There’s a moment early in tonight’s episode that had my hopes up. It’s a small moment, to be sure; one of Hershel’s women (I think she’s Otis’s widow? All of his people but Maggie tend to blend together) brought a bag of live chickens to feed the zombies in the barn. Which is a decent character moment, at least for Hershel’s group as a whole; there’s no reason to feed the zombies unless you think they’re “alive” in some way, and you’re trying to keep them alive until someone finds a cure. But what really got to me was the way she took the time to break the chickens legs before she brought them out. The chickens have to be alive, because zombies don’t eat dead meat, but chickens are fast, and zombies aren’t. So the woman makes it so the chickens will be that much easier to catch. There’s thought behind this sort of behavior, and it’s the kind of thought that keeps me hoping The Walking Dead might still leave the large part of its stupidity behind, someday. Much of the pleasure of genre fiction lies in the details, in finding specific beats like this one, behavior that takes a big idea (zombies in the barn!) and makes it personal somehow. If this show can keep finding moments like this one, and figure out a way to handle its characters that isn’t jaw-droppingly idiotic, we might have something. But no promises.
In general, “Secrets” has a strong start, and we get some solid zombie attacks, the first a tense assault on Maggie and Glenn at the pharmacy (the pharmacy where they had sex, by the way), the second a thrilling face off with Andrea and Shane against a suburb full of walkers. In between those scenes, we get the usual amount of talk, some of it good, some of it bad. Glenn telling Dale about Lori’s pregnancy and the barn zombies? That’s good, because it makes sense, and because open-ness is a problem on this show. Secrets can make for good drama, but too often, characters will refuse to tell other characters vital information simply because the writers aren’t ready for a situation to boil over. Honestly, there’s no real reason for Glenn not to tell Rick and the others what he saw. The very fact that Hershel wants to keep it a secret makes it a danger. You can fudge this to a certain extent—the zombies are locked up so they don’t represent an immediate threat, Glenn wants to stay in Maggie’s good graces, Glenn’s pretty easy to lead by the (ahem) nose—but telling Dale helped to make this work in a way that complete secrecy would not. Same with Lori’s pregnancy, and it’s also to the episode’s credit that Rick finally learns the truth, both about his wife’s baby bump, and her affair with Shane.
But there were problems here too. Like the fact that everyone keeps ragging on Lori to keep the baby, but nobody can seem to come up with a better reason than “just ‘cause.” I’m not even sure it would be possible for her to abort the pregnancy at this point, but the show’s working on the assumption that having a child in a world where death literally lurks around every corner is an unequivocal good. The only person who’s been anti-pregnancy is Lori, and the show hasn’t managed to cast her in a very good light, so it’s not like her arguments hold much water—which is also ridiculous, because ultimately, her opinion is the only one that matters. I realize Glenn is trying to be supportive when he tells her she shouldn’t make the decision alone, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s her decision, for the one reason the show keeps leaving off the table when this issue comes up: the pregnancy is not going to be easy. Never mind the actual birth, which, at best, she’ll do in a bedroom with a veterinarian. Being pregnant will make Lori heavier, slower, and more vulnerable, in a world where all three of those things tend to mean you end up as lunch. But no, all the discussions are centered around the baby itself. These people are idiots.
Instead of the usual review, I thought it might be a good opportunity to come up with some constructive ideas that would make this show the kind of fun, engaging horror ride it really out to be.
1. Move faster. Decompressed storytelling can be effective when handled properly. It works as a way to make the audience connect more intensely with characters, and to heighten the sense of drama; you know bad shit will hit the fan eventually, but if the balance is right, the longer it takes for everything to go south, the more shocking and powerful it can be when the center finally falls through. Breaking Bad is the best currently airing example, and The Walking Dead seems to be trying to follow in its wake; it’s been six episodes since Rick announced the group was headed for Fort Benning, and we’ve spent over half that time hanging out at Hershel’s farm, waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Or the other barn to open, so to speak.) This isn’t working. Our protagonists are, at best, broad archetypes, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the time we’ve spent watching them squabble and moan and not go anywhere hasn’t done much to add depth. Which means that the decompression has really just served to demonstrate again and again how little the writers know how to make these people engaging. There are ways to solve this, and one of the big ones is to stop spending so much time repeating the same ground. Too much plot can raise its own problems, but right now, speeding things up would highlight the show’s strengths. There’s plenty of material available in the comics, and no real reason not to use it. Just because the show’s about zombies, doesn’t mean it needs to pace itself like one.
2. Let the characters be likable. I get it. Angst is cheap, and one of the key elements of the zombie genre is that survivors are in as much danger from each other as they are from the hordes of the ravenous dead. And it’s hard making believable people out of nothing, especially when those people are forced into extreme circumstances which naturally limit their range of actions, thus making it harder to portray them as unique complex individuals. Want an easy fix? Ease off on the squabbling. “Secrets” manages to gain some ground here, as Glenn goes back to his usual charming, hapless self, and Daryl continues to be a lot of fun. But while Dale has been showing some dangerous signs of dickishness, and while he handled the confrontations with Hershel and Lori well enough, his attempts to spook Shane into leaving were badly timed, making it seem like he was more worked up about Shane and Andrea screwing around than he was about Shane posing a threat to the group. The show’s womenfolk continue to snap from emotion to emotion and torment the poor menfolk something fierce. And Rick is a complete wash as a leader. It’s not horrendously awful, but this kind of series could really use a stronger sense of community, and a reason for us to keep watching beyond simply, “Maybe somebody will get et this week.” One of the reasons Lost worked so well in the first season is that its flashback structure created characters who were compelling without any need for a mystery island. This show needs that, and needs it desperately; make your ensemble interesting, and if you can’t manage that, realize that this is a TV show, not a two hour movie, and a little angst goes a long way.
3. Kill! Kill! Kill! People need to die. That’s one of the edges this show should have over other suspense shows—these characters are trapped in a situation where any of them could be killed at any moment, and that danger should be as much a part of the series’ texture as Rick’s whining impotence. But it isn’t. Unless you count Sophia (which you can’t, really), not a single major character has died so far this season. The closest was poor Otis, but he was around for barely two episodes. Characters keep wandering around acting like they don’t live in a world full of cannibalistic, ambulatory corpses, and what’s worse is that there’s no consequences to their naivete. We finally got something like a wake-up call during the pharmacy attack, but I doubt it will last (the only impact it seems to have had is give Maggie a chance to get really pissed off at Lori, although she was already pissed off about those morning after pills). I enjoy fiction that encourages me to care about people, and that doesn’t spend all its time punishing me for that investment by sudden, seemingly arbitrary deaths. But in this genre, in which one of the primary motivators for every character is the very real sense of impending doom that defines their lives, the writers can’t afford to be this careful. Between both seasons, the only character whose expiration had any real impact was Andrea’s sister, Amy. (And to be honest, the main reason I remember her now is that Shane uses her death to get Andrea pissed off during gun training.) That’s not good enough. You want your cast to spend their time on edge and nearly out of their minds? Make them feel like they could get offed at any moment.
Those are my main ideas. Feel free to add yours. The main point, really, is that The Walking Dead can be fixed. It has a credible, basically coherent world, and that’s half the battle with a genre series. I’m not sure optimism is called for here, but I’m going to be optimistic anyway, because I want this to work. But who knows. In a way, I could be as bad as Hershel with his barn of dead loved ones, hoping against hope that it could still work out in the end, that there could be a solution, but suspecting, deep down, that dead is dead is dead.
- One other positive development tonight: Shane and Andrea’s hook-up. I appreciate her getting a chance to kick some ass in the suburbs, and it makes sense that the two of them would go at it later.
- More clearly episodic storylines would also help this show. I realize we can’t have actual standalones, but trying to give us an hour with a clearer beginning, middle, and end (as opposed to just “Remember last week? Okay, this week, some other stuff happens.”) would help create more of a sense of forward momentum.
- “You trying to buy my silence with fruit?” “No, there’s also jerky.”
- Glenn is a horrible, horrible liar.
- “You’re old. You know things.”
- “Don’t do that gangster shit.” Can you guess which character said this? Before you guess, remember, T-Dog exists.
- Dale’s “sensing” that Shane is lying about Otis is lazy writing. There’s some minor justification for it (mainly that Dale saw Shane aiming at Rick last season), but not enough for Dale to make the accusation this way, however upset he is.