most of it boiling down to how badly Kirkman writes women, so when he hits the topic of rape, he trips over his own dick and makes a serious mess – but I loved her character so wholeheartedly. Which is another place I’m finding it hard to separate comic from screen, because I’m bringing my love for a page Michonne to the screen, and I’m pretty sure the screen Michonne doesn’t deserve it yet. Yes, she can glower like a boss, and she is clearly a stupendous badass, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

Andrea’s characterization in the town is a little iffy, I think mostly because the writers are holding Michonne back to lend her more mystery or something. So Andrea’s stuck flirting and asking leading questions, because if she didn’t do it, no one would. I invoke Bechtel way more often than I should, but I think that maybe there is a general problem writing women on this show, because when Andrea berates Michonne a little for not knowing her despite their hanging out in the zombie apocalypse for the last seven months, I think, really? That doesn’t make any sense. The Governor’s town is so obviously overlaid with all this manfolk manliness, and Andrea’s openness and Michonne’s closedness feels a little weird.

But whatever. This episode was much more about sketching the Governor, and we’ll probably get our Michonne episode soon enough. And I liked the Governor sketch much more than in the comix, despite some lame dialogue – Andrea again with her “never say never” – because he’s so much less of a cartoon evil, ahem. They’re playing up his likeness to Rick in an almost ham-handed manner – token Asian guy: go kill that dude! token T-Dog looking guy: have no lines! token brown-haired lady: sleep in his bed! – but that’s what I’m really hoping for this season – a real conflict between just barely unsimilar leaders. And I did catch the barely coded “The South Will Rise Again” stuff, screenwriters. Good job.

Review: Walking Dead: Sick

Spoilers for everything.

The series opener of Walking Dead, Days Gone Bye, starts with our hero, Rick Grimes waking up in a hospital in Atlanta approximately 28 days after the zombie apocalypse. (See what I did there?) He’s the fish out of water, exploring the new normal of the world he inhabits, a normal that unfortunately includes walking cannibal corpses. Beginning in medias res allows the narrative to leapfrog over the action movie histrionics of First Night – histrionics I often enjoy, I’ll have you know – and get down the the dirty business of survival. The boat has sunk. Here’s the raft. Watch him try to patch the leaks.

Rick missed out on the 24 hour news cycles debating, then crying doom, then cutting out, the slowly dawning realization and then adaption to this new environment, watching friends turn, having the electricity cut out, packing the car, running and running and killing and running. He was just thrust into it, and the scene where he pats the floor with his hand, muttering, is this real? Is this real? is the posture d’être for Rick for the next two seasons. Over the next two seasons, he clings to his uniform, to often ineffectual or dangerous senses of order and authority, but it makes a kind of sense. He never got the call that the Twin Towers had fallen and that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. 

In Sick, the uniform has come off. I’ve noticed our merry band of Rickocrats (I know the fanterm is Ricktatorship, but Rickocrats works better for everyone who isn’t Rick) have been elbows deep in grime (Rick grime?) for the season so far. They don’t bother even to wash off the blood anymore, making bloody handprints just like the walkers as they go through their now almost rote survival. It’s a sharp contrast with all the damn bisquit-making and down-home folky farmin’ that was going on last season, clean pretty white curtains fluttering in the breeze. I bitched a fair amount about that, but I’m getting punished for my desire to see Rick Shane up just a little and acknowledge he’s living in a world that demands quick, hard moral choices. It works when he lops off Hershel’s leg, saving his life, but he’s hardened so much that, Rick, man, loosen up. 

In a pretty neat parallelism, Rick & crew find a group of prisoners as ignorant as Rick was at the beginning of the season one. They’ve been locked in a cafeteria for 10 months (28 weeks later, maybe?) and are fully ignorant of the walking dead or the world as it is now. Rick’s short explanation of all they have lost – no phones, no hospitals, no government – is pretty stark, and lays out the stakes in a way I thought was missing in season two. But the prisoners’ ignorance is different from Rick’s – they are not boy scouts – and the way they cling to past methods of survival is going to be different. Much of this is played for both comedy and bathos, which is pretty refreshing in a series with as grim (Rick grim?) a set-up as this one. I didn’t catch his name – that I didn’t catch any name other than Big Tiny, which is a serious bullseye in my book, was a sign I shouldn’t worry too much about these characters’ continued survival – but the way the long-haired leader psycho keeps shiving walkers in the gut was pretty funny. T-Dog and Daryl’s get a load of these idiots looks are priceless. 

But long-haired psycho keeps pulling all this prison yard puffery, going at Rick in a zombie melee in a way that is clumsy and obvious. Shane would never have done something so bald – shit happens, indeed – because he wouldn’t assume that there was an authority other than Rick’s machete in his skull to end that conflict. There’s no guards, no law, nothing to break this conflict up. I’ve had my reservations about Lincoln’s acting, although mostly it was centered in his questionable Southern dialect, but he’s really kicking ass here. You can see him make the decision to kill long-haired psycho, and it’s well before the dude takes a sloppy swipe at Rick. His reaction to leaving the one prisoner out to be eaten by walkers is effective as well, but the choice itself is awful, a total Shane-move that is nowhere near as justified as his killing of long-haired psycho. 

The sparse dialogue, in addition to not treating the secondary (and therefore largely female) characters like completely irrational idiots, continues to be as effective as the season opener, Seed. Which is so encouraging. Lori is our biggest improvement, with her tete a tete with Rick about how fucked their marriage is actually wringing some sympathy for her from me. Her “you should just go out there and murder folk with a clear conscience” speech is maybe more a throwback to old Lori, because it casts her as this big dumb girl, lol, whose conceptualization of how the menfolk are managing their ethical choices is quaint and outmoded. It’s not about ethics, lady. Maybe that’s okay, but Walking Dead has always had a problem writing some seriously regressive shit into the mouths of its ladies. I broke my heel. Carry me! But other ladies are improving as well, with Carol pulling a decidedly not insane (Glenn’s monologue is hilarious) vivisection of a walker to ready her for the coming c-section. Hard choices, you makes ’em, gurrrl. (Ooo, also, who is watching from the tree??)

By the end of Sick, we’re down to two prisoners – and I’m way hoping for more screen time with pointy mustache prisoner – and Hershel’s up and not a walker, despite some cheap scares. Rick says to Lori that tomorrow they’re going to start cleaning, and I hope that once they wash the blood off, they don’t fall into the farm quagmire of last season. It’s tough in a show predicated on action to take a break and do the character work that it needs to make the action pay off, but given the strength of the first two episodes, I continue to be cautiously optimistic. Oh, and more Michonne, please. Remember Michonne? I sure as hell do. 

Review: Walking Dead: Seed

(Spoilers for season two.)

Season three of AMC’s The Walking Dead started with what is beginning to be the show’s usual bang up premiere episode. Like the first and second season premieres, “Seed” uses action and set pieces to convey stakes in a spare, compact manner. The opening sequence right before the shrieking violins of the titles has minimal dialogue and no music, a silent evocation of how dire things have become. The members of the Rickocracy – I still haven’t quite forgiven the season two finale’s hammy “This is not a democracy!” speech, delivered in Lincoln’s questionable Southern dialect – are functioning now as a well-oiled (if somewhat oily) team. In the house, walkers down, into the cabinets, collapse on the floor. Season two was eventually a quagmire, despite the masterful zombie herd on the highway sequence it had as opener, so we’ll see if season three can keep up its game.

There are some auspicious changes to our less than merry Rickocrats though. Post-apocalyptic stories tend to have close to their little hearts a commentary about the construction of society, the nature of leadership and the led, an us versus us versus them. These are lifeboat situations writ large, and with teeth. When you get right down to it, the zombies (or walkers – which, why are they never called zombies?) are such formidable creatures because they have no individuality. There are no leaders, no orders, just an infinitely scalable motive-of-one: consume. Survivors survive by being more like them, not by wandering off individually after bickering about shit that doesn’t matter.

In the second season, Rick’s strange deference to Hershel’s insanity, though understandable to a degree because of what we know about Rick, and all that mooning around after undoubtedly zombified children didn’t make for the best of television. All those monologues looking out over the fields with Hershel’s watery, soulful eyes – what we need here is a walker attack. Wake up. But even when we got them, Hershel persisted in a leadership based on fantasy, and it got hard to respect Rick for respecting Hershel. It gets to be a problem when you’re rooting for the bad guy, Shane – though, of course, on some level you’re meant to. But it’s an even bigger problem when Shane’s often cogent critiques of how they were living were buried under a bunch of cartoon villainy.

Hershel, Shane and Rick were three different models of leadership, and it bugs me that Shane’s more reality-based model – he was right a thousand times about the group’s need to sac up and learn some real skills – was run to such ridiculously self-defeating nihilism. Hershel was there to act as counterpoint to Rick’s boy scouting; he clung to the old world so hard that he denied reality itself. Sure, it got most of his family killed and the farm overrun, but it’s not like those characters showed up with anything but bullseyes on them, so it was hard to care. I guess my real problem is in characterization, again and again, where Hershel seemed swathed in this Quaker Oats commercial aura, lending his absolutely indefensible position – this is not happening – a gravitas it didn’t deserve.

In “Seed”, Rick is obviously just holding it together, and the group is exhausted and beset. But they are finally a group, and despite a few questionable decisions, they are not behaving like idiots right and left. And the questionable decisions were obviously made to heighten spectacle, which I don’t really count as a bad thing. Sure, they probably should have just banged at the gates and poked zombies in the head with sticks to clear the yard – ammunition does not grow on trees – but the clearing scene with everyone, including last season’s deadweights (har har), taking down zombies was pretty thrilling, and showed us how much this group has changed. What happens to Hershel though, that was a questionable decision that could have been better played.

Though the finding and clearing of the prison didn’t have much of a narrative arc – in many ways, this felt like a part one – it was heartening to see the minimal dialogue be functional. (And to see T-Dog get any lines at all.) The problems tend to happen on Walking Dead when people open their mouths, with characters espousing positions willy nilly without regards to character. But here, the one monologue was grounded in the situation, working out a number of logical if unpleasant consequences of them all being infected. And it was delivered by Lori(!), whose sole motivation in the past has been “womens be crazy and inconsistent lol.”

There’s a good chance this season will mire in the same crappy characterization and bad dialogue, but this was an exciting beginning. I know that the showrunners have said that the show will not follow the plot of the comics, but given how The Governor played there, the potential for corny cartoon villainy is still very much present. Which would be a shame, really, because having Rick run up against a leader almost, but just not quite like him would be a much richer conflict. It would probably be less badass though, I admit, and the badassery of Walking Dead is certainly its strong point. Viva le Rickocracy.

And speaking of badass, more Michonne please.

A Short Rampage on Whitewashing Earthsea

It’s maybe a secondary sport of readers to both long for and bitch about the film adaption, like betting on the sidelines during a prize fight. Back when I worked retail, one of my co-workers and I would amuse ourselves for hours trying to cast a perfect Sandman film, although we always got hung up on who would direct, and who would play Death. 

Anyway, one of the most quietly awesome things about A Wizard of Earthsea is that LeGuin made her fantasy characters have dark skin. I don’t like physical descriptions of characters, because it’s so often beside the point and superfluous. (See also: sex scenes.) I’m willing to hand out exceptions: I think it’s important we know that Jane Eyre is plain, and that Rochester has a big forehead. (Big forehead …ifyouknowwhatImean.) But one of the most rousing criticisms of fantasy as a genre, for me, is about how horribly lily-white the standards of beauty are, how white=good, and black=bad, and how racial purity is a sign of moral purity. Yucky, yucky, yucky. So, Le Guin slyly steps in and makes her characters not-white: Ged with his red-brown skin, Vetch with his black; no violet cat-eyes for the women, no blondes. There is no moral correlation between skin color and moral worth, no component of sexual purity tied to blonde hair. (As a natural blonde, I have a whole bitch about this, but I’ll silence myself for the moment.)

So, along comes the SyFy Channel adaption – and yes, it still hurts me to write SyFy and it always will – and they fuck all of this up. Danny Glover as Ogion was the only, only, only thing that was okay, but Danny Glover is so classy he rises above. They turned Ged into a petulant white boy; they took every lovely thing about Ged’s un-heroics and turned them into a sick parody of themselves. I said this earlier in a private message to a friend, but I’ll say it out loud: maybe it doesn’t matter what the skin color of fantasy characters are – it’s not like the fictional worlds view race in anything like the way new millennium Americans do – but if it really doesn’t matter, then why are they always white? Le Guin herself had some pointed things to say about the matter, and you should totally read them.