Sunday, February 19, 2012
So Close and Yet So Far
The Walking Dead has been a disappointment. Not in ratings-it's drawing tons of viewers. However, the water cooler discussion after each episode, or at least the virtual one I follow on Twitter and the like, is about continual disappointment. There seems to be an unfulfilled promise that is nagging at the amorphous crowd that is "the viewership." Some complain it's the farm that stagnating the story, others complain about characters like Lori who don't demonstrate much agency, one camp is firmly in the "more zombies" category, and yet others are just mad that Frank Darabont is no longer part of the project. If it were just a rotten show, people would quit watching it, and there wouldn't be so much sturm und drang about it. But The Walking Dead has such a great concept, right-on production values, and moments of brilliance (hiding under the vehicles on the highway as the herd shuffles by, anyone?) that when the story drags, its a--well, drag. You're rooting for it. You want it to live up to the hype. So when it doesn't, the let down has more impact.
I hadn't really put my finger on what was bugging me until the mid-season premiere last week. (From here on out it will get spoilery, but we're a week past the airing, so I've covered my bases.) I was so psyched to see that Clark Johnson directed, because I loved him as an actor in Homicide and The Wire, and I've loved the directing he's done as well (especially The Wire.) The opening of the episode got me eager for a gangbuster return. There was a flashback to the carnage in front of the barn ending in Sophia's shooting. Then I was gobsmacked by the nearly silent scenes of our heroes as they attempted to deal with that loss. Glen and Maggie in the house. Darryl and Carol in the RV. It was a beautiful representation of how words would not be sufficient to make any sort of inroads to the emotion of the event. In Season 1 didn't Dale say something about how pitiful words could be? How inadequate? The opener was fan-freaking-tastic.
And so was the end. We meet more survivors! Hooray! But they're armed, and they want to know just a little too much, a little to early, about where our heroes are shacked up. Each line is oozing with subtext--Why do you want to know? What are you doing here? How strong are you really? There's hope at first that there may be some survivors with white hats-good guys-that would indicate that society has a chance of returning. But then one of them pisses on the floor. All bets are off, all rules evaporate, and Rick shoots them. Non-walkers, actual human survivors, dead at his hand. A fan-freaking-tastic scene, full of tension and unpredictability.
And then there was the middle. The saggy, mushy middle of dough you get when you don't have your oven hot enough before you put your biscuits in. I posit that some changes in the writing (and a directorial change, sorry Clark, I'm still a huge fan) could have helped keep the episode humming along. None of these involve taking a Huey to downtown Baltimore or discovering thousands of zombies next door. It's just writing.
(These may be out of order in the show, but this is the way I've prioritized it in my head.)
First, the old saw about show, don't tell. Rick watches Glen and Maggie have some sort of awkward encounter, Glen climbs in the car and after an awkward silence, he proceeds to recount what happened in the scene we just watched. How much more tension (and relate-ability) would have been there had we heard their whole conversation? Maggie says she loves Glen, and we watch him stand there like a jerk. AWK-ward! That would have ramped up that scene, and a reverse shot could have established Rick waiting for Glen. That would be enough to precipitate the line about how love is one thing there's not enough of in that world, and worth digging for. That line is the only reason I can imagine for the whole car conversation. Recounting an old conversation to someone? Death by boring, unless it's got some juicy life-or-death reveal, or if it's a surprising callback to something long since past.
Second, what are the relationships? If the premise of hanging out at the farm is to learn more about the characters, to live in their world, and if one of the show's theses is that hell is other people (and not always the walkers), scenes should underline and bold and asterisk the relationships. How about Shane and Andrea's conversation, ending with Shane saying he should have taken off with her when he had the chance? Pretty good, they've slept together, and Andrea is moving more and more toward Shane's POV of shoot 'em all and let God sort 'em out. But how much more tension could have been in that scene if Dale had overheard it? Or even just seen them pow-wowing, not knowing what they're talking about? Andrea holds a special place in Dale's heart, and he is deathly afraid of Shane. Tension, tension.
Speaking of Dale, same goes for his conversation with Lori about how Shane as much as admitted that he killed Otis. It's more talky-talky, particularly because at this point these two characters are established (on purpose or not) as characters who aren't going to do anything. What's Lori going to do with this information? Tell somebody? She's begged for Shane to stay with the group. Is she going to tattle on him to Rick, his best friend? Now, add the same principle as above to this scene-have Shane overhear Dale and Lori talking. Now we've got danger. Shane knows that Lori knows, and that Dale is willing to tell. Or again, even just have him see them talking, and wonder what they're talking about. It isolates Shane further, and positions him even more as a violent pivot point within the group.
Third and last suggestion (for this post, anyway) to add some tension to the proceedings. The scene where Lori goes out to ask Daryl to look for Herschel was pretty flat, even with Norman Reedus' valiant effort. Although the line about "moving to the suburbs" was funny, I would have directed that scene in a contained space. Daryl is one dangerous dude. His energy was directed toward finding Sophia, and now that his purpose is gone, he should be a loose cannon. He calls Lori Olive Oyl, which was funny and perfectly in character, but in that wide open space there was no danger. In an enclosed space, the stable, maybe, the actors could have played more of Daryl's dangerous nature. The whole conversation could have had more subtext in his lines about getting his hands dirty, especially between this male and this female character. Daryl has never shown any interest in the sexy times, but Merle would have done or said something completely inappropriate, and he is his little bubba after all. I'm not suggesting mustache twirling, but how about if after Daryl's line "I'm done looking for people" (with the potential subtext of "I'm done doing what wouldn't need to be done if you people weren't so stupid") Lori had to push by him somehow to leave the scene? Tension, danger, more character work, all these would be added to the texture of the scene and therefore the episode.
Two people talk about something, then two other people talk about something, then two other people talk about something, that's the rut the show has gotten into. I think there are some basic fixes that could help rachet up the stakes and the tension, particularly in the saggy middles, that would propel the viewer through the episodes. The production team keeps doing interviews bragging on the later episodes, about how crazy they're going to be, but if you can't keep the momentum going to actually get there, you do everyone a disservice. Who am I to say this? Just somebody who watches a lot of TV and wants The Walking Dead to be the outstanding show it has the potential to be.
Nota Bene: Shouldn't somebody, for the love of Pete, mention that Random Blond Farmhouse Girl has the exact same symptoms as Jim had before they left him on the side of the road? Anyone? Bueller?