Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The Walking Dead 2.1: What Lies Ahead
I’ve really been enjoying collaborating with other great writers on my blog lately, and so when I thought it would be fun to review The Walking Dead, I talked to one of my most ardent posters, Joshua Winstead (aka yourblindspot in the comments), who not only is a fan of the show, but lives in Georgia, the epicenter of the action on the show. He enthusiastically agreed, and so once again I present a back-and-forth conversation on a show! (I’m getting sick of my own viewpoints anyway, so maybe Josh and I will have some knock-down drag-em-out fights over certain scenes… but probably not.) I’ve talked about Josh on here before; he’s the guy who sent me that amazing set of Lost CDs, which became the soundtrack as I wrote my final book in the series. He’s amazing, and tried desperately to get me down to Atlanta to Dragon*Con this year (unfortunately I knew I was going to be in the hospital at the time) but one of these days I will make it there!
So without further ado, on to our discussion of the goriest show on television!!
Nikki: It REALLY is repulsive, don’t you think? I can’t remember the last time I winced or made gagging noises (in an appreciative way) or squealed or covered my eyes so many times in a single episode of television. From the screwdriver in the eye (over and over and over again) to Daryl disemboweling the walker, this episode was gloriously disgusting. What a fantastic return to the show.
The episode opened with Rick talking into his walkie to the guy back home who had lost his wife, hoping that one day he’ll respond. His narration offers a bit of backstory for newcomers to the series and brings us all back up to speed on where they are now. The first season was only six episodes, so if you haven’t seen it, you really should, because hey, it’s not much of a commitment!
When they hit the interstate pileup, my husband and I were chattering aloud at this point (we often stay pretty quiet, so that was unlike us) and he suggested they siphon off some gas from the other cars. I said why don’t they look for a newer motorhome? And we both agreed they should be ransacking the other cars for stuff. So when Lori began expressing her disgust that they were doing these very things, we were both ticked off at her. “It’s called survival, honey. Yeah, why don’t you leave those cans of food for the corpses in the cars. They can totally use them now.” God, when did I become so cold? (I think I’ve been reading too much apocalyptic fiction lately…)
So what were your initial thoughts on this first episode, Joshua?
Joshua: First and foremost, Nikki, I want to say what a great honor it is to be sharing these posts with you. As a regular perpetrator of both the unnecessary adjective and the seemingly endless run-on sentence, I am sure my prose will make the day-job Nikki cringe in terror at least as often as our subject. I can only endeavor not to embarrass you too terribly.
So down to it, then.
Put plainly, I think this was the strongest episode of the series so far. The one thing that 'The Walking Dead' does inarguably well is scare the crap out of you, and the tension in this premiere was almost ceaseless. Pretty amazing, I think, when even the sound of distant church bells carries a foreboding of some unseen horror. Job well done.
And a big vote of confidence for Robert Kirkman, as well. Kirkman is the man responsible for the ongoing comic on which the show is based, author of last season's 'Vatos' episode and one of the regular writers for this year. He is one of two people credited for the premiere, the other of whom is “Ardeth Bey,” actually a pseudonym of dismissed showrunner Frank Darabont (and a reference to Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the title character in 1932's 'The Mummy,' for the cinéastes among us). My understanding is that the 90-minute premiere consists of about fifteen minutes of the originally intended season debut as penned by Darabont, followed by the entirety of the hourlong, Kirkman-scripted second episode. Truth be told, I have little opinion on the circumstances that may or may not have led to Darabont's contentious departure. All I know is that last night was rock solid, and what they're doing is obviously still working, whomever is calling the shots.
If I had to guess, I would say that one of the best sources of on-set continuity in the wake of all that political gunfire has been Greg Nicotero, master zombie wrangler and co-founder of KNB Efx Group, the company who handles all of the makeup effects on the show. These guys are the best of the best, and you've probably seen their work over the years many more times than you realize (i.e., those incredible animatronic buffalo in 'Dances With Wolves' or Dirk Diggler's great big claim to fame in 'Boogie Nights' or – special for you, Nik – the Grindl from 'Xena' s6). Nicotero does most of the 2nd unit directing for the show now, but more important, he supervises all of the awesome gore and makes those zombies look amazing.
And they do look so amazing, don't they? About as close to beautiful as horrible can be. I thought the walker in the RV that Andrea kills with the screwdriver (a nice homage to the original 'Dawn of the Dead') and the one that Daryl and Rick take out in the woods were both particularly awesome. How about that gutting scene, too? Holy cow, man. I can't call it gratuitous, since it plays into the tracking of the little girl so perfectly, but whoa nelly, that's gnarly. Now raise your hand if the first thing you thought of was the shark autopsy in 'Jaws.' And all of you who did so are now my friends for life. (My notes for that moment read, “The shark autopsy. No. Freaking. Way. If he pulls out a license plate, my life will be complete.”)
LOL!! The zombies are truly incredible. Every time we saw a walker up close, I was so entranced by how seamless that makeup was I almost forgot I was supposed to be grossed-out by it. As the army of zombies went by on the interstate, my husband said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be an extra on this show?” No kidding. Hey, you’re in Georgia… I need you to wrangle your way onto the set as an extra for us!
Oh, those church bells. Creepers! The moment I heard them, for the first time the church bells didn’t feel like salvation, but a gonging noise that’s far too loud and will call the other zombies back to the scene. On the sign outside the church it says, “Revelations 16:13.” So of course, in this age of Google and instant checking of information on laptops, I checked, and it read:
16:13 I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, something like frogs
And sure enough, waiting inside the church were three unclean spirits all right. What a nice touch. What was interesting to me was the way that scene was handled. When they first slaughter the walkers in the church, and then Daryl makes some snide remark to the statue of “J.C.,” I worried this scene would be used for a mocking of religion, but thankfully it didn’t take a side. We see Daryl mock the statue, Carol (the mom) pleads with him to let her baby come home to her, and Rick just talks to Him, asking him for a sign. The rest simply ignore the place, as if it has no meaning for them, and it probably doesn’t. It’s a beautiful reflection on what would happen in that instance: in dire times, some people would cling even more fervently to their religious beliefs, while others would dump them altogether, thinking if there is a God, and He allowed this to happen, He’s not worth worshipping. (And, of course, there would be the many who had no religious beliefs to begin with.) So it was very nicely handled.
Of course, the only downside to that section of the episode was HOW MANY COMMERCIALS we had to sit through! Oh my GOD, it seemed like we’d have three minutes of show, followed by five of commercials. Thank god for PVRs and delayed viewing. (Though I did enjoy that one quick cut right after Shane hotwired that Hyundai, “Brought to you by Hyundai!” I wish they’d added, “When you’re being chased by zombies on the interstate and you’ve decided to leave them all behind, we’re the easiest car to jack!”)
Have you read the graphic novels? Are you finding they’re spoilery or are they very different from the series?
Joshua: Funny you mention zombie casting... When the RV zombie first shows up, I was reminded of something I heard in the first 'Walking Dead' panel at Dragon*Con: as a rule, the Atlanta casting group that rounds up all the potential zombies for the production (facebook.com/ExtrasCastingAtlanta, for anyone interested) looks for the skinniest people they can find. Sadly, I think I may be a bit broad-shouldered (yeah, let's say “-shouldered”) to pull off the months-rotted look.
I thought the church scenes were nicely handled also, though I'll admit that my first thought after returning from commercial break directly to Rick's prayer was, “Ok, seriously? We're gonna pray in the chapel again? Already?” As he spoke, however, I remembered how haunted he looked in that first scene when Carol was praying, and I reconsidered, thinking maybe it's really the same prayer, only continued in a different voice. Much more artful than at first glance, and also a good example of the way that premiere-heavy glut of commercials you mentioned can affect the way a broadcast comes across.
With regard to the comic vs. the show: I have read all 89 issues of the comic to date. Though there are certainly events the two variations share with one another, I would say that the differences between them are great enough that both can be enjoyed separately. For example, the surprising events of this episode's cliffhanger also take place at a similar point in the comic's narrative, but the circumstances are so different that when it happened on the show, I was completely taken off guard.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the comic for me as a reader is the idea that truly no one is safe, and I believe this notion has been carried over to the show quite well. There are major characters on the show that are already dead in the comic, others that were created just for television, and upcoming plot points that would be frankly impossible to get past the censors, cable or no. I think it's perfectly safe to read and watch too, but if you want to be left completely unspoiled, better pick one or the other.
Speaking of carry-over from the source, one of the most significant concepts in the 'Walking Dead' universe is that these zombies still possess rudimentary senses. They can see you moving, and they can hear you breathing, and they can smell that you're still alive. But the strongest and most substantial of these rebooted senses is their hearing. I noted that Rick was very careful not to fire a shot in this episode unless absolutely necessary, and that is an enormously important idea that should come into play again and again: no matter what else is happening, be quiet.
Tying into this theme was the introduction of the herd, a term lifted right from the comic and a terrifying prospect. They can number in the hundreds, even thousands. The idea is that one or two zombies start moving, for whatever the reason – maybe it's a noise, a sharp sound heard from across a distance but enough to attract their attention, and they begin walking toward it. More zombies see them, recognize the purpose in what's left of their minds, and like rotted lemmings, they follow. The larger the group gets, the more attractive it becomes to others, and before long you have this enormous mindless horde, silent and shuffling and ceaseless, striving for a goal long since forgotten. And, of course, virtually impassable to survivors. Horrid stuff.
Nikki: Indeed! In the scene where the corpses are lumbering along the interstate, we see the one, and I muttered, “Oh shit.” Then there were two. “Double shit.” And then suddenly 10, 30, 100, 300… they just exponentially grow at such a rapid pace. It’s utterly terrifying.
And SO suspenseful, as you said. So many scenes I’m barely breathing for fear I’m going to scream if I do. Whenever the music gets big, you’re prepared, but it’s in those moments of silence, when the music stops, when everything seems to be fine… and of course that’s when the little girl steps out from under the car and gets caught by a walker. I was freaking out in that scene, and not only does she run away from the interstate, but gets so deep into the woods they can’t find her. My heart went out to the mother in this one, and again, that’s what I was arguing last season in my posts — The Walking Dead is not a zombie show, it’s a very human show about what we do in times like this. How would a mother react? What would you do to save your child? The scene where Carol is being held back when the daughter is running away was so hard for me to watch. I’m sure every mother watching that was wondering if they’d be punching and kicking the person holding them to keep running and follow that girl, zombies be damned.
I also really loved the scene between Dale and Andrea, where he’s looking for gratitude for walking her away from suicide and she’s shocked that he sees it that way; she instead sees it as him taking away her choice of when to die. It could have been quick and virtually painless, or being torn apart by walkers. He’s chosen the latter for her. What a powerful scene, especially when you see how stricken Dale is.
And then, of course… THAT ENDING! Oh. My. God. As viewers, we’re so caught up in the moment of the boy coming close to the deer that you are completely off guard when a bullet suddenly tears a hole in the kid. What a shock that was. Were you shrieking as loudly as I was in that scene?
Joshua: I know! I gasped so hard, it made me lightheaded. It's another of those moments like you mentioned where the show uses silence to such great effect, lulling you into this quiet, gentle encounter with the deer only to jolt you back to reality with the sudden violence of the gunshot. What a poignant way to encapsulate the idea of the “old world” vs the “new world” too, with any instance of peace so fleeting now, if not dangerous outright.
Ditto the kudos to Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, who did a terrific job with this script that served both their characters very well throughout. I love Dale and Andrea, and these two couldn't be more perfect at bringing them to life. That scene by the RV in particular is so raw and well-played, I was having 'Battlestar' flashbacks watching it. And I can't think of a stronger endorsement of the way this season has begun.
Bits & Bobs:
• Speaking of 'Battlestar,' cheers to Bear McCreery, who is doing his usual subtly magnificent work with the score. Let's all cross our fingers they never decide to cut budget here.
• Rick's mention of the whispered CDC secret in his opening walkie monologue was quite the tease, but he's right – as much as I want to know, it really doesn't matter what the guy said.
• It certainly wasn't the biggest or the flashiest, but I thought the most effective gore moment in the episode was T-Dog's forearm gash in the traffic jam, which looked so awful that I immediately took it to be fatal and was amazed when he survived to the end of the episode.
• I think the buzzing drone of the insects of Georgia summertime deserve their own character credit. That is not heavy-handed foley work, folks – that is the real deal.
• Post-shark autopsy, did anyone else find themselves saying, “How much woodchuck upchuck would a zombie upchuck...”?
• Nice to see Rick's wife Lori finally given a little more depth in the scene between she, Andrea and Carol at the end. And I never would have thought to find Daryl one of the more compelling parts of this show, but he had me glued to the screen in this ep, and I love where we seem to be going with his character.
Well, that's all I've got, Miss Stafford. Thanks so much again for inviting me to over to play! It's been a pleasure hacking this episode into little pieces with you. With such a strong start to the season, I can't wait to see what the rest of the year will bring.