Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Watched in 2014

As I posted recently, my blogging has been at an all-time low this year, even if I’ve been keeping up things on Facebook. I wrote about The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, The Knick, and Game of Thrones (just so I’d have one show that didn’t begin with “The”).  But I’ve seen a lot of film and television in 2014 that I didn’t share with y’all, and so here are some of my favourites:

Whiplash: Probably my favourite film of the year, this is a dark and gritty look — think Black Swan for musicians — at the pain and suffering that classical and jazz musicians must endure at extremely high performance levels. When a guy strives to be the next Buddy Rich and makes it into the most elite band of New York’s most elite music school, he meets a teacher who believes that breaking down a person’s resolve, self-confidence, and self-esteem are the only ways to make them build themselves back up again. The performances by JK Simmons and Miles Teller are utterly stunning. I think Simmons has the Best Supporting Actor Oscar wrapped up. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.

Locke: A much quieter film, it takes place almost entirely in the worst car ride one man could possibly have without getting into an accident. While the premise doesn’t sound like much, you have to watch this film for one of the most remarkable one-man performances you will ever see. Tom Hardy (yes, Bane) delivers a sublime performance as one man falling apart, while constantly using his dashboard phone to call several people to try desperately to maintain the foundation of a building he’s overseeing while his real world crumbles to the ground around him. Other than Hardy, you only hear the voices of the other actors, but it’s a who’s who of the best British stars today, and Hardy puts in such a stunning performance I half-wish no other great movie had come out after this one so he could just take that Oscar for himself. 

The Imitation Game: I’ve spent a lot of time this year with Benedict Cumberbatch (as mentioned, and what my publisher would like me to continue mentioning, I’ve written a book on Sherlock that will be out in fall 2015), and he never ceases to amaze me. In this film he plays Alan Turing, the brilliant young mathematician who created the machine that eventually deciphered the unbreakable Nazi code machine, Enigma, which ended up shortening the war considerably and saving innumerable lives. But what the justice system did to him following the war — having absolutely no knowledge of his incredible contributions to saving their lives — is nothing short of inhumane and horrific. The final moments of the movie will have tears streaming down your face for what was done to him. In 2012 at the opening games of the London Olympics, the British brought out the father of the Internet to show all of their great achievements; they decided to hide the horrible thing that was perpetrated upon the father of the modern computer.

Boyhood: One of the best part of movies is discussing them with friends afterwards, but after my husband and I saw this film I was left awed, heartbroken, moved, overjoyed, and speechless. By filming a boy in real time, for several weeks every year from age 6 to 18, Richard Linklater (who never seems to disappoint me) has created a masterpiece of quiet subtlety. I felt like I was watching the next 12 years of my son’s life, and it was heartbreaking to see it move so fast, and see how life can be like sand falling through our fingers, with no pause button. An extraordinary achievement in film.

Only Lovers Left Alive: This might be the best vampire film I’ve ever seen. And it stars Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. I don’t really need to say anything more. Just go see it.

Derek: My brother bugged me to watch this show for ages, and I finally sat down and watched season 1 in a single afternoon. Despite starring Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington, it’s not a comedy. It has hysterically funny moments, but it’s meant to be a drama about a mentally challenged man — Gervais — who lives in an old folk’s home and is the heart of the place, along with Hannah, the woman who singlehandedly seems to run the place when funding runs out at the beginning of the first season. Being a nursing home, it’s inevitable you’ll lose people, but when they die, it’s the effect of their loss on Derek that is so heartbreaking. I just watched all of season 2, along with the Christmas special, yesterday, and it’s equally devastating. I think the finale of season 1 and the special are the two highlights of the series (and as my friend Dave warned me, there’s an episode involving a dog in S2 that will make you cry), and they both had me laughing out loud while tears streamed down my face. I think this is Gervais’s crowning achievement.

Black Mirror: I’ve only watched a handful of episodes, but if you haven’t watched this show yet, YOU MUST. It’s an even weirder and creepier Twilight Zone, all showing the dangers of technology. One is an indictment of Facebook, another of Twitter and social media in general. The Christmas episode that just aired (starring Jon Hamm) explores even deeper things that I can’t talk about without spoiling, but the show is a brilliant and satirical look at the world we have created around us.

Orphan Black: Each week of the second season, I couldn’t wait for a new episode and thought S2 was even more brilliant than S1. Tatiana Maslany continues to be utterly genius in every scene, and the cloning took on more symbolic and emotional significance in the second season. I’m probably not 100% on board with the Tony character, but the rest of it was amazing, including an hysterically funny and shocking homage to Pulp Fiction that might be my favourite TV moment of the year.

The Affair: The first season just wrapped on this one, and I loved it. It was the best pilot of all of the fall shows that I saw, and the performances by everyone in it — Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Joshua Jackson, and Maura Tierney — are stunningly real. The main premise is that West and Tierney are a married couple with four children who go on summer holiday in Montauk. Wilson and Jackson live there, and Wilson (Alison) and West (Noah) begin a torrid affair. What makes the show so great is that the first half of each episode is told through the perspective of either Noah or Alison, and the second half by the other. Watching the story twice is never boring, but instead offers a wealth of clues: in his version, her hair was down and sultry, her skirt skimpy; in her version it was pinned up neatly, and his wife was rude to her and dismissive of Noah. The reason they're retelling the story is because someone has been murdered, and they're involved. SUCH a good show that dips a little in the middle, but roars to the end in a rather explosive manner.

Transparent: A show available on Amazon, it’s rightfully appearing on many best-of lists because it is so damn good. Jeffrey Tambor plays a dad who knows she’s been a woman trapped in a man’s body her entire life, and now that her children are grown and she’s moving into her twilight years, she’s decided she’s going to live the rest of her years as a woman, Maura, and needs to tell them. Her caustic ex-wife, Judith Light, is hilarious and amazing, the kids are all messes, and it’s only when Maura’s secret comes out that you discover the family is riddled with them. Another transgender friend of hers says that when she was making the change, she was told to look around her, and that none of those people would be with her in five year’s time. “Was it true?” Maura says, a look of desperation on her face because of how much her family means to her. She simply quietly nods. While there are very funny moments, it’s a devastating show at times, and it has the best ensemble cast of any other series this year.

Utopia: No, not the reality show that bombed, but the genius British sci-fi miniseries about a group of graphic novel fans who stumble upon a massive global conspiracy involving how the world’s population is ballooning, and one person’s horrifying solution. Season 1 was riveting, but season 2 was even better. When Channel 4 announced shortly after the second season had wrapped that they were cancelling it and there would be no S3, I was heartbroken. This one will go down with Firefly and Pushing Daisies as one of my great cancellation upsets. Still, watch the first two seasons if you haven’t already. They really can stand on their own, but I just wanted more.

So what did I miss? Any stellar television or films that you saw this year that I should check out?

Monday, December 29, 2014

My 2015 Pop Culture Resolutions

Hello beautiful people! It’s that time of year where we’re all making New Year’s Resolutions that we say we’re going to keep, but instead should just resolve to stop making stupid New Year’s Resolutions and simply live well throughout the year.

Last year I resolved to not buy a single book. That lasted until the end of February, and I posted about my experience here. So I won’t be making any other batshit crazy resolutions this year.

Aside from the usual — continue to eat well, become more active, blah blah blah — I have one major resolution I intend to try out in 2015: I want to finally check out the pop culture offerings people have been telling me to read/watch for years.

I have ordered season one of Babylon 5, and intend to watch the entire series in 2015. (It helps that I signed up a B5 book this year and therefore need to watch the series in order to properly edit that book...) The first time someone told me I need to watch that show was at a Toronto Trek convention in 2003, I think it was. The show had ended five years earlier and someone was telling me it was perfectly crafted television, that Straczynski had fashioned out all five years before starting on the first season, and that if I was a Buffy fan I’d probably love it. I told him I’d absolutely check it out. That was almost 12 years ago. So let’s change that.

As I mentioned on Facebook earlier today, I am going to finally crack Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and based on advice of two of my friends, I shall begin with Carpe Jugulum and then continue with this handy dandy chart:

I want to reread the Sandman series. I last read it 15 years ago, and I’ve forgotten large swaths of it. Perhaps this should be an annual thing.

I need to finally read that second Game of Thrones book. Seriously, it’s been two years since I read the first one!

Following with the previous Terry Pratchett thing (and Neil Gaiman, for that matter), I need to read Good Omens. No, I haven’t read it. Yes, I know about the radio serial and that it’ll be available for only one month. So I need to read it fast in order to listen to it, and I hope to be able to do so in January.

I’m going to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I bought it as soon as it came out in 2004, for goodness’ sake, but that was the same year my daughter was born, and obviously I got a little busy for that ginormous book. But then the BBC started putting together a miniseries that will soon be airing on PBS, and I don’t want to watch it before reading it.

I need to read American Gods. (Yes, my friend who told me where to start on Discworld just fell over dead of a heart attack when he read that line.) I’ve started it 100 times, and something always comes up that pulls me away from it around page 75.

Man, this is turning into a very Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett–heavy list, isn’t it?

I want to watch Twin Peaks. I watched it back in the day, but not religiously, and missed several episodes, but what I did see I adored. I have both seasons and need to sit down and just binge watch the entire thing.

There are so many other things I need to catch up on that I’ve been intending to do for a very long time, but that’s a pretty strong list already, and if I keep it to a handful of things I might actually achieve this in 2015.

Along with the healthy eating and being more active blah blah blah.

What are your pop culture (or otherwise) resolutions?

Monday, December 15, 2014

This Is Not the Post You Were Looking For...

Hey guys. Yeah, I know. Once again we didn't post on a Walking Dead episode right after it aired. As usual. Last season we managed to post by the Tuesday after the Sunday episode only once, and it was retweeted and talked about and picked up all over. And the following week we went right back to our Thursday/Friday/Saturday/whatever posting.

And the previous post to this one — from November, I might add — featured three weeks all in one post because we just never got our act together to get things over to you.

But then again, that's not really the truth. Which is why this post will be in place of the finale post you stopped waiting for over a week ago. Because instead of focusing on a rushed back and forth chatter between a blogger and her co-writer, I wanted to talk about this blogger and that co-writer, and the problems with doing what we do. And how we constantly hang our heads in shame, but the following week find it difficult to actually do anything about it. And how appreciative I am that despite everything, someone is still actually reading this.

Way back in 2009, we were gearing up for the final season of Lost. I was posting not just once a day, but several times a day, keeping everyone posted on everything that was happening in the world of Lost, from filming rumours to casting announcements to just plain talking about the show. To fill the space between seasons five and six I ran a Lost rewatch, where we watched all five seasons that had aired to that point, and there was a lively discussion each week as I would post three nights a week on the episodes we were watching. At the time, we all had a lot of fun leading into season six. Now those posts still sit there, while some rude person goes through them one by one leaving nasty comments for me to find five years later on what an idiot I am because I didn't see certain things coming, how I'm a Jack hater and don't know shit about Lost. She posts under two different names, but I'm pretty sure it's the same semi-literate person. Sadly, I get all of these posts sent to my email, but I stopped reading them about a year ago when I realized this person had absolutely nothing positive to say.

In 2010 I continued posting like a madwoman. My kids went to bed around 8pm, and I had the evenings to do it in. I worked at an office where we could take a break in the mornings and had lunch breaks, and I'd sit at my desk and post during those times as well. Each week as a new season 6 episode aired, I'd post on it that night, often staying up until 1 a.m. to post some epic piece of writing that I tried to make thoughtful, but in essence was a reaction after watching the show only twice. I used many of those posts as the basis for my write-ups in the books.

And oh yes, those books. Between 2006 and 2010 I published five books on Lost, writing over a million words on the show between my blog and the published material. My husband took the kids to his parents' house on weekends so I could get the writing done, and through the week I posted in evenings and in those precious break periods. This blog was alive. After an episode write-up there could be up to 400 comments (the finale had even more). People were reading, and when you know the audience is sitting out there, you write for them. You're not writing into a vacuum, you're writing for people who have become your friends, in many ways. I was just writing my Christmas cards this week and marvelling at how many of them are being sent to people I know through Lost and Buffy fandom, mostly due to this blog.

When the final book came out in November, and I noticed numbers dropping off because people didn't have Lost to talk about, I announced the Great Buffy Rewatch in 2011. By the end of that year, I was officially exhausted. The beginning of 2012 saw the blog peter off a bit, and so did my numbers. By the summer, I was no longer receiving a salary because I'd moved away and went freelance. I can no longer take a break or a lunch period because if I do, I'm off the clock. I'm paid only for the times I'm sitting at my desk and actually doing real work. If I so much as take a phone call, I'm off the clock. I'm a bad freelancer, simply because I'm so damn honest. Most people would just inflate their invoices and not mention those lunch breaks. I can't in good conscience do that.

Here's what a lot of people don't realize: even when I was getting 5,000 people reading this blog a day — around the Lost finale it was hitting 25,000 per day — I never monetized it. My husband begged me to, watching all those hours he could have been spending with his wife being whittled away in her office as she clacked away on her keys for her beloved readership, but I refused. It would mess it up, it would be difficult to read. I've never accepted any money for this blog.

So now, when I decide to knock off a half-hour early from work (like I am now) and go unpaid for the rest of the day so I can write up something, when I try to give the kids some breakfast and rush down the hall to write up my next pass for Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead and send it to my collaborator so I'm not affecting my actual work hours, when it's 11:30pm and I think, crap, I should probably write up my next pass because my collaborator has been waiting all day for it . . . I'm doing it unpaid. And for someone who's now paid by the job, that's become a lot tougher. And, to be even more crass, when it results in small reading numbers and four or five comments, you wonder if anyone is even out there. Who am I writing to anymore?

Josh Winstead was one of my most avid posters back in the Lost days. Like me, he had a job where he could post on lunch breaks and morning breaks as well, and he was articulate and funny and brilliant, which is why I proposed he and I collaborate on The Walking Dead oh so long ago. And we've done it ever since.

But now I'm a freelancer and my time is extremely limited. Now my kids aren't in bed until 9:30 or 10. And until then I'm doing loads of homework with them and being there for them and talking things through. Personal issues have come up where I'm devoting my time to helping out a family member who needs my help, and whom I'm determined to make better. We have a crazy number of pets that need constant attention. I've got permission slips and am always dealing with teachers in a day and age where parents must be far more hands-on than my parents ever had to be. My kids are both old enough to be involved in separate extracurricular activities and I'm running from one end of the city to the other. And somewhere in there I'm trying to find time to actually see friends of mine, live, face-to-face.

And then I took on another book. Because if I'm writing, I should be paid for it. From May to November of this year I've been working constantly on my book on the BBC series Sherlock (coming to fine bookstores near you in fall 2015), and on the weeks when Josh gets things to me quickly, he waits and waits and waits.

But see, his work changed, too. He can't post the way he used to, and finds his time is sucked up. Some weeks I'm the dud, and other weeks I'll send him a pass on Monday and hear back from him on Thursday. He's a dad, too. And a husband. And one who had to deal with some unexpected health issues that came up in his family last week. It was a scary time, one that ended happily, thank goodness, but one that involved hospitals and worry and sleepless nights.

The last thing on either of our minds was this Walking Dead post.

The Walking Dead is a show about people who stick together in terrible times. It's about the relationship parents have with their children and vice versa. It's about the families we make and not necessarily the ones we're born into. It's about pulling together to make things happen, but knowing when to let go.

When Daryl walked out of the hospital in the finale with a lifeless Beth in his arms, and Maggie crumpled to the ground wailing in emotional agony, I thought it was a beautiful, extraordinary, shocking ending. I loved it. I didn't actually watch the episode until the next day, and somehow managed to remain unspoiled by then. I loved most of the finale, even if I had a few nitpicks. I thought the acting was extraordinary, and I loved the grey areas highlighted in the episode, rather than going all black and white like many other shows would have done.

And ... that's my review. I wrote up a much longer pass and sent it over to Josh and then his world collapsed, and that review no longer matters to me. What matters is that his family is OK, my family is OK, and I enjoyed seeing other people discuss the finale.

Josh and I were chatting earlier today about the lack of bloggage on this episode said I think it's time to retire this blog. He wrote me back an impassioned email begging me not to. So maybe I'll just let it hang around here when I need it. And if any of you need it, let me know and it's yours for the day or the week or however long you want to use it. Someone might as well use it. I read countless blogs and articles every day and rarely post any comments on them, so I should know better than to think of the lack of comments meaning no one is reading. I know a lot of you are still out there.

But I'm finally admitting that it's become a ghost town, with tumbleweeds rolling past, and I no longer want to apologize for that. Every year I open with a post promising to post more that year, and I post less. Without fail. It hangs over me like a weight, like this thing I should be doing but don't. And then I think, why should I be doing it? I have a million other deadlines and responsibilities. And I barely have time to watch television anymore, much less write about it.

If I'd monetized this blog back when it was at its peak, I could probably be writing on here daily because it would be worth my time to do so. But so many other people need my time now, and unfortunately this place that made me so happy, that allowed me to do what I love doing more than just about anything, just has to fall by the wayside because I can't keep up with it. I have kids wanting my time, authors complaining that I take too long to get things back to them, work deadlines to meet, and, frankly, books to be read. (Check out my Goodreads page, which probably gets far more action than this blog these days!)

I miss our Lost days. But if they taught all of us anything, it was that we stick together. So, I'm not going anywhere. I apologize if weeks go by and I don't post anything. When Game of Thrones comes back, I'll be here with Chris Lockett. I lobbied for shorter posts and everyone immediately said that we absolutely should stick to the 5,000-word posts that we've been doing, but to be perfectly honest, they take SO long to write and I'm worried I just don't have that kind of time anymore, not like I once did.

Blogs seem to be going the way of the dodo, but I'm reluctant to give this one up because it's where I met so many people. Yeah, I'm over on Facebook posting constantly every day, so if you want to make sure I'm alive, that's where you'll find me. And many of the things I'm posting over there in short form were what I used to use this blog for in long form.

So I'll stay. And every once in a while I'll have something to say. And feel free to say something back. And know that when I DO post, it's because I miss you guys and just wanted to say hey. Well, that or someone really pissed me off that day and I want to rant about it. :-D

I want to thank Josh Winstead for powering through this season, and even if we didn't make a single post out on time, I had a blast doing them with you, and I thank you so much for sticking with it, my friend.

In case I worried anyone, Josh and I are absolutely fine, and there's nothing to worry about. Last week just hit one of us with a wallop, and the week before hit the other one of us. It's just been one of those seasons, and we tried our best. But rather than think of it as a failure, I actually look back on this season as one of the biggest triumphs, because somehow, with both of us having jobs that prevented us from having any time to post, with both of us having extra work we had to do in evenings, with both of us having two older children, and with both of us having busy family lives, we still managed to get something up here. And you guys managed to still come and read it.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now I've got to run and get my kids from school...

P.S. It's now three hours later. I forgot to hit the Publish button before leaving, and my son has a grade 2 social studies test tomorrow that I had to help him study for, my daughter has a ton of math and science homework, and both of them are now running through the house and using my office as their launchpad. It's taken me 10 minutes just to type up this P.S. because they won't stay out. And that, my dears, is how these posts fail to happen on time week after week. ;)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Walking Dead Catch-Up Post!!

So, the last time we posted on The Walking Dead it was rather, um, sweary on my part. And then there’s this book I’m writing on Sherlock (hitting fine bookstores near you in fall 2015) and my deadline was approaching, and between that and a pile of work that suddenly hit Josh’s desk, our back-and-forth chats turned into, “Sorry, I meant to send you something yesterday and I’ll get it to you later today...” “So... by “today” I meant “tomorrow” and now tomorrow has come and I’ll have it to you later, sorry...” and then it was sent, and days went by, and the other person was all, “Sorry, I guess we missed the cut-off because of last night’s episode, should we combine the two?” “Sure, let’s do that, but first... I have this pile of work and a deadline and I’ll do my best but...” “OK, two days later, here’s something...” “Great... I’ll get it to you by the weekend...” “Oh look, the next episode just aired again...”

No end of fun behind the scenes here. But his work let up a bit, and I officially handed in my manuscript last week (November 19 at 10:33pm) and so there’s been a flurry of catch-up this week.

So here’s what we’ve decided to do: Usually we do a 6-part back and forth (which, this season, has more often been a 4-part) and instead what we’ve done is two parts for each episode, covering
            5.05 Self Help (Glenn’s group at the bookstore and sidewalk zombie slurry)
            5.06 Consumed (Carol and Daryl and the Beechcraft van)
            5.07 Crossed (this past week’s first part of the season finale)

Thanks for bearing with us, and I really do appreciate all the emails and messages I’ve gotten over the past few weeks asking where our posts are. ;)

Nikki: So after last week’s curse-filled rant [just a note that I wrote this three weeks ago] about the hopelessness of this show, we had a great discussion about how bleak it’s become versus the episodes that shine like a beacon in the darkness. Rebecca T. had a lot of great points (go back and check the comments of the post to read her thoughts). Like I said last week, maybe it’s the Canadianness in me that can’t accept the whole “there will always be one megalomaniac to ruin it all” argument, mostly because the closest we’ve come to apocalypse in my neck of the woods has been getting dumped with five feet of snow overnight, and that results in every person in our neighbourhood out on the street helping shovel each other’s driveways out and even shovelling the street itself to help other cars come and go — and we also have universal socialized medicine and believe everyone deserves such a thing, and it’s never been much of an argument here, so maybe the idea of a hospital with free medical care being an evil nest of evil just rubbed me the wrong way — but this week’s episode was completely different, and pretty much summed up all the reasons why I love this show so much despite everything. So I can happily say this post will be free of swears. ;)

Before I move on, though, I do want to mention I was chatting about “Slabtown” with my friend Tania, and we were theorizing that perhaps Carol is faking being on that gurney to sneak her way into the hospital and break Beth out. Oooh...

But on to this week’s episode. The writing in this outing was pretty spectacular, and it actually had laughs. No, REALLY, it had laughs. From Abraham announcing he needs “some ass” before bed and Glenn stuttering about the TMI-ness of that comment to Eugene creepily watching from the self-help section of the bookstore — “I consider this a victimless crime that provides both comfort and distraction” — it was so nice to see some levity in the midst of the darkness.

And also . . . bookstore. I think I would have waved the rest of them on their way and just settled in there for the rest of my days. My heart broke harder seeing the books being ripped apart for kindling than it did when the zombies got turned into pink mushy stew on the sidewalk. Remember what the good doctor said about the place of art in this world last week.

And yet it is through the very medium of art — in this case, television — that the story is being told, and as the writers on Lost did, certain things are dropped into the framework as shorthand to tell a larger story. Eugene is reading H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come at one point, a book written in 1933 where Wells envisioned history for the next 170 years, imagining a second world war breaking out in 1940 (!!) and lasting 10 years, a dictatorship ultimately rising out of that with religion being suppressed everywhere, and ultimately that dictatorship dissolving through a coup and everyone living happily ever after in a utopia as a highly intelligent, evolved species.

Turns out Eugene’s story that he was going to save the world was about as realistic as Wells’ solution to humanity’s evils.

The big revelation about Eugene was one that maybe everyone else saw coming but I certainly didn’t, and my jaw dropped to the ground when he said it, and then I thought, of course he doesn’t have the cure. It sounded ridiculous all along, he never gave any details when anyone would ask, which made no sense because if you have the cure, don’t you need to have a second copy of it just in case? My husband said he’d been suspecting this for a few weeks now but said nothing, so perhaps I was all alone, but Eugene’s big confession, coupled with what it means to Abraham and the meaning of his life — and everyone who died to keep Eugene and his Tennessee Top Hat alive — created a climax in an episode that served as that necessary pause moment we get at least once a season, where we reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Just a stunning episode through and through.

What were your thoughts, Josh?

Josh: When Abraham, Eugene and Rosita first came on the scene, I had somewhat mixed feelings about them. Their corresponding characters in the comics were rather broadly sketched and kind of underwhelming, and I'll admit I wasn't crazy about incorporating them into the group. The decision seemed more a matter of sticking to the source and trying to beef up the ranks after the fall of the prison than it was a genuine effort to enrich the team. And from the comics, I knew that Eugene's story was a lie (provided they stayed true to that detail), so I figured at most their storyline would only serve as a distraction.

What I didn't count on is how much I would like Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt in these roles. The stereotypical 'redneck' portrayal can easily come across as a caricature more than an actual human being, and I don't think that has proven to be the case with Abraham and Eugene at all. The two of them felt very much the opposing sides of a single coin at first, with that stark divide between meathead and egghead, but the less defined parts of their characters have been gradually taking shape, and the reveals of “Self Help” really snapped them into focus as individuals, finally bringing to light their histories and motivations in a way that painted them both as much more human and relatable than before.

For Abraham, the world really ended not when the dead began to rise. It ended when his willingness to do what he felt was necessary to protect his family instead drove them away from him. Perhaps the sight of him beating someone to death with a can of green beans was enough in and of itself to inspire their fear; it seems more likely that he was already prone to losing his temper, and the sight of him channeling that rage to murderous effect, regardless of the premise, only confirmed to his family what they always suspected him capable. Either way, they ran from his violent nature, right to their own ends, and Abraham was left to balance both the guilt he feels over their deaths and the knowledge that the same brutality has now become his most valuable asset.

It is immediately into the wake of this tragedy that Eugene stumbles, terrified and desperate, completely inadequate for the business of staying alive in the new world but savvy enough to know a good opportunity when he saw it, and more than willing to say and do whatever he needed to maintain it. He tells a story and renews Abraham's will to live; suddenly his doubt becomes the staunch mindset and uncompromising attitude we've seen since he first appeared. Meanwhile, Eugene has done everything in his power to stave the inevitable moment when the truth comes out – the moment when his usefulness burns itself out like a candle drowning in its own wax.

Which, of course, isn't true, as Eugene has proven himself useful in other ways besides hand to hand combat. Anyone who has the kind of knowledge that can see a fire started with a used battery and a piece of invisible tape is plenty useful in a post-apocalyptic environment, for any number of reasons. Survival isn't only about who can stab the most zombie brains. But Eugene has no self confidence. We're left to assume this is as much about his life up to the collapse as it is the new state of the world, and he is keenly aware of the cost, as is proven when he recites the names of all those friends who were lost to protect him and the fictional idea of a cure. The guilt has left him haunted, shamed and even more ineffectual than before. I'm anxious to see how his personality changes if he wakes up from the beating he received at the hands of Abraham, to see whether he can use this confession as a springboard to new courage or instead retreats even further into himself.

The Walking Dead has always been terrific at the action and tension but has sometimes struggled with the character work necessary to make us feel more than a gut reaction nervousness about the fates of these people. So far, this season has showed a whole new understanding of that dynamic, bringing us all the same action while tempering it with emotional moments that rival anything else on television right now. The writing has never been better, and I've never felt more engaged and excited as a viewer. “Self Help” was a perfect example of why the interpersonal relationships are every bit as important as the zombies.

And this next part was written several days later, after I managed to miss posting “Self Help” in the proper week and so we decided to combine the two into one.

Nikki: I agree with you that this season has done such a great job with the character studies, and its episodes like last week’s “Consumed,” where we just followed Carol and Daryl, was one such character study. I LOVED this episode. Not only did it do what it does best, where two characters are isolated from the rest and we just follow their story to gain a deeper understanding of them, but it also brought us back around to where we’d left the story at the end of “Four Walls and a Roof” — where Daryl is calling into the bushes for someone to come on out now. We speculated last week that the person he’d be talking to is Noah, and by the end of this episode that’s exactly who it was. However, I was also thinking, as I said above, that I was hoping Carol had been faking her injuries to get into the hospital. Wrong.

And let’s just get it out of the way: we all saw that Lost reference, and it was one of those things where it couldn’t have been by accident. Carol and Daryl see a van teetering on the edge of a bridge, and what do you do when you see something like that? Why, good question, Boone, you CLIMB RIGHT IN THAT PUPPY. As soon as they both got in there I said to my husband, “Cripes, they should have written Beechcraft on the side of the thing... is this a Lost reference?” (Sadly, his memory is short, and he had no idea what I was talking about.) And then I said, “Oh my god is that a Virgin Mary statue on the dash??!!” He remembered that one. Then kablammo, the van goes down, and they somehow survive the fall (RIP Boone) and as they were leaving I’m yelling, “Daryl, grab the Virgin Mary statue, you might want to see what’s inside!!!” Also, when Daryl grabbed that pack of cigarettes — Morley’s — they were the same brand the Cigarette Smoking Man used in The X-Files.

My favourite part of this episode involved Carol and Daryl going to the women’s shelter where Carol spent a night long ago as an abused wife, running from the man who beat her with her daughter in tow. She revels at how much she’s changed since then, a woman who ran from danger, then, afraid of being on her own, she ran back and just took it from a man who betrayed her trust and love, pushing her daughter back into an environment of violence and fear. Now her husband is gone, and her daughter is gone, and for all intents and purposes, that Carol is gone. In her place is the woman who was always there, just below the surface, but who was never allowed to show her face. But what has she lost to get here? She addresses the fact that she comes off as emotionless, but we know that there’s a part of her that can still be hurt, as we see in the brief flashback to her breaking down when Rick exiled her. It seemed like she’d been gone for so long, but you realize in this flashback that he sent her away, and the Governor attacked very soon after, and then she ran into Tyreese. So she didn’t end up being on her own for very long, but it was long enough for her to probably think about where she’d ended up, and be on her own for the first time in a very, very long time. It was within that time she became the new, stronger version of herself.

What I loved most about this scene is that it was a man and a woman together, talking. There’s always been a hope that Carol and Daryl would get together in a romantic way, but their friendship is deeper and different than that. She falls backwards onto a bed and talks to him, and then he does exactly the same thing. There are no strings attached, and no inclination to do anything beyond that. For the first time we see a man and a woman who just truly care about each other, and there’s nothing more to it than that. They are both damaged by their pasts, and stronger in their present. However, where Carol has buried the past in order to move on, Daryl is ready to stop doing that, as we see when the book about how to treat childhood abuse falls out of his backpack. Last season he broke down when he was with Beth, and told her how badly he’d been treated as a child. Now, seeing how strong Carol has become, he seems ready to finally confront that.

Were you getting Pearl Station flashbacks on this one, too, Josh? ;)

Joshua: I've been feeling Lost vibes from this show a lot lately, it seems, from the opening on Beth's eye in “Slabtown” to the regular flashbacks we're starting to see. This episode's periodic scenes with Carol recalling moments of isolation and doubt were just perfect, each one brief and wordless but such deft touchstones for her state of mind in those situations. There was something keenly powerful about each one, and I have to give partial credit to the staging but all the rest to Melissa McBride, whose work has always been amazing on the show but has really turned it up to 11 this season. The depth of communication she conveys with just a simple narrowing of her eyes is phenomenal to me, and I don't think we would find Carol's journey half as compelling without such a remarkable actor shepherding the portrayal.

Good writing sure doesn't hurt, though, and this season's been firing bullets throughout. The part that torpedoed me this week was their run-in with the walker mother and child at the shelter. The whole shelter-as-backdrop situation was a masterful choice anyway, considering both Carol and Daryl's respective histories, but that moment in particular really made it sing for me. Everything about the way it came together was simply tremendous – with the distant sound first bringing them up from their rest and on the offensive, then the tension of their search through the darkened hallways, and then everything shifting when they come upon these two strangers, faceless through the frosted glass but instantly relatable nonetheless. And despite Carol's willingness, Daryl then gently holds her back from going in to 'do what had to be done,' only to go back later while she slept and take care of the job himself. When Carol comes around the corner and finds him gingerly carrying the bodies to where he's burning them on the roof, the look on her face held so much warmth and sympathy and affection for this man – someone who used to be one big raw nerve in a leather vest but is now as important to her as was once her own daughter, and she more important to him than any family member he ever had. What an amazing scene.

It's exactly the kind of rich, nuanced material that, more than flashbacks or anything else, has made me most think of Lost when watching recent episodes of TWD. The portrayals of these characters has grown so well-defined that I find myself caring even for cast members as peripheral as Rosita Espinoza, and our connection to longtime survivors like Carol and Daryl just continues to deepen. It's why Bob's death was so impactful a few weeks back, and it will be why the next deaths will hit so much harder than we're used to feeling here. I have doubts this encounter at the hospital will go very smoothly, and I think major deaths are inevitable in the coming finale. And man, it is stressing me out.

Are you getting that same feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach, Nik?

Nikki: I pretty much always have that dread in my stomach when I watch my favourite shows. Thank YOU, Joss Whedon, for demonstrating to showrunners the sheer power of killing off major characters. Sigh. I agree with you about the zombie mom and child — heartbreaking. We haven’t seen many zombie children, and Carol hasn’t encountered too many since her own daughter became one, and she acted quickly to avert the zombifications of Lizzie and Mika. Considering children would be among the weakest members of society, you’d think they’d be everywhere . . . and in a real zombie apocalypse, I suspect they would. They just know that we viewers simply couldn’t handle seeing that every week. Thank goodness.

And that brings us to “Crossed,” the first part of the mid-season finale. (I’ll just go on record one more time to say how much I hate that invented TV term, but anyway...) After paring it down to small character studies over the past few weeks — Beth in “Slabtown,” then Glenn and Co. in “Self Help,” then Carol and Daryl in “Consumed” — we start leaping back and forth between the group of them, showing how they’re all moving in on one another. Abraham is paralyzed with rage as he sits rigidly on his knees, unmoving (and dude, when he stands up, his legs will be JELLY), while Eugene lies unconscious on the ground and Maggie guards both of them, and Glenn, Rosita, and Tara go fishin’. 

As you said above, Eugene may have been lying, but he knows a LOT of survival techniques that will get them through this, and this week we learn a new one, where Rosita constructs a water filter with stones and a piece of her shirt. (I still remember doing this experiment way back in high school science, and my water was totally muddy at the end of it and I’d clearly done something wrong. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m going down early in a zombie apocalypse.) Meanwhile Glenn and Tara discover fish and seem completely shocked by it. Why? I realize they haven’t exactly been catching many fish throughout the show, but why would a zombie apocalypse mean the fish would all die? Or is his surprise a result of this being a murky swampy river in the middle of nowhere, basically a place one wouldn’t expect to find fish? I will admit, I’d be wary about eating them. How many zombies are lying along the bottom of that river (still moving, since zombies don’t have to breathe but they’re probably stuck in the muck) rotting away while the fish eat pieces of their flesh? Could the fish be zombified? Ew.

I loved when Maggie came up with the makeshift sunshade for Eugene, mostly because I had no idea what she was doing at first. Ladder? Blanket? Is she climbing up onto the roof to sunbathe? That is one smart gal. I feel for Abraham — we saw the flashbacks to his desperate need for a mission and how he believed he was actually going to save the world in all of this — but here’s hoping that his long afternoon of silence might actually make him think everything through for once and realize that Eugene could still be useful for him.

Meanwhile, over in Slabtown, Rick & Daryl and Company are having a hell of a time dealing with the cops. My husband called right away that the dude Noah referred to as “one of the good ones” was actually going to turn on them, but I’m keen to find out how that’s going to play out. What did you think about what was going on there?

Joshua: From the very start, everything about this rescue mission tastes sour to me. As he's making his initial plan, Rick seems far overconfident about the ease with which they can liberate their friends and minimize bloodshed. Daryl and Tyrese both call him out on it, and the plot complicates further with their revised plan to trade hostages. The shot-in-the-air ploy they use to attract attention works well, but they underestimate Dawn's cops, who have a backup man watching from nearby.

It's a mistake that almost costs them both their leverage and Daryl, who narrowly escapes a violent death at the hands of meat slab Licari (and Licari who in turn narrowly escapes a gunshot head at the hands of Rick, thanks to Daryl's quick reasoning). And then, after their initial underestimation, THEY DO IT AGAIN by trusting their three prisoners' integrity, including full faith in their information about Dawn and the situation at Grady. To boot, Sasha's own struggles with the weight of the murder she committed inspire her to isolate herself with one of them in an attempt to 'help' him and instead winds up bleeding on the floor. Now Lamson is on the run, headed back toward the hospital to fill Dawn in on their plans, ensuring they've lost their best bargaining chip and the element of surprise, not to mention possibly losing Sasha from active duty (which will surely mean losing Tyrese, too). The odds are narrowing, and not in their favor.

But maybe things aren't quite as they seem, after all. Maybe Lamson was actually on the level, and he's now headed back to marshal his own troops, planning to use RickCo's posse as the distraction he needs to mount the takeover he's been planning all along. Anything could happen at this point, and that's the beauty of this setup. Next week's half-finale begins with a lot of pieces in motion, and right now we have no idea what to expect. Will these plots converge again, with perhaps others like Michonne (or maybe even Morgan) showing up at the hospital just in time to turn the tide? Or will this prove to be another tragedy from which they might emerge, but only smaller in number and permanently scarred?

In the immortal words of Han Solo, I've got a bad feeling about this.

We've blown through three episodes of recap in very short order, Nikki. I know that's somewhat out of necessity because we've managed to fall so far behind in recent weeks (and apologies to the steady readership for what I promise couldn't be avoided), but I don't want to be overly hasty, either, particularly considering the high quality of this run of episodes. Was there anything else we've missed that you wanted to discuss before we wrap it up?

Nikki: I was glad to see the hospital again; even though that, technically, was our last post on The Walking Dead, it was also four weeks ago now, and it was nice to see the doctor again. I don’t know what Dawn is playing at by giving Beth the key to the drug cabinet. The doctor insinuated that Beth is being played, but Beth goes along with it anyway. But then again, Noah had said that Lamson was on the level and he appears to have betrayed Sasha. I think it’ll be fascinating if, in the final episode, we find out the bad guys might actually be the good guys, and vice versa, and everyone has to question which side they’ve aligned themselves with. That’s the sort of thing The Walking Dead is really good at exploring.

But then again, as you say, it’s a mid-season finale. And bad things always happen in those episodes. Let’s brace ourselves... something tells me our people are not going to come out intact.

Thanks for bearing with us everyone, and again, sorry for the wait.