It’s hard to get thrilling drama out of grief. Sadness saps energy, mutes passion, and forces character dynamics into a noose. Every scene has to acknowledge the emotion in some way, every conversation has to center around the loss, and the ache, and the person who will never come back, and while that’s powerful stuff, and universal, it’s not particularly fun to watch. Death in fiction can serve any number of ends, but mourning only really serves one, as it forces everyone to take a long hard look at their own lives, and remember that some day, they too will die. Maybe the reason it’s so hard to make this work in fiction is because there’s no real solution to it. When someone you care about dies, there’s no fix, no clean answer that will make all the pain go away. Dead is dead is dead, and the best we can hope for is to accept the inevitable, and do what we can to ignore it.
This isn’t a problem that most shows have to face, since for most shows, death is a singular event. Bad stuff happens, a regular (or recurring guest star) gets killed, and we spend an hour showing clips, railing at God, and/or deciding to run for President again, and then we move on. It’s not so easy for The Walking Dead, at least not the way the series has so far handled itself. These aren’t just characters who can die; these are characters living in a world where death is actively hunting them down, where the social structures that create continuity and purpose in our lives no longer exist. The show has tried to deal with these facts as honestly as possible, and I suppose they should be commended for that. Unfortunately, a willingness to embrace the darker aspects of your premise doesn’t necessarily lead to an ability to handle that darkness well. The Walking Dead has its failings, but this may be the worst of them: it keeps treading the same nihilistic ground and assuming it gets a pass for being “deep.” Too many conversations on this show sound like dialogue between a pair of college freshman who just realized that, y’know, if we’re all gonna die, like, what does all of this matter, man?
“Nebraska” doesn’t entirely rectify this concern, but it’s a solid hour of television, and a promising indication of where the series is headed. The episode picks up immediately after where “Pretty Much Dead Already” left off, and a big portion of the plot is given over to dealing with the fallout from Shane’s rash decision to let Hershel’s barn zombies out into the open, and the discovery that Sophia was one of those zombies. So there’s the usual recriminations, and Shane getting defensive, and for a large part of the hour, nothing really happens apart from people talking about how lousy everything is. But it works better than similar episodes the show has done in the past, because there’s a stronger sense of action in the ensemble, one that changes them from aimless idiots waiting to get picked off, to really purposeful idiots, working together to take care of what needs to be done. Dale seems a bit less crazy (although apparently he’s psychic now), Lori does something beyond tell everyone else how wrong they are (although she makes some weird choices), and T-Dog has lines. Best of all, Rick acts like a protagonist ought to act. For the first time in ages, he has direction, and he gets shit done. If this was the result, he should’ve been shooting little girls in the face weeks ago.
Of course, it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead if people weren’t doing dumb things for the sake of plot expedience. Soon after the mass shooting at the barn, and the silent, awkward burial that follows, Hershel lights out for town, having decided to take up a drinking habit which, unless I’m misremembering, had never been mentioned before. After one of farm folk takes ill (her name is Beth, but I still have no idea who anyone is in that group beyond Hershel and Maggie), and it suddenly becomes much more important to have a doctor in the house, so Rick decides to go get Hershel. That makes decent sense, especially considering that Hershel, most likely drunk and overcome with self-loathing and misery, isn’t in the best frame of mind to keep himself safe. Only everyone immediately acts like Rick is proposing some kind of suicide mission. Lori lectures him on how this isn’t “the time,” and Maggie gets upset when Glenn volunteers to direct Rick to the local bar. As Glenn himself points out, this is a run that he and others have made before, so why should it be such a problem now? And if Maggie is so worried about Glenn’s safety, shouldn’t she be doubly concerned for her father, an older man with every reason to have a bit of death wish?
The only reason there’s conflict here is because the writers are apparently convinced every decision Rick makes needs to cause some kind of argument. (Well, no one is bothered by him shooting Sophia, so I guess he can mark that down as a win.) This becomes especially obvious when less than an hour later, Lori suddenly changes her mind and asks Daryl to go bring Hershel and her husband home. Yes, Beth’s condition has changed for the worse, but the ease with which Lori changes her mind is baffling, and exposes how much her original argument existed largely for the sake of causing a fight. (Her logic that this day is somehow different than other days barely holds water. Yes, Sophia’s death was a tragedy, but we never see Rick spending much time with his son or his wife, and the immediate threat is clearly resolved.) Hell, the only reason she reason she turns to Daryl for help is so Daryl can show how Sophia’s death has affected him. Sure, she justifies why she wants help from him, but it’s still hard to ignore why the scene really exists: to give Daryl a chance to say “Screw you!”, and to make us wonder if he might not be heading down the path to the dark side. Of course, it also exists so that Lori is forced to drive into town on her own, so that she can, without the aid of Bluetooth or texting, crash her car. We'll have to see how that plays out next week, but the set-up is more than a little forced.
There are other flaws; Dale’s magical ability to see exactly what happened to Otis is odd (although I forget what happened between Dale and Shane last episode—how much did Shane say?), and Hershel and Rick’s conversation in the bar is yet another example of how badly this show needs to learn to avoid getting too serious. But when I say “Nebraska” by and large worked, I mean it. Giving the group a clear problem to overcome—how to get rid of the bodies from the barn—meant a lot of the action was focused on the straightforward challenges of living in a zombie-filled world. First they had to decide who to bury. Then graves had to be built, and once that part was finished, the remaining corpses had to be hauled off and burned. This was concrete, and it helped give form to the episode, something this series has often struggled with; baffling or half-assed subplots were kept to a minimum, and while we did get the usual debates in post-apocalypse ethics, at least those debates where centered on the problem at hand. (Do you realize we’ll never have to listen to another argument about whether or not they should keep looking for Sophia? Glorious news.)
Best of all, Rick is becoming something of a bad-ass, which pays off nicely in the episode’s strongest scene, a confrontation in town between Rick, Hershel, Glenn, and a pair of outsiders. While Rick is trying to convince Hershel to come back home, Dave and Tony pop their heads in the bar and start chatting up the room. They seem like nice enough guys—both armed, but who isn’t these days—and they’re just looking for conversation. Except as the talk goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that Dave (played beautifully by Michael Raymond-James, who you might remember from Terriers, although that will probably make you sad) doesn’t just want to talk. He and Tony are sick of wandering, and they want a new home, but there’s something off about them. Tony casually takes a piss against a wall, and, sure, Dave is friendly, but it’s not a trust-worthy kind of friendliness. Rick catches on immediately, Hershel does soon after, and it all builds to a shoot-out that leaves the two strangers dead.
This is one of the best scenes I’ve seen on the show so far, and it does any number of things that The Walking Dead has struggled with in the past. The tension builds naturally (due in no small part to Raymond-James), the dialogue has actual subtext, and there’s a clear sense of risk here that never pauses to telegraph itself. There’s no obvious and immediate proof that Dave and Tony are bad guys, but they’re suspicious just the same, and the suspense comes from never knowing just how much of a threat they really pose. I’ve seen this sort of sequence play out in dozens of movies before (although there isn’t much in the way of pop culture references, this has a Tarantino vibe to it, that sense of two men feeling each other out with words before they reach the point where violence is inevitable), but that didn’t make this particular example any less exciting to watch. It reminded us that zombies aren’t the only dangers in this world, and it solidified Rick’s position as a guy who can do what needs to be done. This is a world where bad things keep happening, and the only way to make good stories out of that is to find ways to make sure those bad things are exciting, unexpected, and give our leads the chance to push back the darkness, if only for a little while.
- Anyone else get a serious Lost vibe from all that body burying?
- There are some good scenes with Shane here, too. I liked his conversation (which was really a monologue) with Carol a lot.
- Glenn and Maggie have a decent chat about what happens next, and even Glenn and Rick’s conversation in the car was great. Sure, Glenn busts out the “I love you” conundrum, which movies and shows always make more of a fuss about than is absolutely necessary, but Glenn explains his concerns well enough. Also a plus: he apologizes to Rick for not telling him about Lori’s pregnancy, and Rick is totally fine with it.
- The arm falling off the truckload of corpses was a nice touch.