Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I like long takes. I like quiet scenes and directors who allow space between action. Give me Malick or Wenders, and I’ll patiently sit through scenes of characters staring into the distance. But only because I know there’s a payoff.
But despite plenty of zombie kills, this was an unusually plodding episode of The Walking Dead. Last week, you were ready to kill off some characters, and I disagreed. But Beth was quickly testing my patience in the first couple of scenes. I’ve always thought of Beth as one of the most underwritten characters on the show, but now I’m starting to think she’s suffered from too many writers starting down different paths. Suicidal Beth became delicate Beth became stoic Beth, who’s now become neurotic Beth. All credit is due Daryl for rolling with her crazy without complaint.
I get it. The zombie apocalypse is hard. And thinking you’ve found a permanent home only to have it demolished by a psychopath with an eye patch and a tank is even harder. Everyone is suffering. The prison is overrun, and no one knows who else has survived. But a series of people being bummed and half-heartedly fighting zombies doesn’t necessarily make for great television.
The episode still had its moments. Lizzie never ceases to be creepier than any zombies, taking a little too much enjoyment in shutting up Judith/stopping her from breathing. And her little sister was given some room to shine tonight. Bob offered us the only moment of levity in an otherwise oppressive 42 minutes. And Maggie and Glenn both showed an admirable determination driven by their love.
And, of course, we get a glimpse of Abraham’s group and a hint of a settlement called Terminus. We find out that Carol is alive (and Tyreese is still in the dark about her evil deeds). Judith is still alive (and loud). Tara is alive (and brooding). So were the payoffs enough? Were you moved by the survivors’ struggles outside the prison or just a little bored?
I think we both agree that The Walking Dead writers would do well not to lead any more episodes with Beth. It’s a tricky thing to analyze why the character has basically failed from the beginning, but I think it might be a little too simple to just say that she’s been under-written. As we’ve seen with this show, there are adjustments made depending on past results, and certain characters who are compelling tend to find themselves with more screen time in ensuing episodes. So, for one thing, there’s the fact that Beth started out as a small character. And that’s fine—one of my pet peeves is when people criticize shows for “under-writing” minor characters, as if there’s unlimited time to flesh out every single person on a show. We have main characters for a reason. But I think a compounding problem with Beth is just that Emily Kinney is not a great actor. She always seems to be emoting and forcing her delivery, and my guess is that the writers weren’t eager to really expand her part for that reason. And when they had to, it’s not crazy to imagine them trying to come up with interesting angles that would hide the bad acting, hence the ten different versions of Beth we’ve seen so far.
But that’s obviously just a guess. And here’s one more: I bet the writers thought that if they put their worst character together with their best, it would somehow equal a strong partnership. Unfortunately, I’m with you in that I think Beth has dragged Daryl down, rather than rising up to his level. And that’s a shame. Which is why I think history will prove you wrong in your pro-Beth stance. Hard times require hard men, Josh, and I think you’ve been soft on the crucial “rooting for people to die” issue.
(One last note on Beth, regarding her journal entry: Ken Burns will not be requiring her voiceover services. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a flatter delivery for such a weighty topic.)
Oh my God, though, the baby Judith crying scenes were so intense. The whole thing was so harrowing that I almost can’t believe this show hasn’t exploited it before. A baby is the ultimate vulnerability because of how they cry and attract walkers, but also the ultimate important resource that you have to protect at all costs. Plus, obviously, losing a baby, your own or otherwise, would be heartbreaking.
But WHAT IS UP with Lizzie? You’re so right, she got some weird pleasure out of smothering Judith, and though we didn’t see it, I’d have to guess that if Carol didn’t arrive, that was about to be Lizzie’s first human kill. She is absolutely the next Governor, except probably way more clever.
Ugh, though, Carol. I was also fine with her story being over. What’s next, Dale returning? If Dale returns, I officially boycott these reviews.
Finally, we got to the enjoyable group with Sasha, Maggie, and Bob Stookey the hilarious alcoholic. (Although, was it me, or was Maggie’s Southern accent at kind of a low point this week? As a Southerner, I’ll defer to you on this one.) Anyway, I liked their Glenn-finding adventure, and I like that Stookey thought trying to let the zombies out one by one was “the smart way.” I do wish Glenn had used the catatonic sisters as a human shield instead of bailing her out, though. Forgiveness for the prison invasion came far too easily there. And then again, when she told him about Hershel. That would’ve been a perfect time for the ice. I will say, though, that Glenn was my favorite character in this episode, and I slightly regret placing him near the top of previous death lists.
Overall, though, I’m with you—the payoff wasn’t great, and this definitely didn’t live up to last week’s Rick/Michonne/Carl hijinx. But who do you think these new people are??? Road robbers? Good guys? Weird cult? I’m looking forward to that one, at least.
Maybe they should just let Emily Kinney sing more. She’s got a beautiful voice, and as an added bonus, it would attract Walkers to wherever Beth is.
So you’re finally giving the actress who plays Judith her due, huh? Those were the tensest moments on the show. It’s time for Judith to play a bigger part. It was fairly easy to protect her in the prison, where you could just tuck her away in one of the safer buildings. Out on the road, she’s not only exposed; she makes everyone more vulnerable. She’s the hardest to feed. She slows you down, and makes it hard to fight. But she’s also one of the few symbols of humanity the way it was supposed to be. Birth was once the opposite of death. Now it’s undeath. Of all the characters we were unsure of, I was happiest to see that Judith made it out okay.
But Lizzie might have been #2 on that list. This is a horror show, after all. And the Governor’s death took away the creepiest factor. The zombies barely seem like a real threat anymore. Their skulls are so soft, you can just let a bunch off a bus and dispatch them with ease. Michonne can just walk in the middle of a herd and then attack it from within. Glenn can don his riot gear and join a rugby scrum. There’s danger in the constant exposure—finding safe places to sleep, not ever being able to let your guard down, being constantly on the run. But the scariest threat came from a little girl whose mind has been twisted by the horrors she’s already faced, as she became too fascinated in her ability to stop Judith’s breathing to even notice the walkers approaching.
And then there’s Bob Stookey, who’s just glad to be alive. There’s not a lot of gallows humor in the Walking Dead universe, and Stookey looks to be this season’s best hope for some comic relief—unless you count Maggie’s Southern accent. Lauren Cohan’s normal speaking voice has an Irish lilt, but she was reasonably convincing these last couple of seasons. The drawl became cartoonish last night.
As for Glenn’s forgiveness—I think his driving motivator was survival. He didn’t “want” to team up with Tara. He “needed” to. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago he was near death. He eventually passes out, and without Tara there, the riot gear wouldn’t have prevented him from being zombie food.
And having read the comics, I know who Abraham and his companions are. But I want to hear from you about their weird cult. Do they worship the undead? Rely on magic to fight them? Tell me, Shane.
Since his name is Abraham, I’m going to go biblical and say he thinks he has a covenant with God and is headed for the Promised Land under his protection, and that the Promised Land is going to be wherever Rick ends up, because Rick always has to fight the craziest people. All of which I’m looking forward to. Or, I could go American historical and say he’s a traveling lawyer with a strong sense of plainspoken honesty and an appropriate anecdote at the ready, but somehow this doesn’t seem like that kind of feel-good story. (Also, in both cases, the man’s wife dies tragically … something to keep an eye on, biblically and historically.)
I guess my big question for you is, how long will this show keep the groups separated? We talked about how much we liked the episode where the Governor went on his long redemption arc, and then the writers backed off and made him into the same old villain within about 20 minutes of being placed in a large group again. And last week we figured out that despite the zombie content, this is a show you’re more likely to show to your kids than other, less bloody examples on TV, because there’s an inherent “safeness” to it, a lack of risk-taking and sex and complicated philosophy that renders it a pure act of tense drama without too much ambiguity. With that in mind, can they sustain the separation for long? Or are we bound for a big reunion next week or the week after? If they can keep it going even through the end of this season, I’ll be impressed.
And yes I’m on Team Judith now. I still think Baby Holly from Breaking Bad is the best TV baby of all time, but Judith is making her way up the leaderboard. (But was it just me, or was her Southern cry at kind of a low point this week? As a Southerner, I’ll defer to you on this one.)
Oh, and I totally get Glenn’s motivations, and it’s even nice that Hershel’s goodness has an effect on him after death. But I still say he should have permitted himself a revenge-killing. I guess I’m just a bad person.
Okay, I’ll kick it back to you with one final thought: What if you had little “sound grenades” that you could throw when walkers were nearby, that landed far away and made baby crying noises? That’d be a great weapon to have, right? Can we have a wacky inventor type join the gang with those kinds of gadgets soon?
You know what else you can throw that makes noise? Actual grenades. Plus they have the effect of blowing up zombies. And they’re much less morally reprehensible than tossing actual babies. But I like your thinking. While everyone else loots the grocery stores, army surplus stores and weapons lockers, you’ll be cleaning out the doll aisle at Toys R Us. “Quick, activate the Tickle Me Elmo!”
Speaking of babies, the show has so far spared us from zombie infants (when Maggie and Glenn made the formula run to a daycare center, I was steeling myself for something nightmarish). The couple of zombie kids we’ve gotten have been unforgettable—the girl with the teddy bear at the gas station early on, Sophia walking out of the barn. At Sundance, Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson starred in Cooties, a zom-com about an elementary school that’s ground zero for a zombie virus that only affects kids. It was funny, but it was also pretty terrifying in places. That may be a line AMC just doesn’t want to cross, and I can respect that.
I don’t think the group will stay separated for long. Game of Thrones does a great job of telling stories in a dozen different places, but The Walking Dead hasn’t tried to juggle more than a couple of story lines at a time.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon (but feel free to pull a Shane and shoot Beth in the leg),