Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 2 Review: ‘The Bridge’

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead 
Season 9, Episode 2 

We’re two episodes into season nine; and so far, The Walking Dead is making good on its promise of a “new world” for not only its characters, but the audience, as well. With new showrunner Angela Kang at the helm, it appears that the series is leaving behind the choppy, muddled storytelling that’s plagued the show for almost its entirety, in favor of a straightforward central plot driven by complex character development. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Remember how the beginning of season eight threw us right into several large battles with the Saviors, with no context whatsoever, and it took about a month’s worth of episodes to really understand what was going on? Eventually we learned that Rick’s plan was to take out all of the Savior outposts, so that when the group used a walker herd to trap the Saviors in the Sanctuary, Negan wouldn’t be able to rely on outside reinforcements to save his people. 

But of course, at the last moment, Daryl conveniently went rogue on the plan, letting the walker herd into the Sanctuary, which the Saviors were eventually able to fight their way out of. This is a great, recent example of the way The Walking Dead typically constructs its seasons- with an action-focused midseason or season finale, and the seven episodes leading up to them that are forced to drag along a contrived plot and a cast of characters acting unrealistically stupid, or with poorly developed motivations. 

However, if this week’s episode, “The Bridge,” is any indication, we could be in store for a new era of Walking Dead storytelling, with actual character development that organically drives the plot, rather than an episodically crafted season that shoehorns characters into certain situations, in order to culminate with a visually exciting, albeit conceptually shallow finale. For the first time, maybe ever, The Walking Dead is building its story around its characters, rather than some convoluted sequence of events that gets the season from point A to point B. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
And, for a large ensemble show like The Walking Dead, this all starts with developing out the characters that fans have not only grown accustomed to, but absolutely love. That’s what’s always baffled me about this show. The Walking Dead is a literal television phenomenon, with a level of fan engagement and success that other networks would kill for, if that was how ratings worked. Shows with high quality writing are constantly living under the fear of cancellation because they just can’t seem to find their footing within the pop cultural zeitgeist. And here The Walking Dead iseight seasons of average, at best, writing later, with more fans than they can shake a walker leg at. 

Getting a wide enough audience to fall in love with your show should be the hard partThe Walking Dead should have every advantage when it comes to creating engaging storylines because they’ve had an audience that will tune in regardless, pretty much since jump street. And yet, despite all of the fan support in the world, this show has squandered it with season after season of subpar content. But, that’s all about to change because with viewership dwindling precipitouslythis show can no longer rely on fans tuning in religiously in spite of a weak product. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
One thing that you’ve probably noticed after these first two episodes, is how many small character interactions we’ve been getting, especially without Rick. We’re clearly being set-up for a post-Rick Grimes Walking Dead, and surprisingly enough, the show seems to be better off. Without the bulk of the screentime going to Rick (who, for the record, I’m a fan of) we get to spend more time with characters, whose presence have grown infrequent in recent seasons. Enid is transforming from lowly sidekick to badass field doctor, while Gabriel, after spending four seasons on the show, is finally getting some substantial character development outside of his usual “I used to be a coward” beat, through his budding relationship with Anne. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Last week, I wrote about how Maggie is being built-up to assume the “group leader” mantle from Rick, but it’s looking like that role might be divvied up between multiple characters. One character poised to step into the forefront is Daryl Dixon. Despite denying that he’ll be receiving a pay bump on track to make him one of the highest paid stars on television, Norman Reedus will still be receiving top billing once Andrew Lincoln steps down from the show. As one of The Walking Dead’s most popular characters by far, it makes sense for Daryl to feature more prominently, to help ease the transition for a show about to lose its main character. We get a lot of Daryl in this episode. And, while he still is and always will be a man of few words, his actions and relationships with other characters propel the A-plot in this episode, and figure to keep Daryl close to the narrative action for the first half of season nine. 

Throughout his time on The Walking Dead, Daryl has always been portrayed as a defender of others- he famously spent days searching for Sophia back in season two, and he was the only one to stand up to Negan during the lineup scene (although this did indirectly lead to Glen’s death). Daryl’s willingness to protect and fight for his companions permeates this week’s episode, resulting in two separate run-ins with former Savior, Justin. When it’s all said and done, Justin will be nothing more than another footnote on The Walking Dead’s long list of antagonists, but he’s serving his role well so far- smug, brutish, and just menacing enough to make it really enjoyable when Daryl kicks his ass. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Because the Saviors coexistence with the rest of the survivors will be such a big focal point of season 9A, it seems likely that Daryl’s continued mistrust of them will only continue to bubble at the surface, and cause problems for Rick. While Rick is undoubtedly still in charge of the decision making, it’s Daryl’s relationships with the rest of the group that will ultimately make us care about this plotline. It was heartbreaking to see Aaron’s injury, but the real narrative impact to this storyline is when Daryl, fiercely loyal to his longtime scouting companion, attacks Justin for indirectly causing the lumber accident that takes Aaron’s arm. Aaron will surely be thrust into some unique character development of his own, but his injury serves as a graphic reminder of the cost of placing your trust in the wrong people, an idea that Daryl seems quite keen on defending. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 9 Premiere: 'A New Beginning'

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

Warning: this review contains spoilers and speculation for the season 9 premiere and beyond

After eight seasons and over a hundred episodes, The Walking Dead is entering a new world. No, not *that* new world that Dale (remember him?) talked about in season two, or that *other* new world that Abraham wrote about in season five (remember that?). I’m not even talking about that other, other new world that Negan introduced us to in season seven. No, this is the *actual* new world. The one with a new showrunner, a new haircut for Rick, heck, even a new intro. The new world that The Walking Dead has steadily, albeit sometimes circuitously, been leading up to since day one.

The All-Out War saga is over. Negan is imprisoned, the Saviors are disbanded (kinda), and in the aftermath, the independent, though linked, communities of Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and the Sanctuary must learn to coexist. This is unfamiliar territory for Rick’s group. There’s no big bad antagonist that they’re at odds with (at least not yet), and certainly no one is about to go out on the road season five-style in the hopes of finding greener pastures. This is it. This is the greener pasture. This is what all those days spent running for their lives, all of the fighting and bloodshed- this is what it’s been leading to. A stable(ish) existence where the goal is to sustain and grow, rather than just survive.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
Not only will this season bring a change to the type of character development and storylines we typically see onscreen, but there are significant changes taking place behind the camera, as well. It’s no secret that this will be Rick Grimes' last season on The Walking Dead. After headlining TV’s most popular drama for almost a decade, Andrew Lincoln will step down to spend more time with his family, and presumably, to pursue other opportunities. Despite a lingering contract negotiation in advance of filming for season nine, it was quite the shock for fans to learn that Rick would be written out of the show. This is a sharp departure from the comics; where, after over 180 issues, Rick Grimes is still going strong as the leader of Alexandria.

But, Rick isn’t the only Walking Deadmainstay riding off into the sunset. For over a year, Lauren Cohan was locked into lengthy contract negotiations with AMC, as the network was unwilling to give her a pay raisecomparable to her male co-stars, Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus, after Cohan’s contract expired at the end of season eight. In turn, Cohan rightfully began fielding pilot offers from other networks, and eventually signed on with ABC’s new action dramedy, Whiskey Cavalier. Despite the new gig, Cohan and AMC eventually reached a six-episode deal for the first half of The Walking Dead’s ninth season, with the option to return for more. However, anything beyond those six episodes is in doubt. Although Cohan can film while Whiskey Cavalier is on hiatus (ABC picked up a full season order of the show), she’s yet to come to terms on a contract with AMC that could bring her back for the rest of season nine.

(Photo Caption: AMC)
Fittingly, Maggie features quite prominently in the season premiere, and with her no-nonsense approach to leading the Hilltop, it’s easy to see her eventually taking on a more central role, once Rick departs from the show. The scene Maggie and Rick share towards the end of the episode is nothing short of amazing, and the way she asserts herself opposite her longtime mentor is basically everything you could possibly hope for in this next phase of Maggie’s story arc. It’s unfortunate that we get so few of these poignant moments between the OG characters of the show. The Walking Dead spends so much time telling us how tightly knit this group is, that we rarely ever get to actually see it. This will always be a show that has to use its character development as a means to advance the plot, rather than to craft genuine, relatable characters. But, if the writers can ever find a balance, the show’s longevity will benefit significantly.

What will ultimately determine whether season nine is just a halfway point, or the beginning of the end, is how well The Walking Dead is able to pivot along its brand new axis. Without an antagonist to immediately contend with, the group will be forced to face conflict from within. The tenuous alliance between Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and the Sanctuary will be tested, as Negan sympathizers gain resolve, and loyal Rick lieutenants, Maggie and Daryl, start to lose faith in the idyllic world their leader is trying to create. This sounds a lot less exciting on paper compared to say, the Whisperers, but what these plotlines lack in flashy action sequences they make up for with more nuanced storytelling.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
My hope is that the overall arc of 9A builds gradually, peaking with a huge firefight, instead of leading off with one, like we saw last season. The battles in the first half of season nine will begin ideologically, with Rick and Maggie and Darryl clashing over how best to bring the Sanctuary into the fold, while maintaining peace and prosperity across all communities. As these two sides war with words, rather than bullets, tensions will start to boil, until they eventually bubble over into actual, physical confrontation. The Walking Deadhas proven that they can consistently produce high-quality, action-centric episodes. By providing a character-driven plot that naturally builds up and leads into these kinds of action-heavy episodes, it’s more likely that the climax will feel meaningful, and the overall storyline more satisfying. What I don’t want to see, though, are cheap misdirects. I have no interest in a storyline that sees Daryl drift further and further away from Rick, only for him to return to his dear old friend at the last, most dramatic, most convenient moment.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 8 Finale: 'Wrath'

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead 
Season 8 Finale 

Two seasons ago, fans watched in horror as Negan savagely beat Glenn and Abraham to death in front of a kneeling lineup of their helpless friends. After years of dodging close calls, Rick's group finally ran out of aces to pull from their sleeve, finding themselves up against a villain just as apocalypse-hardened as they were. As a fan, it hurt to watch two beloved characters (Glenn, especially) get wiped out so unceremoniously, but as the show found itself straying further and further away from its signature willingness to kill off any character, at any time, their deaths were probably just the kind of shake-up the show needed. Due to how it aired, Negan's lineup scene was, and still is, incredibly divisive amongst fans and critics, but it was gripping television, and probably The Walking Dead's last truly iconic, "must-see TV" moment. 

At the time, it felt like Negan was about to forge a new class of Walking Dead antagonist- the kind that wouldn’t succumb to plot armor or deus ex machina, as so many enemies had before. But alas, over the course of two seasons, Negan’s menacing aura slowly eroded until he became little more than a walking one-liner with a hard-on for human resources, who ended up killing more of his own men this season, than of Rick’s. (No, seriously. Look it up.) Paradoxically, as Negan’s lethality declined, the quality of the show rose, with season eight delivering a marked improvement over season seven, with critics (although, still very far off from the show’s heyday in season five). However, regardless of Negan’s recent shortcomings, he’s still been the most compelling villain this show’s seen by a country mile, and after two seasons of build-up, we finally get to see his conflict with Rick, come to a head. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Unfortunately, “Wrath” fails to live up to the hypeas the long-awaited showdown between Rick and Negan barely eclipses the intensity of a Carl-Ron slap fight. Right from the get go there’s very little that goes right for this scene- the setup is confusing, the camera angles are terrible, and the choreography is mind-blowingly bad, like “we hit our budget halfway through the scene and had to film the rest with stuffed dolls,” bad. This is strange given that quality fight scenes is one of the few things The Walking Dead manages to do on a consistent basisTypically, the show does a good job of letting its fight scenes build to a natural crescendo, but this particular scuffle ends about as awkwardly, and abruptly, as it begins. 

I understand that the show has been building up to this outcome for a while- Carl’s dying words in the midseason premiere, and the letters he wrote to both Rick and Negan, suggest as much. And, in general, this season has shown more members of the group questioning the morality of killing the Saviors, including Jesus, who eventually convinced Maggie to keep a group prisoner at The Hilltop, rather than executing them. But, it was just two short episodes ago that we saw Rick promise safety to a group of Saviors, only to unhesitatingly go back on his wordand murder them all in cold bloodAs much as Carl’s memory means to Rick, it’s hard to believe that he could go from a mindset of such extreme violence one day, to sparing Negan, along with the rest of the Saviors, the next. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Eugene’s final betrayal of Negan serves as a good example of a character twist that has been properly developed over the course of a season. Despite Eugene’s claims of being “utterly, completely, stone-cold Negan,” the writers have been carefully placing clues, throughout season eight, suggesting that Eugene isn’t enjoying his time with the Saviors as much as the sardine mac & cheese might lead us to believe. During the attack on The Sanctuary, Eugene reveals that he's turned to drinking in order to combat the chronic insomnia he suffers as a result of living under Negan’s tyrannical rulePlus, even though the past two seasons are littered with examples of Eugene turning his back on his Alexandria allies, he never transformed into a truly evil person, evidenced by his refusal to reveal Dwight's disloyalty to Negan, as well as his willingness to help Father Gabriel escape from The Sanctuary. 

The biggest, though least obvious, clue was left by Rosita last week, during Eugene’s short-lived kidnapping. Eugene, a self-admitted coward, has made it abundantly clear that he will join up with whomever gives him the best chance of maintaining his biological imperative. And, while Eugene is living the relative good life at The Sanctuary, Negan has consistently proved that he’s not above killing, even his most loyal men, 'people are a resource' be damnedAfter capturing Eugene, Rosita inadvertently recruited Eugene back into the fold, by threatening him with the worst punishment Rick’s group was willing to impose- keeping Eugene as a mistreated, isolated, but very much alive, prisoner, a much nicer fate than living in constant fear of being killed by Negan.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Admittedly, it’s a little disappointing, that the show doesn’t fully commit to Eugene's defection. It would have been a unique change of pace for a show whose main characters never seem to waver in their loyalty to a leader with a long track record of reckless decisions. Don't get me wrong, I love #TeamRick as much as the next guy, but seeing characters' motivations, and in turn their allegiances, change adds a layer of complexity that's been missing from the show's character development, for quite some time. This is why I’m excited to see where the Maggie-Daryl-Jesus coalition takes things next season. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a true coup, and Maggie’s quest for vengeance has the look of a storyline that's bound to fizzle out by the midseason finale, but at least these characters are doing something interesting and different, even if it does seem a bit out of character. 

And with that, The Walking Dead's longest running arc comes to a close. The Negan storyline ran two full seasons, and while it might not have lived up to its narrative potential, we get a fair bit of shake-up during this time, with multiple major character deaths (Glenn, Abraham, Sasha, and Carl), and several key players well positioned to take on new storylines. Maggie has forged her own identity as leader of The Hilltop Colony, while supporting characters like Anne (aka the artist formerly known as Jadis), Alden and Siddiq, all seem poised for larger roles. If next season follows the comics, we're in store for a major time jump, which inherently comes with a lot of change. But, will it be change for the sake of change (a Walking Dead staple), or will the show continue to make the kind of small, but noticeable, improvements to its storytelling and structure that we saw throughout most of season eight?

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