This week’s The Walking Dead included the saddest moment I have ever seen on a television show. As Dale stands by Andrea, tearfully telling her that he would rather be dead than face the world without her, the Black Lady stands just off to the side, acutely aware that nobody gave all that much of a shit about her staying behind inside the CDC and getting incinerated. That’s tough, having such irrefutable proof that nobody cares about you. Including the writing staff.
The finale of the first season of The Walking Dead proves that sometimes ending with a bang is actually ending with a whimper. The only event of the episode that I really cared about happened before the credits, when we get a flashback to show that Shane really, honestly, did his best to try and get Rick out of the hospital. I know there will be some people out there who will still think that Shane didn’t do enough, but having seen the situation - with the military gunning down everyone who moved - it’s hard to disagree with the fact that lugging a comatose man through that battle zone was a damn bad idea. And the later Shane says to Lori what I’ve been saying all along - the only way to get her to leave and survive was to tell her Rick died (of course he was telling her this while forcing himself upon her, but nobody’s perfect). And Shane really thought Rick couldn’t have survived the massacre at the hospital. It all seems on the up and up to me, and my affiliation with Team Shane remains mostly unaffected.
Everything else though… All of a sudden the character drama that had been the best parts of The Walking Dead went out the door for a scenario that honestly could have played out exactly the same in an episode of the original Star Trek, even up to Rick doing a very Kirk-like talk down of Noah Emmerich’s goofy doctor. On some levels I like that - the finale dealt with philosophical concepts of choice and survival, but it did so at the expense of the characters and pretty much anything approaching drama. And it still doesn’t really give the show a direction; choosing survival in the face of immediate annihilation isn’t particularly surprising. It would be more interesting if the characters had a chance to make that decision without a cheesy ticking clock situation (speaking of the ticking clock - how lucky that they happened to walk into the control room just as the clock hit one hour remaining. Jesus, Walking Dead, at least you can try). Fight or flight kicks in when you’re told you’re getting toasted in a half hour; a decision to suicide is more interesting when made in the calm moments, when made by someone taking some time to consider the future (or lack thereof).
Honestly, this episode felt bungled on just about every level. It’s obvious that Darabont and team knew they were coming back for season two - between the disappearance of Merle and the whispered moment in Rick’s ear at the end they weren’t exactly playing it safe with loose ends - so why not end the season on character drama and save the 24-aping red clocks for the season two opener? And again, it isn’t like the comic booky incineration of the CDC gave our characters any more focus or direction (unless they’re now going to France), so rushing everything in the last half hour was just simply bad work. The whole time that everybody is luxuriating in the CDC (you know, all seven minutes of it), every viewer knows how this is going to end. It would have been simple to fool us all by keeping everybody in the bunker through the hiatus, and it would have made the eventual destruction of the CDC feel more portentous - or at least have some sort of meaning.
And what WAS the meaning of the CDC, anyway? We got to find out that the rest of the world is gone, but that seems like such a foregone conclusion. Such a foregone conclusion that the survival of the rest of the world was the twist ending of 28 Days Later. As far as I can tell the only point of the CDC was to take away the show’s most unique aspect - by scientifically proving that zombies have none of the original person in them, the way that Rick dealt with the undead in the first two episodes looks silly. There was no reason to put the half lady out of her misery, or to remember the guy who gave him the guts - they’re just shells. I was hoping that the show would continue wrestling with the question of whether or not there’s anyone in there, but that answer now seems obvious.
Speaking of Rick dealing - man, what a wuss. Don’t get me wrong, I would break in his situation. But look at the chronology of the show - Rick’s been living in the zombie apocalypse for something like a week. Everybody else has been balls deep in walkers for over a month. If he’s so barely containing his despair now, how’s he going to be in 30 days? If I thought that the show was trying to make me ask that I would have liked Rick’s weepy scene, but I don’t think that was the intention.
More thoughts on dealing: the biggest howler line of the night was when Dr. Jenner comforts Andrea, telling her that he knows her pain because he also lost somebody. No shit, he lost somebody - it’s the motherfucking zombie apocalypse! Everybody lost mostly everybody. That’s what an apocalypse implies. To me this crystallizes one of the show’s weakest aspects - unlike Rick the survivors have been dealing with the zombies for over a month, but nobody seems to have been the least bit hardened. I get that Andrea is still raw from Amy’s death, but everybody reacts to everything as if they woke up to the zombies this morning. The writers don’t seem willing to give us the reality of these survivors, which makes them seem soft and stupid.
The writers also didn’t want to make Jenner very interesting, or to go to his logical extreme. See, Jenner should be Rick’s mirror self, and Rick should look at Jenner and start wondering if he’ll just fail in the end as well. That’s the only way Jenner has a point beyond being an exposition machine (and delivering exposition nobody particularly wanted), is if he somehow reflects the survivors or our lead. You could argue that Jenner forced the crew to reaffirm their decision to cling to hope, but again I would argue that choosing hope over flaming death is meaningless. Making Jenner a character who offered them the choice and then watching the characters mull that choice over - this would be interesting. Springing a supervillain trap on them is stupid. Or if he was going to be a supervillain make him an interesting one, not a mopey guy who kills all those people because he’s sad and the CDC’s emergency planning was so poor.
I keep thinking I should be writing more about this episode, but I don’t know what else there is to write about. This was easily the worst episode of the season, and it’s the episode that took the biggest detour away from what the show should be. The characters were backgrounded, the setting become fantastical in a way that is alienating and the action denouement was silly, boring and cliched. The force of that explosion and the Winnebago’s windshield isn’t even cracked? People leaping out of the way of fireballs? That’s corny, and corny in a way that doesn’t belong here. That final explosion was a massive CGI betrayal of the series’ fundamental values to date, and was probably the most wrong-headed way to wrap things up.
Then there’s Merle. I don’t mind that he disappeared from the show. There are obviously plans for him in the future, and comic fans can begin speculating about where he’ll pop up again. I find it kind of irritating that he was such a heavy aspect of the first half of the season and then unceremoniously dumped from the story, sure. But what’s worse, for me, is how even Daryl has forgotten him. I don’t expect Daryl to be talking about Merle every single scene, but this issue simply needed to be addressed again in the season finale. He needed to bring it up in some context and come to some sort of conclusion about it - either that he was at peace with Rick and the others or that he was going to get revenge.
In fact, that should have happened in a scene where Rick and Shane come into conflict. And I don’t mean the heavy handed ‘Rick, don’t shoot the guy who can open the doors’ scene. I mean a scene where the bubbling emotional arcs of the characters converged and played out and the group, as a whole, dealt with the questions of who is in charge and what they do now. In fact it would have been really interesting to see Daryl choose between Rick and Shane. That’s the kind of character stuff that the show needed to deal with in the finale, not hand grenades and talking computers.
Maybe next season will be better. There’s a long time between then and now, and the clearing of the writer’s room bodes well. The building blocks are there; I think the premise is strong, and the show’s willingness to go away from the comic story is heartening. The actors are really starting to get to a place where they’re settling into the characters, and there are at least a handful of characters who are truly strong and interesting. But the show needs to decide whether or not it wants to be an ensemble; the way characters like T-Dog and Daryl and Glenn have just faded away into the background is very sad (and that’s beyond the fact that T-Dog has been more or less a nothing character the whole run). Fill the show with red shirts or commit to your ensemble, The Walking Dead.
Looking at the season as a whole, I give The Walking Dead a C+, edging on a B-. The production values are top notch, the directing tends to be great and the acting is usually decent to fairly good. But the writing has been a mess, and the show’s lack of a focus is troubling. I don’t want to watch a show where the characters stumble across an enclave of other survivors, settle down, have trouble and move on twice a season. It’s like the drawn-out version of an A-Team episode. I know that this is what the comic is, but remember that I don’t like the comic. I think a narrative is necessary to a show in the modern era; we’re past the time when a TV show can be just a series of events strung together (unless it’s a Law & Order or NCIS show). We need goals. And that goal can be as simple as ‘Let’s be safe and build a community.’ It certainly shouldn’t be ‘Let’s wander from town to town.’ Last week I said that the season so far had felt like a prologue; after TS-19 it doesn’t even feel like a prologue but rather just a bunch of stuff that happens to the same group of people. There’s no progression of any sort, and every character seems like they’re at essentially the same place they were at in the earliest episodes. Rick is still The World’s Biggest Hero, Shane is still stormy and troubled but well-meaning, Lori is still guilty. Nobody else really has any character traits worth mentioning, I think - maybe Dale is more open about himself. And Merle has fewer hands. But otherwise this is a stasis series so far - the only movement is physical.
There’s nowhere for The Walking Dead to go but up. I will be tuning in next year to watch where Darabont and friends take it, and I look forward to talking about it with Henri and Meredith again. What did you guys think about the finale? Did the explosion bum you out like it did for me, or were you just happy to see that hand grenade turn up again? What did you guys think of the CDC sidetrip? And what are your thoughts on the season as a whole?