The Walking Dead: “Bloodletting”
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The Walking Dead: “Bloodletting”

Cold-open flashbacks are strange beasts. They’re rarely directly relevant, at least in plot-terms. In most cases, it would be possible to remove them from an episode entirely without anyone ever noticing the absence. That doesn’t mean the concept doesn’t work, though. The best cold-open flashbacks are ones that illuminate a certain aspect of character or character history, in a way that enriches and deepens a show’s world. They work as short, self-contained beats, depending on our investment in the series to pay off, but capturing complete moments in and off themselves. I don’t mean to keep referencing Breaking Bad in every review I write, but if you want to see some terrific examples off how this works, just watch that show, particularly in its latter seasons. When it comes to criticizing genre television, I try to be ruthless--if a scene doesn’t do much for character and plot, I question its existence. But scenes like, say, Walter and Skyler White contemplating the purchase of their first home, while not immediately relevant, nevertheless have value. They provide us with additional context for the present.

It’s not too difficult to understand what the flashback that opens “Bloodletting” is trying to do. Lori Grimes is arguably The Walking Dead’s most problematic character. She has flashes of complexity and warmth, but too much of the time she exists primarily to snipe at her husband and her erstwhile lover, for no good reason beyond, well, no good reason I can think. Yes, she’s stressed and worried and terrified most of the time, and realistically, it’s doubtful anyone would be at their best when confronted with a world full of cannibalistic murderous mobile corpses. But it’s frustrating to see her fall so easily into the role of Mean Mom; a sort of spiritual cousin to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Mean Mom’s primary role in life is to tell everyone around her what they can’t do, and why they can’t do it, and why they’re foolish to even think they can do it, and why aren’t they doing it? It doesn’t matter if she’s an actual mother or not; Mean Moms come into existence because writers need obstacles for their (almost invariably male) heroes, someone who will raise the tension in a situation by constantly reminding everyone how they’re all doomed to die. Mean Moms don’t offer helpful alternatives to plans, and they don’t let the simple fact of necessity stop them from talking, because they aren’t actual characters. They’re just doubt in physical form, seasoned with guilt-tripping and a dash of contempt.

So Lori’s flashback here, in which we see her describing a fight with Rick (the same fight Rick told Shane about back at the start of the pilot), should allow her some room for growth. It sort of does, but it’s not enough to justify the scene. She tells her friend that she gets mad at Rick for being so quiet and decent. That’s a tricky concept to sell; it acknowledges that Lori is self-aware, which is good, but it doesn’t really say anything about her beyond that. We don't know why Rick's patience is making her angry, and that doesn't make us more sympathetic towards her. Then Shane shows up to tell her Rick has been shot, and Lori gets upset because she doesn’t know how to tell Carl the news. Again, I can understand the justification for that line--telling your son that his dad is in the hospital can’t be fun--but it makes her look, well, not good. Is this really the best moment to turn the entire situation around to make it look like you’re the one who’s suffering? It’s a flashback that provides us with no new information about story or character, and it’s not particularly fun to watch. Which means this is a scene which exists primarily because the writers have watched other shows and know that flashbacks are good for drama, but have no idea how to make that drama work for them.

Having wasted three paragraphs on a five-minute opening, it should come as no huge surprise to say that “Bloodletting” was a step down from last week’s premiere, mostly because it focused more on conversations than scares. Much as I want this show to find some way to do its characters right, those conversations were bland, providing no new information beyond, hey, it would suck to have your son get shot in front of you, huh? We meet some new faces this week: Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the hunter who accidentally shot Carl, takes Rick, Shane, and the wounded boy back to a farmhouse. There’s a doctor there, Herchel Greene (Scott Wilson), which means that if Carl was going to get himself shot, he picked a good place to do so. On the down side, Dr. Greene is a veterinarian, but after the end of the world, you take what you can get. There are a few others living in the house, including Otis’s wife, and the doctor’s daughter, Maggie (Lauren Cohen). Most of the episode is given over to dealing with Carl’s injuries, as Rick freaks out, gives blood, then freaks out; Shane and Otis make a run to a nearby zombie-overrun high school for medical supplies; and Maggie brings Lori to the house, where she promptly ferrets out the doc’s inexperience, because yeah, there are totally other options right now.

It was, by and large, a tedious hour, as most “Oh my god, will this boy die?” hours tend to be. There was some fun zombie action during the assault on the school, and we got a wince inducing surgery scene as the doctor pulled out a fragment of bullet from Carl’s stomach, but in between this was a lot of talking, and little of it served much purpose beyond filling time. For an episode like this to work, it needed to be tense, but every clumsy conversation about Rick’s guilt and his need to let Lori know what was happening, just killed the pace. I’m not sure why Shane didn’t immediately head back to find the others as soon as they got Carl to the doctor’s house, other than to make sure he was around when Otis proposed making a run on the school for supplies. There was more complaining back with the main group about what they were going to do next, and T-Dog is suffering from a nasty blood infection that’s making him panic about being the only black guy in the group. (Then Daryl pulls out a bag of drugs from his brother’s stash, which marks the second time this season the redneck has saved the minority.) There’s obviously going to be squabbling and debate in this situation, and survivors who can’t help getting angry with each other is a key part of the zombie genre, but this was all very slack. Too much of the show right now is characters reacting to circumstances which make their personalities irrelevant; occasional moments shine through, but for the most part, it’s screaming, complaining, and screaming. Obviously these people are going to react to the terror and death around them, but the show needs to find ways to make those reactions distinctive, and more than simply a function of reflexive horror.

Carl won’t die. His fate is still up in the air at the end of this episode, as Otis and Shane haven’t returned with supplies and Rick is freaking out, but I’d be very surprised if this means Carl kicks the bucket next week. (Which makes it annoying that we’re spending this much time on his condition; I don’t think decompressed storytelling works for this series, as the slower it goes, the more time we have to analyze writing that really won’t hold up to scrutiny.) That’s probably for the best, as a dead kid would mean hours of self-recrimination and despair from our nominal leads. And yet, I almost wish the kid would die. It would be a shock, and it would be the sort of shock that indicates the gloves are coming off, that this is a show in which no one is safe. I’m not a fan of killing off characters just to increase the stakes, but here, I think some kind of dramatic shift is needed. The Walking Dead is currently functioning without any real purpose, aside from big ratings and people liking zombies and so forth. There’s no sense of a core story--it’s just happenstance after happenstance. Give us a throughline, give us urgency beyond the moment. If you need to wake us up, go ahead and kill the kid. Kill somebody, for gosh sake. Fewer characters means less dialogue, because the one good thing about zombies is, they don’t talk.

Stray observations:

  • I’m not sold on Dr. Greene yet (his delivery puts me to sleep), but Otis is a great addition, and Maggie has some fun moments as well. In particular, it was smart to have the Carl shooting be a complete accident, and one that didn’t have anything to do with Otis being an idiot or a jerk. He couldn’t see Carl, and how the hell was he supposed to know there’d be non-zombies in the woods? Also fun: Maggie’s grand entrance on a horse.
  • Dr. Greene is optimistic about humanity’s chances, and compares the zombie outbreak to the AIDS epidemic.
  • “Maybe it’s better now.” (I don’t know if this was an intentional laugh line or not, but it made me chuckle.)

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