Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Walking Dead season 5 finale + season review

“They’ll try to find us, use us, kill us. But we’ll kill them. We’ll survive. We show you how.”

This season posed some pointed themes, chiefly (a) those whose position got stronger due to the apocalypse suddenly find themselves useless again (b) how do people return to normality after war and (c) the perennial question, how can you be good in a ruthless, dangerous world? Walking Dead’s fifth season culminates in a typically epic and resonant manner with no easy resolutions, the re-appearance of an old friend and lots of questions for next season. The Fourth Wall episode rating: 8/10The Fourth Wall season rating: 7/10.
“There’s an ocean of shit out there and you people don’t know shit about it. Rick knows every fine grain of shit and then some.”

Bob. Tyreese. Beth. Noah. Dawn. Reg. Buttons. Aiden. Red poncho guy. Dead. A propane tank blown up. A leg cut off and eaten. A naked woman tied to a tree ALIVE and eaten by walkers. Walking Dead season 5 was a balls-in-the-air experiment in gore and warfare that I enjoyed immensely. I have some reservations about some of the rampant soul-searching that went on this season, but it also had a narrative arc that was satisfying. Let's dive in.

For most of the 20th century, TV was a distant ugly sister to the movies, until it was upended by The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and so on. Today, TV is clearly the more original, thematic and daring of the two formats, and the Walking Dead is a classic example of this. TWD’s genius is in successfully marrying the narrative arc that 16 episodes a season gets you with the budgets of a major Hollywood movie. At its best, TWD is an enigmatic tale of a world upturned and one particular troupe’s battle to survive it, a sort of sci-fi allegory for war and trauma. The big budget, the stunning photography and courage to go into uncharted territory make the Walking Dead one of the best shows on TV. Unfortunately, season 4 was a bit ‘miss’, but season 5 is clearly a ‘hit’. There are many who say that TWD only works when the primary group is ‘on the hop’ and moving from place to place, but season 5 has shown that TWD can stay in one place without stagnating.

Sheriff/Constable Rick Grimes has been an almost peripheral figure at times this season, but we all knew that the series finale was going to revolve around him. After all, Rick Grimes is the story of Walking Dead writ large – like the rest of his band of brothers, he lost almost everything but like his group, learned to be hard, disciplined and ruthless in order to survive. Like his group, he found (and fought) one grotesquely damaged group after another, only to encounter a bona fide charming town like Alexandria. Imagine their shock – all the loss, desperation and violence they experienced just to survive, and then to find a place that had lasted so long, with the residents’ biggest problem being finding a pasta-maker. It’s enough to make anybody go mad.

And so season 5 exposed a lot of rifts amongst our band - Michonne and Glenn wanting to make a go of Alexandria while Rick and Carol didn’t, Father Gabriel seemingly breaking with God, Sasha seeming losing her mind to grief, Abraham losing the entire point of his life since the apocalypse, and so on. And yet, by the end of the final episode, we watch Abraham, Carol and Maggie all make moving speeches about how Rick is a necessary evil, with our band of brothers coming together to defend itself in a “one for all, all for one”-style salvo.

But this becomes moot, since final-episode shenanigans overtake these character storylines, almost as though the showrunners didn’t trust the characterisations and situations they had already set-up. I felt as though Rick was let off the hook by two things: the fortuitous arrival of walkers that allowed Rick to perfectly illustrate why the town needs him. And secondly, the almost unbelievable murder of Reg by Pete, which also vindicated Rick. In fact, how could Rick have been more vindicated? And then suddenly the episode turns in on itself, AGAIN, by placing somebody we saw in the first TWD episode ever, Morgan, face to face with Rick. Yes everyone, Morgan’s back! Everybody’s favourite WalkingDeader is kicking all kinds of posterior in Alexandria.

This episode revelled in bringing the past to the present – we got to hear Bob’s disembodied voice speak on nightmares having an end while Rick debated on how to act at the meeting, Carol was reminded of her abusive husband and then, of course, the re-appearance of Morgan. In a very literal, human sense, Rick’s past has just caught up with him. Rick in that moment is reminded of what he was and what he is now. What he is now is a brutal and rapacious tyrant and what he was then was a true 'Constable', still convinced that they could be good AND survive. Morgan, on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction: he had lost hope in in ‘Clear’ ("The weak people…we have inherited the earth") but is now a calm, confident survivor who wouldn’t even kill those who want to kill him. It’ll be fascinating to see Morgan’s backstory next season. That one look between Rick and Morgan said SO much. Rick's confident, emphatic dispatching of Pete gave way to complete bewilderment.
Rick had a typically central role this season, igniting the ferocious bid for freedom in Terminus, peculiar journey this season, existing on the periphery while the Beth/Dawn and Abraham/Rosita/Eugene stories played out.

Like Game of Thrones, another thematically rich show, TWD is unforgiving to its characters’ mistakes – they all get punished. In Game of Thrones, Robb Stark's decision to marry the woman he loves rather than the one he was betrothed to had tragic consequences. Here, Morgan erred by not killing the Wolves, and they went on to kill Red Poncho Guy and will surely wreak tremendous havoc next season. Carol’s brutal downsizing of Pete led to his breakdown (“this isn’t my house!”, he wailed impotently) and subsequent accidental death of Reg. Red Poncho Guy is emblematic of a persistent Walking Dead theme - should you try to save everybody? Aaron admits that he and Daryl should’ve saved him, as with the backpacker on the road in season 4. The group as a whole makes a mistake much earleir in the season, in episode 1, in fact: after escaping from Terminus, Rick proposes to hunt down and kill the Terminus survivors, but the others vote him down. The Terminus nutjobs come back to abduct Bob (specifically, his left leg).

“They’re try to find us, use us, kill us. But we’ll kill them. We’ll survive. We show you how.”
But back to Rick for a minute – he continues to be a cipher for how our band of brothers will adapt to a ‘normal’, if complacent, life in a picturesque town. The blow to his head (and self-esteem) in the previous episode didn’t actually depose him as top dog, but merely caused temporary embarrassment. No sense of this from his subsequent behaviour though – he’s already plotting to take over the town at the start of the final episode. He seems to be a little unsure about executing his threat, whereas Carol has become a real menace, intimidating everybody in sight.

Wolves: “I want everything you have. I’m taking you too, and you’re not exactly gonna be alive.”
Morgan: “I will not allow you to take me away”.
The Wolves – I quite enjoyed the scene between Wolves psychopath #1 and Morgan. The scene was well shot, with psychopath #1 walking quietly onto Morgan’s campsite and calmly pointing a gun at him. The ensuing dialogue was almost artistic, with an almost satirical discussion on just sitting and talking as equals (despite the gun being pointed at Morgan). The unloaded gun seems to imply that the Wolves aren’t as well armed as we might think, but completely insane and very intelligent. Psychopath #1 says that talking to Morgan is “like the movies”. Quite.

Daryl and Aaron - Daryl has signified one of the main themes of the season, namely how do war survivors fit back into civilian life? Most of the group seems to be doing ok with this, but definitely not Carol and mostly not Rick. Losing Beth was devastating for Daryl, who seems to have a strange need to attach himself to somebody. Also, why does Daryl commit the rookie mistake of simply opening a big container? Have we not learned from the fire truck incident or various other “knock knock” events? The scene in the car was true Walking Dead drama: two characters discussing their feelings while walkers claw at the window. Much of the show takes place in the spaces between walkers, almost as if that’s the only chance of truth breaking out. Daryl’s narrative arc seems to have involved him losing his brother, trusting Rick and co and then losing Beth, all of which doesn’t appear to have traumatised him that much.

“I could kill you. I will…you’re a small weak nothing. With the way the world is, you’re even less”
“And I want my dish back clean when you’re done”
Carol seems to be menacing everybody in sight, from snooping children to big, violent men. Her scene with Pete is probably the most powerful scene of the season, showing us this little woman terrifying a big scary guy to death. This marks an end to Carol's transition from mousey “battered wife” to a snarling menace who now embodies the main group's spirit more than anybody else. It also brings back the spectre of her abusive husband Ed, who didn’t even last the first season. Here, she exorcises her domestic abuse demons by humiliating Pete and sending him over the edge, with disastrous consequences. 

But atleast Carol got closure by saying to Pete what she never got to say to Ed. I genuinely think Carol is the most interesting character on the show right now. In the context of the wider season, let's remember that Carol played a major role in saving Rick and co. at Terminus. As usual, Carol has been in and out of the season but she made a telling contribution right off the bat by helping our group escape from Terminus (by blowing up the propane tank). I also loved her coy little speech at the town hall meeting about how Rick would save "people like us" from the bad guys. At this point I'd say Carol is more capable of saving Rick from baddies than the other way round.

Which is all more than I can say for Father Gabriel, who, riven by guilt, is projecting onto “our” group his own mistakes and shortcomings. A waste of space in characterisation terms, although Seth Gilliam does a good job with the material.

The Walking Dead season 5 review

But then the season has its weaknesses too: a long-running weakness of TWD is its treatment of black characters, its women and sudden sidelining of formerly important units. One of my main criticisms of this season in particular has been the sidelining of Glenn and Maggie – Maggie was always a thinly-sketched, if occasionally enjoyable, character. Maggie wasn’t even given good screentime to grieve for her dead sister, instead being put to acting as a foil for Abraham. Unfortunately, TWD has a problem with its female characters, with Carol as the only interesting one (although she does make up for it to some extent). Sasha continues to be a parody of angst rather than deep-seated trauma – I say this because her story seems to have no relation whatsoever to any other storylines and for other reasons feels artificial and irrelevant.

Rosita seems to be present entirely to be the eye candy (and part of the only sex scene in season 5), with just one meaningful exchange to her name. Note the list of dead characters above – note how the list includes 3 black characters and only one major white character (Beth). Some feel that this doesn’t matter, but it’s hard to escape the eminent kill-off-ability of black characters in American TV. This is particularly pointed in TWD, since it insists on introducing new black characters, only to kill them off within a season, or worse, after an interminable period of pointlessness (rest in peace, T-Dawg). Michonne, Sasha and Gabriel, consider your time marked.

Fortunately, TWD has a varied narrative arc that takes us to many places. The season had several distinct partsepisodes 1-3 dealt with Terminus, in some of the most gory and gruelling images of TWD. TWD loves to engage in grey areas, and Terminus represents somewhat of a grey area: yes, they're nasty cannibals who lure people in with false pleasantries. But they're also survivors of rape and violence - they played the lambs, now they play the wolves.

Episodes 2-4 deal with Terminus aftermath and introduce Father Gabriel and his church. TWD isn't one to lay on allegory too subtly - when the zombie apocalypse happened, Gabriel's flock ran to his church for protection, but he kept the doors shut, ensuring their death. Gabriel spends the rest of the season dealing with this in a cowardly way, time and time again willing zombies to kill him, each time being saved by Rick or his own self preservation instinct. The show is saying to us: even a devout man of God needs to protect himself and it doesn't necessarily make him a bad person. A great turn by Seth Gilliam, by the way. 'Four Walls and a Roof' has an excellent shot of Rick and co leaving the church down a path, immediately followed by the Terminus nutjobs revealing themselves from the shrubbery in order to lay waste to the church. This was shot continuously, which was genuinely unnerving and well executed. 

Beth's storyline felt like the odd one out this season because it dropped one of the regular cast into an entirely new environment, although the themes were the same: things are not what they seem, everybody had to make hard choices to survive (e.g. one of the 2 Doctors assassinating the other Dr. in order to ensure his importance) and yet another new leadership style (allowing your officers to "have their way" with patients in order to blow off some steam, apparently).

Episodes 5-6 follows two groups on the road, with the admission by Eugene that his "mission" to save humanity is a lie meant to protect him being the plot highlight. I had mixed feelings about this - on the one hand TWD is good because knowing that there is no Walker elixir and that this world is probably permanent gives the show a sense of reality and longevity. On the other hand, without a grand overarching plot device like a "cure", TWD becomes characterisation-heavy, which is fine for Mad Men or Breaking Bad but takes the steam out of a zombie show.

Episodes 7-8 focus on our group's attempts to get to Beth and Carol in the hospital. Rick shows us his brutal side again, running down and then executing a Police Officer from the Hospital. We also see Dawn, the leader of the Hospital, lose control as others begin to question her authority. Yet again a model of leadership breaking down, this time one that is held by a seemingly authoritative woman in a uniform, no less. Beth and Dawn, both women in a shared destiny, die in the 'exchange' at the hospital. Neither character aroused particular interest for me and so I wasn't particularly sad to see them go. Dawn joins the Governor, Gareth and other series of leaders into the scrapheap of TWD, although atleast she was a decent human being at heart. This made no difference, anyway.

Episodes 9-11 Episode 9 is unusual in having a hallucination sequence where Tyreese is haunted by those who have died so far in an internal dialogue about whether Tyreese's actions have been good or bad. Frankly at this point, I was being turned off with this constant insistence to talk about morality. Ok, we get it, it's ambiguous and characters feel guilty and conflicted. Yawn. Ex-Wire alumnus Chad Coleman does a reasonably enthusiastic job with the material but we've seen so much of this already! Plus being taken down by walkers in a child's bedroom just doesn't have the same zing to it as Shane's death (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iLP4WKEvHA). And so, for possibly the 1,000th time in its history, Rick and co. are back on the road in some southern state (Virginia, I think). I was afraid that we'd gone back to square one and that although they had a mission, they wouldn't get to complete it. Fortunately, I was wrong. They arrive at Alexandria, after an entire episode dedicated to showing us just how paranoid and traumatised our group has become. Again, no points for subtlety.

Episodes 12-16 - So anyway, at this point, episode names become quite direct: Remember, Forget, Spend, Try & Conquer – all things our group is trying to do. In ‘Remember’, our group remembers Terminus, the Governor, etc and how they’ve been duped before. In ‘Forget’, they are forced to forget previous trauma and adjust to civilian life, with Carol pretending to be a homemaker, Rick and Michonne acting as cops and Carl acting like, well, a 14 year old boy. Which he is. ‘Spend’ is more cryptic but might as well refer to spending the goodwill that had been generated by our group, while Try and Conquer referring to a failed attempt at melding into Alexandria and the subsequent takeover.

One of the most striking things

Other notes:
The primary group has gotten rid of its typical induction interview: (1) How many walkers have you killed? (2) How many people have you killed? (3) Why?. I quite liked these questions, they revealed so much so quickly.
The town is run by solar panels that seem to require very little specialised care. Hmm, how tidy.
Alexandria is presented in the usual way that Americans represent the US – it doesn't matter where you come from, but as long as you follow the rules, you can stay and prosper. From many, one. Until Rick and co spoil the party.
Is Glenn finally immortal? He had several near misses this episode, seemingly surviving them reasonably well.

So that’s it for season 5 – see you again in about 6-8 months for season 6. I can’t wait to see Morgan’s story and how the new Alexandria looks…

“They’ll try to find us, use us, kill us. But we’ll kill them. We’ll survive. We show you how.” Wow, an amazing season...
Posted by The Fourth Wall on Monday, 30 March 2015

No comments: