By Ricky Young
The success of AMC’s The Walking Dead could be regarded as something of a mystery. At the end of its second season, it commands relatively stellar US ratings, is relentlessly zeitgeisty, and even has its own post-airing discussion show, Talking Dead – all the while featuring production flaws the size of shotgun-blasts to the torso.
And that’s being kind. This programme is shit. Shit on toast, shit on a water-biscuit, shit on grits, whatever grits might be. It is, by any measurable standard, a genuinely terrible programme. The premise is a genre cliché, the plotting is insane, the dialogue is like nails down a blackboard and the acting is truly laughable. I use that word with care – watch a few episodes and try not to emit long, deathless barks of empty faux-mirth on a regular and involuntary basis.
The thing is, though, I love The Walking Dead.
For those who haven’t yet tuned in: The Walking Dead is an action/horror thriller set in the Deep South of the US, in the aftermath of a mysterious apocalypse. An unexplained outbreak of Death Virus is killing off the populace, yet the same affliction somehow brings them back to life as shuffling, semi-animated corpses who go after still-living brains like Gregg Wallace goes after tiramisu.
A rag-tag band of survivors try to negotiate this new and forbidding landscape, looking for rescue and bizarrely avoiding saying the word ‘zombie’ in any way, shape or form. We quickly learn that these survivors are FUCKING IDIOTS, and the programme is, as I’ve said, shit.
Yes, the internet is just filled with people saying they love shit things, people defending their love for shit things, and people taking the piss out of people explaining why they love shit things – nothing new there. But below one of the AV Club’s recent TWD recaps, a commenter described his (it could have been a ‘her’, but I doubt it) relationship with the show…
It’s like being in a really shitty relationship with someone who happens to adhere to a very specific sexual fetish that you have. You don’t really like the person but they’re good enough at the one thing you like so you put up with it and every now and then you hate yourself for it.
…and while I can’t (or won’t) say that the specifics have ever applied to me, the situation as described had me staring at my shoes, biting my lip and going ‘ummm…’ a bit.
It’s not a ‘guilty pleasure’; if you do have a pleasure that makes you feel guilty, just man up and enjoy it – just don’t tell me about it, please. But The Walking Dead does indeed do one thing – zombies – absolutely brilliantly, and it does everything else in a manner so half-baked you could mistake it for a ‘Taste The Difference’ ciabatta. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t give up on it now even if I wanted to; and while I don’t know why, I have an unstoppable need to infect you.
I do not care what you have or have not seen on television up to this point in your life.
END SPOILER WARNING.
Egg out of This Life is our hero – the head of the gang of survivors and the one everyone looks to and relies upon for leadership and purpose. This is slightly unfortunate, as he’s by turns indecisive, stubborn, petulant, weak, incoherent, taciturn and mean. Alright, this is perhaps a little bit unfair on old Egg out of This Life, but it serves to illustrate TWD’s number one problem – since none of the characters are given any consistent traits apart from the very broadest strokes if they’re lucky, the on-screen personalities have to expand or contract to serve the plot at any given time. And if the plotting isn’t water-tight (here’s where you can practise your Mirthless Laugh, if you like) everyone quickly looks like a bunch of mentally-ill chumps.
(Apologists would and do argue that since TWD is adapted from a long-running series of comics – never an easy task – and has been beset by backstage staff problems from the get-go, that a certain amount of slack should be given. Fuck that, I say. In the finale of your second season, you still have characters suddenly acting in ways alien to everything you’ve seen of them so far, because if they didn’t there would be no reason for anyone to say or do anything at all? All that slack got used up a long time ago, son.
Also, I wish I hadn’t used the word ‘alien’ there. Some aliens would really pep this show right up.)
Oh, Egg out of This Life tries his best, I suppose. Nobody asked him to be leader, and he’s got a funny little short-arsed way of waddling about the place that provides occasional amusement. Plus, you haven’t seen who he’s married to. Hooooo boy.
I am no stranger to hyperbole for the sake of it. Nothing pleases me more than backing up a mildly-felt opinion with the full weight of verbose dickishness, for kicks. But now it’s time to be serious.
Lori Grimes is the worst person that has ever existed on television in the medium’s history, without exception.
Her character is maybe the most fully-realised out of everyone in the show, in that in every, EVERY situation she finds herself in, she will immediately focus on the one detail most relevant to her and then endlessly harangue the group until all efforts point laser-like at her wants and needs. She’s snide, she’s vindictive, she’s unbelievably sanctimonious and yet shrugs off her many instances of jaw-dropping hypocrisy while just daring you to say something. Because if you did, she’d have some ammo ready for your whiny ass, believe me. You ain’t no saint either!
Some effort is made to portray her as a grubby sort of Lady Macbeth in season two, but it doesn’t work very well as Lori clearly isn’t very bright. Low cunning she’s got in spades, however, and it’s not pretty.
What machinations there are could do with a bit of background: when the virus hit, old Egg out of This Life – policeman, husband and father – was in a coma thanks to being shot on the job, so when he woke up á la Day of the Triffids and the world had gone to hell, he went in search of his wife, and when he found her, she was already shacked up with this bloke:
Shane was Egg out of This Life’s partner in the squad-car pre-apocalypse and is a kind of massive walking gland – he consists of nothing but reaction and over-reaction (you suspect if you could picture his internal monologue, it would be a never-ending loop of a scratched child nailing a cat to a tree) and stomps about the place looking for things to fuck, shoot or stab.
This makes him sound a bit more fun than he is. Shane responded to Egg out of This Life’s reappearance quite badly, and set up two seasons of shifty, stupid power-play which could have been solved in five minutes if everyone had just got around a table and had a lovely chat. The Walking Dead takes that ultra-annoying modern narrative technique – characters deliberately withholding information for the sake of the writers then having something to make them argue about – to new and eye-gouging levels, and nobody does this better than Shane.
Dialogue is a particular problem for The Walking Dead. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be indicative of the tender, violated souls we’re dealing with, but pretty much nobody on this show talks as if they want to be understood. If someone asked you how you were, you might say ‘oh, I’m fine – thanks for asking’. If you asked Shane how he was?
“<visibly bristles, stares into distance> Howm’ah? What sort of a – <flexes pecs, thrusts hands in combat pockets, growly whisper> question is that? <eyes shift horizontally, jaw flexes> Ah should be askin’ you that, matta’ fact ah should be askin’ all the questions round here! <does little torso lunge towards asker, stops, pretends he didn’t, jaw flexes again> Didja’ hear that? ‘How am ah?’, he said! Thinks he’s so special, askin’ questions like we got time for questions – take a look around you! <fingers gun, hunches and flexes>. Maybe you got time for questions, ah sure as hell don’t.”
Do you see how that got old very quickly? Try listening to two whole seasons of it. Shane was a real drag on the show – nobody could do or say anything without him pushing his weight around and preventing anyone from acting remotely normally. If you do tune in next year, Shane won’t bother you, however – as representative as he was of the show’s inability to process thoughts and ideas, his jealousy of Egg out of This Life caught up with him, and he was too stupid ever to work out a compromise.
Most of the machinations around the Egg out of This Life/Shane/Lori ménage á twat featured one particular emotional bargaining-chip, and his name is SHUT UP CARL!
Named after the only possible reaction to his presence, this is Egg out of This Life and Lori’s only son, born with the gift of wandering into exactly the wrong situation at exactly the wrong time and saying exactly the wrong thing, to telly-kicking effect. What’s worse is that his parents both treat him with kid gloves, and act as if the little bastard just shits crème eggs. ‘What did you say to mah son?’ ‘What did you say about mah son?’ ‘Don’t you say that around mah son?’ etc. On and on and on – I will not lie when I say that I cheered when SHUT UP CARL! took a bullet to the chest this season, and as the show agonised over his fate in increasingly hysterical terms, I had to check with other viewers that I wasn’t getting the whole thing wrong. No, we all wanted the moon-faced wee scrote dead.
Unsurprisingly, he lived.
She’s got an actual name, I think, but nobody uses it. Blondie acts as a bit of plot-glue when needed; if there’s a moral or philosophical quandary about survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, she’ll be on the edge of the drama, ready to get in a huff about something. The women in the show are pretty badly served, running the nuanced gamut from snake to shrew in general, with only Blondie willing to get into a proper fight and dare to stand up to the dismal, bone-headed lunks that pass as the menfolk.
She can also, on occasion, take on the zombies real good.
As mentioned earlier, the one thing TWD gets right is its raison d’être, the packs of undead killers who roam the landscape looking for brains. The make-up, choreography, sound effects, blocking, angles, score – everything adds up to scenes of visceral, heart-pumping action. Then you won’t get another one for a show and a half. Yes, I’m sure these bits are where the money goes, but in episode two of this season, in an hour-long show there were 90 seconds of zombie screen-time. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the hour wasn’t Lori’s gurning face, complaining about some imagined slight from T-Dog. Hey – where is T-Dog?
Lucky you got a glimpse of him there. T-Dog (real name ‘T-Dog’) is the show’s token black man, and as such is guaranteed to turn up, be black and be hugely at risk whenever the script requires it. This, in a manner that has him a hero to the snarkier parts of the internet, isn’t often.
If the show requires a stare-into-the-distance and a drawled ‘AW HELL NAW!’ when something horrible looms, T-Dog will be there; tall, proud and – yes – black. Otherwise, the show forgets he exists, and whole episodes slip by without a glimpse of him. The capacity to drop and then rediscover parts of the narrative as if nothing happened is one of TWD’s most jarring traits, and while it’s always nice to have T-Dog back in the fold, he is a man who once severed an artery by leaning on a car door. He’s such unbelievable cannon-fodder that it’s amazing he’s made it this far. Unlike Clement Attlee.
Yes, good old Clement Attlee, who seems to have taken to the new world order like a duck to Keynesian water. This is actually the pre-Earldom incarnation of Clement Attlee – you never saw him tote twin shotguns behind his neck after he was elevated, for example – and while there’s no Herbert Morrison equivalent for him to rail against, you can see he’s still hurting from that last General Election defeat. Perhaps that explains why he’s so vicious towards the undead – he’s sick of consensualism and wants to gild his legacy with a last few takedowns. I fear Clement might not make it far into the third season. He’s just too angry.
Glenn will be there to tend things, however. The audience’s surrogate, near as dammit, Glenn gets put through the ringer on a weekly basis. If he’s not being used as zombie bait in an abandoned pharmacy, he’s being used as zombie bait by being dangled down a well, or put up a tree or somesuch. It’s hard to identify with Glenn, as he goes along with any plan no matter how stupid – but if he did the natural thing and said ‘What?! There’s no FUCKIN’ WAY I’m doing ANY of that stuff? Are you CRAZY?! That place is just FILLED with zombies! Fuckin’ YOU do it if you’re that keen!’ then the show would grind to a halt.
Oh, I used the word ‘zombie’ there. Everyone onscreen uses the world ‘walker’ instead of ‘zombie’, and it’s very annoying. I know for the premise to work everyone has to have no knowledge of zombies-as-a-concept and to go along with accepting the walkers for what they are, but it’s a hole that only seems bigger as the show progresses. Still, that’s just something else to dangle Glenn down.
When Egg out of This Life found his family, they were already part of a group of survivors – T-Dog, Clement, Blondie, Shane, some others who got chomped along the way – clustered around Dentures Man and his RV. With his fishing hat and his rattly overbite he seemed kind and homely at first, until we later saw that he was a suspicious, manipulative old worry-bag who had a way of bringing out the worst out in everyone. But his RV seemed to have a hold over the entire group.
Okay. I know it’s very easy to discuss things like this when you’re not stuck in a zombie-strewn post-apocalyptic Deep South wasteland, but if I was stuck in a zombie-strewn post-apocalyptic Deep South wasteland, I’d head to the nearest Costco. Thick breezeblock walls and big shutters for easy access control, filled with food, fuel, guns, ammo, camping equipment, generators etc. A flat roof for spotting zombies, wide open car-parks for – look, I’ve got my plan, all right? And in my mind it works. It works just fine.
Nothing like that occurs to our gang, of course. For most of the first series, and for absolutely no earthly reason, they spend their time huddled around Dentures Man’s RV on a hilltop, surrounded by tin-cans on string. (Cue every single viewer belming at the screen.) Later, when that proves totally inadequate and they lose half their number to famished golems, they relocate to a farm-house in the middle of nowhere, which seems to be blessedly free of zombies, for reasons that just don’t get properly explained. Oh, that means I’ve got to find a picture of…
…because he makes it into the main cast this year. Herschel is a farmer and vet who owns Pastoral Acres. It’s not like we don’t know this, because he makes it very clear. ‘This is my farm’, he says, whenever he needs to, and quite a lot of the time when he doesn’t.
You can appreciate why the beleaguered production felt the need to spend the whole of the season in one location – it’s an attractive place to hang out, it’s cheap to film, and you can fill the screen with Herschel’s pretty daughters and get Glenn laid. But a show about trying to survive an implacable and relentless menace should trade in claustrophobia and suffocation, not wide shots of beautiful autumn days and hammocks and trays of lemonade on the porch. To be fair, old Herschel was keeping a dark secret (his barn was full of zombified-family-members whom he hoped he could cure with praying and love) but the longer the gang spent camping out on his lawn, with entire episodes devoted to the endless discussion of post-apocalyptic lodging-etiquette, all because Herschel didn’t want his homestead despoiled, the more frustrating it was to the audience.
Most of the frustration – real, proper, red-mist frustration – comes from the wholesale inability for anyone onscreen to realise the gravity of their situation. All of the characters are obsessed with patterning pre-zombie morals and values onto their present, desperate circumstances. Six minutes into the second series, upon finding a bunch of cars filled with useful stuff to ransack, Lori (it would be Lori) got a self-righteous look on her face and said ‘we shouldn’t be doin’ this – this here’s a graveyard’, all because there were some corpses littered around too. Genuinely, on a week-by-week basis, the zombies show more of an ability to learn than these clueless gimps. Who – despite never learning, never growing, never resolving anything – never, ever shut up.
“Stop talking. Just, please, stop talking and do something.” That was the cry, for weeks and weeks and weeks.
Were we heard? I hope so. I’d like to think that the old The Walking Dead ended in the penultimate episode, when SHUT UP CARL! teased a zombie (sigh) then ran away, leaving it to sneak up and gut poor Dentures Man and have him lie gurgling and screaming on the ground while the entire cast stood around, wondering how to fix his chomped innards. They couldn’t, of course, so they shot him.
The show seemed to jerk itself awake after that, treating everyone to a brilliant zombie-attack festival with guts and brains flying everywhere, and the final episode finished with Pastoral Acres overrun and everyone facing a dark and uncertain future.
That isn’t to say it didn’t have its share of massive problems either. But like a wobbly tooth, where you keep fiddling with it despite the pain, I keep going back to it, even if it hurts me. If the show has now learned that to survive in a world where an army of the undead can eat you at any moment then you have to be prepared to move on and forget the past, I’m willing to stick with it.
If T-Dog gets it in the neck without one final ‘AW HELL NAW!’, however – sorry, The Walking Dead. That’s you and me finished.
Ricky sometimes posts up essentially random strings of letters on ‘The Tweeter’