A review of “The Walking Dead” season one finale coming up just as soon as I’m in Italy or France…
“We always think there’s going to be more time. Then it runs out.” -Jenner
“I’m grateful.” -Rick
“The day will come when you won’t be.” -Jenner
Because AMC wanted to get “The Walking Dead” on the air in time to launch out of its annual Halloween Fearfest event, and because Frank Darabont and some of the other people involved only had a limited availability to make that date, the show’s first season wound up only being six episodes. (Season two, likely to launch around the same time next year, will be a more cable-standard 13.)
And while an abbreviated season has had some advantages – the show surely hasn’t worn out its welcome – I came to the end of “TS-19” feeling like I had just finished watching a very long prologue to the actual first season of “The Walking Dead.” There were great moments, even great entire episodes, but these six episodes don’t feel like a complete story, or even a complete chapter of a story in the way that a season of, say, “Breaking Bad” is.
Take “TS-19,” for instance. There’s a lot of wonderful material in there, starting with Noah Emmerich’s performance as the haunted, suicidal Dr. Edwin Jenner, who has understandably lost all hope for himself and the world after witnessing so many deaths and even having to blow his own wife’s brains out in the same way Andrea did for Amy. It was remarkable to see the survivors’ reactions to briefly having access to electricity, hot water, ample food and wine, etc. And the wine in turn forced a series of memorable confessions (Rick admitting that he had lost hope on the outside) and confrontations (Shane refusing to take “no” for an answer from Lori).
But like the season as a whole, it all felt rushed. The survivors had barely had half a moment to settle into the abandoned CDC labs when they already had to begin plotting an exit strategy. In a regular-length season, that lab is the center of a two-parter at the very least, and likely a mini-arc. But there wasn’t time for that, because Darabont wanted to end the season with the survivors back out on the road, feeling even more helpless and hopeless than they did before.
Similarly, Rick’s confession to Jenner is the sort of thing that would have had a lot more power if it had come after a long period of time. He’s obviously witnessed a lot of terrible things in these six episodes, but as someone who only just woke up to the zombie apocalypse, and has only witnessed one real assault on his family in the night-time camp siege, it felt awfuly early for him to be giving up like this. Would a real person react that way, in that brief a timespan, to the unrelenting horror? Sure. But for the purposes of a TV drama, that’s a place you don’t go to in your sixth episode unless it’s the last one you know for sure you’re ever going to do.
Still, Emmerich was great, as was Andrew Lincoln during Rick’s confessional scene, as were Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurie Holden during the scene where Dale found a way to convince Andrea not to quit.
The scene where Jenner showed them the TS-19 brain scan did a good job of answering the question about what the zombies are without really providing our heroes with any practical information. Because of course this isn’t a show about a plucky scientist fighting to cure the plague that’s wiping out humanity. It’s a show about people in a world with no hope, no apparent future and no reason to keep going other than their own survival instinct. By taking this “detour from the Kirkman path,” Darabont, Adam Fiero and company in many ways make Rick’s story even more desperate and bleak than what went on in the comic. They’ve now been to America’s best, maybe only, hope for stopping the outbreak, and that hope literally went up in flames. They know that the only other place on Earth that may have come close to a cure is on the other side of an ocean that they have no realistic means of crossing in this post-industrial zombie apocalypse. There is no cure coming, no savior. There is only them, and their wits and resourcefulness and whatever weapons and shelter they can obtain or build. Their hope can’t continue to be that this nightmare goes away one day; now the best they can dream of is finding a way to keep living inside the nightmare. And that’s a very tough mindset for these characters to have to embrace, and a fine starting point for the longer second season.
Though it doesn’t feel like we got a full story told in these six episodes, they certainly laid the seeds for a lot of stories in season two. Merle’s still out there with his cauterized stump, ready to show up and cause problems at the worst possible moment. (Given that Rick left a note at the camp for Morgan about where they were going, I was actually surprised Merle didn’t show up at the CDC; I guess there simply wouldn’t have been room for such a development, nor would it have been practical given the lockdown story.) Shane’s obsession with Lori, and his resentment of Rick, are not going to go away, and when Rick finds out what happened while he was “dead.” There’s whatever Jenner whispered to Rick right before Rick made his escape from the lab.
I would say this season was too rushed, and had a few too many bumps (the onslaught of dumb, angry, plot-complicating rednecks in episodes 2 and 3, most notably) to qualify for greatness just yet. But there are a lot potentially great things in it. And where I entered the season with some trepidation because I don’t love either the genre or the source material, I leave it very eager to see a second season, and to see what Darabont and company can do when they have some more time to play with.
Some other thoughts:
• Many of you last week pointed out the obvious parallels between Jenner alone in the big lab and Desmond alone in the hatch on “Lost,” and here those parallels became even more blatant with the countdown clock.
• That was a damn good teaser. An economical, disturbing way to not only show the moment when Shane chose to leave Rick (and how something as simple as a gurney was obstacle enough to keep the zombies out of the room until the soldiers were able to pen them up in another part of the hospital), but to show the chaos and bloodshed that was going on in those early days of the apocalypse, why the military fell, etc.
• While Dale stayed for Andrea, no such effort was made by anyone else for Jacqui, who never really got any character development and was there mainly so someone from the group could die with Jenner. And was her final conversation with T-Dog supposed to imply that they were a couple? Because unless I’ve forgotten some important piece of dialogue from episode two, I don’t think that was ever hinted at before.
• Nice use of Chekhov’s Grenade to save the day when bullets wouldn’t break open the window. I forget exactly when we first saw the grenade, but it was early enough that you knew somebody was going to have to throw it before the season was out.
• Like “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead” closed its first season with a Bob Dylan song (the aptly-titled “Tomorrow is a Long Time”).
• A lot of people have asked me for my take on the Deadline report that Darabont wants to fire all the staff writers and replace them with new people and/or freelancers. I’ve been reluctant to comment because the situation hasn’t entirely been clarified yet – though Robert Kirkman elaborated a bit on Friday – and because, frankly, I haven’t been in that writers room and I don’t know how that show functions. There have been plenty of series in the past and present where the head writer does so much work in terms of both breaking stories and rewriting earlier drafts by the staffers that the other writers are treated as fungible. David E. Kelley rarely lets his staffers do anything. Aaron Sorkin treats them as researchers. David Milch lets his people contribute a few drafts before ultimately rewriting virtually every word in the script himself. Matthew Weiner’s name winds up as at least a shared credit on most “Mad Men” scripts, and there’s been a lot of turnover on that writing staff, including at least one writer with whom he’s shared an Emmy. It may be that Darabont – who comes from movies and has spent more than a decade being far and away the chief creative voice on his projects – operates in a similar fashion to some of those guys and decided it wasn’t worth keeping a staff on salary if he felt he was doing the lion’s share of the writing anyway. It may be that he simply wasn’t happy with the writing this year – as James Poniewozik noted in his own take on the situation, the show’s dialogue has not been its greatest strength – and wanted to make a change. It may be something else entirely. Like I said, I wasn’t in there, and I don’t know anyone who is. But while it’s going to be unfortunate for any writer who winds up losing a full-time job, if this purge goes down, it’s not automatically a bad thing for season two, or an indictment of season one.
Finally, for as long as I’m covering this series, I’m going to keep closing each review for this series with the following reminders of how it works here on this blog:
2)This includes any discussion of the previews for the next episode.
3)This includes any discussion of storylines from the comic that haven’t happened yet in the timeline of the TV show. (And, yes, the show has and will continue to deviate from the comic in some ways, but for the sake of those instances where they’re going to be the same, I don’t want people talking about something from issue 50 when we’re watching episode 4.)
4)This includes anything you’ve seen or read elsewhere about anything that has not happened within the context of the episodes that have already aired.
Anything in violation of any of these points gets deleted. Nice and simple. Talk about what has already happened on the show, no more, no less.
What did everybody else think?