A review of tonight’s “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as I have something to say about your extremely comfortable and attractive shirt…
Not every part of these most recent three episodes has worked, but they are clearly being made by a showrunner who is aware of some of the complaints being made about his show, and who is doing what he can to correct it without fundamentally altering his ratings behemoth. Michonne now speaks full sentences on a regular basis and has a backstory. Last week’s episode was devoted entirely to beefing up the supporting characters (even if it felt too scattered to succeed), while tonight’s at least touched on a couple of recurring complaints.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we opened with back to back scenes about characters enjoying themselves, first with Tara noting that Abraham smiles as he kills walkers, then with Carl and Michonne having a laugh over breakfast (before Carl’s mistaken belief that Judith is dead puts a damper on things). Obviously, life in the zombie apocalypse stinks, where the best you can hope for is basic subsistence punctuated by frequent terror, until eventually you’re one of the zombies, too. But even given that setting, “The Walking Dead” has been an incredibly grim show for most of its run, when often gallows humor becomes a fundamental coping mechanism in dire circumstances. (Just ask any soldier, cop or firefighter.) I’m not expecting Rick to suddenly turn into a stand-up comic (“Humans dial the phone like this… and walkers dial the phone like this…”), but even an occasional moment of lightness before the bleakness is welcome.
“Claimed” doesn’t remain a laugh riot after that. In one corner, it continues the work done with Michonne in “After,” as she comes face to face with a family that left this terrible life together, and seems to recognize that as terrible as it was to lose her baby, it’s better to embrace the life she has and the people she’s with. It’s a reminder that when “The Walking Dead” both puts in the work and has an actor up to the challenge (like Danai Gurira here, or Scott Wilson in some of the Hershel-centric parts of season 4.0), it can actually do quite well at this characterization thing.
In another corner, we get a kind of miniature “TWD” spin on “Die Hard,” with Rick (even wearing a grimy undershirt for most of those scenes) trapped in the house with a bunch of armed goons. Person-on-person violence is the direction the show has been pushing in for a while, and I have to assume we’re going to see this gang of looting, raping thugs again, if only because Jeff Kober (veteran of “China Beach,” among many other things) is too recognizable to bring in for a brief appearance snacking on the porch. In the meantime, those scenes worked because they were simple, focusing so much on Rick’s panicked face (Andrew Lincoln runs into trouble sometimes when he has to do monologues or say Carl’s name, but the man’s face is very expressive) and giving us ever-increasing hints of how bad these guys are entirely from Rick’s trapped perspective.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the episode, at least from a meta standpoint, involved our new characters: Abraham the soldier and Eugene the scientist. (The third member of their group, Rosita, came across as Army Barbie in her first appearance; hopefully there’s more to her than that.) We’re at a point where the TV show is introducing stories and characters from the comics after I stopped reading (and you can always look to the end of the review for guidelines on how to discuss – or, for the most part, not discuss – comic storylines in relation to the show), and for all I know one or both of Abraham and Eugene could be lying their tails off about their credentials and/or about having a way to fix the zombie problem, or they could be delusional, or Abraham could be the Governor 2.0. But for the sake of argument, let’s take them at face value: Abraham is a crack soldier (and he certainly handles himself well with pistol and with crowbar) and Eugene is a government scientist (with a mullet) who has access to classified info about what caused the plague and how to stop it.
If both of them are on the level, then Abraham’s running argument with Glenn about the value of finding Maggie versus the value of getting Eugene to Washington – amusingly summed up when Rosita asked “What the hell else are we going to do?” and an exasperated Abraham replied, “Go to Washington! Fix the whole damn world!” – becomes a commentary on how “The Walking Dead” has chosen to tell its stories so far. This has been a micro show about the zombie apocalypse: the problems of one man and the people he cares about as they try to simply survive both the zombies and rival pockets of humanity. What Abraham is talking about is something much, much bigger – the sort of thing the show seemed to have abandoned interest in after the visit to Jenner(*) and the CDC at the end of season 1.
(*) If Eugene is for real, then what he knows would have to be so classified that Jenner and his CDC buddies wouldn’t have known about it before all communication stopped following the apocalypse.
Now, the problems of three little people like Rick, Carl and Michonne don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy post-apocalyptic zombie world, but so far “The Walking Dead” has taken the advice of a very wise man and insisted that “This is our hill, and these are our beans!” Certainly, the focus on this one group of characters becomes problematic if you’re not overly invested in the characters – or if you like them but get frustrated that they aren’t trying to do more with their crummy circumstances – but a show where Glenn, Rick and the others are actively trying to undo the zombie plague is both a very different one and likely a much more expensive one.
Of course, “The Walking Dead” is both Robert Kirkman’s meal ticket and AMC’s, and I don’t suspect the plague is getting cured anytime soon, whether Eugene is a fraud, or obstacles keep getting in the way of the trip to
the fireworks factory Washington, or they make it there and find out that the support structure necessary to fix things has been wiped out because it took them too long to get there. But this half-season is also about hope, and between Abraham and this supposed safe haven at the end of the train tracks, our heroes have been given temporary hope. Let’s see how long they get to enjoy it before they get smacked down by more misery.
Before we go to the comments, it’s time once again to explain how this blog’s No Spoiler rule applies to this show:
1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.
2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.
3. No talking about anything that’s happened in the comic that hasn’t happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that’s been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org