The Walking Dead - "Wildfire" & "TS-19"

Let's wrap this up shall we? The final two episodes of this short premiere season of The Walking Dead were both essentially solid ones, despite reports that the ENTIRE writing staff is now turning over for next season. The reason for those firings (or shit-cannings, the term I prefer) could well lie in the way poignant reveals and new information seemed to give themselves away (like Merle's hand removal and Jim's grave digging), telegraphed to the extent that they were barely as interesting a cap to their respective episodes as the preceding scenes. That could be the reason, but the real truth of it is unclear. When paced well, as it often is, The Walking Dead is phenomenal television, and great morsels of zombie-related violence and social interaction. And both "Wildfire" and "TS-19" offer good examples, if not overflowing with either.

For "Wildfire" we see a brief glimpse of Rick's vulnerability in the form of a walkie-talkie message intended for Morgan and Duane. But the real juice of the opening of the episode is Andrea presiding over Amy's death, and reanimation. Seeing Amy come back to life, zombified, is not a moment of horror (those are relegated to Daryl removing zombie heads with a shovel blow), instead it's a moment of pristine sadness and a quiet argument for euthanasia. But even more so, it contrasts Andrea with Morgan's inability to shoot his wife from "Days Gone Bye." Andrea shows incredible strength and does what has to be done out of love. It's tragic, and one of the most genuinely emotional scenes in the show. The only failing is that the show hasn't been around long enough for us to fully care about all these people. So, even as Amy is put down, and the other survivors lost are buried, we don't know much about who these people are, so their loss, though elementarily sad isn't heartbreaking. But we get a set up for an emotional connection from Dale, who seems to have been near-hermit prior to meeting Andrea and Amy, who redeemed him (possibly by being blonde).

And then we find out Jim, grave-digger and sad sack, was bit during the attack. A bland and essential debate follows. Rick wants to get Jim help, Daryl wants to blow his brains out. But all of it leads to the exodus that is the crux of the final two episodes. The gang, these survivors, now growing fewer and fewer, especially because Morales and his family decide not to go along, are heading to the CDC seeking a last bastion of humanity and the holy grail of solutions to their shared problem. They hit the road, with Jim growing ill in the back of the RV, as a caravan. And in a stroke of narrative luck, the RVs radiator hose breaks, which was set up in the second episode, and Jim decides he's too ill to go on. Rick reluctantly leaves Jim by the side of the road and they drive on to the CDC. What I've learned from this first season is that these characters all have deep emotional concerns, a clear truism when it comes to the apocalypse, but something that needs stronger dialogue to convey fully.

Anyway, we get a shot, of a scientist in a lab, performing tests on zombie flesh, and then cursing his mistake as the lab is burned clean of contagions by its semi-sentient (Resident Evil-esque) computer. This man lives inside the CDC, and he has all the luxuries of safety, and all the horrors of complete solitude. And that's when the gang shows up. We get a brief bit of zombie shooting action before Rick loses his cool completely at the locked CDC door. But, in cliffhanger-y fashion, the door opens at the last second. And the gang appears to be safe for now. "Wildfire" is about the thickest episode when it comes to emotional core of the series so far, following the implied introspection of "Days Gone Bye." It's a good episode, but the story seems sometimes forced to plod forward. Perhaps the reason "Days Gone Bye" was such a revelation was because there were sustained moments without dialogue. And since that point, the show has used dialogue to tell us things, when it should only be for characters to say what is on their mind.

The season finale "TS-19" takes place almost entirely inside the CDC building. We discover the name of the doctor, Edwin Jenner, who is the last man alive in the whole complex. The others either fled to their families or took their own lives. He's a sad man, who doesn't say much, but always wears a look of depression. So, as the survivors enjoy booze and food for the first time in safety in a while, he looms unhappily in the background. And we find out why. The big reveals (there are two) give us a look at how zombification works, essentially killing the brain, but relighting the brain stem, giving these zombies the brain power of reptiles. (The title, is Test Subject 19, who, it turns out was Jenner's wife.) The reptile thing is often used, that low brain function is like a reptile, but here's my issue with that: Reptiles don't attack constantly and still behave on some level of instinct. The zombies, maybe starving of live flesh may be in full on hunger mode, but they could still demonstrate the capacity for learning, i.e. guns bad, walk away, or something.

So, we know how zombies are made, and we know that Jenner lost his wife and his hope. And for a series that centers on Rick's infallible hope, this is a blow to the group. When we find out that the whole CDC will shut down and burn itself out (to prevent the leaking of deadly pathogens), hope is lost in everyone to some degree. Andrea is the most ready to give up, followed by Jacqui (who is a "who's that" character to the extreme). They decide, as Jenner did long ago, to die. Dale gets mad and finally convinces Andrea to live, but Jacqui stays, and by the grace of a grenade found in a tank in episode two, the surviving survivors get out and last through an irrationally large explosion. The future is unclear, there are secrets and now these people are back out on the road.

I'm sure, from my tone throughout this that the impression is that The Walking Dead ended a bit lamely. It did in the sense of a wounded animal trying to walk on a bad leg, but the animal itself is still solid. We're getting more emotional power from the show, but the direction isn't always clear. And now, as I forgot to mention, with Shane and Rick's conflict rising, and Shane and Lori's conflict growing, there's a lot of story to tell. Hopefully with next season we'll transition away from some of the more soap operatic moments and toward concise dialogue that parallels the darkness within the plot lines more effectively. I'm very excited for where The Walking Dead goes this next year, and the opportunity to care more and more about the characters involved. This is complex series that doesn't always seem content to hold back, but if it does, to hold a bit of mystery without becoming listless and circuitous like the later seasons of LOST, it will be truly incredible television.

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