Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 10 Review: 'Omega'

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead 
Season 9, Episode 10 

For the second straight week, The Walking Dead delivers an episode that’s focused more on character development and story building, rather than action and zombie guts. And, for the second straight week, this approach pays off, as ‘Omega,’ serves as a well-paced, entertaining episode that establishes a proper background for newcomer Lydia, while also subtly exploring the origin story of her mom, Alpha. This type of “slow burn” approach isn’t entirely new to The Walking Dead – stretches of bland filler episodes, with only the occasional worthwhile character moment, have plagued this series for almost its entire existence. However, what is new, at least for this season, is the quality of said “filler” episodes, and the way they’re able to properly enhance the wider narrative with well-written character-centered subplots. 

So, what exactly constitutes a “filler” episode? Primarily, filler episodes feature one or two character-driven storylines that focus on character development rather than major plot progression. Of course, filler episodes still have plots, but the way they relate these plots to the overall season is much less about moving from point to point B along a story arc, and more about moving characters from point A to point B on their own personal trajectories. “Filler episode” has a bit of a negative connotation, but I think that’s only because they tend to feel “boring,” especially when compared to episodes that more overtly move the plot forward. Filler episodes can also seem disruptive, killing a season’s momentum by shifting away from the more exciting, usually action-filled parts of the story, and instead, forcing the audience to reflect on the characters and their place in the narrative. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
What’s great about this week’s dose of filler is that it not only functions well as a standalone episode; as the plot itself is entertaining enough on its own, but it also fits perfectly within the rest of the season, developing characters in a way that augments their presence and our investment in their roles for the major events to come. Sadly, most filler episodes in The Walking Dead fail to do both these things, which makes the quality of this week’s episode all the more notable of an achievement. Ultimately, I think the key to any great filler episode is squeezing every last drop of juice out of its plotline’s narrow range, and ‘Omega’ does this beautifully by providing simultaneous character development for Daryl, Lydia, and even Alpha, all within the same subplot. 

This week’s episode takes place solely at The Hilltop and its surrounding areas, as the captured Whisperer storyline that began last Sunday, gets into full swing. Daryl’s plan to use Henry to coax information out of Lydia works initially, but he is forced to abandon it once Henry begins to divulge too much information of their own. Throughout the episode, Lydia’s responses to both Daryl and Henry’s line of questions are mixed between real-time dialogue and non-linear flashbacks that are broken up over several scenes. In a vacuum, the flashback storyline is interesting to see play out. The pre-apocalyptic collapse of society is a story we’re familiar with, but don’t often get to see in The Walking Dead. And, while I agree with the show’s decision to avoid consistently flashing back to those early days of the outbreak, it’s fun to see occasionally, and Lydia and Alpha’s story, in particular, provides a compelling, unfiltered look into their characters. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Not only does this flashback provide insight into Lydia’s past life, but the way in which it’s presented gives us context for who she is now, as well. Throughout Lydia’s recounting of her past, subtle clues are dropped that hint at a possible discrepancy between her version of events and the truth. Daryl sniffs out these lies right away, but it’s not until the end of the episode that the audience is completely clued into what actually happened. This use of Lydia as an unreliable narrator is not only a clever narrative device, but it also helps with her characterization. Lydia’s inability to accurately retell events goes from seeming malicious to sympathetic, as the reason for her lapse in memory reveals the true extent of the hardships she’s suffered through. 

The show has often asked how children, like Carl or Henry, who spent the majority of their childhoods living in the zombie apocalypse, would ultimately turn out. Thanks to this season’s time-jump, we get to fast forward through these formative years for an answer to this question. The first half of the season introduced us to the more positive outcome, with a well-adjusted Judith Grimes surrounded by a protective and caring community in Alexandria. Lydia represents the other side of this coin, as the cold realities of the apocalypse turned a sweet, innocent child into everything it represents – dangerous, unfeeling, and utilitarian. We’ve seen many a character lose their humanity at the hands of the apocalypse, but we’ve never seen someone gain it back. If this is where Lydia’s story arc takes her, it should be an interesting ride. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
So far, I’m enjoying Lydia as a new character, and her storyline could end up being one of the best of the season. There’s a fine line between menacing and ridiculous when it comes to dark and creepy teenage characters; but for the most part, I think Lydia comes across as believable, and it’s this believability that allows her to essentially carry this episode as its main focal point. Not only does Lydia’s development in this episode benefit her own characterization, but because her story is so entwined with her mother, her entire flashback story also functions as a “sneak peek” of Alpha, and helps us become more invested in her as a villain, before she’s even introduced. Alpha and The Whisperers are such a radical group, based solely on the idea that their way of life is the next step in human evolution – it makes sense to explore their transformation within the context of who these characters used to be. This emphasis on character background extends beyond just our new antagonist, though, as Daryl Dixon’s past receives a considerable amount of attention this week, as well. 

As part of this season’s Make Daryl Great Again movement, Lydia’s storyline also serves in drawing out a considerable amount of character development from Daryl. Daryl’s abusive upbringing was a big part of his character in the early seasons of The Walking Dead, but was abandoned around season five when he was separated from Beth, and in general seemed to coincide with Daryl’s overall decline in consistent character development. It is good that the show didn’t make Daryl’s past the sole focus of his character for nine years, but replacing that content with nothing was probably a worse decision. I’m glad to see the return of any kind of personal backstory for Daryl, as long as it means he’s not being ignored, and the fact that it fits in so well with the Lydia storyline is an added bonus. The Walking Dead has been largely uneven with the amount of time spent on giving proper backstories to its characters. If this change with Daryl turns into a trend for the rest of the show, I could see uninteresting filler episodes with shallow character development becoming a thing of the past, and that can only benefit the show as a whole, going forward. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Walking Dead Season 9 Midseason Premiere Review: 'Adaptation'

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead
Season 9 Midseason Premiere

After eleven weeks of winter, Negan emerged from his cell, saw his shadow, and decided winter was over anyway – The Walking Dead returned this Sunday with the second half of its ninth season, ushering in the show’s next big story arc, The Whisperers. The Whisperers are one of the more memorable antagonists from the comics, due to their unique camouflaging technique of wearing walker skins to blend in and travel with herds. We got a small taste of The Whisperers at the end of the midseason finale, and while “Adaptation” might literally rip the mask off of these enigmatic new foes, there is still a lot left to be revealed in the coming episodes.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Despite enduring some of the leanest ratings in series history, season nine of The Walking Dead paradoxically delivered some of the best storytelling and character development that the show has ever seen. Long-time staff writer turned showrunner, Angela Kang, breathed fresh air into a show on life support, reinventing characters and exploring new and compelling plot dynamics, all while navigating the major cast departures of Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan, as well as the six-year time-jump introduced partway through the first half of the season. It’s not particularly revelatory to point out that The Walking Dead has been starved for some new creative takes, but based off the strength of season 9A, I’d say the writers have earned the benefit of the doubt, and I’m excited to see if the show will continue these positive steps throughout the rest of the season.

Unlike past midseason premieres, “Adaptation” is absent an overhyped, “must see TV” event (Carl’s death, season 8) or a larger than life, special effects-fueled action sequence (the highway scene, season 7). Instead, the show’s ninth midseason premiere relies on patient, if unspectacular, plot development, laying the ground work for the storylines and character relationships that are likely to shape the remainder of the season. Fittingly, this episode picks up right where the midseason finale leaves off, with the dust barely settled from the group’s first encounter with The Whisperers, and Jesus (RIP) still bleeding out on the fog-covered ground of a cemetery.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
The scene that follows is one of the stronger moments of the episode, and the entire bridge sequence is very reminiscent of the “on the road” feel of season five – back when threats could materialize at a moment’s notice, and the group would consistently need to rely on teamwork and a bit of slick thinking, to outmaneuver their enemies. Thanks to some quick planning on Daryl’s part, the group is able to successfully ambush some encroaching Whisperers, strategically turning their walker disguises against them, and even managing to capture one of the Whisperers alive. While new additions, Yumiko and Magna, get some play during this scene, the spotlight largely, and rightfully, belongs to Daryl and Michonne, as these two characters are expected to provide the necessary star power in the absence of Andrew Lincoln, at least for now.

Daryl especially has a large role in this episode, as he takes responsibility for interrogating the captured Whisperer after the group’s joint approach at questioning her initially fails. When I learned that Norman Reedus would be more or less taking over leading man responsibilities from Andrew Lincoln, I worried that Daryl fatigue would inevitably set in, despite being the show’s most popular character. While fans love the silent brooding of Norman Reedus (emphasis on the silent), it’s hard for a show to remain viable when its main character communicates solely through blinks. (And even those are sometimes hard to see through Daryl’s wild mane of hair.) Fortunately, the writers have done an artful job of reinventing Daryl, giving him back the voice that fans fell in love with for its tendency to fight tooth and nail for his friends.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Reedus’ range is on full display this week, as he switches between the feral Daryl, seen while interrogating the Whisperer, to the more tender, older brother Daryl that we get in his scenes with Henry. However, even lumping the majority of Henry’s storyline into scenes with Daryl does little to help the former’s likeability. Despite showing a glimmer of potential in the midseason finale, for becoming something resembling a root-able character, Henry goes on to do what all child characters do in The Walking Dead– turn the entire fanbase against themselves for their ill-advised decisions from a single scene. It’s clear that Henry is going to be getting a specific path of development that’s given to Carl in the comic books. And, given what we’ve seen of post-time jump Henry so far, I think it could turn out to be a worthwhile deviation from the source material. However, it’s hard to entrust such an important storyline to a character who’s spent the majority of his time on the show at just a notch above redshirt status. In other words, is Henry really a significant, or even likeable, enough character to start receiving a key role in the narrative? As of right now, it doesn’t feel like it.

At this point, if there’s any hope for positive child representation on The Walking Dead, it’s up to Judith Grimes to carry the torch; and so far, she’s off to a stellar start, as her scenes with Negan this week are some of the best of the season. I’ve always been skeptical of reintegrating Negan into the main cast as some sort of anti-hero. I know it’s been a popular story arc in the comics, and Negan has been a great addition to the show, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Negan’s propensity for snark and pretense is the type of characterization that gets old quickly (and some would say it already has).
(Photo Credit: AMC)
However, just like the show has been able to pivot with Daryl’s character in order to avoid overexposure, the same kind of retooling could do wonders for Negan’s longevity. Pairing the former leader of The Saviors with the precocious Judith is a good start, as Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s effortless charisma plays quite well with the no-nonsense attitude of a child born of the zombie apocalypse. And, it is refreshing to see Negan work with someone who isn’t a sociopathic murder lover, for once. Just don’t squint too hard at the details because as great as their chemistry is, it’s still a pretty unsettling dynamic when you consider the fact that Negan seems on his way to becoming the surrogate father to the little girl whose actual father he tried to kill several times. As much as Rick believed in moving past the war and forgiving The Saviors, it seems unlikely that he’d be okay with his daughter buddying up with his arch nemesis. Rick spared Negan, yes, but it was only so he could live out the rest of his days in a prison cell.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 9 Midseason Finale Review: ‘Evolution’

(Photo Credit: AMC)

The Walking Dead
Season 9 Midseason Finale

Stumbling, soulless, meandering – no, I’m not talking about one of the many herds of walkers seen weekly on The Walking Dead, I’m talking about The Walking Dead itself and the state of the series after almost a decade on the air. The Walking Dead arrived with a bang in 2010, establishing itself as a show with an “any character can die” ethos rivaled only by Game of Thrones. While ignoring the pacing issues that plagued even the earliest of seasons would be revisionist history, The Walking Dead always managed to please fans with a combination of suspenseful storytelling and a grounded sense of apocalyptic adventure.

However, in recent seasons, the show’s lost a lot of this mojo, limping from episode to episode with a barely fleshed out plot and clinging to its former ratings glory by killing off characters in increasingly foreseeable and impact-less ways. Enter season nine and new showrunner Angela Kang, and The Walking Dead finds itself soaring close to the heights of its prime. With the help of a six-year time jump, Kang has brought the show back to its roots, giving The Walking Dead the kind of reset it’s so desperately needed. It’s fitting then that the season nine midseason finale is titled, “Evolution.” Although, it doesn’t apply to the walkers as Eugene hypothesized, The Walking Dead is in the midst of its own evolution, reinventing itself on the fly, while building towards new and exciting storylines to come.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
The midseason finale focuses largely on the group’s attempt to find Eugene- a subplot that’s been simmering since episode six, the first full episode after the time jump. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good old-fashioned rescue mission, and the team-up between Daryl, Jesus, and Aaron is a welcome combination of characters we seldom get to see interact. These three get to venture outside of their community’s respective walls (or respective raft tent, in Daryl’s case), returning to the elements that were once very familiar to them as the group recruiters. It’s a lot of fun seeing Daryl dip into his old bag of tracker tricks several times throughout the hour, and it keeps this fan favorite character present, without drawing focus away from the story’s more central characters. Daryl is a great character in this sense. He doesn’t require a ton of screentime on his own, and is able to still contribute to an episode, even when he hangs out around the periphery.

The precision and skill that this group exhibits during their search for Eugene does a great job of passively establishing just how apocalypse-hardened these characters have become. And, that’s one of the great things about a time jump. It allows writers to bake in useful character development, without necessarily requiring said character development to play out in real time. Even the once sniveling Eugene is able to secure himself a well concealed, structurally sound hiding spot, not necessarily out of cowardice, but as a practical means of survival. Several times, Eugene offers the others to leave him behind in order to ensure their safety, which is the kind of deal old Eugene only made once before learning his lesson, when he offered to pilot the decoy RV just moments before the group gets captured by the Saviors in the season six finale.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
The writers have made a concerted effort to show that Eugene is not the same man post-time jump, and even though the crux of this episode rests on his rescue, he demonstrates that he’s no longer the kind of able-bodied dead weight that the heroes get to drag to the finish line. These different skills and tactics that the group portrays are ones that we’ve seen in pieces throughout the series, but they all come together effortlessly in this episode, contributing to the feeling that these characters have truly gone through six years-worth of experiences during the time jump. And while their keystone maneuver to split up ultimately fails (because honestly, who didn’t see that coming?), the way it fails is unexpected, and transitions nicely with this episode’s climax.

As mentioned previously, there was a time in The Walking Dead’s run when no character, save for a few, felt genuinely safe from the deadly dangers of the zombie apocalypse. What’s more is that the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of most characters’ deaths were generally less easy to predict than they are now, contributing to the thrilling sense of suspense we’d get as we’d watch our favorite survivors traverse the unknown. Fast forward several years, and The Walking Dead has dropped all pretenses of surprise, going so far as to construct elaborate marketing plans advertising which character is the next to bite the bullet. Sadly, when the deaths start to become predictable, a lot of the tension gets sucked out of the show, eventually turning what should be an emotionally charged moment into nothing more than a box to be checked.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
In possibly its greatest feat, yet, season nine turns this trend on its head, as it delivers a throwback Walking Dead death scene that catches viewers by total surprise. Usually when someone succumbs to walkers, it’s because they’re either massively overwhelmed or caught off guard by a stray biter. To see someone die in such a unique way is genuinely shocking. The whole setup for this death is really quite simple, but the twist pays off in a major way, and it’s this simplicity that makes the end result feel that much more tragic. This wasn’t some effects-filled battle or a giant explosion on a bridge, the fact that a character can die during something so routine certainly reintroduces the feeling that at least somecharacters can die at any time, even if realistically there will always be people who are off limits. If characters continue to feel vulnerable in more ordinary situations, it will add stakes to this show in a way it hasn’t had in a long time, resulting in genuine levels of tension particularly outside of where we’ve been trained to typically expect characters to die.

This was a very solid midseason finale, which gels well with the overall increase in quality we’ve seen in season nine. Sometimes, The Walking Dead ends on an awkward, forced cliffhanger, leaving us with too many unanswered questions and not enough context. While we do get a cliffhanger-y ending for “Evolution,” I think it hits the right mix of revealing enough information (we get to see Daryl “unmask” a Whisperer), but also leaves us wanting more, as the episode fades out with our heroes surrounded by fog and menacing whispers. The second half of season nine is supposed to pick up roughly where the first half ends. And, if this first half is any indication, we should be in for an entertaining ride as the show enters its next big arc.

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