Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Walking Dead 5.4: Slabtown

(My apologies in advance for the at-times angry nature of this post; I really do love this show... I probably don't have to say that, but after writing this post I feel like I have to reiterate it...)

Last week ended with Daryl looking into the bushes and telling someone to come out. Was it Carol? Beth? Someone else? We had several ideas in the comments of that recap, and this episode ain’t about to reveal the truth any time soon. (Nor will next week’s.) Looks like The Walking Dead is back to its old tricks, splitting up the group and pushing different stories that will make us wait for closure. Let the games begin!

Nikki: This week’s episode was surprising for one main reason: ELECTRICITY. When’s the last time we saw THAT on this show?! Clearly it’s meant to make us think we’re flashing back to The Time Before, but as soon as Beth looks out the window and realizes she’s in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Atlanta, we know that nope, this is the present day.

There’s a lot to say about this episode, and I’ll actually let you get started with the actual analysis this week, Josh, because I’d like to say something else. I love The Walking Dead, y’all know I do, but sometimes this show is just SO BLEAK it’s bordering on being too much. There are weeks where I think if I didn’t write this column each week with Joshua, I’d just let it pile up on the DVR like so many other shows and marathon it when the season is over. In this week’s episode we see a place that has actually figured out how to maintain electricity, heating, cooking (even if the food isn’t exactly five-star quality), and what should be an element of safety, but hold on there, you optimistic freaks, there’s NO SUCH THING as contentment in the world of Robert Kirkman. I truly believe this guy has one of the most pessimistic views of human nature ever. I honestly don’t see where he’s coming from sometimes. Maybe it’s because I’m a Canadian, maybe it’s because I’m just naive, but I simply don’t believe that in a world that’s this dark, there isn’t SOME sort of refuge somewhere that isn’t run by one megalomaniac dominating a bunch of hapless idiots.

Oh look, a sweet little town called Woodbury with food, water, individual houses, guards keeping you safe, and OH MY GOD ARE THEY DOING ZOMBIE COCK-FIGHTS?! And is their “Governor” a crazy one-eyed Pete who has aquariums filled with zombie heads? Good god no.

Oh but hey, after our long journey there is an end point, a sanctuary called Terminus. Wonderful. Rally on, friends and let us all head to this OH MY GOD unsanctimonious hellhole of revolting cannibalism where we are not only NOT safe, but kept in train cars TO BE EATEN. Fuck. ME.

And now we’ve blown up that Not-Sanctuary and... hey? Where’s Beth? Why, she’s gone back to Atlanta where she’s found a hospital with actual doctors and comfortable beds (well, as comfortable as hospital beds could possibly be but at least they’re a leg up on prison beds AMIRIGHT?!) and indoor heating and a rooftop mushroom-growing sunbathing free-from-zombies area that’s all kept sanitized and there’s food (even if you don’t want to know what the food is) and Blind Willie Johnson playing on the turntable and Caravaggio paintings and lots of books and if you look down the darkened hallway there’s even what appears to be the janitor from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video but... oh right. There are rapists and murderers and dead bodies in the elevator shaft and “giving back” in unseemly ways, where even the good doctor is killing the competition and that little girl from Whale Rider would rather become a goddamn walker than spend one more minute in this place. Quick, grab the kid from Everybody Hates Chris and get out of there.

Butbutbut... what about Blind Willie Johnson?!

NO. You may not have artistic extravagances because art doesn’t belong in this world of evil and damnation and neither does goodness, honesty, or, you know, human frickin’ beings working together to bring peace and harmony. Because apparently all of the good people turned into walkers pretty damn fast and all that was left were the horrible dregs of society that want to rape their way through the rest of their lives.

Sigh. Sorry. That was a rant I didn’t see coming. Didn’t see that weird stream-of-consciousness coming, either. But as much as I enjoyed this episode, it just seemed like ONE MORE PLACE that could have worked, but simply can’t in Kirkman’s screwed-up view of the world.

Will Eugene make it to Washington alive and save the world? Of course not. Will the good survive? Nah. Will they ever find a nice library in the middle of nowhere with endless books and a farm out back they can work on to grow food and a place where they won’t be raped daily or fear for their lives? What?! That’s boring television.

When I see Carol blow up Terminus I’m fist-pumping the air and bouncing with delight, and I love the ways they show the humanity that’s in that core group of people. But according to Kirkman’s worldview, they are the only sane people in the world right now, and everyone outside of them — be it immoral preachers, roaming bandits, cannibals, rapists, or just plain goons — seems to be what the rest of the world looks like. I have said that in this new world we need a new definition of humanity, but unless they find a way to travel to the Arctic and isolate themselves from the rest of the universe, there’s no way there will be a definition of anything. There is no hope. At this point I’d be like, knife me in the head, I’m done.

OK, I’ll let you actually talk about the episode, because you’re probably more clear-headed than I am right now, Josh.

Joshua: Don't mince words, Nik. We're all friends here. You shouldn't feel like you have to hold back.

You know, when I first started reading the comics, I remember seeing an interview with Robert Kirkman in which he discussed the conception of the series. He'd always loved zombie stories, he said, but couldn't help noticing how the vast majority of them seemed preoccupied with the genesis of such situations. It was a genre that focused more on reaction than perseverance, telling the beginning of the story and then hewing to a narrow timeline thereafter, and likewise wrapping up well before they got into the real meat of what it might be like to exist in such an environment over the long term.

The idea that intrigued him was attempting to lengthen that timeline to explore what kinds of things would happen after months or years had passed. The concept was novel enough to intrigue me, too, and there were times when I thought he absolutely nailed it and others when the tale felt much less genuine, when it veered dangerously close to gratuitous exploitation for me. And sure, I know it's fiction, and you gotta sell books to make more. But in my opinion, questionable content without any narrative justification –  for no reason other than simple shock value – is feckless and lazy, however effective it might prove down the road.

I think for the most part AMC has avoided these kinds of pitfalls, keeping the show more grounded and excising parts of the original story that would likely overwhelm the sensibilities of a broad tv audience. However, the atmosphere certainly isn't one of hopefulness. It isn't designed to encourage or inspire, and even the fist-pumping moments are tempered by design, peppered with scenes that are carefully tailored to give us pause.

And the truth is that I have a lot of respect for that, for all the same reasons I detailed above. A show that includes as much graphic violence as this one should feel a certain responsibility to make it impactful as well, and I believe they hold that balance carefully as a general rule. But as far as the writers' misanthropic worldview is concerned, I tend to think it's just a pitfall of the genre. In fact, it's probably the single greatest challenge in maintaining a long form post-apocalyptic narrative. How do you infuse a world so devoid of hope with enough optimism to keep your readers or viewers engaged?

Then again, how much do we really want that, after all? We come from a culture that has long rewarded artists who gift us with tragedy, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Faulkner to Cormac McCarthy. The idea has become so prevalent that sometimes it can seem like happy endings are disingenuous. And it's hard to forget that we're the same species who used to delight in the viewing of public executions.

While I may be one of the folks who still believe humanity is inherently good, I can easily understand those whose perspective makes them feel otherwise. The world is a dark place that frequently rewards ruthlessness and brute strength with power and privilege, and circumstances as radical and nightmarish as a zombie plague could only serve to shift that dynamic in the worst direction. Moreover, I think that feeling of futility is a vital link to the characters whose stories we're watching play out on our screens every Sunday night. The uncompromising nature of the drama helps me understand the mindset of the players and the gravity of their decisions, puts me in their shoes and helps me relate with an objectivity that might not be possible otherwise.

Understand that this is coming from someone who stopped reading the comics after over a hundred issues of investment because the story became too bleak for me. I'm not immune to the same fatigue you're describing, and I'm not sure why it doesn't get to me the same way. The reality is that the folks behind the show will likely do whatever is necessary to create conflict and continue producing episodes ad infinitum – after all, it is the most successful property on television, and The Powers That Be wouldn't jeopardize that for simple positivity.

Nonetheless, I'm inclined to keep rooting for them, for the promise of something better. The law of averages dictates that our heroes are bound to cross paths with more people like themselves eventually, and all these trials will have strengthened them, refined them, helped prepare them to soldier on and war against both the evil that men do and the evil they become. Ad astra per aspera, you know? For all its gloom and horror, perhaps this story will prove to be about shifting the equation back toward the light.

Nikki: I hope so. I was reminded of Lost when watching it, actually, and how on a mysterious island fraught with uncertainty, there was the constant battle of man in a state of nature. Do we go with John Locke, who stated that man is born a blank slate and becomes whatever he learns and is written upon him? Or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed man was essentially good and would find positive ways through the situation? Or do we agree with Thomas Hobbes, who said that in a state of nature, man was essentially evil and would fall to the basest of natures? I would like to think that on Lost, the Locke/Rousseau argument won out. Yes, there were many Hobbesian moments on the show, but ultimately, people wanted to be good. The smoke monster lost, and Jack restored light to the world. If Robert Kirkman had written Lost, he would have had the smoke monster devour all of the children and elderly in the first episode, and Charles Widmore would have been the hero of the story. Kirkman has subscribed to the Hobbesian theory and has a members' card in his wallet, and this show demonstrates it in every episode.

My friend Troy posted a status update today that made me laugh: “Just a thought: If Rick and his crew had died in the first season Hershel and his daughters would be living happily on his farm, the good citizens of Woodbury would be safe under the watchful eye(s) of the Governor, the people of Terminus would be sitting down to a lovely home cooked meal, and somewhere in Atlanta there would be a hospital offering free medical care.”


So, um, we should probably talk about the episode? (Behind the scenes I’m emailing my first pass to Josh saying, “Does this sound like a crazy person ranting?” and he’s emailing me back saying, “So I still didn’t mention the episode...”) I inadvertently covered a bunch of the material in my rant, I think, and so I’d like to talk about what was my favourite scene in the episode, which is Dr. Edwards talking about art and its place in this world. I thought that whole speech was fascinating. “Art isn’t about survival, it’s about transcendence. Being more than animals, rising above.” “We can’t do that anymore?” Beth asks. “I don’t know,” he replies.

Maybe, again, the optimist in me is just looking for that one shard of hope in this crystal ball of hopelessness, but I think if Kirkman has infused any of it into this episode, it hangs on that statement. “I don’t know,” he says, not “No.” Yes, there is hope. Edwards is a good person who did a bad thing for his survival. Dawn looks like she’s trying to keep it together under difficult circumstances, but she’s willing to turn a blind eye to what Gorman is doing. He finally gets his at the end, and Dawn isn’t relieved, but angry. Cops don’t have to be the bad guys (look at Rick) and maybe they can be brought around? What will happen when Rick and Co. show up? Or, even better, when Carol wakes up, since we see her being brought in at the end and a collective WHOOP goes up from the audience at the possibilities of this one? Carol will deal with everything in her cold, calculated way if given the chance, but will that make things any better? Or will this be like Hershel’s farm, Woodbury, the prison, and Terminus, and end up a big pile of burning rubble when they’re done with it?

As Blind Willie Johnson sings that if he doesn’t read the bible his soul will be lost, and that’s nobody’s fault but his, we can’t help but wonder if there are any souls left in this world. One would think in an age when all hope seems lost, people would hang onto some hope, whether or not it contains any truth, and be reading their bibles like mad. But maybe, in this new reality, the bible is better used as kindling.

And as for my vote for who is with Daryl and emerges from the bushes, I think it’s going to be Noah, the guy who was trying to escape with Beth and got away.

Any final thoughts, Josh?

Josh: Good thought about Noah! I hope you're right. Bum leg or no, I always like seeing new faces added to the crew. And speaking of which, I'm also hoping the hospital doesn't wind up another bloodbath, because I don't think it has to be like that. Dawn is a twisted Ayn Rand nightmare, to be sure, but we're talking about one person. Other than the late Officer Gorman (may he rest most uncomfortably), none of the other uniforms came across as particularly sadistic, and perhaps some more peaceable solution can be reached than the stock stabby, shooty variety. We might even gain more able bodies for Rick's Ragtags in the process.

Barring that, there is still plenty of potential for escape. Grady is an enormous hospital, at least in reality – the largest in the state, and fifth largest in the country. There's no way that Dawn and her Regulators have more than a fraction of it functional (I'm thinking a couple of floors, at most). With Carol as mastermind, they're bound to be capable of a better getaway scheme than Noah's tie-sheets-together-and-shinny-down-the-body-chute plan. Which, much as I like Noah, was super dumb, and they were lucky to survive it. I mean, come on. This isn't Meatballs, pal.

We'd love to see what you all thought, dear readers, so let us hear your voices in the comments! We'll both try to chime in when we can. Until next week, campers.


Efthymia said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Nikki, for phrasing my feelings more eloquently than I ever could! Now I can just say "What she said" and be covered.

I'm generally the first person to say that zombie movies (etc.) are mostly about how humans are/can be worse than zombies, but in a show that's now in it's fifth season, couldn't we just maybe have created drama by walkers finding a way in and destroying the hospital than having it be just another place that seems to be an oasis in this infected world, only to be proven to be another place filled with psychopaths? Please?

Anonymous said...

SO Nikki - which show do you think shows a more negative view of human nature - TWD or Girls? Seriously I'd like to know your answer.

But yeah - if they all went to Terminus and lived happily ever after would they still get more viewers than Sunday Night Football?

-Tim Alan

Lyv said...

Though the writing of the show has improved massively since the first two seasons there were a lot more 'good' people or groups to be found back then that our group came into contact with. Morgan, the people taking care of the elderly, Hershal and his family.. Maybe it's just the natural progression of the show - that things must become more bleak and shocking - or just the idea that the 'good' people can't survive in this world.

Then again, as I write this, I think we have seen some good people/groups in the last 2.5 seasons, they have just never been ones in powerful positions and quite often they've been shown to be fools/weak - the two people Carol and Rick meet - eaten and murdered by cannibals, Tara's family - taken in by the Gov, Abraham... not weak but remains to be seen whether he is a fool.

Rebecca T. said...

First I'd like to second the thought that Noah may be the person behind Daryl - that's what I immediately thought as soon as the episode ended without us reaching that point.

Another thing I noticed that I appreciated was the way the people in the hospital referred to the zombies as "rotters." I'm glad whenever a separate group of people has formed a different vocabulary because that's really what would happen (there's the English major comment of the day :)

Now I have thoughts related to Nikki and Josh's thoughts about the world and the show and negativity and hope, but let's see if I can articulate them (I have to break my comment up into multiple parts because blogger won't let me post my ridiculously long response in one post... *sheepish grin*)

Rebecca T. said...

I totally see where you're coming from Nikki - I hadn't thought about it all together as you put it with the three places of "refuge" ending up being the opposite and seeing them stacked like that I had to wonder why I'm not reacting to it the way you are.

I think that it rests on the other places we've seen.

Hershel's farmhouse. Here we had a family, rather than a larger mixed group, but it was functional, it was a refuge, they took Rick's group in. But not without push back. And not without doing some questionable things like keeping Walkers in their barn. Hershel was down right antagonistic to the idea of them coming anywhere near his property at first and for a while after that.

The next place I think of is the prison. Rick and his group set up a really nice home there. And it could have lasted for quite a while (without the Governor's tank). But even Rick wasn't happy having new people come in. He flips out on Tyreese's group and locks Michonne up.

And the other place that comes to mind is Lilly and Tara's apartment. It was a safe place. And they took Philip in, semi-reluctantly.

Another place that came up while I was checking some facts for this post is the nursing home from season one. G and a group of other people had set up a safe place where they promised to take care of all of the elderly people as long as they could. Completely and purely altruistic motives there. And they help Rick's group and Rick leaves them guns and ammo to help them survive.

So I see each of the horrors being balanced with these glimmers of hope of places that are places of refuge. I think the problem is that nowhere - whether good or bad - is safe for an extended period of time simply because of the state of the world.

I think it's reasonable to extrapolate that many of the people who would rise to power in a post-apocalyptic world would not be doing it from altruistic reasons. There is a harshness in this world that forces even the best person to become hardened. Rick just bludgeoned someone to death ruthlessly in the last episode not to mention the gruesome ripping out of a man's throat when Carl was in trouble last season. Carol blew up Terminus and ran through the compound killing people. Even Hershel helped kill walkers (which is particularly shocking when you think about the way he kept so many in his barn for so long).

So, I really think it makes sense that the weak don't survive and the strong, moral people become more hardened than they probably ever guessed they could, finding themselves grouped with like-minded people, and the strong, amoral or selfish people take charge of the weak who can't or don't want to bother fighting for something more.

Is it happy? No. But is it realistic? Yes. Do I think the group will someday find another group that has survived the way they have with a semblance of humanity intact? I do.

While I do think it would be interesting to see the group find a place where they could be safe for a while and explore some of the quieter moments of learning how to live and not just survive in this world, I don't know as that is going to happen for longer than a few episodes simply because of the nature of the show. It wouldn't feel true to the larger world that has been built. Is that world painted unnecessarily dark by the writers/creators? That's obviously the question being contemplated here.

I don't see it as being so. I see it as being a fairly realistic vision of how the world could fall apart in the aftermath of such a global catastrophe. Do I think there would be people doing the right thing? Absolutely.

And I think we see that, primarily through Rick's group, but we have to remember that Rick's group looked much much much different in season 1. Out of the 17 people in that group in season 1 only Rick, Carl, Glenn, Carol, and Daryl are left. The rest of the group we know and love now were added on as they met decent, moral people who wanted to trust and help other people.

Rebecca T. said...

Final thoughts, I promise (pete's sake, not sure where all this came from) (I'm actually doing this to make Nikki feel better ;)

One other note about the hospital - yes, the one officer was obviously evil. The others? It's intimated that they also are involved with women potentially against their will, but none of them are portrayed as cruel.

The "you owe us" dynamic has certainly become oppressive in reality, though there is talk that it is not the trap Noah lets us know it is (Dawn tells Beth that she'll be able to leave, after all). But doesn't Rick's group have a similar (though less creepily carried out) philosophy? You want to be part of the group, you contribute. There can't be any freeloaders in this society. And if you're trying to keep a group surviving and using resources to help people, wouldn't you want some sort of repayment from people in order to make sure everyone survives? So while I'm not justifying everything going on in the hospital, I am saying that it's not completely off the rails.

And now that I've written an entire book in response I will close :) One thing I really love about this show is that it can raise so many interesting debates. And I'm glad there's a place to do that! Thanks Nikki! (And Josh!)

Justin Mohareb said...

The hospital struck me as part company store, part human trafficking/slavery ring.

Nikki Stafford said...

Here's what I need on an ongoing basis: after a particularly wrenching episode of a new community run by crazy people, the episode should end and Rebecca appears on-screen. "Hello, Nikki," she'll say. "I realize that episode was probably difficult, so let's talk about the issues we just saw, OK?" And then it'll make everything better again. :) Thank you for reminding me of all the goodness in the world that we've seen on the show. I tend to watch everything through optimistic lenses, and this just seemed like one more hopeless place that could have been brilliant and it made me angry.

I agree that only Gorman was portrayed as evil, but rather than do something about him the others (including his superiors) condoned what he did and said it was part of what people owed. Even if Noah wasn't being raped by Gorman, he was still a prisoner who wasn't allowed to leave of his own free will to find his mother, which he really wanted to do. And the guards all backed that decision to keep him trapped there.

But like I said in the piece, maybe there's hope that things might change. If Noah IS the one off to get Daryl and lead the others to the hospital, maybe in the meantime Beth and Carol can have a positive effect on everything and they'll actually be able to join up in mutual positivity.

Though maybe that would be too boring. Because, despite my rant, now a couple of days later I think, How interesting would it be to watch a bunch of people living on a farm happily with no walkers? That was called Little House on the Prairie. Totally different show. ;)

I think it would be nice for Rick and Co. to move on and leave someone behind who's happy. Hershel's farm got blown up, and when Rick left Morgan alone in S1 he was sad and alone, and when he left him again in S4 he was sadder and more alone, and the people of Terminus had their compound blown up, and the people of Woodbury who happened to be good were now out scrounging in the woods, and the preacher they were just with has been left alone to face his demons, etc. I know there MUST have been someone they left behind in a happy state, but I can't think of who that might have been. It would be nice to see some hope being dropped here and there, and then Rick and Co could continue on their adventures elsewhere with the doom and gloom, but leaving little seeds of hope behind them that might blossom into a happier world.

I'm not giving up on this show any time soon, it was just a rant I needed to have, and I'm sure I'll be fine again next week. But thank you, Rebecca, for your awesome posts!!! :)

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Oh, Little House on the Prairie with zombies. How awesome would that be!

Gretchen M said...

I don't disagree with you, but I did want to note that I also found hope in Beth's realization of her own strength. She told Dawn "I'm not weak" and when she smiled after being caught again, I interpreted that as her knowing she was going to get out either way.

the diesel weasel said...

Oh, man, o man, it's totally Noah in the bushes. Please, please let it be little Chris.

Since the show is undoubtably less bleak than the comic, I have to admit, I'm liking the show more than the panels more and more. It's nice to see what Kirkman can do with the dualing mediums of storytelling.

Can Glenn get a damn shirt in any color other than RED, please?!

Thank you Nik and Josh for keeping this up, your insights are incredible; I absolutely I cannot wait to hear what you think about Eugene and the firehose of dooooom!