‘THE WORLD ENDED.
GET THE MEMO…?’
DVD Review of:
‘THE WALKING DEAD:
THE COMPLETE SEASONS 1-7’
(33-Disc Box Set, 2017, AMC Film Holdings LLC)
‘THE WALKING DEAD:
THE COMPLETE EIGHTH SEASON’
(6-Disc set including the 100th episode, plus 4-hours of
bonus content, 2018, AMC Film Holdings LLC,
Fox Network and eOne)
The other niggling suspicion is, as in that notorious TV-Soap episode where Bobby Ewing takes his ‘Dallas’ shower, that Rick never actually wakes up. That everything that happens is all a nightmare fever-dream in his tortured mind. That the series will end when he does eventually wake. He wonders this himself, ‘Is this real? Am I here? Wake up, Wake up!’ Later, his gunshot in the confined space of a military tank sets off jarring echo-reverberations in his head. Post-apocalypse Georgia has all the ingredients of trauma hallucination nightmare. Although this dénouement becomes less and less feasible as season follows season.
The other worrying irritant is the time-scale involved. Rick has been shot by the third armed fugitive to escape from an overturned vehicle. When he wakes, the flowers on his bedside cabinet are dead. He’s been out long enough for the world to go to hell, but not long enough for his own physical emaciation to set in. There’s a flashback sequence in the season one closer, which shows Rick’s police-partner, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) barricading a comatose Rick into his hospital room as Walkers and troopers overwhelm the Harrison Memorial Hospital. Later, the disparate group of stragglers arrive at the ‘Center For Disease Control’ – the first of many illusory sanctuaries they’ll encounter over the coming series, the shutters opening in a blaze of light resembling the ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ (1977) alien revelation, and Dr Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) explains that it is sixty-three days since the contagion went global. Which provides a usable timeframe.
At the CDC, pathologist Jenner’s Wildfire project seeks an experimental cure, and shows for possibly the first time, the clinical Zombie rationale involved. Rick’s team watch the MRI scan of dying Test Subject Nineteen, as the glimmers of onscreen light denoting memory and personality flicker into extinction, then after a varying indeterminate pause, the single pulse brainstem reignites. But pure motor reflexes only, establishing absolutely that the Walkers have no human personality-remnants left, although there will be repeated futile attempts to prove otherwise. In season two, god-fearing Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) argues with simple faith that, as with the AIDS-virus, medical science will render the zombie plague at least manageable, that it is ‘nature correcting itself. Restoring some balance.’ It’s the first, but not the last time the question will be asked. Can there be a cure? Not so to Jenner, ‘there is no hope, there never was.’ In a later episode Rick reveals he was told ‘we’re all infected. Whatever it is, we all carry it.’
We see the process at close range. Tormented mechanic Jim (Andrew Rothenberg) only escaped pursuing Walkers because they pause to eat his family. Now, in survivor-guilt madness, he compulsively digs graves. As Walkers overrun the survivor’s camp, Amy (Emma Bell) is bitten and killed. Sister Andrea (Laurie Holden) sits in vigil nursing her bloodied body. Then shoots her in the head as she reanimates. ‘I remember my dream now, why I dug those holes’ says Jim – who’s also bitten. ‘That sound you hear’ he says, ‘that’s god laughing while you make plans.’ At his request they leave him to die by the roadside.
Post-apocalypse novels, from the classic ‘Earth Abides’ (1949) by George R Stewart or ‘The Death Of Grass’ (1956) by John ‘Samuel Youd’ Christopher, have the fictional effect of reverting our safe comfortable society to its basic tribal roots, and – with a particular relevance to the USA, creating a new unexplored wild frontier, thronged with dangers and unknown hazards. When we can no longer believe in Space as the Final Frontier, we can re-imagine the transfigured Earth instead. Apocalypse clears cities, and reclaims the world for adventure. Just as it creates what Andrea calls the ‘endless horrific nightmare we live every day.’
The other strengths of ‘The Walking Dead’ are undoubtedly the casting and character interactions. Rick as the central gravitational core, taciturn and solitary by nature, his sense of purpose nevertheless gradually assumes reluctant leadership of the survivors. To Hershel, Rick is ‘a man of conscience.’ Cycling from the hospital he first encounters black father-and-son squatters Morgan (Lennie James) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), who help him. Morgan’s wife (Keisha Tillis) is one of the encircling Walkers, rattling the door-handle. With a telescopic rifle Morgan lines up his gun-sights on her forehead, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. An ongoing continuity link is provided by Rick’s daily radio status update to Morgan, as the group moves on. Morgan will briefly reappear in series 3 (“Clear”) to warn Rick that ‘you will be torn apart by teeth or bullets.’
There’s an argument that all the characters are psychologically damaged, that no-one can endure what they’ve lived through, and remain rational. Shane increasingly becomes the wild card. He’s out of control, leading to an out-of-out fistfight. When he insists ‘Rick, it ain’t like it was before’, he means that morality has been suspended. Rick is saying pretty-much the same thing when he tells Hershel that ‘it changes you. Either into one of them. Or something a lot less than the person you were.’ ‘Who says we’re civilised anymore?’ argues former Civil Rights Lawyer Andrea.
It’s Korean former pizza-delivery boy Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) who rescues Rick from the Atlanta Walker-horde. Escaping from a Department Store they smear themselves in disguising corpse-gore and entrails. ‘We need more guts’ says Rick in grotesque black humour, but it’s alright because ‘he was an organ-donor’. Until a cloudburst washes the death-smell away! Yet one of the series’ most intriguing psychological relationships is the one with redneck Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). He’s initially under the sway of abusive older brother Merle (Michael Rooker, Colonel Edwards from ‘Stargate SG-1’ episode “Enemy Mine”, 2003). Merle uses the ‘n’-word to genial black survivor T-Dog (IronE Singleton), so ‘Officer Friendly’ Rick takes Merle down – calling him a ‘dumb-as-shit inbred white-trash fool’, and handcuffs him to a pipe on the flat rooftop.
The group will escape ‘only if we keep a level head’ demands Rick. ‘I can do that’ concedes Daryl, as Rick begins exerting his own control. Daryl rides a chopper motorcycle, uses a high-tension crossbow – a more sustainable zombie-slayer than gunshots, and he has backwoods tracker skills useful when’s Carol’s twelve-year-old daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz) gets lost in the woods in season 2:1. And Daryl shows unsuspected sensitivity when he tells the ‘Cherokee Rose’ story to Carol. But first, in their panic-escape they leave Merle still handcuffed to the pipe, in a sequence of genuinely skin-crawling horror, hallucinating terror as the Walkers begin breaking down the door towards him. By the time morally-conflicted Rick mounts a rescue Merle is gone, leaving only the severed hand he’s self-amputated in order to escape.
‘The world ended. Didn’t you get the memo?’ banters Carol. The women gossip about the things they miss from their old lives as they wash their clothes in the lake… ‘texting’, ‘coffee’, ‘my vibrator’… ‘If I’d known the world was ending I’d have brought better books’ ruefully comments wise old Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn). The images are striking. The Southern Baptist church-bells still chiming on an automatic timer. The migrating herd of Walkers – although others say ‘Rotters’, ‘Eaters’, ‘Roamers’ or ‘Biters’. The empty inward freeway, with the outward lane gridlocked with fleeing dead traffic.
There’s intriguing speculation between John Wyndham and John Christopher concerning the aftermath of apocalypse. In ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ survivors co-operate to establish a stable Isle of Wight colony. In ‘The Death Of Grass’ engineer John Custace competes for resources in escalating violent anarchy with other survivor-groups as he attempts to lead his family to the hidden Cumbrian Blind Gill valley. Civilisation’s veneer of civility is tenuous, and once fractured, it’s hopelessly lost. For ‘The Walking Dead’, logic and reason suggest the survivors work together for the mutual good, pitting themselves against the common threat presented by Walker’s. Inevitably, that doesn’t happen. In Atlanta a rival Hispanic gang jump them as they retrieve Rick’s bag of guns. ‘The same as it ever was. The weak are taken.’ Until an old grandmother intervenes by interposing herself between their armed stand-off, and it becomes apparent they are caretakers protecting a hospital of oldsters. In this case, appearances prove deceptive. Worse will follow. ‘It’s all about slim chances now’ concludes Rick.
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‘Got Bit. Fever Hit. World Gone To Shit. Might As Well Quit.’ Daryl finds a suicided Walker suspended from a tree by his own noose. ‘Dumb-ass didn’t know enough to shoot himself in the head’ sneers Daryl. Hershel’s daughter Beth goes through her own suicidal crisis, but pulls through.
With thirteen episodes, the second series (from 16 October 2011) allows itself a less compressed, but nevertheless compulsive pace, centred around the next illusory sanctuary, Hershel’s bucolic idyllic rural antebellum farmstead off Route 9. Although he’s not a doctor as they at first assume, but a veterinarian, he saves Carl from gunshot wounds. From now on Carl wears Rick’s cop’s hat, and Shane teaches him to shoot. While – ‘Hello Farmer’s Daughter’, Glenn can’t believe his luck when he gets to get intimate with Hershel’s daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan). And Lori is pregnant. Is it Rick’s or Shane’s child? Torn between two lovers. Will she use the abortion Morning After Pills? It’s every Soap Opera dilemma. Scott Wilson who plays Hershel Greene was also mad preacher Orison in ‘The X-Files’. But why is Hershel so keen that Rick’s people move on? What’s in the barn they’re not supposed to see? Glenn has two secrets – Lori’s pregnancy, and zombies in the barn. ‘My farm. My barn. My say’ argues Hershel, ‘I can shoot. I just don’t like to…we don’t shoot sick people.’
The question hangs all the way to the absurdly grotesque yet movingly intense climax, as Shane releases the barn-Walkers, shooting Hershel’s family-members, wife and stepson as they emerge. And with grim resolve, Rick must shoot Sophia, as Carol howls in anguish. This time the soundtrack moves to the darker Stoner-metal Clutch track “The Regulator” from their ‘Blast Tyrant’ (2004) album.
‘I’m not the good guy anymore’ admits Rick. And later ‘this isn’t a democracy any more.’ Later still he even claims ‘we are the Walking Dead’. Yet debating what to do with Randall (Michael Zegen), their prisoner from another rival group, Rick insists ‘we have to eliminate threat,’ but backs down from execution at the last moment. Bringing Rick and Shane into final confrontation in a well-structured episode. It’s the classic stand-off. The two friends and long-term companions ripped into unavoidable conflict by the irrevocable force of cruel destiny. By rivalry over leadership, and a woman they both love. It has all the elements of heroic myth writ large. Shane returns a gun to Carl, via Rick. Shane has a touching final reconciliation with Carl and Lori. Then Rick knifes Shane to death in a duel beneath the full moon. Carl shoots him as he reanimates in gory flash-frames. Then Dale is killed too. ‘Dale could get under your skin’ says Rick, ‘he sure got under mine. Because he wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he thought. How he felt. That kind of honesty is rare, and brave.’
Apocalypse used to come in the form of nuclear war, which fuelled a generation of great fictional speculation. But although the prospect of total End-Of-Times atomic annihilation has receded since the Cold War meltdown, apocalypse has four horsemen. ‘The Walking Dead’ succeeds because it subliminally taps into the fear of pandemic. In ancient times, as one civilisation declined in isolation, another was ascending a continent away. Back in medieval times the Black Death crawled its insidious way across Europe taking years. Today, we are a global culture. Now, a virus can jump species, and literally be around the world in six hours, as graphically illustrated in the opening credits airport sequence of ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ (2014). We’ve seen HIV, ebola and avian flu, we know how this thing operates. It’s not that we fear an actual zombie plague – of course not, and yet ‘The Walking Dead’ feeds off that same terror. In an obsessively hygiene-conscious century, this is not the choreographed zombies of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, it’s the very real fear of infection, of disease, contagion and flesh-corruption.
‘We’ll find shelter somewhere’ says Rick. ‘There’s gotta be a place. There’s got to be a place. Not just where we hole up, but we fortify, hunker down, pull ourselves together. Build a life for each other. I know it’s out there. We just have to find it.’ Living as highway gypsies, looting, running and hiding, they eventually find the prison on Highway-34. Designed to securely hold miscreants inside, it now forms a fortress to keep the madness out. With new terrors, zombie guards in riot helmets and armour as their cell-block by block assault clears the penitentiary – T-Dog gives himself to save the others, Hershel losing his lower leg to a zombie-bite, and there are new antagonisms with five prisoner survivors.
There’s also the rival centre of Woodbury, population seventy-three, an idyllic all-American town of bunting and Kool-aid, which just happens to have zombie-baiting gladiatorial contests too! Andrea and a suspicious Michonne fetch up there. ‘Sitting pretty at the end of the world’ as Andrea tells it. But are they guests or prisoners? Andrea is immediately charmed by smooth-talking Governor – Philip Blake (David Morrissey), and begins a sexual affair with him. Less impressed, Michonne calls him a ‘Jim Jones-type’, comparing him to the lethal Guyana cult leader. Of course, she’s right, all is not as perfect as it seems. Brutal redneck Merle – Daryl’s brother is there too, as the Governor’s ‘hammer’. ‘I guess this old world gets a little smaller towards the end’ he comments with grim menace, his amputated hand replaced by a bayonet. Pursuing Michonne through the forest he taunts ‘are we having fun yet?’, most likely quoting Dolph Lundgren’s ironic one-liner from ‘Universal Soldier’ (1992).
And after all, isn’t Rick equally ruthless with outsiders attempting to join his group, as with the unfortunate teenage Randall, or with the convicts hiding out in the prison? They’re convenient only in the sense that ‘Star Trek’ ‘redshirts’ are useful, as shock-value when killed off by prowling zombies or Woodbury snipers without deleting any core cast-members. Episode 12 – ‘Clear’, is a virtual stand-alone where they make a home-town run for weapons. On the way they pass a desperate lone straggler who yells and waves and runs after them. Carl glances at Rick. Will they pick him up? No. Rick ignores him and drives on. On the return journey they pass the smashed remains of the straggler’s body smeared along the roadside. Rick stops only long enough to retrieve his backpack. Outsiders are suspect, a responsibility he resents and no longer needs.
While things are shaping up into a post-apocalypse clash of cultures, replaying the power-wars of Rome and Carthage. Woodbury captures and tortures Glenn, the Governor forces Maggie to strip with implicit rape-threat, as Rick organises a retaliatory raid on Woodbury. And the Governor launches an attack on the prison using Walkers as a weapon. This means war.
There are three main strands to the confrontation. Andrea, who is buffeted between the two groups. She backs down from killing Gov Philip, and tries to find a way of accommodation instead. By Series 3 Episode 13 – ‘Arrow On The Doorpost’, she arranges face-to-face negotiations between Rick and the Governor, over glasses of whiskey. Finally, the Governor kills Milton, and allows him to turn and kill Andrea. As she dies she tells Michonne, ‘I tried’. Then there’s Michonne who ‘mercies’ Penny and blinds the Governor in one eye by stabbing him with a shard of glass from his shattered aquarium of severed heads. ‘In this life you kill or you die. Or you die, and you kill’ he philosophises. And Merle. Why does the Governor denounce the lieutenant who’s killed sixteen men for him? As a distraction from his own fallibility? Or because he’s testing Merle’s loyalty against his sibling bond to Daryl? Yet there’s an unlikely turn-around for Merle before he’s summarily executed by the Governor. Daryl is then left to discover zombie-Merle chomping corpses, and has to finish him. By now well into its third series ‘The Walking Dead’ still packs a mighty gut-wrenching emotional punch. It still springs shocks.
At series end Woodbury arrives in tooled-up force, to find the prison seemingly deserted. Venturing into the ‘tombs’ they’re scattered by a sudden shock of zombies, and as they emerge they’re gunned down by Rick’s forces. Routed, the incensed Governor turns on his own men, and shoots them down in cold blood.
Carl shoots down a straggler. His father no longer the censuring authority. His talking-back independence increases. In a much later episode Rick reads a Jack London fiction collection, and Carl reads a paperback novel. What relevance are its twentieth-century urban concerns to his life of empty homes and deserted highways? This is virtually the only world he knows. A world with no time. It’s always right now…
With the community in lock-down, Carol becomes ‘changed’, killing victims before they have chance to change… or maybe recover? Rather than seek confrontation, on a trip with Rick, he permits Carol to drive away to seek her own separate future. Inevitably, she will return. As a regular cast-member Carol’s character is allowed to significantly develop away from her portrayal in the source comic-books, emerging from her initial timidity to show a strong resolve and a conflicted moral core that is a hinge in her closeness to Daryl, and later, with Morgan. Where a sense of guilt and right-and-wrong remain, in a transfigured world in which all rules have been removed, every day demands new existential decisions in a fluid situational morality. Her evolving character portrays that stress-within-ambiguity most effectively.
Again, there’s evidence of the series’ character-depth in special self-contained sequences, ‘Live Bait’/ ‘Dead Weight’ (episode 6/ 7) draws material from Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga’s 2011 spin-off novel ‘The Walking Dead: Rise Of The Governor’ (ISBN 0-312-54773-0), charting Philip Blake’s shell-shocked post-Woodbury hobo wandering when ‘I tried to die’. As a vengeful Michonne still hunts him, the Governor assumes the guise of ‘Brian Harriot’ to the holed-up Chamblers family, recognising something of his own lost daughter in their semi-mute Meghan. He’s a powerful multi-layered character with ‘ice in his veins’ and a history of being beaten-on by his mean abusive father. In that he’s humanised by this love for Penny, and his determination to protect ‘Pumpkin’ Meghan in her place, he’s seen as much victim of the apocalypse madness as he is sadistic control-freak. The only way to survive is to control events. And when he reunites with Martinez, he feeds him to the Biters-pit and murders his way into leading the group.
There are shock images – a legless amputee zombie stuck in a bathtub. Mud-zombies stuck up to their waists in marshland. Murdered Pete writhing on the lakebed as the Governor calmly looks down on him. And a relentless zombie who crawls through a blazing fire in order to reach the Governor, with the same relentless hunger that he directs at the Prison, and his personal vendetta against his only real rival Rick. But now he has a new army, with a National Guard tank, and he quickly has Hershel and Michonne as hostages in a new stand-off. It’s only when he learns that Meghan has been killed by a Biter, and when Rick’s persuasive argument seems about to sway his followers, that the Governor peremptorily beheads Hershel with Michnonne’s Samurai sword, exploding the situation into all-out war. As the tank-tracks rip the prison’s defensive barrier aside and devastates the building itself, the Walkers advance on the smashed prison, Rick and the Governor fight hand-to-hand with all the visceral hate-brutality of Rick vs Shane. It’s the classic Clash Of Titans dramatic confrontation, only decided when Michnonne spears him through, leaving his corpse for the Walkers to devour. She also skewers Hershel’s still-mouthing severed head.
So Woodbury, and the Prison community, as well as what had been the Martinez group, are shattered and scattered not by Walkers, but by intractable human antagonisms. They’re travel-grimed, spattered with blood and entrails, yet every day above ground is a win. Subsequent episodes lose focus, and drift, tracking the separate diaspora travels. Every direction is a question. Legitimising individual tales allowing relationships to be explored and deepened with back-story, flashback, backtracking and connections. Although Rick is central, it’s a group-jeopardy thing, and he doesn’t feature in every episode. Beth angles an auto wing-mirror to concentrate sunlight to ignite her campfire. Daryl skins mud-snake ‘jerky’. And there’s the darker tragedy of Tyree and Carol with Judith, Mika and deluded Lizzie. Like Hershel and the Governor before her, Lizzie can’t accept the Walker’s inhumanity, her attempts at befriending them dooms them both. While Michonne, returned to drawing two chained and armless Walkers in her wake, finds herself uncannily alongside a black woman Walker with dreads. The reflection sets off visions of her own pre-Apocalypse life, and to her first two limbless zombies, Terry and boyfriend Mike, the father of her three-year old son Andre. Haunted by images of her own dead past.
Two threads emerge. Glenn and Tara, daughter of the Chamblers family, find themselves thrown together with Dr Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) – not combat-ready or combat-inclined, and his fanatically-protective Sergeant Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) speeding on their way to Washington to ‘save the world’ in the Church bus, then by Firetruck. Claiming to have worked on the Human Genome Project weaponising diseases with pathogenic micro-organisms – as ‘The Murphy’ in ‘Z-Nation’, surly sulky Eugene offers hope of a cure for the zombie plague, to ‘make the dead die’. He wears a mullet hairstyle, which makes him a ‘fun guy’. Yet when he’s forced into an eventual admission that his fraudulent claim is merely a survival strategy, it exposes the interdependent nature of his relationship with Abraham, robbing them both of motivation.
While earlier, Daryl had heard the car-radio directing them to ‘Sanctuary’. Damn right! Now the various groups follow rail-tracks, ‘to the end of the line’ towards the next illusory sanctuary, converging on Terminus – where ‘those who arrive, survive’. Inevitably it’s not what it seems, and they soon find themselves locked into a cannibal abattoir railroad box-car. ‘You’re either the butcher. Or the cattle.’ Season four closes with a defiant Rick, ‘they’re fucking with the wrong people!’
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NO. SANCTUARY. THEN. NOW.
Very conveniently the Terminians slaughter three non-essential cast-members first, allowing escape-time by an invasion of burning Walkers ignited by Carol’s exploded fuel-tank. NEVER AGAIN. NEVER TRUST. WE FIRST ALWAYS. Then the black humour irony of ‘Pardon My Dust’. Once free the fugitives encounter Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam), the Priest of St Sarah’s Episcopal Church, who protests ‘the word of god is the only protection I need.’ In an echo of Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Masque Of The Red Death” (1842) he’d barricaded himself in the church as the plague raged beyond. Over the chapel arch there’s a grimly ironic biblical quite, ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’. Now he frantically scrubs the blasphemous bloodstains from the floor. ‘This is the lord’s house’ he argues, to the response ‘No. Just four walls and a roof.’ Although he – and Eugene, are characterised as cowardly (Eugene partially redeems himself in the episode “Spend” where he lures Walkers away from the Warehouse, allowing Glenn and others to escape), terror is surely not an unreasonable reaction to a world overrun by the flesh-eating Dead! ‘I’ve changed. I’ve adapted. I’ve become a survivor!’ Eugene protests.
‘This is the real world’ emphasises Rick. ‘No. This is a nightmare. And nightmares end’ argues Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr)… just before his leg is amputated and eaten by Terminus survivors. Eugene reads HG Wells’ ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933)… and wonders? Barricaded in a library, bookshelves form a protective wall. Paper burns in the fire. Classic Literature. Fiction. Art. Cookbooks. Reduced to utility. This is Season five, sixteen episodes, running from 12 October 2014 to 29 March 2015.
In a related strand that recalls a JG Ballard scenario, Beth wakes in the towering modernist Grady Memorial Hospital, where police and medical staff determinedly continue a surreal normality ‘safe enough to be bored.’ There’s even Caravaggio art ‘rescued from the trash.’ But following treatment, patients must work off their debt in a kind of bond-slavery, from which she – and Noah (Tyler James Williams), contrive to escape.
Again, there are stunning images. Weeds grow through a skeleton’s ribcage. The tied-up Walker kidnap-victim eternally locked in a car trunk. A pack of feral dogs that first pose a threat… then provide a campfire meal. The Priest tears pages from the bible, one by one. And tosses his dog-collar into the same consuming flames. Daryl burns a glowing cigarette into the back of his hand in pain at Beth’s death. And a haunted sun-through-the-trees collage of past-and-present spins in hallucinatory soft-focus radio-blur of voices as Tyreese Williams (Chad Coleman) succumbs to a Walker bite.
There’s a polite cocktail party in the ruins of the world. Yet, as outsiders, the group begin to be resented as a destabilising element. Is Rick the voice of New Reason? Or are his fears evidence of damaged paranoia? There’s overlong moral soul-searching, some longueur and sensitivity guilt-issues. ‘This is the beginning’ writes Noah in his journal, before he’s ripped apart on a foraging-run.
The conflicted priest, torn by doubts over his wavering faith, is a standard fictional trope. Given fresh impetus by Gabriel. How can the zombie apocalypse be interpreted and reconciled as part of a benevolent deity’s divine plan? except in terms of Old Testament harshness. ‘Faith Without Works Is Dead’ it says. Hershel had pithily mused, ‘Christ promised a resurrection of the dead, I just thought he had something a little different in mind.’ Although taken in and protected by Rick’s group, Gabriel first denounces them as evil to Deanna Monroe. Then, in a distraught suicidal state, he leaves the gates ajar sufficient for Walkers to get in, vindicating Rick’s viewpoint. It’s a dangerous world outside.
‘I know this sounds insane’ says Rick, ‘but this is an insane world.’ Opening season six – sixteen parts, 11 October 2015 to 3 April 2016, with a stylishly monochrome episode in which they attempt to lure a vast herd of Walkers penned in a quarry, away from Alexandria. But while they’re gone a ruthless scavenging group who call themselves Wolves and engrave ‘W’ on foreheads, raid Alexandria, taking lives and smashing complacency. Then, to a soundtrack of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” – an early Nick Lucas, not the Tiny Tim version, a falling clock-tower breaches the security wall, and Walkers inundate the town. The people find common cause in reclaiming Alexandria together. Deanna accepts Rick’s point of view – even though she dies defending the community, but Rick also comes around to accepting her vision of a possible more-hopeful future. Carl has lost one eye, but reads comic-books as Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” plays on the soundtrack.
As Season Seven opens they confront the expanded geography of Negan’s New World Order. The Governor was a powerful adversary. But he had human motivations. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) simply takes advantage of the social collapse to establish his own medieval fiefdom enforced by terror, demanding tithes from scattered survivor communities. The Saviours live a good life in their fortified Sanctuary – built on ‘punishment’ and tribute from their vassal states. All ‘property now belongs to Negan.’ The iron by the smelting fire in the credit-sequence takes on sinister significance, when it’s used as a torture-implement. Negan is genuinely vile. Everything good burned out of him, all that’s left is what he could always have been. A swaggering bully who feeds on the fear he inspires, brandishing his brain-biting ‘Lucille’, his barbed-wire baseball bat (‘Lucille’, named for Negan’s dead wife, was also the name of BB King’s guitar!). ‘I like killing people’ brags Negan, ‘we kill the right people in the wrongest way possible.’ The visceral fear is tangible as Rick is forced to grovel, while Glenn and Abraham are brutally battered to death. Then Daryl is left naked in the cell and fed dog-food. Playing the Collapsible Heart Club “Easy Street” over and over, until Roy Orbison’s “Crying” brings him to tears.
Within the expanded federation, first there’s the nearby Hilltop Community, administered by the vacillating Gregg (Xander Berkeley). Rick’s group become a Seven Samurai, pledged to save Hilltop from the Saviours, launching a pre-emptive attack on their stronghold beneath its big radio dishes. But it soon becomes apparent that the Satellite Station is just an outpost. Their massacre only invites lethal retaliation. ‘Confrontation has never been something we’ve had trouble with’ grits Rick with stubborn determination.
|Eugene meets Lucille|
Then it’s Morgan and Carol who first encounter the Kingdom, benignly ruled by dreadlocked King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) – a former actor/zoo-keeper, with his prowling tiger Shira. The people need a charismatic leader, so he operates on a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ principle, and becomes a charismatic leader. A warmly amused, poetically articulate and hugely likeable addition to the regular cast of characters. As persuasively eloquent, in his own way, as Rick is. He quotes from Martin Luther King’s ‘Free at last’ speech, but is initially wary of pacting with Rick’s alliance, fearing the inevitable carnage that will follow. The Kingdom functions on a ‘Drink From The Well, Replenish The Well’ co-operative basis, and has a choir that sings Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. They are nevertheless subject to Negan. And eventually come to Alexandria’s aid at the last moment. ‘Move forward’ says Ezekiel, ‘as we move the very world forward.’
While Tara Chambler (Alanna Masterson) stumbles upon the hidden Oceanside community, all of its males exterminated by the Saviours. On returning to the Safe-Zone Tara breaks her pledge to keep its secret so that Rick’s group can raid and replenish their arsenal from Oceanside’s weaponry. Tara, in the series second Gay tryst, is in a lesbian relationship with Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever), the well-meaning Alexandria medic who is shot and killed by Dwight. Then, when Rosita attempts to shoot Negan, her bullet impacts Lucille instead, and Dwight kills Olivia (Ann Mahoney) in random retaliation. While Sasha listens to Donny Hathaway on her iPod in the coffin Negan has placed her within.
Eugene finds a replacement ‘Abraham’ – bizarrely, by accepting Negan’s protection. Taken initially as a hostage his inventiveness soon establishes his value, and with his own survival at a premium, he opts to accept the benefits of the Sanctuary. While the loyalty of Negan’s compromised lieutenant, Dwight (Austin Amelio) – facially disfigured by a Negan punishment-ordeal, depends on the wellbeing of his wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista) who is now one of Negan’s harem of ‘wives’. When she escapes, his allegiances become more fluid.
By season’s end, all the loose plot-strands are drawing into focus, and the fight-back begins, despite the Junk-yard people’s betrayal, a last-minute intervention by the Kingdom and Hilltop joins with Alexandria to repulse the Saviours. Ezekiel promises that victory, and freedom will follow ‘as sure as the day defeats the night.’ Episode 1 of Season 8 is dedicated ‘In Memory Of George A Romero’, the man who had resurrected the zombie-movie in its modern form, who had died 16 July 2017. And a ‘Mad Max’ convoy of vehicles armoured with corrugated metal-sheets draws the mass Walker-herd in at Negan’s stockade, while other groups strike at Saviour outposts.
There are casualties. Ezekiel defends what he terms their ‘bastion of life in the land of the dead’ by leading his group against ‘a powerful force of bloodthirsty rogues and unrepentant cutthroats bent on nothing short of our pitiless destruction.’ Yet, ambushed and mown down, the king’s slaughtered army begin to reanimate and turn on him. ‘You got ‘em killed, and they’re still following you’ mock the Saviours. Even Shira is devoured by Walkers, and Ezekial retreats to the Kingdom tormented by a loss of confidence.
There are still lighter touches at the zombie funfair, with a zombie in the cash-booth. Rick has always been conflicted by the urgent needs for survival against his more humanitarian instincts. There are loop-backs here in his disagreement with Carl over lone straggler Siddiq (Avi Nash), and his confrontation with Daryl over breaking the Sanctuary siege. In another moment of distraught anguish, Rick finds ‘Grace Be God’ tattooed around the nipple of a man he’s just killed. Then finds baby ‘Gracie’ in her cot. While, caught in another moral dilemma, Jesus keeps Saviour prisoners caged at Hilltop, although Maggie ‘The Widow’ doubts its wisdom, and Gregg wheedles.
Saviours convene a crisis confab meeting, with the Sanctuary besieged by the surrounding Walker herd, and Negan missing – presumed dead. He’s holed up in a caravan with Priest Gabriel. They escape only by using the guise Glenn had showed Rick in long-ago Atlanta, of draping themselves in entrails. Eugene’s plan to ‘pied-piper’ the encircling Walkers away with Sasha’s iPod fixed to a radio-controlled model-plane is beaten first by Dwight, ‘the Saviours are finished. Negan is finished. This place, what it’s been, that’s all over,’ then by Daryl’s truck rammed through the Sanctuary doors enabling the Walkers access. But this inadvertently supplies plentiful corpses to allow another of Eugene’s brain-waves. Negan escapes by erecting a ‘Walkers Wall’ to create a clear escape passage through. Then he counter-attacks. Using Walker-infected weaponry against Hillside. Maggie is the Lady With The Lamp in the impromptu hospital, as the wounded begin to turn. Yet ‘alive or dead, or somewhere between,’ increasingly disaffected right-hand man Simon begins to believe that ‘they don’t scare’.
Contrary to Negan’s instructions – that ‘people are a resource’, Simon (Steven Ogg) massacres the Junk-Yard people. When the bodies turn Jadis is forced to pitch them through the waste-shredder, with minced-Walker emerging on the conveyor belt. She emerges to capture Negan in retaliation, and locks him in the same container she’d used to imprison Rick. Carl dies from an infected bite as Alexandria burns around them. To Negan he was Rick’s ‘little one-eyed pride and joy,’ the central moral core and motivation of his life. While – in the struggle for the Kingdom, in a clear metaphor for Carl’s own brutalisation, Saviour lieutenant Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) is stabbed through the throat and killed by Henry (Macsen Lintz), vengeful younger brother of deceased Benjamin, and tutored in martial arts by Morgan. The image continues to accuse Morgan, much as the phantom-Lori continued to haunt Rick. With first Lori and now Carl gone, Rick’s family loyalties centre around Michonne and Judith, although he acknowledges she’s not his child, but Shane’s.
Yet episode sixteen of series eight brings a kind of closure. In spite of Negan’s intention of inflicting ‘death by a thousand cuts to the ass-holes.’ Despite Simon’s plots and Gregg’s intrigues. Negan reasserts his alpha-male status in raw-knuckle combat, killing Simon with his bare hands and chaining his zombie-self to the perimeter, then uses Dwight’s duplicity against Hilltop by feeding them misleading plans. Yet in the final battle, Oceanside intervenes at Hilltop, Eugene has built deliberate flaws into the bullets he’s manufactured for the Saviours – following Gabriel’s example, so that Rick’s AK47 and his rabble of ‘pricks, dicks and hicks’ win through. And as with Rick’s dramatically-staged confrontation with Shane, and his intensely personal vendetta against the Governor, Rick and Negan come into hand-to-hand struggle for a blazing Lucille surrounded in stark relief by burning Walkers. Then again, after the Saviours defeat, pleading for Carl’s hope for reconciliation, Negan pauses long enough for Rick to slash his throat with a glass-shard.
Of course, we all know it’s not exactly going to be quite like that. Morgan recruits ‘Annie’ Jadis to Alexandria, but there are leaked details of season nine to come, and probably more seasons beyond that. While Daryl releases a broken and penitent Dwight to seek lost wife Sherry, he’s also plotting with Maggie to exact a more extreme vengeance against Negan than mere imprisonment. There are threads to be picked up. In a neat marketing synergy the comicbook series, with regular catch-up anthology editions, continue springing further potential plotlines, not only in the specialist comic stores but on the shelves of ‘Waterstones’ and what’s left of ‘WH Smiths’. Although undead, the ‘Walking Dead’ is still very much vigorously alive. Yet this is a convenient point to hop off the ‘Walking Dead’ carousel. At least for the moment.