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?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 8, Episode 15 Review: ‘Worth’

(Photo Credit: AMC)

The Walking Dead
Season 8, Episode 15

Season 8B started off with a bang, bringing Carl Grimes’ chapter to an emotionally poignant close, despite having already revealed his death in the midseason finale, two and a half months prior. Unlike past seasons of The Walking Dead, the rest of 8B was able to keep the momentum going, churning out a string of five quality episodes, with episode eleven as the only arguable blemish (61% on Rotten TomatoesI thought it was fine). Things take a bit of a turn this week, as the season’s penultimate episode, “Worth,” feels a little underwhelming outside of the final fifteen minutes or so. But, those fifteen minutes are quite the ride, and provide an intriguing lead-in to next week’s season finale.

Rick finally gets around to reading his letter from Carl, and while it’s certainly touching to hear the voice of Chandler Riggs recount fond memories of a pre-apocalypse childhood gone by, the whole “let’s all be best pals” message doesn’t fit in very well with the show’s overall tone. Throughout its eight-season run, The Walking Deadhas constantly flirted with the idea that maybe Rick and Co. shouldn'tsolve all of their problems by just shooting them in the face. However, this has never really been made into a compelling case because every time a character does have a stroke of pacifism, they either a) almost immediately get killed off (Tyreese, Carl, etc.), or b) eventually revert back to their murder-y ways (Morgan, Carol, etc.). No matter how close a character comes to embracing non-violent means, the show never fails to hurl the group, guns blazing, into the next skirmish- a constant reminder of the dystopian need for calculated, violent measures.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for complicated moral questions, but the key to these kinds of questions is nuance, and it feels like characters in The Walking Deadonly ever swing between two beats. They're either hellbent on kicking ass and taking names, or they can't even bring themselves to touch a flyswatter. There's very rarely any middle ground. Plus, when characters switch between these two paradigms, it's often done with little rhyme or reason- characters abruptly change course because the story calls for it, rather than cohesive character development. Building up to one expectation, and then just switching to the exact opposite, isn’t dramatic, it’s just sloppy writing. This type of characterization is too simplistic, and inherently unsatisfying for a show, like The Walking Dead,that sets itself up so perfectly to explore these kinds of complex moral issues.

The last time we saw Aaron, he had chosen to stay behind at the Oceanside camp, to attempt to convince their women to join the fight against the Saviors. Fast forward five episodes, and not only has he failed at enlisting Oceanside’s help, but he’s also perilously close to dying alone in the middle of the woods. The soft spot in me that loves naturally kind-hearted characters, who aren’t afraid to fight when necessary, hurts to see Aaron relegated to such a benchwarmer role. While it does make sense for Aaron, as the OG Alexandria recruiter, to be the one who finally reaches out to the Oceanside women, it would be much more rewarding to see him do so through determined persuasion, rather than some weird demonstration of reckless stupidity

(Photo Credit: AMC)
As the first, and really only, Alexandrian to become a dependable member of the group, Aaron is an interesting character, blending the more ruthless and pragmatic values of Rick’s leadership style, with the idyllic hopes of early Alexandria. Unfortunately, in his three and a half seasons on the show, Aaron has never been given that one signature storyline that you can really build his character development around. Probably the closest we’ve gotten to this is his partner, Eric’s, death at the beginning of the season. I have a feeling we won’t get to see Aaron finally get his moment in the finale, as it’s likely that his impact will come in the form of Oceanside playing some type of role in the upcoming showdown, rather than him being shown actually doing anything major.

Finally, let’s pour one out for Mr. “Like-Minded Individuals” himself, Simon, who is dramatically expunged at the hands of Negan, this week. Since his introduction at the end of season six, Simon has grown into a fan favorite villain, due in large part to his brilliant portrayal by Steven Ogg. Even with Negan occupying most of the bad guy spotlight, Simon managed to carve out a niche as the Saviors’ murderous second-in-command, with a sadistic streak that could rival even Negan’s. Things have been leading towards this showdown for a while now, and despite the predictability of its outcome, it’s still an exciting fight, and arguably the highlight of the episode. I enjoyed getting to see The Walking Deadtry its hand at its own version of a trial by combat, which is made even more interesting, given the fact that the two participants are both antagonists. I do think a knockout blow at the hands of Lucille could have been cool, although it would have deprived us of the awesome Simon walker seen towards the end of the episode. And, overall, seeing Negan actually duke it out with his opponent, rather than achieving victory through a sheer, overwhelming advantage in numbers and resources, will help in dialing up his menacing factor for next week’s season finale.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
It’s been a long road, but the stage is finally set for next Sunday’s showdown between Alexandria, The Hilltop, The Kingdom, and The Saviors. And, after Negan symbolically destroys his walkie talkie in the closing minutes of this week’s episode, it’s clear that the time for talk is over. It feels like there’s potentially a lot to cram into the season finale, but given that it has a scheduled runtime of seventy minutes, I think most of the loose ends from this episode will at least end up being addressed, in some way. For the most part, season 8B has been strong, and unless we get a real dud of a finale (which I’m not expecting), we should get a satisfying end to what’s been The Walking Dead’slongest running arc, so far.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 8, Episode 14 Review: ‘Still Gotta Mean Something’

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead
Season 8, Episode 14

After last week’s more action-driven episode, The Walking Dead slows down a bit, as it examines the fallout from the battle at The Hilltop, as well as ties up some loose ends that have been left dangling over the course of the last couple of episodes. “Still Gotta Mean Something” follows several characters as they all walk down different paths of vengeance. Revenge is a commonly explored theme for The Walking Dead, and this episode does it well, with a nice mix of characters, who end up settling in at different points along the spectrum of vengeance.

Right off the bat, “Still Gotta Mean Something” jumps backwards along the season eight timeline, showing us how Jadis was able to survive the Scavengers massacre in episode ten. It’s a fairly clever scene, and makes Jadis kind of root-able, despite being something of an antagonist for most of her time on the show. After this quick detour into the past, the rest of the episode proceeds with events in real-time, and while I’m usually not a fan of The Walking Dead’s attempts at nonlinear storytelling, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a flashback-centric Jadis episode that shows major events from seasons seven and eight, from her perspective. Despite how the Scavengers have existed as little more than a MacGuffin for Rick and Negan to fight over, Jadis is still a pretty interesting character, if only because we still don’t know a ton about her.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
That changes this week, though, as we slowly start to peel back the layers of Jadis’s garbage dwelling fa├žade. Before he ordered his men to mow down the Scavengers with reckless abandon, Simon alluded to the fact that there’s more to Jadis and her leather-clad companions, than meets the eye. Keen-eyed viewers caught glimpses of the Scavengers’ helipad and solar panels, scattered throughout The Heaps, in background shots of season seven, episode ten, and this week seems to finally confirm that Jadis is more than just the oddball leader of a bunch of grown up Pig Pens gone horribly wrong. Jadis is organized, and has resources far beyond what anybody could have imagined. And, while her desire for vengeance is strong, she is sharp enough to know when to holster that more immediate, emotional response, in favor for something more practical.

Unfortunately, the whole Jadis-Negan subplot comes off feeling a bit contrived because Jadis’s whole plan of capturing Negan, and then taking him all the way to The Heaps to kill him, (rather than just killing him to begin with), serves more as a way for Jadis to receive more screen time and character development, rather than a believable sequence of events that could reasonably play out. The whole “hold a character captive just long enough for them to escape/talk their way out of it” trope has existed for quite a while, and it’s always frustrating to see, especially in The Walking Dead, which is an especially egregious perpetrator.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
To be fair, we still don’t know a lot about Jadis, or what her motivations are, and based on what we’ve seen, it’s not entirely out of character for her to forego killing Negan, if it means securing a more favorable outcome in the long run. Since Negan’s plot armor is about as thick as Rick’s season five beard, any actual confrontation between Negan and Jadis could only end in the latter’s undoing. So, I’m okay if Negan is unrealistically spared a quick death, if it means we get to spend more time exploring Jadis. Plus, it’s possible that Jadis’s decision to forego vengeance and spare Negan, could eventually be legitimatized through further character development.

Of course, not all tales of vengeance end in reconciliation. Rick and Morgan are both out for blood in this episode, and are far less amenable to the pleas of a Savior than Jadis. Rick is still reeling from the death of Carl, and aims to take his rage out on the Savior prisoners who escaped from The Hilltop, while Morgan, who’s been driven back into his crazed, violent state from season three, is seeking revenge for the presumed death of Henry, who went missing at the end of the last episode. Despite appearing in the pilot together, Rick and Morgan really haven’t spent all that much time together, since Morgan’s return to the show at the end of season five. Regardless, there’s still a tangible feeling of nostalgia when these two long lost companions team up in their mutual quest, and I even let out an audible cheer when Rick gruffly urges to Morgan that the two of them can “end this right now,” the trademark catchphrase for any Walking Dead character who’s about to do something equal parts dangerous and exciting.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
From a moral standpoint, it’s hard to back Rick on this one, as he goes back on his word of bringing the Savior prisoners back to The Hilltop, after they free him and Morgan. Narratively, the show is slowly building up to the idea that Carl’s vision for a peaceful future is possible, and his request that his dad find another way to deal with the Saviors, rather than killing them all, will be a real part of that. However, as nice as that all sounds, it’s definitely way less exciting than the idea of Rick and co. indiscriminately kicking Savior ass and taking Savior names, from here on out. Unfortunately, I highly doubt that’s the version of Rick we’ll continue to see; however, I don’t think the group is ready to entirely abandon their plans to take down the Saviors, just yet.


Despite The Hilltop’s recent victories against the Saviors, all-out war continues, and next week, Daryl and Rosita will look to score a little revenge of their own, when they strike against Eugene and his bullet manufacturing plant. Rosita clearly hasn’t forgiven Eugene for defecting to the Saviors, while Daryl is still skeptical of Dwight’s true allegiances; and this character pairing should be a good one, as Daryl and Rosita are both quick tempered, “shoot first, ask questions later” types who could potentially balance out the show’s eventual lean towards pacifism, at least in the short term.

(Photo Credit: AMC)

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