TWD Finds Some New Life and Direction, but Is It Enough?

“The Walking Dead” is now in the second half of its ninth season. Yes, nine seasons.  Few TV shows amble along for as long as TWD has. Despite a continued ratings decline, the show continues to stagger along, like one of its zombies.  On the one hand, it’s hard to see how the show continues for a few more seasons. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has been written off the show, though AMC has promised to make a few Rick-centric films, and last week, it was announced that Michonne (Danai Gurira) is leaving after next season.  Gurira’s role in Black Panther and her work as a writer and producer have thrust her even more into the spotlight, which is well-deserved. Bigger opportunities await. It’s hard to fathom a sustained viewership of TWD without its key characters. Daryl (Norman Reedus) may be popular, but I’m not sure he can sustain the show as its main protagonist.

That said, the ninth season, under new showunner Angela Kang, has been one of the best in a long time. For the first time in a few years, TWD feels like a horror show again, one with character development and moral divides. A large part of this has to do with The Whisperers, the comic villains who wear skin masks of zombies to blend in with herds. This season has had two especially strong episodes. The mid-season finale, featuring The Whisperers first proper introduction, contained  well-done atmospheric horror elements, including a graveyard, fog, pounding rain, and the group of survivors surrounded by the new villains. This confrontation led to the death of a series regular, and The Whisperers immediately felt like a more immediate danger than the cartoonish Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the war with the Saviors that lasted way too long.  Additionally, their stitched, Leatherface-like  masks are chilling!

The second highlight of this season includes the latest episode, “Omega,” which focused on The Whispers’ leader, Alpha (Samantha Morton). The flashback-heavy episode fleshed out Alpha’s story and her abuse towards her only child, Lydia (Cassady McClincy). Simply put, Alpha is a layered and terrifying villain, one who killed her loving husband and then made her daughter think it was her fault. She is much more realistic than Negan because her story centers around domestic abuse. Unlike previous villains, there is no indication that the new world made Alpha the way she is. “Omega” indicates that she was always an abusive monster.  We see the effects of it on her daughter, who has gashes and scars on her arms, and has been emotionally manipulated over the years to believe her mother was the loving one, not her father. At one point, Lydia has a hysterical breakdown because she’s so certain Alpha is going to find her. Currently, Daryl and company have her prisoner at Hilltop to find out more about their latest threat.

Like her mother, Lydia, at least so far, is one of the more interesting characters the show has introduced recently. In “Omega” her story is interwoven with that of Daryl, who was abused by his father as  kid, and Henry (Macsen Linz), who found loving parents in Carol (Melissa McBrde), his “second mother,” and Ezekiel (Khary Payton). In the show’s first season, Carol suffered abuse from her husband Ed. Over the years, she took back her power, and now Daryl and Henry are in the position to help Lydia triumph over her scars. There is a lot the show writers can explore here. Of note: Carol’s hair is short during the duration of the show, especially in the first season, and in “Omega,” Henry tells Daryl that she initially cut it off because her husband used to drag her around by it. Now that she’s with Ezekiel, a loving, supportive man, she’s comfortable enough to grow it out. One of the most emotional moments occurs when Henry tells Daryl, “I’m glad you and my mom are friends.” Understanding the deep ramifications of abuse, Daryl and Henry want to be a support system for Lydia.

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Alpha (Samantha Morton) and The Whisperers

The episode concludes with an unmasked, bald-headed Alpha approaching the community and telling Daryl and the good guys that she only came for one thing, her daughter. Flanked by her merry band of rotting skin masked Whisperers, this final shot of Alpha is one of the most unnerving scenes the show has featured in a long time. Unlike Carol, Daryl, and Henry, Alpha has fully embraced her darkness, and she’s clearly going to be a major threat to the group.

All of that said, it’s hard to know how much life is left for TWD. It’s mid-season premier netted about 5 million viewers, which again, would be considered high ratings for most shows, but for a juggernaut like TWD, it’s a sharp decline. Had TWD not made so many mistakes over the last few years (Glenn’s fake death, Glenn’s real death, killing Carl last season, pretending like Rick was going to die this season), then it would be in better shape. It’s too bad Angela Kang didn’t take over the show earlier. She brought the horror and character development back, but it remains to be seen if that’s enough to stop the bleeding.

 

 

Is “The Walking Dead” Getting a Soft Reboot?”

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After “Fear the Walking Dead” cleaned house and essentially changed its writing staff for season 4, there has been speculation about the fate of “The Walking Dead.” While the show still occupies the public imagination, it has faced a ratings decline over the last two seasons, as the All Out War arc has gone on too long. Season 8’s finale, “Wrath,” marked the conclusion of that arc. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors were at long last defeated by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and company. Based on some of the dialogue from the season finale, it is possible that the show may see a soft reboot in season 9, and hopefully one that focuses less on a villain like Negan and more on the characters trying to rebuild civilization and retain their humanity, while fending off zombies. Zombies! Remember those?

As far as season finales go, “Wrath” was not that bad. It had far less action sequences and gunfire fights than the first half of season 8. None of the violence was gratuitous, unlike the season 7 premiere when Negan had his full introduction by using his beloved barbed wire baseball bat Lucille to bludgeon the heads of fan favorites Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). Additionally, the finale successfully concluded a tiresome arc, while opening up some intriguing possibilities for the show moving forward. At the center of “Wrath” was the idea that Rick and his crew are moving on from the past. After slicing Negan’s throat and nearly killing him, he talks to his people and the Saviors about how it’s time to rebuild civilization, that the days of one group opposed to another group are over. In one of the last scenes, Rick and Michonne (Dania Gurira) tell Negan that they let him live so he can “rot” in a jail cell and serve as an example of a rebuilt civilization where peace and justice rule. This follows his comic fate post-All Out War.

Maggie (Lauren Cohan), meanwhile, asserts herself in another scene by telling Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Jesus (Tom Payne) that Rick and Michonne need to pay for allowing Negan to live. This dynamic should return the show to character arcs and development. It opens up the potential for a good story-line heading into season 9. There is also the unknown story-line of Negan and what purpose he will serve moving forward. In the comic, post-All Out War, he has an important story-line that deals with Carl, but since Carl (Chandler Riggs) has been killed off on the show,, that will allow the TV writers to take a different path with Negan, which again opens new possibilities.

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Recently, former show-runner Scott Gimple has said that the season 8 finale serves a conclusion to the first eight season and the writers plan to do something different moving forward. That idea was at the center of “Wrath.” Rick’s speech can be seen as a metaphor for the show up until this point and the need to move on from what was. Additionally, the show opened and concluded with an image/flashback of Rick and a young Carl walking on a quiet countryside road, so maybe Carl’s vision for a peaceful future will start to come to fruition and the surviving groups can focus on rebuilding. Perhaps the main conflict will be the inner workings of this new world, including Maggie versus Rick’s dueling visions. That would move the show away from the stale formula of a bad guy v. Rick and company.

Based on this week’s “Fear the Walking Dead” season 4 premiere, it is evident that you can give a show a soft reboot and reinvigorate it by hiring new writers. Recently, “The Walking Dead” hired a new show-runner, Angela Kang. Hiring a new show-runner is a positive step forward, since “The Walking Dead’s” decline came under Scott Gimple’s run. The season 8 finale opened the door to some potential interesting story-lines. In the hands of the right writers, the show may find its footing again.

 

 

TWD’s Big Send-Off

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“The Walking Dead” returned last night for the second half of its eight season, and SPOILER, it featured a major character death: Carl, Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) son. Actor Chandler Riggs has been on the show for nearly half of his life, so seeing Carl written off, after succumbing to a walker bite in the first half of season 8, is probably still difficult for fans to process. The opening minutes featured Carl writing letters to everyone he loves and snapping photos with baby sister Judith, so she’ll remember him. It was a nice tribute to his character, and the rest of the episode was packed with emotional weight that provided some glimmer of hope that the show can rights its course. Question still remain, though.

For the entirety of TWD, be it the comic or TV show, most of the decisions that Rick made were based on what’s best for his son. Removing Carl from the show makes it unclear what role/purpose Rick will now have. It also needs to be said that Carl has some of the most important story arcs in the comic after the All Out War/Negan/Saviors arc draws to a close. What does that mean for the future writing and main plot points of the show? That remains unclear. On the show, Rick still has Judith, but he doesn’t even know if she is his kid or Shane’s, and Judith never occupied as large of a role as Carl.

The 90-minute episode  focused on two plot points: Carl saying goodbye to everyone, especially Rick and Michonne (Dania Gurira), and Morgan (Lennie James) losing his pacifism and ethics by slaughtering Savior after Savior. The juxtaposition illustrated two very different ideals. As Carl was dying, he pleaded with his father to build a better world and “make it real.” The rest of the narrative focused on Morgan resorting to violence, even ripping out the entrails of a Savior, thus raising a question that the TWD has always raised: is peace in a post-apocalyptic world even possible?

Carl’s death also showed the randomness and violence inherent in such a world. Early in the episode, Carl told Rick and company, “It wasn’t a Savior. It just happened. I got bit.”  For a moment, at least, it made the walkers the villain again and showed they are still a threat and can take down one of the main characters. It also showed that you can do everything right and do your best to survive, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it. The world is random, and in a setting like TWD, it is also cruel, cruel, cruel.

The episode was rich on character, and at times, it felt like earlier seasons of TWD, when we had a reason to care about the characters. However, the few scenes of gunfire between Rick’s group and the Saviors served as a reminder that we still have to deal with the guns, explosions, and war arc at least until the end of the season. These long, drawn-out action sequences can be numbing, frankly, and have taken the show away from what it used to be. Last night’s episode was a reminder that TWD does best when it focuses on character and the relationships these survivors have with each other. It may be best for the writing when the war arc draws to a close, perhaps allowing the show to find its footing again, as it did during last night’s episode.

 

 

 

TWD’s Unexpected Death

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Typically, “The Walking Dead” has followed the general arc of the comic, especially under show runner Scott Gimple, who, at times, would have been far better off allowing the scriptwriters to stray more from the source material. Last night’s mid-season finale, however, took a drastic shift from the comic in one of the most jaw-dropping reveals. Carl (Chandler Riggs) has been bitten by a walker. Yep. Carl is going to die, probably no later than the first episode of the second half of the season. This is a major shift from the comics. Following the All Out War arc between Rick’s group and Negan’s Saviors, there is a time jump of a few years. Carl is older and more confident in making strategic decisions in times of crisis. Since Rick is nearly killed by Negan at the end of the war, Carl assumes a leadership position, and to this day,  he takes on some of the most interesting story lines. That won’t be happening on the show, however.

It is unclear why the scriptwriters decided to kill of Carl. Maybe, Chandler Riggs wants to attend college and move on from a show that has consumed nearly half of his life. Maybe, the writers wanted to shake things up and show the audience that indeed no one is safe, including original cast members. Maybe, they wanted Rick’s character to go in a new direction.

Will all hope be lost for Rick Grimes after losing his only son? I don’t think so. Unlike the comic, he still has his daughter Judith to raise. He still has his friends, and it is likely he will be even more emboldened to wipe out the Saviors, who he will probably blame for Carl’s tragic fate, despite the fact that Carl suffered the bite while saving a new character named Siddiq and bringing him back to the community, thus giving him a chance to survive. This happened a few episodes ago when they were in the woods and Carl was ambushed by a walker and knocked to the ground. The bite was not revealed in that particular episode, but there is a reason that the camera didn’t show Carl’s lower half when he was knocked over by a walker. He was bitten, and they kept the fact a secret for a few more episodes.

My main hope for “The Walking Dead” at this point is that it will wrap up the All Our War arc soon, no later than the second half of this season. At one point during last night’s mid-season finale, Carl tells his father that they have to start rebuilding, that they can’t keep feuding with various factions. In other words, there has to be some other purpose to their existence. “The Walking Dead” used to be about the idea of humanity in the face of a collapsed society, but for the last season and a half or so, it’s been one battle after another, an action show with some zombies in the mix. You would think that the bullets would run out at some point!

Carl risked his life to save Siddiq, someone he barely knows, because he didn’t want a human being trying to survive alone in a zombie apocalypse. At one point, when Negan and his goons are about to bomb Alexandria with grenades, Carl asks him, “Is this who you really wanted to be?” Those moments have always been the strength of the show, especially during those first few season, its prime. Maybe, after Carl’s death and after All Out War, the show can shift back to the idea of trying to rebuild and maintain humanity in such a brutal world. That should be the focus again, especially now that Rick is going to lose his only son.

 

 

Rethinking TWD

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A few weeks ago, I criticized The Walking Dead, both the TV show and comic. Namely, I took issue with its recycled arc of good guys finding a place to live, meeting a badie, losing their place to live after a war, and rehashing the same story all over again. How many times will we encounter the same general theme: the humans are really the monsters? The comic has been stuck in this recycled plotline since the prison/governor storyline years ago.

One of my biggest gripes about TWD is the character of Negan, a villain who, while popular, is typically a walking one-liner who swings a barbed-wire baseball bat. He is also sexist (even when he claims not to be and espouses some warped moral code) and utterly violent. Even in issue 100 of the comic, when he is bashing in the head of fan favorite Glenn, which is spread over several panels, he cracks one-liners. I was equally harsh on the last two seasons of “The Walking Dead” because of the All Out War storyline between Rick’s group and Negan’s The Saviors. I had hoped Negan would be more interesting and complex on the screen, but after his prolonged and teased introduction, I had little reason to believe that. I also had little reason to keep wanting to watch the show, especially since the first few episodes of this season have featured long, drawn-out action sequences with some zombies and flying bullets, which never seem to hit any main character, even when they are center frame. Go figure.

The last two episodes, however, were two of my favorites in the show’s eight-year run. The episode “Some Guy,” TWD focused on the story of Ezekiel (Khary Payton), a  cartoonish character who has a pet tiger, Shiva, and lords over a community of survivors named The Kingdom. In the comic, it is revealed that Ezekiel is just a regular dude who saved Shiva from a zoo. He took on the king persona to rewrite his story post-apocalypse and to make himself seem above-average. Much of his real story is shared with Michonne, who becomes his lover, though briefly. On the TV show, he shares his  story with Carol (Melissa McBride), who has long been dead in the comic. On the show, Ezekiel is confident that the Saviors will be defeated, but his overconfidence leads to most members of the Kingdom getting gunned down by a group of Saviors at an outpost. One by one, Ezekiel watches the bullets hit the men and women, and then he watches them reanimate into zombies. After the slaughter, he drops the cheesy king gimmick and is knocked back to reality. To make matters worse, he witnesses Shiva devoured by zombies, after she saves him from the horde. This scene occurs in the comic too, but watching the small screen adaptation was a little more jarring because it comes minutes after Ezekiel loses everything and is forced to drop the king shtick, becoming just “some guy.” The episode contained some of the best character development TWD has had in a long time, even with all of the action sequences.

This week’s episode, “The Big Scary U,” was Negan-centric, and also well-crafted and well-written. Most of the episode’s story is lifted from a graphic novel Robert Kirkman wrote about the baddie entitled Here’s Negan, just released a few weeks ago. Like everyone else, including Ezekiel, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was a pretty regular dude pre-apocalypse, just a gym teacher. Following the collapse of civilization and the death of his wife, he rewrites his story, just like many of the other characters. What the Negan-centric episode contained that the comic has lacked so far is a depth given to the villain. Negan muses that he only kills people when it is necessary to maintain order. In a few episodes this season, he blames Rick and company for the war, thus making the reader question if even the good guy is imperfect, another ongoing theme of TWD. None of the dialogue-rich scenes from this week’s episodes excuse Negan’s behavior, be it towards women or the brutal death he inflicted upon major characters, but it does give him a depth and philosophy that he doesn’t fully have in the comic. It filled in a backstory that made him more than a one-liner in a black leather coat, wielding baseball bat named Lucille.

I don’t know where the rest of the season is going. I do hope, however, that it differs from the comic, at least somewhat, like the last two episodes have done. I hope more depth is given to the All Out War arc and we really feel the causalities of war (poor Shiva) and feel the weight of the decisions that Rick, Ezekiel, and even Negan make.

With that said, TWD still has a problem. It is totally unclear how this entire thing is going to end. I doubt the TV show has THAT many seasons left, and at some point, Kirkman needs an endgame for the comic, too, even if he is planning 300 issues, as he’s said in the past, and has over 100 left to write. TWD needs to break the cycle of good guys encounter bad guys, suffer casualties, lose their community, and then repeat it all over again. In the comic, shortly after the war with the Saviors, the good guys launch into  a war with a group called the Whisperers. Maybe, the show should avoid that arc and focus on life post-war, including rebuilding, surviving, and trying to maintain humanity. Maybe, the zombies should be the threat for a while.

The last two episodes of TWD were the best of the season, a nice balance of character development and action. More importantly, the episodes broke somewhat from the comic. The comic still has a long way to go before its conclusion, but the show probably does not. It would be wise if the show runners differentiated from the comic to show us that there is a clear end in mind here. Maybe, just maybe, they can give us a glimmer of hope that a society can be rebuilt, even after brutal circumstances.

 

 

 

 

What Happens after All Out War? Some Thoughts on TWD

 

This post is going to contain some spoilers about The Walking Dead, so if you’re reading the comic and not yet past the All Out War story arc, or if you haven’t seen last night’s season 8 premiere, then you may want to read this later.

I have to confess that for the first time since TWD has aired, I was not excited about the season premiere. For the last few seasons, the show has moved at a sluggish pace, perhaps because they don’t want to outpace the comics. Only one book is released per month, and after one more major story arc, the show will be caught up to the comic.  Last year’s season premiere was memorable, for better or worse, after Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) bashed Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham’s (Michael Cudlitz) face with his beloved barbed wire baseball bat Lucille. This happened to Glenn in issue 100 of the comic, and it was far more brutal on TV, to the point where it drew a fair amount of criticism. This is a show where zombies devour people, but the prolonged head bashing did seem gratuitous and even senseless.

My waning interest in the show, though, started before the infamous Negan/Lucille scene. Episodes prior to that, the script writers decided to make everyone think that Glenn was dead, devoured by zombies after getting trapped near a dumpster, only to bring him back a few episodes later and have him brutally killed. The season 6 finale teased who would be killed by Lucille, and it wasn’t revealed until the season 7 premiere, which, like Glenn’s fake death, felt cheap and gimmicky, a plot device whose only purpose was to maintain viewers.

Last night’s season 8 premiere, the start of the All Out War arc in the comic, when communities of survivors fight against Negan and the Saviors, felt dull, uninspired, and painfully slow. Sure, there were some cool shots of Daryl (Norman Reedus) riding a motorcycle and blowing stuff up to attract a massive horde of zombies to the Sanctuary, the Saviors hideout. However, about half of the episode included Daryl and friends trying to lure the horde to the Sanctuary. The rest of the episode included speechifying. The best scene included a verbal face-off between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Negan, before Rick starts firing at the Saviors. Nothing else happened in the entire episode, though, and it seems clear that the All Out War arc, which should be exciting on the small screen, will drag on for several episodes, thus worsening the show’s pacing problem.

The comic also faces a problem. It has recycled the same storyline time and time again. Rick and company find a community, only to be confronted by a group of humans worse than the zombies, the community falls, and then they eventually find a new community, only to encounter another villain again. This story has reoccurred since the prison arc. I had hoped that Robert Kirkman would break this after the All Out War art concluded, but soon after the dust settles on that arc, the group meets Alpha, Beta, and the Whisperers, engaging in yet another war.

Robert Kirkman recently teased that no one is safe and Rick could die at any time. The season 8 premiere hinted that. On the one hand, the show flashed forward to Old Man Rick, post-All Out War, similar to the time jump that happens in the comic. He was happy, surrounded by his children and Michonne (Dania Gurira). In other scenes, which seemed like a much nearer  future, he was shaky, sweaty, and red-eyed, probably infected by the virus. That possibility is far more interesting and maybe where the show or comic are going. If Rick does indeed die, then it would allow greater character development from the fairly major cast that still occupies both show and comic.

Either way, the season 8 premiere provided a different possibility than the comic: the good guys could lose, and the Old Man Rick storyline is not guaranteed.

This would be a huge departure from the comic and maybe the type of shake-up the show needs to partially reinvent itself and allow stronger character development. The comic has been dancing with the Negan/Rick storylines for so long now, but maybe the show is willing to do something different. We’ll have to see…

 

 

 

 

About That Season Premiere…

WARNING! WALKING DEAD SPOILERS!

 

There, now that I got the spoiler warning out of the way, I can write about the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. After months and months of waiting, we finally know who Negan killed: Abraham and Glenn. The Glenn kill was lifted nearly panel by panel from the comic, including the scene where his eyeball pops out of his head and Negan makes fun of it. The Abe kill is different. In the comics, he dies at the hands of Dwight, before Negan shows up. Abe’s death is essentially the introduction to the Saviors. For me, his comic death was more meaningful because it occurs out of nowhere and it occurs as he is having a heartfelt talk with Eugene, after their friendship was on the rocks. His death also comes at at time when the group of survivors found a safe space and started to rebuild again after the fall of the prison.

The season premiere tonight left me uneasy. Even after the brutal death of Glenn in issue 100, which was stretched over several panels, thus making it quite graphic for the reader, there was STILL some sense of hope. Rick Grimes threatens retaliation against Negan, so after losing such a major character, readers have faith that Glenn’s death will be avenged. That wasn’t the case at all during the season 7 premiere. The episode centered around the breaking of Rick Grimes, starting with the symbolic gesture of kneeling in gravel as the group is lined up and Abe and Glenned are Lucilled, to Negan telling Rick he wants him to cut Carl’s hand off with an ax. At that moment, on his knees, Rick begs and pleads with Negan. Carl’s hand is spared, thankfully, but not before Rick repeats Negan’s line that he essentially owns the group now.

None of that happens in the comic. The Walking Dead, both the show and comics, have always been so popular because they focused on those rays of hope in a zombie apocalypse, how communities rebuild when everything collapses. In a prison they turned into a home, the group was able to garden and begin life anew. After the prison falls, they find a safe zone, a gated community where they come together with a broad group of survivors. For the first time, however, there was no hope offered at the end of tonight’s episode. The TV adaptation of Negan lacks the absurdity and comedic aspect he has in the comics, which provides some levity to the horror he inflicts upon the group. When he killed Abe in tonight’s episode, the blood splattered on Rick’s cheek. Negan then points the blood-drenched Lucille at Abe’s ex-lover, Rosita. And in the final scene, it is unclear how the group is going to pull together. Rick is utterly shattered, no longer a man with a plan.

Perhaps it’s important to note that Maggie, pregnant with Glenn’s kid, is the one who first  rises to her knees. In the comics, following Glenn’s death, she has a lot of character development and becomes the leader of the Hilltop Community. Maybe she, in her grief, will provide the hope the show desperately needs after a brutally graphic season premiere.  The Walking Dead has always focused on humanity, even in the bleakest of the circumstances, so if the show snuffs that out during the Saviors arc, I will keep reading the comics, but tune out the TV adaption.