Sunday, November 10, 2013

Brief Thoughts on The Walking Dead

I meant to write this post about oh five months ago, but the return of The Walking Dead and the subsequent stuff I saw around and in real life about zombies and the complete disbelief that this show is so popular is just. starting. to. get. really. under. my. skin.

Like, there's part of me that should just look at the record breaking number of viewers and realize I've won, but the dismissive attitude towards this show and towards zombie stories in general is making it impossible. Like, I finally understand how fans of fantasy feel for having their favorite genre dismissed so quickly and easily and this isn't even really on the same level as that. I should clarify that I'm totally fine if people don't like zombie stories. I get that it's gross, that there are a lot of bad movies that cater only to the blood and gore crowd, and that so far zombies aren't real and anything that's not real gets dismissed. But it's stuff like...okay well like this author who wrote a book with her husband. She took a zombie story of his and changed into it a natural disaster story, because she's "interested in the human heart, not the zombie heart." This makes me want to bash my head against the wall to be honest. The vast majority of zombie stories are about the surviving humans, and the ones that aren' Warm Bodies and In the Flesh ARE STILL ABOUT HUMANS. But that sort of attitude is just so condescending.

And when I mentioned the ratings to someone else, who fully knows I love the show, they were like..."how can that show be so popular?"

You know, I don't know. I can't answer for why everyone else watches it, though I can make some guesses. The Walking Dead is usually a thrill ride which is fun. More and more people are watching which makes it good water cooler talk. The relationships on the show are tight and they matter. It's the first zombie TV show. It's based on a popular comic book. I mean...

I can't answer for why other people are watching, but I can explain why I love this show and maybe for those of you who don't get it, you'll at least understand why I love it. (spoilers for up to 4x04 and actually this sort of assumes you know the show, oops!)

First I want to get some of my unpopular opinions out of the way. I actually really liked season 2, including all the time when they were searching for Sophia. I think the reason it worked for me is because thematically it was such a huge important piece of the story. All of what they went through mattered for their stories. It mattered that Rick thought he could find her and that it would somehow save them--lol it mattered that he was that delusional. It was important for the boiling pot of Shane and Rick living in close quarters and butting heads. It allowed you to believe Glenn and Maggie could fall for each other. Etc. In fact, after season three ended this year I was still feeling obsessive over the show so I went back and rewatched and paid close attention in season 2 expecting to hate it since so many people did and I feel like I've gotten more...critical in my thinking, but instead I zipped right through the episodes like I'd never seen them before. I enjoyed it all over again. So...yeah. Also, a fairly unpopular opinion especially after Sunday's episode (and more on this in a bit) Rick is hands down my favorite character, I think I largely see the show through his point of view. I see the majority of the thematic work on the show (at least before this season and even still) as being worked out in his character so I love him. I don't always think he makes the right decisions or the best choices, but that has never been why a character is my favorite anyway. A close second is Michonne, and I also loved Andrea. I actually think, for all the heat it gets, the show has created some really interesting female characters--none of them fit a mold. They just kill them off way too easily. :(

But I want to explain what I get out of the show...of course I love it for many of the reasons I mentioned above...I love how exciting it is, I love how close and tight knit the characters are, I like that it asks questions about survival. I admire that the show delivers the expectations of the genre (blood and gore) without only being that. That could be a hard line to walk, and trust me, people are always begging for more zombie action, but The Walking Dead uses it somewhat sparingly. But what I like best about the show is the persistent underlying question--what does it mean to be human? And the eternal struggle over the kind of human you want to be.

I don't live in the middle of the zombie apocalypse or even in a situation where survival is a daily concern. And yet I find this concept very relateable. I think it's hard...I struggle, probably, on a daily basis with this very question. What kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be kind above all? Can I set aside my ego to be loving and generous? Can I make smart decisions that aren't driven by emotions? Am I even in control of my emotions?

Rick, as the centerpiece of the show, largely embodies this very struggle. We are given a front row seat to this struggle as his own brutality begins to raise its ugly head. Rick feels torn between protecting his family and maintaining some semblance of his humanity, and yes those goals come in conflict with each other. And he watches as his best friend allows his jealousy and survival instinct to overtake him, eating away at the person he once was until he's forced to kill him in a final dramatic confrontation.

Shane's proximity to Rick is important. The show is not unsympathetic to Shane as he almost finds a better more ideal life after the virus hits. (by the way, so does Daryl) He gets a position of leadership. He starts up a relationship with Lori and believes he loves her. Things are good for Shane until Rick comes back. And we see early on that he's threatened by Rick's reappearance and is very tempted to do something about it. But the point is that the audience watches Shane unravel and so does Rick. While Shane is of course mad with jealousy, there's always a sense of the kind of guy he was before and the sort of friendship he had with Rick. And it feels like he knows all along he's losing it, but he does give himself over to the control of his emotions and ego. There's this scene where Rick and Shane are taking a guy out to set him loose and they end up getting in a fight. And Shane raises his head to look in a window and he catches his reflection and he's all pale and bloody and he looks just like a zombie. (And then of course there are zombies on the other side!) This visual always strikes me as the show in a nutshell...that it's not so much about the struggle against the external zombies as the struggle within.

After Shane forces things to a decisive point where Rick must kill him to save his own life and still be around to protect his family, it's almost like this burden is transferred to Rick in the show. The entire next season explores a Rick on the edge when he's started to fail in his goal to protect his family. And instead of Shane we get the Governor to contrast with Rick...the possible future Rick, someone who revels in the brutality this world invites. So Season 3 is largely about Rick skating very close to that edge and being forced to decide what kind of person he wants to be.

Which leads me to last week's episode. I, personally, loved it. I liked how complicated it was. I LOVED the character development of Carol taking quick, ruthless, decisive action in killing David and Karen. If you remember, in season 2, when the group was trying to decide what to do about Randall (which is basically a metaphor for the group deciding what to do about their human consciences) she said, "I never asked for this, you can't ask us to decide something like this." Contrasting that with a woman who makes a quick on the spot decision to kill in order to protect the what's not to love? At the same time, once Rick figured it out he had a real problem. And the entire episode is basically Rick weighing his choices. He knows Tyreese is out for blood. He knows that Carol is a trusted woman in the community and that she's also working with the kids a lot. He knows she'll do whatever it takes to protect their people--acting of her own accord. And yet he can sense in her that something is really different. There's no remorse. She's hard, almost proud. And I think that concerns him more than anything. So he makes the only choice he can. Not because he thinks he's morally superior. It's not really a punishment. It's to his thinking, the only possible consequence for her actions and the only way to try to fight for as much human life as possible. After the episode aired, there were so many opinions! A lot of people were really angry with Rick, which I understand, but I think if Carol had killed characters they knew they might have felt more conflicted. It was easy to think of those people's lives as being cheap. (this is one thing I think the show could have done better, to be honest!) So I was really pleased to read showrunner Scott Gimple say this: " I agree with both of their decisions....If this was debate club and I had to debate either Rick or Carol’s side, I would feel confident — very confident — that I could represent either party very well. And I love seeing people making great arguments on both sides. I love that. A huge part of this show is people asking, What would I do? which leads to the question: Who am I? Who am I at the end of the day when it all goes down?"

I love a show that can fully believe in the actions of both of their characters without deciding one is right while the other is wrong and it's thing that I loved best about this episode. Because it happens in real life...people's motivations and desires come in conflict with each other and no one is actually right while the other is wrong, though we often frame it to ourselves that way.

Anyway, this is my little defense of The Walking Dead as a show that is about more than flesh eating monsters. While sure I'm attracted to the superficial wrapping of the show, I love that the core of the show is about something we all face and deal with.


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