Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Post-Apocalypse Sundays - The Walking Dead

  Sunday night was my favorite TV watching night of the summer with the TNT post-apocalyptic duo of ‘Falling Skies’ and ‘The Last Ship’. The Last Ship was a great show whose plots reminded me a lot of the original Star Trek with some episodes occurring on the ship and some episodes focusing on ‘away teams’ that explored the new societal orders springing up on a world that has seen its population decimated by a runaway virus. The end of the season has the crew docked in Baltimore where it is discovered that the local government is euthanizing infected people and burning them for electricity while the ship has been commandeered by the Baltimore police and Captain Chandler finding his family in order to inject them with the cure only to find out his wife has succumbed to the virus. It is almost criminal to have to wait 10 months for the next season and I wonder what the original Star Trek would have been like if they were allowed to have multi part story lines and cliffhangers 50 years ago.

  Season three of Falling Skies ended with our hardy band of survivors from the 2nd Mass regiment victorious over the invading Espheni aliens with the help of the friendly alien Volm race and on their way back to their home base of Charleston. But as season four started (a mere three weeks after the end of the previous season), the Volm had evacuated Earth (except for a small scout force) to deal with an interstellar Espheni threat, leaving the Espheni free to regroup and capture all the humans into electrically fenced in ghettos or reeducation camps to genetically modify them into mindless slaves with extraterrestrial appendages and powers. The only humans left to their own devices were the group gathered around Lexi, who is the daughter of the main character Tom Mason and was genetically modified by the Espheni so now she looks 20 years old even though she is less than a year old and is exhibits psychic and telekinetic super powers. After the trials and tribulations that seem to go hand in hand with an alien invasion, Tom and Lexi take a spaceship to the Espheni power base on the moon, Lexi destroys the base in an apparent suicide mission, and Tom is lost in space as season four concludes. If I’m making the season sound disjointed that’s because it was disjointed and I’m kind of glad that next year’s season of Falling Skies will be the last because it looks like the writers have run out of steam and are having a hard time putting a coherent storyline together.

  After both shows ended their summer seasons my Sunday night TV watching was reduced to reruns of ‘Bar Rescue’ on the ‘Spike’ network and the ‘Breaking Bad’ binge on AMC but in October ‘The Walking Dead’ came back for the first half of its fifth season with eight weeks of zombie apocalypse action with another eight weeks coming up in February. I never watched TWD until the Fourth of July Weekend when I was home alone with the beagles and AMC was running a marathon of the 16 episodes of Season four. I caught a few episodes and I was so hooked I watched the entire 16 hours over the holiday weekend.

  The Walking Dead follows the travels and adventures of Rick Grimes in post zombie apocalypse Georgia. In the second half of season four Grimes’ group got split up and were all making their way to a place called Terminus which advertised itself by signs and short wave radio as a sanctuary where ‘All who arrive survive.’ In the last episode of the season almost all the disparate parties had arrived in Terminus which turned out to be a large railroad yard but all who arrived are taken prisoner and put into a railroad car to await the beginning of season five in October.

This snippet of the season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead was released an hour before air time.
Is it any wonder it has more viewers than Sunday Night Football?

  The beginning of season five showed all but three of Grimes’ group trapped in the cattle car and tear gassed with eight of them (including Rick) bound, gagged, and brought to a slaughterhouse trough where one by one the prisoners are clubbed with a baseball bat and slit across the neck to bleed out into the trough. It becomes apparent that the people of Terminus lure survivors looking for sanctuary and kill, butcher, and eat them. Rick is working at his bonds with a knife he had hidden when explosions are heard and zombies overrun the Terminus railroad yard (a distraction by the members of Rick’s group that had not yet arrived at Terminus but figured out that it wasn’t a sanctuary after all). Rick frees himself, kills the two slaughterhouse butchers, and the entire group escape the cannibalistic tribe of Terminus and the marauding horde of zombies. Rick wants to go back into the zombie infested yard and kill all the Terminus people saying ‘They don’t get to live’ but is dissuaded by the rest of the group who don’t see the point of risking their lives to wreak vengeance on any Terminus survivors. Welcome to the world of The Walking Dead. In a zombie apocalypse I would think the living would band together to fight the zombies but every group Grimes and Co. encounters is bent on establishing their own supremacy over every other group. And (aside from the zombies) that is what makes TWD even more popular than Sunday Night Football – Rick’s group of survivors have banded together as a family but they have remained decent human beings who will help outsiders when they can while forming themselves into an elite zombie fighting survival unit.

  Rick has learned to go to any lengths to protect his family. In season four he bit open the jugular of the leader of a gang that was going to kill him and his friends. That’s why he wanted to exterminate the people of Terminus. His judgment proved correct when Terminus leader Gareth and a small group escaped alive from the rail yard, tracked down Rick’s group, captured one of them, cut off his leg, cooked it, and ate it right in front of him. It was a particularly grisly piece of theatre to have Bob from Rick’s group laying by Gareth’s campfire while Gareth is telling him that it’s not personal and that ‘we would have done this to anyone’ as he bites off a piece of Bob’s cooked leg saying ‘At the end of the day...a man’s got to eat.’.

The living are worse than the dead as this classic scene shows.

  The writers of TWD have a great sense of pace. I expected the Gareth storyline to have lasted throughout the entire half season as they devoured Bob one limb at a time, but in a great plot twist it turned out that Bob had been bitten by a zombie and was ‘tainted meat’! This led Gareth and crew to try to lure Rick’s group out in the open for their next meal only to find themselves caught in an ambush. Gareth pleads for his groups life but this time not only does the rest of the group not talk Rick out of killing Gareth and Co., they help in beating them to death with rifle butts (so as to not waste bullets) and stabbing them while Rick hacks Gareth to pieces with a sword. The Terminus saga could have taken all season but it suddenly and unexpectedly ended in three episodes, leaving a whole half a season for different stories to be told.

Rick Grimes - A man who will do anything FOR his friends and do anything TO his enemies!

  The rest of season five revolved around a missing cast member (Beth) who ended up being taken away in season four by a car with a white cross on the back of it. The car belonged to a group of survivors from Atlanta’s Grundy Memorial Hospital. The group is run by a squad of police officers that force anyone they rescue to work for them until they are all are saved by a military evacuation they believe is coming. Beth is assigned to be a nurse to Dr. Edwards (the only doctor in the hospital). When another doctor is rescued Edwards feels his position is at risk and has the unwitting Beth administer a medication that causes a siezure and eliminates his competition. The male officers rape the female inmates and abuse all the other inmates under the knowing but ignoring eye of head officer Dawn because she is concerned with maintaining her power and needs the support of the other officers in order to do so.

  Eventually Rick’s group finds out about Beth’s captivity from Noah (a wandering runaway Beth helped escape from the hospital) as well as the recent hospital ‘rescue’ of another member of their group and sets off to rescue her. Rick’s idea is to sneak into the hospital and kill everyone there but the rest of the group want a peaceful resolution so Rick devises a plan to kidnap two of Officer Dawn’s police officers.

  The plan works and as a bonus they capture a third officer who escapes and is running for his life at the beginning of the mid-season finale. Rick grabs a police car and orders the escapee to stop. When he doesn’t Rick just rams his car into him. The officer is laying on the ground unable to move with zombies slowly lurching in his direction and is pleading with Rick for his life. Rick tells the officer he should have stopped and shoots him in the head. It was a violent scene worthy of the end of an episode but in this case it is in the beginning with over 50 minutes left in the show. After a very tense hostage exchange where a gun battle threatens to erupt at any point the hostages are exchanged. The tension ebbs but Officer Dawn insists on having Noah back because ‘she needs a ward’. Rick says no and the tension gets white hot in a heartbeat but ebbs again when Noah agrees to stay in the hospital. Beth and Noah hug goodbye, Officer Dawn makes a comment about ‘they always come back’ and the tension escalates again but this time it erupts into two deaths before Rick and the group leave the hospital for good. This razor’s edge tension keeps me on the edge of my seat - even the quietest and most introspective moment bears the promise of turning into intense violence in a split second.

  The changing of the pace is one big part of what makes The Walking Dead one of my favorite shows. Another is the cast. I really like the Rick Grimes character – he can kill at the drop of a hat but accepts strangers the group almost as easily. I don’t care for every character but since it is a large ensemble cast I don’t get bored for too long with any one character. A new group joined the show late last season consisting Eugene Porter, a scientist who claims to have the cure to the zombie virus that reanimates the humans after death and two military type personnel that have taken it upon themselves to get him to Washington D.C. I found this crew pretty boring but since there are a dozen or so other characters they weren’t on enough to get on my nerves except for the fifth episode which featured the group but as much comic relief that can be found in a zombie apocalypse when we find out that Porter is just a fraud that pretended he had the cure to gain protection from others.

This scene is indicative of the amazing stop and start pacing of The Walking Dead that
makes even the quietest moment full of tension.

  No discussion of The Walking Dead would be complete without mentioning the zombies and the fact that I haven’t mentioned them very much up to now shows how many levels this show is excellent at. Having said that, the zombies look realistic and the special effects people use a lot of creativity in their use. Season five had some zombies trapped in a flooded basement and they were disgustingly bloated. Another episode showed some zombies melted into the pavement as the result of a military napalm attack in the beginning of the apocalypse but the melted zombies are still reaching out with any free limbs for any taste of human flesh they can get.

  By this point in the show’s evolution almost anyone who hasn’t learned to be a full-fledged zombie killer has long since disappeared (except for Porter and Father Gabriel, a newcomer to the show who has been locked in his church until his food finally ran out). To have any shock value a zombie attack must have either the element of surprise or an overwhelming numerical superiority and even then the survivors just club the zombies to death or stick a knife in a zombie’s head and eradicate the threat. The main use the zombies seem to have at this point in the show is weaponry. When Beth is confronted by her would-be rapist in an office in the hospital she spots a former rape victim who committed suicide and goes along with her abuser feeling her up until the suicidee reanimates into a zombie. Then Beth clocks the officer with a bowl which doesn’t knock him out but does knock him down and he is soon devoured by his former victim. There were plenty of episodes in the past when a rival group would drive a truck full of zombies into Rick’s camp, forcing the group to deal with the zombies and a human attack at the same time. But the all-time best use of zombie weaponry was in Episode 7 of the current season when Rick’s friend Daryl is fighting one of the police officers and getting the worst of it. Daryl is on his back and being choked and forced ever so closer to a napalmed zombie’s hungry teeth. Daryl desperately reaches for the zombie’s face and sticks his fingers into the zombie’s eye sockets, which he uses to gain the leverage to yank the zombie skull off its body and beat the police officer senseless with it.

   I had always thought the show was about the zombies and I was always wrong. After having watched most of the episodes the show to me is about what lengths people will go to survive and the struggle is not people versus zombies but the survivors struggle to retain both their humanity and their lives. The zombies are great to have because they are so versatile but it is the story and cast that has me counting the Sundays until The Walking Dead returns in February.

Only 61 days till February 8th....