I don’t mind if it takes the heroes (and anti-heroes, and potential zombie food) of The Walking Dead a long time to get to their destination. The show had serious pacing issues in the middle of its first season, and so far this season, life’s been one unintentional detour after another for Rick and the rest. They decided to go to Fort Benning after the CDC exploded, and that’s a decent plan: those of us in the audience realize it will almost certainly backfire horribly in some way, because that’s how these stories work, but it’s still a logical choice for folks who don’t really know any better. Since making that decision, Dale’s RV has broken down, Sophia’s gone wandering off into the woods, T-Dog has badly injured his arm, and Carl got himself shot. Most of these problems have been resolved, but they have a tendency to lead to new problems, or new kinds of delay; Carl’s wounds brought us to the house of the kindly Dr. Hershel, whose bucolic residence may just be the haven these battered souls need to restore themselves. Provided, that is, Hershel lets them stick arond. And there’s still Sophia, wandering around the zombie infested woods, human or otherwise. (At this point, her being gone has turned into one of those jokes that goes on so long that it stops being funny, then keeps going, and at some point may actually start being funny—or interesting—again.)
I had a problem with the show’s tendency to wander into cul-de-sacs in the first season, mainly because so much of it felt redundant, the work of writers who had no real idea how to construct narrative television. But this season, I’m starting to think they’re getting a handle on things, and “Cherokee Rose” is the sort of episode I’d like to see more off as The Walking Dead continues. There are no major shocks here; Sophia doesn’t wander into camp, nobody dies. The biggest revelation is Lori’s back-field pregnancy test. “Rose” makes sure we know exactly how much of a pain in the ass it would be to take a test like that on the sly, and while Lori is still her usual, pissy self (ha!), she has a goal here beyond just general negativity. It was inevitable that one of the women of the group would get pregnant at some point, given how scary and unsettling a post-apocalypse pregnancy could be, but it’s still a reasonable, solid story development. I’m not sure the test would register positive quite as quickly as it does here, but I’m willing to let that slide. Having a bun in the oven in a world with no easy access to health care is going to focus Lori’s priorities in a hurry, and it’s also going to make Rick’s negotiations with Hershel all the more crucial. Giving birth at the farmhouse, with a relatively qualified physician, is far, far preferable to, well, most any other option on the table right now.
That said, this wasn’t a mind-blowing shock. I’m sure many of us saw this coming (especially after it was telegraphed earlier in the episode when Lori ask Glenn to get her something special from the drugstore—there’s not a whole lot of different things that could’ve been), but regardless, I can’t imagine the little pink plus having the same impact as the bullet that went through Carl’s chest, or last week’s flashback to what really happened between Shane and Otis. The big twists make for great TV, and I expect we’ll see more of them as the season goes on, but they can’t be all you have. You build a show on major surprises, your audience starts to tense up for those surprises before they hit, making them less effective; even worse (because really, any smart, thrilling show is going to have to compensate for an increasingly intelligent audience), too many sudden reversals and you threaten to undo the fabric of the narrative. Those twists have be a twist on something that exists outside the shock. Like, Carl’s getting shot was a surprise because we assumed he was safe in a peaceful moment, and because we’d been led to believe that zombies were the only real danger. And Shane’s betrayal of Otis was a big deal because the two guys had been getting on famously before then, and because we thought Shane was, if a bit screwed up at times, not a horrible asshole.
Of course, we also knew that Shane was capable of sudden, self-serving violence, like the rape attempt back at the CDC. That’s the other half of an effective twist; it takes a turn we don’t expect, but it also needs to be a turn that has some foundation in what’s happened before, even if that foundation is hard to pick out in advance. Basically, a twist should make us go, “Holy shit!” in the first minute, and then, as the event sinks in and the surprise wears off, that twist needs to make sense in the framework of the show. If aliens suddenly arrived at Hershel’s doorstop, that would be a Holy Shit moment, but it would also be a ridiculous stretch on everything else we’ve seen; or, to operate from a character standpoint, if Andrea went out of her mind and shot everyone, that would be a surprise, but it wouldn’t be a good surprise. There’s nothing about Andrea that indicates she has the potential for a killing spree. But Shane? Shane’s a wild card, so last week’s discovery of just how far he’d go to protect himself worked both as a great closing scene, and also as a character beat.
Which brings us back to tonight’s episode (thank god). Again, no real huge shockers, but what “Rose” did do was give us a clearer understanding of the people we’re spending time with on Sunday nights. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say this was all handled deftly, but for once, the ensemble had conversations that didn’t revolve around the threat of getting eaten, and those conversations also didn’t bore me to tears. Rick and Hershel discussing the situation; Glenn and Maggie taking a ride into town and having sex; Andrea and Shane talking about gun safety; Daryl bringing Carol a Cherokee Rose to show he still has faith they’ll find Sophia alive. These are broad stroke dialogs that don’t make their point with any particular subtlety, but they worked, because they felt like organic developments. One of my biggest frustrations with the series is that too often, the dialog comes across like the work of writers shooting in the dark to try and find something, anything, to keep a scene going. I rarely, if ever, felt that way tonight. Andrea and Shane’s conversation about how hard it is to kill an assailant even had subtext! Yeah, Maggie and Glenn hooking up at the drugstore is sort of goofy. Everyone on this show continues to wander around like they can’t remember how zombies don’t generally announce themselves before attacking, but I’m slowly becoming okay with this. Besides, the Maggie/Glenn relationship works well enough, and I’m just grateful that Glenn’s getting more to do. He’s one of the few characters this show has who isn’t seemingly buried up to the neck in angst.
And if that wasn’t enough Glenn action for you (heh), he also takes point in “Rose”’s only zombie subplot, the discovery of the fat dead guy in the well. Here’s an example of The Walking Dead embracing its occasional stupidity in an entertaining fashion. There is no reason on Earth that our heroes should put the time and effort they put into getting that zombie out of the well. Hershel has other wells on his property, and while everyone makes a big deal of not shooting the thing before they pull it up, since that would “contaminate the water,” let’s be honest: you’d have to be an idiot to drink from that well no matter how carefully the zombie was extracted. The damn thing has been rotting and dripping fluids down there for god knows how long. (Which means that the people on the farm have, presumably, already drunk the contaminated water and not gotten sick from it, but still. Ew.) Contamination or no, there is absolutely no reason that Glenn should risk his life as “bait” to pull the well-thing up and out onto the ground. It’s idiotic, and nobody seems to realize just how idiotic it is; there are protests, but nobody says, “Hey, you know, we have other wells, but I don’t think we have any back-up Glenns, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea.”
Maybe that’s the point, though. These are people who have had their usual reasons for survival stripped away. Lori’s doom and gloom last week was too on point (and too connected to Carl) for me to accept it, but I can believe that standing in the wasteland of the world could make you a little less likely to make smart choices. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but the way the plan develops here, without anyone so much as wondering if this was really the best way to spend their time, has a certain, “We don’t question things so much anymore, and we could really use a win” vibe. We can nitpick the show on logic—and that’s part of the fun of watching, in a way—but it isn’t that hard to believe these characters aren’t firing on all cylinders by now. As a bonus, it all ends in the most hilarious way possible; Glenn gets the rope around the zombie’s middle, but none of these morons considered that a waterlogged corpse, however ambulatory, isn’t going to have the greatest structural integrity. The zombie splits in two just as it’s coming over the lip of the well (thus earning this episode’s pre-cold open violence warning), dumping its guts back into the water. So, Glenn: 1, Walking Dead: 1, everybody else: 0.
Finally, there’s Rick and Hershel’s talks, which reveal that, underneath his soft-spoken, country-doc exterior, Hershel isn’t afraid of saying no to strangers. Something’s going on there, and it’s only going to get more tense when Lori’s pregnancy comes out, but I suspect we’ll be dealing with that more next week. “Rose” was fun to watch (I think this might have been the most consistently entertaining episode of the season), and it set up some problems and character dynamics that will hopefully develop further in the weeks ahead. More and more, I’ve been getting faith that The Walking Dead might actually work as a TV series; not just a collection of “Holy shit!” moments and good scare scenes, but an honest to god, fairly consistent series, fully of relationships and people whose conversations I don’t dread hearing. So yeah, I don’t mind if it takes longer to get to Fort Benning, if Rick and the others even get there at all. If the days and nights on Hershel’s farm continue to be this rewarding, I’ll consider them time well spent. That’s the key quality of a hang-out show, a fictional work which invites its audience to appreciate its world as much as its story, and that’s basically what Walking Dead has become: a place where I don’t mind hanging out for a hour or two, laughing at the idiots while hoping they won’t die. At least, not quite yet.
- I said in my review of the season premiere that the show had gone far enough away from the comic book to make comparisons largely irrelevant. I still think that’s mostly true, but I do appreciate the way the TV series keeps tossing in different bits from Kirkman. This strikes me as a smart idea: the show writers can keep the plot points that worked, without being lavishly (and needlessly) faithful.
- Otis gets a modest funeral tonight, and Shane’s forced attempts at a eulogy were funny in all sorts of mean ways. As was his redneck-from-Hell outfit.
- “Hello, farmer’s daughter.” Glenn, please don’t ever change.
- “I hear you’re fast on your feet and know how to get in and out.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.
- “I’ll have sex with you.” “Really? …why?” (While the surprise sex scene is a little on the fantasy side, I did appreciate that the show had them hook up after Glenn’s actions at the well. Maggie was there to see him both risk his life, reminding everyone how freakin’ dangerous their world is, and also successfully complete his mission while everyone else was screwing up. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?)
- Did I mention Carl woke up? Well, Carl woke up. Rick gave him the sheriff’s hat, which, I gotta say, was adorable.