TV Talk: THE WALKING DEAD Episode 1.4 - Vatos (Henri finally chimes in)

Watching a zombie apocalypse is basically like watching an episode of Double Dare. Also this week our characters learned another important lesson: respect your elders, kiddies!

Fanwanking. That’s a great term, Meredith, and one I hadn’t heard before. It’s also totally what the series is, but I think that’s okay.

Vatos was a good episode of The Walking Dead. And I like The Walking Dead. But I haven’t once been sucked into the show by pure storytelling prowess. I haven’t grown to really care about any of the characters. I only slightly care about what happens next and instead just hang out and watch it all moment to moment. It’s fun, but it doesn’t hit the level of art that other shows do.

Devin likes to blame Kirkman. Meredith appealed to all of the writers. But I think that’s just the nature of zombie stories (serious ones, at least).

I mean, yeah, Dawn of the Dead is great. But I’ve seen it at least 40 times and I still can’t remember the characters names without looking them up. Because at their core, Romero’s movies aren’t about the characters and what happens to them; his movies are about the World of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Watching Night I never found myself thinking about the characters; my mind wanders and I daydream about how I would board up a farmhouse.

Watching Dawn I never cared about which people might make it out of the mall or much of what was actually happening in it; I thought about what I would do in a mall by myself and whether I’d be able to get a fractious group of people to work together (seems unlikely, especially given the amount of shit I expect to receive in the comments for speaking even a little negatively about such a classic).

Even though Day gets a bad rap in a lot of circles, it holds up on that count because I can get sidetracked and wonder about what the science of training zombies really would be like, and the rest of the Romero canon has similar daydreams to ponder. But none of them suck me in and take me on a journey with the characters.

Growing up, I always called that sort of thing the Double Dare factor. Watching that show wasn’t that fun for its own sake; unlike other game shows that you could sort of play along with at home, all of the cool stuff happened in the physical challenges and once you’d seen one once you’d seen it a thousand times. It wasn’t that interesting to watch other people play those games, but it let me daydream about how awesome I would be at sliding down a tongue into slime if only I were given the chance.

And that Double Dare factor is clearly what makes the Zombie Apocalypse so appealing.

Unlike a traditional nuclear apocalypse or robot takeover, with a zombie apocalypse you get all the pain in the ass of scavenging for survival while retaining the ability to kick something’s ass every once in a while because individual zombies are such a non-threat. As much as the end of the world would suck, there’s something about that kind of apocalypse that actually sounds… fun. And with almost every single zombie book or movie or comic or whatever, a large part of the fun is built around imagining what it would be like if we were in that world.

In my experience, only two Zombie Apocalypse stories have managed to overcome the Double Dare factor and suck me into the story: Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Shaun plays with the questions so well that you don’t have to think about whether you would hide out in a pub or not. You care that that’s where the characters end up, and you believe that they would.

Zombieland isn’t as strong as all of that, but it gets you past all the questions with the playful rules at the beginning, and once that’s established you’re free to go along for the ride. And, obviously, neither of them are attempting to be serious dramas.

But the thing about The Walking Dead is that Kirkman is aware of the Double Dare appeal of the zombie apocalypse, and instead of trying to shy away from it he’s embracing it. He’s said it himself - the entire comic series is about exploring what would happen if a zombie movie never ended. It’s about going past the point where a group of charismatic people we can identify with escape one trap only to realize that the world is still fucked and wherever they end up next will likely suck (incidentally, I liked the way the Dawn remake played with that in the end credits).

With that as the goal, most of what The Walking Dead is going to do is play that sort of Double Dare fantasy in the writer’s minds, but once they pick one scenario they have to roll with it. And that will always be frustrating because it will be different than the way the fantasy would play out in your head.

YES, I would be checking out big box stores and seeing what I could salvage. I’ve seen Career Opportunities and the trailer for that movie where Natalie Portman hangs out in a Wal-Mart a bunch, so I know that those would be even better strongholds than the mall.

Of course, my Zombie Apocalypse movie would be terribly boring to watch, because the first season would be all about how my ragtag group of survivors managed to get a generator working in their Target and the biggest source of tension would come from how long it took them to figure out how to get the protective casing off of the video games so they could start playing the latest Halo. Then there’d be lots of talk about how Microsoft should have left system-link LAN parties as an option just in case there was an apocalypse and the Internet went down…

But that’s a digression.

The point is, yeah, The Walking Dead is far from perfect. And there will always be a few things that don’t make perfect sense. But that bit of fanwanking that it makes us do is part of the fun. Zombie Apocalypse stories have never been about killing off a character that you really love; they’re about making you watch someone die and then wonder if you’d have the nerve to shoot your mom in the head in a pub or if you’d have to make your friend do it. And that is something that NO serious zombie movie is going to be able to work around, because there will always be questions (are they still Nazis if they’re zombies?).

As an entry to the Serious Zombie Apocalypse genre goes, though, The Walking Dead is holding its own and this episode was pretty damn great. Merle’s tough as shit and Daryl’s got a soft side. I was waiting for Amy to die and literally biting my nails during the campfire scene, but given the amount of change we’ve seen from the comics I thought she could end up being shot. I’m sure that Merle had something to do with getting a group of walkers that large to the camp, but it was pretty awesome that she got up to go pee in the RV and got to reference being out of toilet paper as her last words in the show (as it was in the comic).

Of course, that begs the question - if he was responsible, how did Merle bring the zombies there? And I’m sure we’ll never know. And that’s fine with me. I just wish that they hadn’t led into the All Hell Breaks Loose scene with the knowledge of the threat that Merle was heading back to the camp. The entire campfire scene was super tense because of that, but the attack was more of a relief than a surprise when it happened, and that was a shame.

But the attack scene itself was great, even if I didn’t know why the group walked back. I also have no fucking idea how far away from the city the camp is, so maybe it wasn’t a long walk? Eh, those are questions for a different kind of show.

And Amy’s death - holy shit, that was awesome. The way Andrea just kept saying, “Oh. Oh. Oh.” That *almost* sucked me in for a couple of minutes.

The one thing I could have really done without, though, is the “surprise” ending in the nursing home. I thought I was kidding last week when I said that every single episode of the show this week was going to have a moral, but they kept it up by letting us know that we should Respect Our Elders. If they’re going to hit me over the head with morals like that they should at least have Rick and Glenn walk on during the credits to completely explain it to us.

Rick: Boy, we almost bought it that time, didn’t we?

Glenn: We sure did! Fortunately, we got away.

Rick: And we learned an important lesson, too…

Glenn: We did? I was too busy being really distracted by some random dude’s asthma attack to pay attention. What’d we learn?

Rick: Isn’t it obvious? We learned that it’s important to respect our elders. Sure, those gangbangers had us outnumbered, but G would have been shot in the face if he hadn’t respected that sweet old lady enough to let three armed thugs walk through his group to the back room!

Glenn: Gee, I hadn’t thought of that!

Rick: Well, now you know.

Glenn: And knowing is half of surviving the apocalypse!

Rick: You know it! (laughter, fade to black)