Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why "The Walking Dead" is Amazing

The Walking Dead on AMC is one of the few shows that I make it a point to catch every week, and the only non-comedy non-sports show that I watch.  I first gave it a try because of my passionate love for zombies but stuck around because it’s so well made.  There are plenty of flaws to it.  The dialogue is bad and the acting is not spectacular, though I feel a lot of these actors would do well with better scripting.  It’s not scary, if that’s what you’re looking for.  In fact, there has been more than one occasion when in an hour long episode we only see zombies for less than two minutes.  But the plotting, structure and cohesion throughout are so solid that it is still a must watch.  The first few minutes of this last week’s episode were so subtly brilliant that I just sat dumbstruck and said to the empty room I was in “This show is brilliant!”
I’d like to break down those first few minutes as an example of the quality of the writing.  Obviously, there’s going to be spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet.  Actually I’m going to write as if my audience has seen the episode, so there really is no point to reading this if you’re not caught up on the show.  Sorry.
So, dear reader and loyal Walking Dead viewer.  As I’m sure you know every episode starts out with a cold open that nine times out of ten is a flashback to the time when Rick is in a coma.  It always gives us some new bit of back-story, which is fascinating, but the good ones will also remind us of facts we need to recall from earlier episodes and give us a deeper view of the character’s motivations.
This week’s opening was pretty straightforward.  The group (not yet fully formed) is in a traffic jam on the highway.  Lori Grimes is looking for food for her son Carl.  Carol offers to give him some of their food, but her abusive husband chastises her for her charity, making her go back and lie to Lori, saying she had been mistaken about the amount of food.  Shane and Lori go ahead to investigate what the hold up is, until they hear explosions in the distance.  They run through the woods to see the military firebombing Atlanta.  Lori cries as Shane comforts her.  Roll opening credits.
On the surface this scene works because it’s dramatic and exciting.  We get a glimpse of the terror present in the early days of the outbreak.  We get some of the death and destruction horror fans love.  But what’s really going on here is the audience is being quietly reminded of events from earlier episodes.  Instead of cramming it all into the “Previously on the Walking Dead…” portion (which the show does have), we get a segment that reminds us while still advancing the plot.
In the present-day portion of the story Carol’s husband has been dead since season one, so it’s easy to forget that he existed.  But in the world of the Walking Dead only a few weeks have passed.  Carol is not in mourning, she hated her husband, but the impact that his control had on her personality was huge and comes up in this week’s episode when Carol is afraid to speak for herself at all.  His appearance in the opening brings this all back to us without wasting any time.
The biggest thing going on in the plot right now is Lori’s pregnancy.  We know it’s Shane’s baby, Lori knows it’s Shane’s baby, and Rick has no idea she’s even pregnant.  The tendency in these situations is to blame the woman.  “What a slut, moving on like that.”  I’ve seen various immature postings on the internet implying just as much.  But this quick opening reminds us of a few facts:
1)      Lori believes Rick is dead
2)      Shane manipulates Lori into believing Rick is dead
3)      Shane wants to act like Rick and be Rick, which is why he wants to get with Lori and treat Carl as a son
We already know these things but needed reminding.  The most aspect of this opener is that it sheds new light on Lori’s response to Rick’s “death.”
            As viewers we are always in a world where Rick is alive.  We are with him through his coma and when he awakes.  By the time he finds Lori in the second episode she has lived for weeks without him.  We see Lori staying tough and focusing on keeping her son alive.  We see her relationship with Shane and think “oo, drama.”  But at this point we’ve skipped right past her grief.  We don’t see her when Shane tells her Rick is dead.  We don’t see the days and weeks afterward as the world falls apart around her at the same time that the person who means the most to her is taken from her.
            What we do see is her standing on a hillside looking down as Atlanta burns.  This is all we need to see to understand the full collapse of her life.  Without any dialogue, any explanation, it finally makes sense.  She is not some bimbo who runs to the next man as soon as her husband dies.  She is a woman who is living the most absolute of horrors, and when her husband’s best friend seeks to take advantage of the situation, she does what any person would do.  She seeks human comfort at what is clearly the end of the world.  We spend most of the show feeling bad for the accidentally cuckolded Rick, and we should; his situation sucks.  But Lori is the true victim here.  The creators respect the viewer enough to never state this; they just show it and trust that we will understand and have our sympathies in the right place.
            All this from two minutes of people running around in a panic.  This is why the Walking Dead is one of the best shows on TV this year.

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