The Walking Dead is an easy show to hate. Some of the reasons why aren’t entirely the series’ fault. It’s immensely popular on a network that, for a brief time, was best known for putting out some of the greatest dramas on television, dramas that some silly stories about morons and the zombies who eat them can’t really compete with. Any Breaking Bad or Mad Men fans who tune in to see Rick whining or Lori spitting venom, or an ensemble having a team-up to risk one of their own to pull a dead thing out of a well for no reason, well, those fans are going to be disappointed. Maybe even angry. It’s easy to pick holes in all of this, and while I’m not saying TWD couldn’t be better (it really, really could, to a degree that frustrates me every time I watch it), I do think it’s worth acknowledging that every show requires a certain level of commitment from its audience to work. The best shows give so much in exchange for that commitment that you barely notice the transaction, but a middling, goofy piece of work like this one takes a fair amount, and if you go in already predisposed to pick it apart, you will find ample opportunities to do so.
All of which sounds like a rather complicated and unnecessary bit of apologist thinking, and I certainly am not arguing that anyone who doesn’t enjoy this series is being unnecessarily harsh. (In addition to being flat out ridiculous, I sincerely doubt TWD needs little old me to protect it. Even when it’s mediocre, the ratings are huge.) Really, what I’m getting at here is I’ve reached a point where my expectations have adjusted to the show’s basic flaws, and while I’m not willing to give a pass on those flaws, I also don’t consider them a dealbreaker. I keep hoping against hope that this will still turn into great television, a thrilling, horrific ride with clear, likable characters, and scares based more on the inevitability of circumstance than bad choices, but I’ve come to accept that this might not, in fact, actually happen. Instead, we get cheesy, pulpy fun, and since that’s honestly enough to hold my interest, maybe it’s better for now to focus on the fun part and not get so worked up about the cheese.
Unfortunately, an episode like “Chupacabra” reminds me how hard it is sometimes to ignore the show being stupid, because even if I wasn’t watching this with my critic hat on (a beanie with a propeller, thankyouverymuch), I would’ve groaned a lot. There are some bright spots. While I’m lukewarm on Merle’s reappearance as a hallucination, Daryl’s struggle for survival in the woods was a tense, well-constructed sequence with a bleakly funny punchline (“Guys, I’m back!” BANG), and the end of the episode, when Glenn finds the barn isn’t quite the perfect place for a hook-up, moved the plot forward nicely. But too much of the hour was made up of sniping and stupidity, without enough zombie action to compensate for the complaints. It’s not even as though “Chupacabra” was significantly worse than last week; it's more that this show walks such a fine line between “entertainingly goofy” and “frustratingly goofy” that it can’t afford to make this many mistakes. If the ensemble was a bit better drawn, if there was a bit more momentum, if we had a bit more faith that the writers knew what they were doing, it’d be easier to cut the slack I spent two paragraphs talking about above. As is, just one “Are they all having their periods?” is enough to put this in the negative column for me, barn zombies or no.
Glenn’s stupidity is what pained me most this week. He’s one of the show’s very few secret weapons, a character with a sense of humor who, when used appropriately, can lighten the tone. While everyone else is moping around and yelling at each other, Glenn gets shit done. But he’s also been frustratingly under-used for most of the series’ run, and it hurts this week to see him finally get some screen-time and turn out to be just as dense as everyone else. First, he gets all mopey because Maggie won’t have sex with him again; while I understand he’d be hurt when she gives him the cold shoulder, his pouty glare after their first scene on the porch is like something you’d see on an 8-year-old’s face (admittedly, not many 8-year-old’s get upset when they can’t tap that). Then Glenn decides it’s his job to confront Lori about her pregnancy. This almost works, because it’s over quickly, and I get that he’d be concerned, but it’s not like she has a disease or problem that’s going to be immediately dangerous. Pregnancies take a few months to get going, from what I’ve heard, and if Lori waits long enough, the problem of telling Rick is going to be taken out of her hands regardless. (Unless Rick just decides she’s been hitting the post-apocalypse pastries too hard.) Glenn’s always been a non-confrontational dude, and this scene smacks less of something he’d actually do, and more of something to remind us Lori’s pregnant, and try and get some drama out of her keeping that a secret.
Then Glenn goes to Dale and asks if all the women are on their period, and suddenly, I feel like that 8-year-old metaphor I used previously was far too generous. The gender politics on this show have always been weird (something the TV series shares with the comic book), and this is just flat out bizarre. For one thing, I doubt Lori has to worry about her monthlies much anymore. For another, is Glenn supposed to be so tone deaf and arrogant that “She doesn’t want to sleep with me again” immediately translates to “She’s hormonal!”? And randomly dragging Andrea into the conversation? Ugh. Dale tries to hush him up, but it’s not like Dale is all that innocent here. He continues to patronize to Andrea, questioning her decision to stand guard on the RV while the other womenfolk are all in the kitchen making dinner. Why should it matter? Who says Andrea can even cook? Yes, she ends up shooting Daryl later on, but when Dale bugs her, it’s not like he has some psychic hotline to future events. And when Glenn tells Dale he had sex with Maggie, Dale’s shocked response is more focused on how Hershel will react than anything else. As with Andrea shooting Daryl, it does turn out that being worried about Hershel isn’t a bad idea, but there’s this weird 1950s vibe to the whole thing that makes Dale come off worse even when he’s right. Hershel’s reaction to Maggie getting laid should be a sign that he’s not entirely on the rails, that his paternal wise doctor act covers some deep-rooted control issues. But Dale brings it up as thought it’s the most natural thing in the world.
It would be possible to argue some of this away. After all, Dale is basically right. Andrea screws up guard duty, and Hershel is a paranoid ass. Of course, the scene where Andrea shoots Daryl (thankfully not killing him) is another example of sheer stupidity; she think he’s a zombie, which makes sense (he looks like hell), but she also shoots him with a rifle while he’s standing near a group of people she knows aren’t zombies. It’s a contrived moment that exists simply to, I don’t know, remind us that these folks aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box. On the plus side, it does feed into Hershel’s growing determination to get our heroes off his land. This determination is motivated partially by those zombies Glenn finds in the barn at the end of the episode (which I’m sure we’ll be dealing with next week), but it’s hard to blame the doctor for wanting Rick and the others gone. They don’t make good choices. Still, Hershel isn’t exactly a nice guy, and his transformation into a paternal, soft-spoken dictator is one of the better character shifts the show has managed to pull off in its short run. It’s not subtle, but it mostly works, as all those kind, level-headed comments he’s been making slowly reveal themselves to be cover for a deeply screwed up individual. He’s upset when Carol and the others use his kitchen to make dinner for everyone, and he’s upset at what he senses developing between Maggie and Glenn (although his “What’s going on with you and the Asian boy?” was a little too on point; we get he’s got issues, but we don’t need to make him racist as well). Mostly, he’s just upset that his perfect home is being threatened by a bunch of dirty, foolhardy outsiders. The fact that his concerns are understandable while still not being justifiable is a credit to the show, even if it has required a lot of idiotic behavior to get here.
What else worked? Daryl’s struggles in the wildnerness were, all told, the best scenes in the episode, even with the sudden, and sort of silly, reappearance of Merle. There were actual life and death consequences to the action, focusing on a character whose routinely demonstrated competence lends those consequences additional weight. Until Imaginary Merle showed up, there was barely any dialog, and this show does much, much better when it keeps the talking to a minimum. We need more sequences like this, where characters are thrown into dire straits that are more reflective of the extreme circumstances they live in than any mistakes on their part. As for Merle, well, he was less annoying here than he was in life. (And for the record, I think Michael Rooker is great; he was just handed an impossible, awful character.) On the one hand, it’s a somewhat lazy way to put the idea in our heads that Daryl isn’t quite so comfortable with Rick running things as we might have believed. On the other hand, imaginary characters are a genre convention, and it mostly worked fine here, silly or no. There’s a certain Stephen King vibe to a lot of this show, and the conversations between Daryl and Imaginary Merle are very King-esque. I’m, unsurprisingly, fine with this, but your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
I wonder if Imaginary Merle may be laying the groundwork for the real Merle to come back into the survivors’ lives. I also wonder if he’s the reason we still haven’t found Sophia yet. It’s funny; I’m basically numb to the Sophia search at this point. It’s ridiculous that they haven’t found her yet, and that makes it hard to care one way or another. She’s not a character I have anything invested in emotionally, and her absence is mostly being used to drive philosophical debates between Rick and Shane. Rick wants to keep looking, Shane wants to move on, but their argument is more driven by personal matters than Sophia herself. Hell, even Carol seems to have largely given up on her daughter returning. The poor kid has become an abstract concept, which means she really isn’t enough to hang a storyline on. “Chupacabra” had some bright moments, but given the show’s perilous lack of center, the episode’s weaker spots were enough to drag down the entirety. There were plenty of bad choices here, but the worst flaw is simply that the episode was often boring. Either give us stories to care about, or give us craziness. Don’t just fall back on squabbling.
- Dear young lovers trying to plan an assignation against a father’s wishes: DON’T PASS NOTES DURING DINNER WHEN EVERYONE CAN SEE YOU. Jeez.
- “You see 11 condoms; I see 11 minutes of my life I’m never getting back.” Clearly, she’s having her period. WOMEN BE CRAZY.
- Shane mentions Otis in his conversation with Rick, which isn’t a bad way of reminding us just why Shane is so intent on leaving.
- "It's a wonder you people have survived this long." It really is.
- "Don't be too hard on yourself. We've all wanted to shoot Daryl." This makes up for a lot, Dale. Not everything, but a lot.
- I’m looking forward to the fallout after Glenn discovers the barn zombies, but I’m not sure why Maggie had Glenn pick the hook-up spot. She knows the area better than he does, and given that there’s at least one place she really doesn’t want him to see, wouldn’t it make sense for her to make the plans?