Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE WALKING DEAD SEASON THREE

I post mainly about the musical, but, as this blog's title implies, my survey takes in the arts in general, and television is especially interesting, because the best dramatic writing in America in this era is found in such shows as The West Wing, The Newsroom, and The Good Wife. By "best" I mean not only spiffy plotting and cagey character arcing but the sheer raving joy of smart talk. When the dramatis personae take in the hyper-educated brainstormers of the political, broadcasting, and legal cadres (as in the three series cited above), the author of any given episode must command the unique speech habits and attitudes of some dozen individuals, each one brilliant in his own way. That calls for dramatists with something like genius, which we get all too seldom in live theatre nowadays.

I just finished streaming The Walking Dead's latest season on Netflix, an ideal way to take in the zombie apocalypse, because you can gobble the whole thing up in  a few sittings and thus avoid suspense withdrawal. Better yet, the series reached its peak in this third-go-around, because the first was lumbered with uninteresting characters (though the sequence at the CDC was arresting, not least for its Goetterdaemmerung finale) and the second got bogged down on that stupid farm. One friend of mine put it well when complaining of all the personality interactions that overwhelmed the farm sequence. "I don't want to get to know these people," he said. "I just want to see zombie fights." And yes, I am addressing this post to those who have already seen The Walking Dead, so the uninitiated should stop here, because this is an all-spoiler read.

The third season, unlike the first two, rests on a narrative structure that tightens the action: a classic "war between the states" set-up between the communities of the prison and Woodbury. Better yet, the series' protagonist, Rick (Andrew Lincoln, who for some reason is English, though he never fails in his southern articulation), finally got an opposing figure worthy of his own stature, the spectacularly evil Governor of Woodbury (David Morrissey, also English). Before, Rick's only nemesis was his best friend and secret rival in love, Shane, definitely a villain but a tidy one, treacherous on the personal level, the small scale. And the atrocious Merle, another dangerous figure, supplied character color more than anything, as an openly destructive force who, when not outright homicidal, lives to irritate and irritates to live. He creates a bristly dramatic contrast with his younger brother, Darryl, personally somewhat distant to everyone but, as an action hero, utterly intrepid--exactly what you want in your lifeboat when you've been shipwrecked by zombies.

The Governor, on the other hand, raises the story conflict to the level of Wotan and Alberich in Wagner's Ring operas: two individuals fighting for world order. Outwardly jovial but in truth a ruthless monster, the Governor will not live in peace with his neighbors. He is Grendel, or American Psycho Patrick Bateman, or Hitler--or simply a mortal version of the zombies themselves in that you cannot negotiate with beings of this kind. You kill them or you die.

It's an unlikely lesson for television to teach. Except for clearly demarcated exceptions like the anti-terrorist series 24, TV tends to understand the enemy, forgive the enemy, even deny that there are enemies in the first place. It's a sixties worldview, a Stockholm Syndrome approach to the chaos of global engagement. And yet TV has been presenting exemplars of pure evil from its very beginnings, in westerns, cop shows, and the like. It knows what an enemy is. Thrill narratives can't do without villains--and not those "misunderstood" villains. Villain villains, because they give good story. The villain is always the best part; Jean Kerr's little boy came home unhappy that he had been cast as Adam in a Garden of Eden pageant. Why unhappy? Isn't Adam the lead? And Kerr's son said, "The snake has all the lines."

But Rick has been suffering a mental breakdown for some time, taking phone calls from and getting visions of people who aren't there. Did The Walking Dead's showrunner need to aggrandize Rick's stature as a hero by compromising his effectiveness? It's the invention of Kryptonite: now Rick will be more vulnerable and thus more interesting, and his battle with the Governor will take on even more suspense. Unfortunately, one of Rick's breakdown symptoms is an inability to answer questions promptly. Instead of responding, his gaze clouds as he wonders and suffers. Siegfried, the hero of the Ring, is interesting without this problem, but then he does live in an untextured world, with nothing but gods, giants, dwarfs, Rhine maidens, and a few stray mortals to worry about. Nevertheless, Rick's failure to pick up his cues quickly takes up so much running time that one longs for that Broadway wizard George Abbott to drop in on The Walking Dead's out-of-town tryout for a quick-me-up.

In fact, pausing and vacillating is a curse of this otherwise fascinating series. Its realism in the telling of fantasy is so persuasive that we really notice when the show breaks its own rules for effect, as when, near the end of the farm sequence in Season Two, Rick and his young son (Chandler Riggs, surprisingly able for his age) were walking back to the farmhouse at dusk, unaware that an army of zombies was right behind them. Obviously, the aim was to captivate the viewer with the dread of impending terror--but the show had established that zombies make louche gurgling noises when they're stalking prey. Here were a hundred of them, and Rick and his boy don't hear anything? Besides, aren't these people, living as they are in a world without a single safe place in it, always looking over their shoulder?

There's a lot of that in The Walking Dead: conversation when instant action, not words, is required; Method hesitations; dense psychological flutterings when it's Run for Your Life. This is a cast of Hamlets. We had an appalling instance of it in the very last episode so far, when Andrea, tied to a chair, was locked in a room with the dying Milton (Dallas Roberts, versatile enough to switch from the nerdy Milton to the effervescently irritating gay brother in The Good Wife). Milton had left a tool for her to use to escape from the chair before he "turned" and attacked her. If this were real life, she would be frantically taking steps to free herself. Instead, the show wanted her to complete her character arc, and she wasted time doing a zombie-apocalypse Liebestod: show love, reflect upon death, sympathize, cringe. Earlier, Andrea had had a chance to kill the Governor, and failed to take it. Yes, she was sort of in love with him. But she knew the world cannot survive its Governors. Of course if she killed him the story would be over--a lame motivation in a show that strives for naturalism in a most unnatural genre. And what did Andrea's time-wasting scena with Milton get her? She didn't get out of the chair in time, and he killed her.

There really is a shortage of sensible characters in The Walking Dead. The two outstanding "rational actors" are Glenn (Steven Yeun), who saves Rick from certain death in the second episode, thus making the series' continuity possible, and Carl, Rick's son, only ten years old when the series began yet sharp enough to accommodate the innovative survival tactics of a world in which to err is death. There's a brief but pivotal scene in the third season's final episode, after the Governor's attempt to kill everyone in the prison ends in a rout. One fleeing bad guy runs into three of the good guys, one of them Carl. All are armed, but the good guys, outnumbering the bad guy, order him to drop his rifle.

He doesn't. Let us remember that he has only just come from a murderous assault on these people. And, instead of surrendering, he more or less appears to be lowering his rifle very, very slowly, giving every indication that he's trying to lure Carl into a sudden turnabout. He even says, "Take it"--the old trick of distracting you so he can kill you.

Well, this isn't a "more or less" world any more. It isn't an "it appears" world. It's an "all or nothing" world. And when you're told to drop your weapon, you drop it or you are a mortal threat. And Carl is young but Carl is smart: he shoots the bad guy dead.

Now it's good. But one of the those with him in this incident is the old farmer (Scott Wilson, who, incidentally, murdered the Clutter family with Robert Blake in In Cold Blood and Gatsby in the Robert Redford remake of the Fitzgerald classic), who now sounds the pacifist's distaste for self-defense. He thinks Carl should have...what? Let the bad guy control the situation? Kill them all? It's impossible to know what The Walking Dead thinks of this character, because he's sort of a white-haired sage in style, yet he has in fact been a clueless idiot from the get-go. Are we supposed to agree with him about what Carl did? The farmer actually "tells on" Carl, complaining to Rick about the event, and Rick--who of course has been losing it throughout the series in any case and lacks the clarity to judge his own behavior, much less Carl's--third-degrees Carl as if the farmer were the ethics police.

Worse than the farmer's surrenderism is Rick's stunningly incorrect decision to make a deal with the Governor. As I've said, you can't negotiate with the devil--and this deal requires Rick to hand Michonne (Danai Gurira) over to the Governor for a revenge killing, certain to be a ghastly, drawn-out death. Is Rick suddenly that stupid? You don't stop Hitler by giving him Czechoslovakia. Again, you kill him or you die. Further, Michonne is a viewers' favorite, the last one you want to see sacrificed. Her tight-lipped, save-the-day resourcefulness makes her one of the series' outstanding figures.

I felt The Walking Dead ripped itself apart at this turn of plot (even though Rick ultimately changed his mind), because the show seemed to draw a moral equivalence between Carl's stopping a menace and Rick's willingness to give Michonne up to torture-murder. There is no equivalence. Carl chose to do what was necessary. Rick chose to do what was unnecessary, also barbaric and pointless. The fanatic, whether zombie or Governor, never stops coming at you. You kill him or you die.