TV Talk: THE WALKING DEAD Episode 1.5 – Wildfire
Poor Jim. It’s always tough being a character on a show whose only point is to illuminate conflicts; in this case he’s there to be the guy around whom the questions of rules swirl. Last week he wasn’t allowed to hurt himself by digging in the sun all day, and this week Shane and Rick had to be more or less forced to allow him to make his own decision about his fate. Along the way Jim’s dilemma allowed the show to begin touching on the long term questions of survival - not about how these people will make it through the night but how they’ll make it through the rest of the year, the decade and beyond. Where does the line get drawn between forcing someone to do something that’s for their own good (ie, stopping Jim from digging holes until he dies) and allowing someone freedom to make their own choices (ie, letting Jim choose to zombify on his own in the woods).
Weirdly enough the only true voice of reason this week was Daryl. Rick and Shane each had their moments, but Daryl was the guy who was 100% right the whole time. Yes, Jim should have been put down. And yes, the dead from the camp probably should have been burned along with the geeks. The killing of Jim is a practical matter - it seems as though these survivors aren’t completely familiar with the workings of the zombie plague, and they didn’t appear to know just how long it would take Jim to become undead (I was shocked that it took Amy so long to get back up and running). Killing him as soon as possible is the best way to guarantee the safety of the group, and in a case like this the safety of the group should take precedence (which, I guess, is the argument the TSA is making. Or that Spock was making in Wrath of Khan. The difference between those two examples is whether the individual can be forced to bow for the majority or if it should always be a choice. I suspect we will see this as a recurring theme on the show next year).
But burning the bodies seems to be necessary on a totally psychological level. Andrea waiting for Amy to resurrect was an interesting character moment but a truly stupid survivor moment. The reality for these people is that death is just the beginning of danger, and they need to become psychologically acclimated to the idea that their dead need to be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.
Which raises a question for me: what was everybody doing while Rick was in a coma? I would have thought that the comatose hero schtick was chosen to allow us to get up to speed on the world quickly through Rick learning about it, but it doesn’t seem as though most of the other survivors have any more info than he does. They lived through the initial outbreak, they saw how it went down, and yet he’s calling the shots on dealing with the infected and whether or not they go for the military. This is one of the places where the power struggle between Shane and Rick should be brewing; Shane has more info, and he’s better known to these people than Rick is.
At least there IS a power struggle on some level. It’s minor, but it’s there; I think Shane rolled over very quickly in regards to going to the CDC, but I liked that he brought the idea to the group. That makes sense; whether or not Rick was Shane’s superior before Z-Day, Shane has been the alpha male at camp since the outbreak, and he’s the one everybody would be listening to.
Of course Shane’s a little edgy. I don’t know that his taking aim at Rick moment in the woods was totally earned; I would have liked to have seen more straight-up conflict between the two men before we saw Our True Hero (Team Shane 4 Lyfe!) taking aim at his buddy like that. It’s almost like the nuanced, well-drawn Shane of the TV show suddenly turned into the one dimensional Shane of the comic.
I haven’t looked at reaction to the episode online, but I imagine there are many who will feel it was slow; it was, but in the same way the premiere was slow, and I liked that slow. I liked it here as well. Again, I’m interested in the long-term questions of survival; these are the things I was always disappointed that Lost skipped out on, and things that I liked in Battlestar Galactica. This is the post-9/11 disaster scenario, which isn’t about surviving the initial horror but rather surviving the survival. It’s similar to the best of the post-apocalyptic films where the question wasn’t how you managed to make it out from a nuclear attack but how you manage to keep living a decade after a nuclear attack. It’s the stuff that allows fiction to examine the aspects of our society, to take the pieces apart and figure out what fits and what’s just in there because it’s always been in there. Henri, you talked about liking zombie films because you wonder what you would do and they allow you to play with that; I’ve always longed for a zombie film that takes place long after the outbreak because I’m more curious how I would survive in a world where all the rules have been rewritten. I think it’s why I’m fascinated by the American Revolutionary period, because it was a bunch of guys saying ‘We have these old rules and we can pick and choose which of them we like and which of them work and then add other ones that we think make sense.’ That’s what you get to do in the aftermath. I like seeing the seeds of this popping up now in The Walking Dead, of seeing people begin to put not just the personal pieces back together but the larger societal ones.
Speaking of Lost, this week’s episode gave us what looks like The Walking Dead’s own Desmond - good old Noah Emmerich living in his own Hatch. I’m curious where this goes mainly because this isn’t, as far as I know, in the comics. The show has been making its own path every episode, but this seems like the largest divergence from the comics yet. I suppose that part of the point of this trip to the CDC is to give the characters some sense of the larger issues of the infection; hopefully we can end the first season with everybody knowing the scope of the plague and the ins and outs of infection, which means season two can get real meaty. Also hopefully this means we’re staying away from the course of the book except in larger, more sweeping plot senses. I won’t spoil anything, but I hope that some of the deaths in the comic don’t have to end up being deaths in the show.
As for next episode I do hope it gives the show some direction. The idea of the characters just sort of aimlessly wandering from place to place doesn’t feel like it can support a multi-season TV show. Well, I mean it does, but it does in the old open ended, chugging along for 12 seasons broadcast model. I hope The Walking Dead adheres to the new cable model of shows with actual stories to tell, and with actual endings to them.
Which brings up a big question for me that I always have about any zombie fiction: shouldn’t this essentially end in a year or so*? Even if we accept that the zombie virus retards decay in the undead, they will eventually decay to the point of being useless as predators. That’s the phase of the zombie infection I’m intrigued by, when the cities are just heaps of bones and the few survivors can come crawling out of their hidey holes, new concepts in dealing with funeral arrangements firm in their heads, and attempt to kickstart all this shit over again. As Noah Emmerich considered pulling the trigger on himself I wondered why he would do that - surely he had to have considered that the geeks would eventually quit being mobile and that the infection would essentially burn itself out.
Unless maybe Noah Emmerich is considering offing himself because he has an understanding of where this virus comes from. That’s always a big question in zombie fiction - do you deal with the source of the outbreak or not? Is it just a metaphor for coping with sudden disaster or is it a story about causes and solutions? I’m intrigued where Frank Darabont and company stand on that storytelling distinction.
So yeah, I liked this episode. I wish they had a better actor playing Jim, because man that guy was just a lump of nothingness, but this week we had some ethical and societal dilemmas that weren’t being played as heavy handed as last week’s cholos with a heart of gold story. This episode didn’t fix my problem with the pacing of this first season - everything so far feels like a prologue, and not like a story that’s actually going anywhere - but it did begin to fix that problem. Getting everybody out of camp, moving the group forward and having the survivors take some actual action hopefully bodes well. I just hope next season chugs along with a little more purpose. And maybe next season can give some of the other characters names. Calling her Black Lady just isn’t doing it for me at this point.
* World War Z is one of the only examples of this being really dealt with that I can think of. It’s touched on in the opening scene of Day of the Dead... which was shot by this week’s director, Ernest Dickerson!
A QUICK UPDATE: I just wanted to throw my theory in here at the end… anyone else think that Noah Emmerich, now denied his fresh tissue sample, will try to infect our heroes with zombie plague? Seems likely to me.