Monday, March 10, 2014

The Walking Dead: 4.11 "Claimed" & 4.12 "Still"

Dear Josh,
If I'd heard the term "polar vortex" six months ago, I would have thought it was a totally cool phrase. Something you could name a band. Now, at the end of February 2014, I HATE IT. The first snowstorm happened on November 23, 2013… I remember the exact date because I was driving back from Toronto after Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary episode. The next day, after three hours of digging out our driveway and newly fallen snow that was as high as my thighs, I figured the snow would melt soon and everything would go back to normal.. It didn't. Five months later IT IS STILL HERE, with more and more snow on top of it. We've been toppling cold records daily since January, and today I awoke to the news that this morning's temperature of –24 degrees Celsius breaks the –23.9 record set in 1879. EIGHTEEN SEVENTY-NINE. Out west and further north they're recording temperatures in the minus sixties today. Sigh. I am throwing up my Canadian surrender flag and saying, "Enough!! We are not as hardy and tough as we'd like people to think. Can we have spring now? Please?!" 

This week's episode focused on the Rick/Carl/Michonne group, and Tara/Glenn/various others. The first thing I thought when we saw Abraham, the military guy who's in charge of the latter rag-tag group, is that he looked very familiar. I couldn't place him, but it bugged me throughout the episode. Looking him up later, I realized he appeared on not just one, but two shows I wrote books about: Lost and Buffy. On Lost he played Mike, Ana Lucia's partner. Even better, on Buffy, he played "Bob" in "The Zeppo," an undead guy who's brought back to life for one night of shenanigans that Xander gets caught up in. Which means, you guessed it, he was a walker. 

And now he's got a fierce handlebar moustache and an even fiercer right hook. He's travelling with Rosita Espinosa, who appears to be a size zero model in army fatigues, Eugene Porter, a genius with a horrible mullet who claims to know exactly how the plague started. But of course THAT INFORMATION IS CLASSIFIED so he can't tell us exactly how, which means we are this close to a possible cure and he'll die in a hail of bullets in a few more episodes. I don't know if Eugene is supposed to be socially challenged or half-zombie or what, but he tends to lope around and have zero personality. And finally, Abraham is the military guy escorting him, and I actually quite like him. He's got a job to do and is doing it, and he only hits Glenn when Glenn hits him first. Poor Glenn has god-knows-how-many miles now between him and Maggie (probably between 100 and 150 miles away) and he's decided to walk back. I was a little concerned they were going to reunite the various groups early, but it looks like they're going to keep them separate for a while longer, which I think has shown some far more effective storytelling so far. 

Meanwhile, over in the Rick camp, the house has been overrun with guys, and their leader is also a Buffy alum, who played two different baddies on that show, most notably the "magic dealer" who was supplying Willow. (He's more recently notable on Sons of Anarchy.) What did you think of the tense scenes with Rick this week, Josh? 


Dear Nikki,

Sure sounds like you guys are getting the muddy end of the stick up there, ma'am, acclimatized or not. In Georgia, of course, folks never need worry about bad weather for long, as even our worst winter whatnot is still fairly mild, and always short-lived. Like most cities in the southern U.S., the most unfavorable conditions we have to endure come during the seemingly endless allergy season. High annual temperatures and humidity, coupled with abundant agribusiness and forests full of heavy pollen producers like loblolly pine, mean we suffer some of the highest pollen counts in the world when the weather turns warm each year.

Imagine a slumber party's worth of girls armed for a pillow fight, but instead of fluffy pillows, their pillowcases are filled with all purpose flour. Now imagine what it's like to try and breathe in that room after five minutes' fighting, and you have some idea of April in Atlanta. Spring down here is absolutely beautiful, but it isn't always fun, and as far as I'm concerned, it can wait as long as it likes.

But enough about the weather – let's talk zombies.

This week's episode continued in the vein of the last two, keeping our family of survivors fractured for now and following separate paths, albeit toward what looks to be a common destination. The events were straightforward, with nothing of much import taking place, but it was nonetheless filled with great moments. The stuff with Rick trapped under the bed was a fun use of a familiar trope, culminating in the strangled thug on the floor who almost busts him, a deliciously tense sequence that had me squirming all over he couch as I watched. Though he never gets caught, I would be willing to bet that we haven't seen the last of this particular team of creeps. The appearance of an actor the pedigree of Jeff Kober, who as you pointed out has been around since the mid-1980s and showed up on everything from The X-Files to Supernatural, means his character will surely do more than just sit on the porch and scowl.

Most important, the party crashers serve to push Rick, Carl and Michonne toward the aforementioned common destination, as we are shown at episode's end. Terminus is being set up as exactly that: the end of the line for this part of the story, the culmination of whatever efforts they've made since the fall of the prison colony. As such, it will have a lot to live up to once we finally arrive.

Meanwhile, Glenn and his new companions are going, then coming back. Again, nothing of great significance happens, really. We see that the new kids are friendlies, despite Abraham's obstinacy and Eugene's reticence. We see that Glenn still refuses to give up on Maggie - of course. And we see that Tara, having witnessed that same single-minded dedication guiding every sober move Glenn has made since their paths first crossed, has decided that someone with that kind of loyalty is someone worth following. The episode's first scene, as she jots notes of landmarks on her arm so they can find their way back, went farther toward endearing her to me than any other scene she's yet had, and I'm thrilled Glenn's got a little backup to help him get where he needs to be.

But again this week, Danai Gurira and her ever deepening role as Michonne stole the episode for me. Her scenes with Carl as they explored that sad snapshot of suburban desperation, from their exchanges as she slowly opened up to him about her past, through the gradual way the house's secrets revealed themselves, were mesmerizing. This kind of poignant vignette is something the show seems to be taking special care to include this season, and like you, I couldn't be happier about it. They're the kind of texture that truly makes the world within the show come alive, and those are inevitably the moments when I enjoy watching it the most.

Well, it's Sunday night. By my clock here in the kitchen, there is still an hour before this week's new episode broadcasts. That's got to be some kind of new low for us, doesn't it? I apologize that this comes to you so late this time around. If I had a better excuse than 'busy' or 'kind of sick' or just plain 'tired,' I'd float it, but I don't. Just been one of those weeks, you know? But I won't complain; it could always be -24.

-       j

Dear Josh,
So… we missed our Sunday installment to talk about last week's episode. And now almost a week has passed and I'm just getting this next letter to you now. What a gong show of a week. It's weird how few hours are in a day when you break it down. I miss the luxury of being in an office from 9 to 5; now I'm getting the kids to school, racing home and working from 9:30-3:15 and then back over to get kids, followed by homework, extracurricular activities, dinner in there somewhere, and then bed. And then I try to get back to work because I didn't bank enough hours. I end up doing laundry and grocery shopping during the day. And because of this winter, there's been a three-inch sheet of ice on our driveway for over a month now that won't even begin to melt, so I began chipping away at it on the weekend. And, inevitably, hurt my back. My husband's happy to wait until spring, but something about everyone else's driveway being clean and ours being a downward-sloping ice rink drives me nuts. And our driveway holds seven cars, so you can imagine the work I (and my chiropractor) have ahead of me. Le sigh. But it's not all bad, you know; much of my lack of response is due to an Oscar party I had on the weekend, which prevented me from watching Walking Dead (and then, I'll admit, on Monday I made True Detective the priority… sorry…) and my daughter is in a choir here in town that had its festival on the weekend, preceded by 14 hours of rehearsals in the previous week. Blergh. But the festival was rather glorious, and she looked and sounded amazing up there. 

Anyway, I'm so full of excuses, and I need to move on to the show. 

The scene where Michonne opens the door and finds the room full of a dead family broke my heart. I could just imagine this family with their picture-perfect life — perfect little pink rooms for the girl, a sports paradise for the boy, everything in the house in its place — suddenly realizing they're not going to make it, and the future holds nothing but misery and death. Those were corpses on the bed, not zombies, so clearly the children were curled up in the bed and the mother or father killed each one of them before killing him/herself. I'd like to think it was more peaceful, that they just starved to death, but then they'd all be walkers. And they weren't. How horrible must that have been? To have to mercy-kill your own beloved family? The heart just can't take it sometimes. Michonne finally telling Carl what happened in her past was a beautiful moment, and I love that she made him earn each question, and that he was OK with that. I love these two together. 

And that brings us to this week's episode. Focused on Daryl and Beth, this week's might have been my favourite episode of the season so far. Once again it's the character study that comes off as being the most brilliant way to explore the themes of the series. They find their way up to the golf course clubhouse, and Beth is intent on one thing: finding alcohol. Daryl looks uncomfortable and snarly the entire time they're in the clubhouse, and when he finally goes after the walkers in the lounge area, he goes to town on Arnold Palmer, beating the snot out of him and his ugly green golf sweater. The severity with which he beats the old zombie comes off as a little too personal, as if he actually knew the guy. But he didn't. Instead, we move from the exclusive golf club to the rundown shack in the middle of the woods, and suddenly Daryl knows his way around. This was the world he came from, not the hoity-toity snooty world of birdies, eagles, and 19th holes. He shows Beth around the house and knows every inch of it: where you'd dump cigarettes or spit out your chewing tobacco juice; where the old chair came from; where the moonshine is kept. He knows his way around, but as we soon see, he's not exactly comfortable here, either, because he's reminded of where he came from. Beth, meanwhile, is sucking back the moonshine like it's water, and she's come from a strict religious teetotalling family. 

And it's here that we get something that's never really been explored on this show, but is fascinating: sometimes, in an apocalypse, when you're forced to become a new person and leave behind everything you were… it's not a bad thing. She tells Daryl that he needs to focus on who he is, not who he was. Beth's family circumstance was certainly happier before, but she's finding a way to become a new, stronger person in this post-apocalyptic world. Yes, she's lost people, and she misses them terribly, and she's hardened her heart against the slings and arrows that life tosses at it, but she's not the timid little shy sister anymore: she's a warrior who can hold her own. As the two of them walk away from the ramshackle lodgings burning to the ground, they move forward into a new world and learn to leave the past in the past. I thought this episode had two of the best performances from the entire series. 

And… back to work, where my day has even fewer hours in it now than when I started this. But this is a happy distraction. ;) 

All the best,

Dear Nikki,
It's a cold, rainy night in Georgia. I can hear thunder rumbling in the distance, but the storm has run its course. Just as well – I have writing left to do, and nothing puts me to sleep like the sound of a rainstorm. My parents used to drive me around in the car as an infant when they couldn't get me to sleep, and forty years later, white noise still gets me. Better keep that to yourself, though. That's just the kind of information my many nemeses would kill to acquire, and I can't allow your safety to be compromised.

Speaking of which, did I tell you my seven year old has started roller derby? We're now two practices into the season, and she's still learning the basics like how to fall safely, but the sessions are intense. She has to wear a mouth guard. Like a boxer. She loves it, though, the little bruiser. Bless her heart. It may not be ladylike, but whatever. Words cannot describe the satisfaction inherent in a father's knowledge that his sweet baby daughter is also tough as nails.

Hershel would totally back me up on that, too. His presence loomed large over 'Still,' adding subtle subtext and significance to what I agree was one of the best episodes The Walking Dead has ever offered. Beautifully written, acted and shot, this one was also filled to bursting with the kind of small details that do such a tremendous job of selling the reality of this world they've created. I loved the idea of hiding in the trunk until the herd of walkers had passed, and the sight of all those muddy footprints on the pavement when they finally come back out was the perfect creepy coda. These wordless, atmospheric opening sequences are becoming a hallmark of this show, and this one was one of my favorites.

Things stay silent for a while, too, as we see Beth and Daryl going about their daily lives: hunting, starting a fire, setting up noisemakers as a basic early warning system. Finally, Beth breaks the silence: “I need a drink.” And the rest of the episode builds from there, as Beth tries to force Daryl out of the funk he's been wallowing in ever since the attack on the prison. This dovetailed well into what we saw of his state of mind from two episodes ago, during their short interlude, and the way it all built to their drunken confrontation near the end was perfectly handled. So often in movies and television, we've seen similar scenes wherein one character tries to push another to some kind of cathartic breakdown. It's a hard encounter to get right, but the scripting and performances really nail the tone here, sincere and dramatic without feeling unearned or overblown.

The structure felt quite natural to me throughout, but it really found its rhythm in the third act, when the two of them sit down to play the 'I Never' game. When Daryl finally gets fed up with what he thinks is pure silliness, the self-pitying tantrum that follows is amazing, sad and funny and perfect, all the way through to his tearful surrender outside, when he finally speaks the names of his friends, his new family, certain they're all dead, certain there is more he could have done, certain that somehow this aimless, loveless life of perpetual struggle is what he deserves for the life he led before. It's an amazing sequence, and both Norman Reedus and Emily Kinney absolutely crushed the delivery.

You already mentioned how well this episode conveyed the unusual idea that this existence, harsh though it may be, could actually improve certain aspects of their lives, but it also did something else that no previous episode has managed to accomplish – it made me feel for and identify with Beth in a way I never would have expected. That's just one more reason I adore these measured, character-focused episodes. When Beth says, “You're gonna miss me so bad when I'm gone, Daryl Dixon,” they aren't just words to spell out how the audience should be feeling. I believe her. And for the first time, I believe I'd miss her, too.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: the eventual reunion of these characters is going to feel soooooo good when we get there. None of it would be possible without the superb groundwork the show has been giving us these past few weeks, and I am loving every minute of it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I could use a drink myself. But it ain't gonna be no peach schnapps.
- j

Dear Josh,
Thank you for sending this out to me on Friday. I let the whole weekend go, and was just settling in to watch this week’s episode of Walking Dead when I suddenly realized I’d never posted it.

However, it’s allowed me to post that today will be the warmest day of the year so far, at a balmy five degrees! And that alone is worth celebrating.

I just wanted to add that a week later, I still adore this episode. And I worry that the whole, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone” thing was foreshadowing. Like you said, before this episode Beth would have just been another casualty. But now, I really will miss her when she’s gone. I hope she doesn’t go. :(

To everyone reading, sorry for these late posts. I would promise that this week’s episode rundown will be coming sooner, but… I won’t. Because it probably won’t. ;)



SenexMacdonald said...

I have been loving the back side of this season. Love the small moments and then the shocks that come out of left field.

Really impressed by the writing, directing and especially(!) the acting.

Watching Daryl and Beth, Carl and Michonne getting closer. Watching Glenn and Maggie fighting with everything they have to find each other - not knowing what has happened to the other but feeling the urgency to find out.

Instantly recognized Jeff Kober by his voice as opposed to seeing him since he was only in profile.

The scene under the bed was tense, especially since we also know that it is getting closer to the time when Carl and Michonne are returning. Watching Rick fight off his injuries and having his survival instincts kick in and giving him strength to make it out of the house alive and, as much as possible baring the unconscious guy, unseen. I understand that Andrew did the stunt where he hangs off the edge of the roof and drops down to the porch.

The pristine house that Carl and Michonne find themselves in ... was almost waiting for someone to come out and welcome them in for tea. That is what stands out for me - homes that are untouched and waiting for their owners/families to come home. And then that art piece ... Was it wrapped so people would be drawn to it first as opposed to hanging it on the wall? Was it meant to be a warning to leave? As Michonne moved into the children's bathroom and then into the blue bedroom, I could feel my skin begin to crawl. Everything in place and then she opened the second door to a pink wall. I could hear my mind going ... no, no, NO! Then she stepped in. I am sure I began to cry as she surveyed the room and the children and then their mom. I agree - to have made that decision to "save" her children and then herself. What did that family go through prior to then is probably not important but it must have been horrible to have forced this decision. I noted that the father was not there. Could he have been turned and be part of what transpired to lead to this? We won't know; just that the consequences of whatever happened.

Three more episodes to go and I can't wait for whatever happens!

SenexMacdonald said...
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Efthymia said...

Just when I had accepted that there would be no posts on these episodes... :)

So, Michael Cudlitz and Jeff Kober have been in my top TV obsessions (in the drama category, at least) -BtVS, LOST, and now this- so I guess they deserve my eternal love or something.

I like Eugene. I don't trust him the least bit, but he's amusing, which is not something you can say about many of the characters on this show. Or any.
Rosita's clothing, on the other hand, not so amusing.

While I'm not one of the if-Daryl-dies-we-riot people, he's still in my Top 5 favourite characters, and 'boring' is not a word I had ever associated with him; until this episode.
So we find out that he was a redneck/white trash/whatever you call it, with an obnoxious father, who followed his older brother around and did pretty much everything he said without really having his respect in return, but the zombocalypse revealed him to be a much better man. Huh... Haven't we been watching this for the past 3 seasons? Did we really need an entire episode where they gathered all the subtle clues and threw them in our face?
We are also told that even if Beth isn't like Michonne and Maggie, she's still managed to survive so far so she must have her own kind of strength, and that she dreamed her family would have lived happily ever after and her father would have died calmly of old age. Yeah...mind-blowing stuff...
By the way, I read/heard a few times after this episode aired how it's good it showed more of Beth and that she's strong in her own way because that will make her less disliked. I wasn't aware that Beth was disliked. I didn't think anyone would have had any sort of strong feelings towards her, considering she was a secondary character, who mostly took care of baby Judith and occasionaly sang.
I guess all you have to do to be disliked on this show is have lady parts.

On an unrelated note: Josh, please tell your daughter she's awesome. =D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recap you two. I was beginning to think you'd quit on us!

I've enjoyed this half season so far but two things bug me.

1) They really didn't have a "rendezvous (sp?) point" to meet at if/when the shit hit the fan at the prison?

2) Way back in the first season Rick & Glen smeared zombie guts on themselves so they could walk among them? It only stopped working when it rained. Wouldn't they all do this when they're out in the wild? Or at least make some "escorts" like Michonne does?

I know it would diminish the storytelling but I can't help think about these things.

Nikki - you think starving to death would be a more peaceful way to die then a bullet in the head when you're sleeping? Really? I think I'd take the bullet every time.

See you next week.

-Tim Alan

Nikki Stafford said...

Tim: Ack you're right! I didn't mean that; I meant LITERALLY peaceful, as in not the boom of a bullet, but you're absolutely right. I'd take a quick death over a long, slow, agonizing one any day.