Tuesday, December 7, 2010

TV Episode Review: The Walking Dead “TS-19” (Season Finale)

For viewers of this show so far, there is, I’d imagine, a divergence of opinion about how things are progressing.  There have been moments to keep the gore faction coming back for more, and occasional sharp moments of character development to keep the themesters and those who just crave deeply wrought characters sticking around to see how things turn out.  In between such elements has been a lot of uneven storytelling, and some very thin characterization.  “TS-19” didn’t do much to put concerns about the show’s weaknesses to rest.
The pilot was a fantastic, tightly paced introduction into the apocalypse of the show’s world, complete with disturbing imagery, gore galore, and likeable survivor-types who learned the ropes fast enough to get by and snatch the occasional dazed hospital patient from the clutches of rotting hands.  It was, in short, an incredibly high bar for the rest of the show to measure up to.  That first episode was nothing if not ambitious (and visually stunning; let’s remember how visually stunning Darabont made every frame of that hour of television), and offered no fewer than two stark, emotional, and memorable television scenes.  The first was the image of a legless zombie torso dragging itself through a lush green park hand over hand; an image stomach churning in its gruesomeness (a huge kudos to whatever special effects team created the effects here) and heart wrenching in its humanity (“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Rick mutters into the eyes of the living corpse before putting it back to rest).  The second scene was composed of much simpler stuff, but perhaps more powerful for it.  A man stares down the scope of a hunting rifle at the zombified version of his wife (who has already come calling at his door at least once) as she wanders the streets outside their home.  His inability to pull the trigger is a moment drawn into stark relief by Darabont.  He re-sights the scope multiple times but each time finds himself unable to complete the task.  Is it because he can’t bring himself to shoot the thing that clearly still resembles the woman he loved not so long ago?  Or is it because that thing still seems to claw at the air and gaze confusedly at its surroundings in a manner peculiarly human, deceiving him into seeing his wife living on in some small way?  Regardless the scene is devastating to sit through.
I think most viewers who returned for week two (which, given the ratings, is roughly ALL of them) hoped to get at least occasional moments like this from the show moving forward, even those fans who were mostly in it for the gore.  Regrettably those moments mostly evaporated as the show ploughed through character introductions, reunions and plot expositions, all crammed into the four episodes leading up to the finale.  But with the table set last week as the heavenly light poured through the rising door of the CDC, it seemed like this week might provide the feast of drama and blood soaked action that had been scattered a bit too thinly over the season’s midsection.
Unfortunately “TS-19” offers little in the way of unforgettable moments, relying instead the CDC to create a “race the clock” gimmick to close out the season with the gas pedal jammed firmly to the floor.  Having said that, the opening of this episode had a couple of excellent moments.  Shane’s final moments with Rick in the hospital are particularly well done.  He attempts to extract Rick from the machinery keeping him going while in absolute terror not of zombies so much as military figures gunning down patients in the hallways (although this seems arbitrary—they look in on Rick in a coma and leave him).  
The use of sound in this sequence is stellar, as has been the case throughout the show.  Inside Rick’s hospital room we can hear the terror in the hallways punctuated by automatic weapons fire, but layered behind that is a sound from outside the window suggesting an air strike may be taking place as well.  But we’re left to wonder about the details of the external carnage as Shane comes to terms with the fact that Rick is not waking up, and in the sequence’s most important moment, we learn that Shane DID think Rick was dead and left him reluctantly as time ran out for him to get away himself.  This seems set to reframe everything, which makes it doubly disappointing that instead of adding more depth to the defunct love triangle with Rick and his wife, the knowledge is mostly shrugged off in favor of bringing Shane’s more predictable story arc to fruition when he attempts to rape her in the rec room at the CDC. 
These are the missteps on the part of this show that leave me frustrated.  What a great reset for the character; a man who we thought had been dishonest with a woman in the most horrible of situations to hasten his own relations with her gets a clean slate with the revelation for viewers that he had been telling her the truth (in so far as he could tell) when he told her her husband was dead.  And with this the writers do exactly zilch.  It lends interesting perspective to the recent news that Darabont is removing ALL of the show’s writers for next season.  And by “interesting perspective” I mean “a round of applause from most thoughtful viewers”.  The writers’ decision making has been suspect all season:
“Okay, so now they’ll see that Shane was telling the truth.”
“Yeah, yeah.   That’s good stuff.  So what do we do with it?”
“Well, we could have him admit the relationship to Rick and try to explain what happened in the hospit—“
“Let’s have him try to rape her.”
“Well, that sort of gets rid of the nuance we just created with the opening scene here.  It’s probably more interesting to explore him now that the viewers know—“
“We’re gonna go with rape.”

The disappointing writing doesn’t improve much as the episode unfolds.  Doctor Edwin Jenner is little more than a tool of exposition to fill us in on the back story of the outbreak, and the *yawn* “surprise” reveal that his living/dying/undying test subject was none other than his own wife is as predictable as season finale twists can get.  Of course it was someone he loved.  And for the record, if she was committed to the cure and he made her the promise, by what incredible lack of devotion to the scientific method does he blow a hole in her head within moments of her becoming the single most important tool the world has in curing the disease?  Walter Bishop would have KILLED someone for making that kind of mistake at Massive Dynamic…but we’ll stick to the show we’re on.  These foolish lapses in character motives on the part of the writers is lazy at best.  Often it’s worse than lazy—in this case played for dramatic effect that falls flat on its boring face.
Though Jenner is excellently played (his confused, startled, troubled attitude towards the sudden guests is pitch perfect) the dialogue he’s saddled with is a burden almost from start to finish:  “What do you people want?” he asks when they arrive.  Rick gets the dud line “A chance” to which Jenner has to shoot back “That’s asking an awful lot these days.”  Really?  How about “Hey everyone, it’s really great to see living human beings still wandering around in the world.  Come in; don’t forget to wipe your shoes on the mat.”
Once inside the facility, the episode is a mix of well played, well earned moments and missed opportunities.  The scene around the dinner table was massively disappointing for me—where are the shots of these guys shoving their faces full of real food?  We’ve watched them grow skinny and desperate, the emotional relief of witnessing their feast would’ve been a wonderful moment, instead we watch them swirl red wine in glasses and offer it to a kid who predictably hates the taste and doubly-predictably continues to stink up every scene he’s called upon to actually act in.
You need look no further than the excellent film “The Road” to see how much you can make such “feast following the famine” scenes ring with emotion when they’re well played.  The moments in that film where the father and son share the last Coke in the world from a vending machine and then “fresh” fruit and meat from cans in a fallout shelter are some of the most tear-inducing of the film:  The feast could well be their last, and it’s heart wrenching to know that, for the child, it will never be the “normal” experience the viewer takes for granted.  A missed opportunity for this finale.
The shower sequence somewhat makes up for it with the welcome warmth of actual yellow lighting in place of the icy blue of everything else, but the camera doesn’t linger long enough (not for the sake of nudity, but to let the experience of these people enjoying a pleasure they thought gone for good really bleed out from the screen) to really hit home.
The episode finally gains back some momentum in the final ten minutes from a pleasantly entertaining escape sequence involving the grenade we’d all forgotten about and the thorough removal of a zombie’s head from its shoulders.  Cross-cut with this is the only genuinely dramatic moment of the episode, where Dale tries (and seemingly fails) to talk Andrea out of letting it all end in the CDC control room.  Given this show’s ensemble cast, I wasn’t entirely convinced they wouldn’t dare take out a “regular” or two to give the finale a gut-punch for us to reel from until season 2.  But the result here was much preferred—Dale is likeable and Andrea is one of the few supporting characters with interesting depth and real humanity behind her.  Dale’s choice to die with her is touching and feels earned.  The sadness of the moment is driven home wonderfully by Jenner’s distant, resigned-yet-amazed reaction to the escape: “They got out.” 
Maybe a fitting description of the writers of this season—they mostly get out looking good for creating an often-compelling drama fraught with peril and splashed with gore, but they also barely dodged a lot of missteps that could, if they continue into next  season’s expanding story, destroy the show’s best elements.

See you next season—I’ll try to cover this show weekly, and in fewer words than I wanted to devote to this final episode of the first season.

Overall Score:  7.1/10

Great lines, moments, and what not, and occasionally what-have-you:

  • Jenner seems to have whispered the secret to season 2 in Rick’s ear—I didn’t say much about it because speculation is for the comments section below—let’s hear it…
  • The destruction of the CDC sounds thorough and thoroughly awesome:  “It sets the air on fire” Jenner says of the HITs which will bring the temp in the room to a balmy 6000 degrees instantaneously. 
  • The hot-headed reaction of the resident redneck to, um, EVERYTHING that happens is more than tiresome.  Get it together writers.  Reedus is capable of handling a lot more than what you’re giving his character to do.
  • That was a great explosion.  I thought the budget was well used in this episode.
  • Anyone catch that phenomenal Quizno’s ad with the cat pirates and singing sea lions?  Hilarious stuff.  Check it out and sing along:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZe2iwG0s0U
  • My favorite understated (the only understated?) line of the night came during the MRI of TS-19:
“What are those lights?”
“It’s a person’s life.”
  • Seeing an MRI of the bullet going through TS-19’s brain like one of those slow-mo bullets-through-a-block-of-Jello videos was not half as cool as the episode seemed to think it was.
  • Can we please not result to calling the doctor among a group of survivors “Doc” by default on EVERY TV show?
  • If you missed this season, here’s a spot to catch up (they aren’t paying me for that, I just figure it’s a reliable source: http://www.amazon.com/Walking-Dead-Sneak-Peek-HD/dp/B0049VZ2UY/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1291773971&sr=8-7


  1. I tend to disagree that Shane thought Rick was dead. I believe he even said as much when attempting to rape her and saying it was because she wouldn't have left if she thought he was still alive. Yes this may have been just a moment to try and explain himself and make it sound better than it was but I still think that Shane knew Rick was alive. Maybe I could give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew he couldn't do anything to save him and took the road of saving his family and inserting himself into the husband/father role!

  2. At the end of this episode I find myself really disappointed, with both the episode and the show. With all those episodes to work with, they added absolutely no new perspective to the zombie subgenre, and they fell way short of making it interesting even within the bounds of established trope (for films going at least this far, see, e.g., Romero films).

    The creators were so proud of themselves for writing another gag-inducing "human drama" (did you see that over-the-top shower scene, in which everyone acts out an absolute caricature of their character's problems?!), they forgot to make the show scary, or even engaging.

    If you're going to make me follow a mundane cross-section of Americans, take me to the CDC, where a scientist is still alive and working on a cure, give me some good info about the infection itself. How it started, how it spread, etc.—anything besides one more dude who's sad because he lost someone.

    One final complaint: First of all, are there any machines that themselves sustain human life without some sort of respiratory aid? Looks like Rick just had an IV, and a power outage killed him instantly. Unlikely. I'd say his meathead partner should learn to check a pulse. I've never seen a [fictional portrayal of an] EMT use the "head to chest" method.

    I dunno. Maybe it wasn't that bad. And they've got time to fix it in the future. But for the moment, I feel like I need a re-read of World War Z to get this taste out of my mouth.

  3. Great synopsis! I could go on all day about my likes/dislikes of this show, but instead i'll just make fun of it...

    A few thoughts on what Jenner said to Rick at the end of TS-19...

    1) "Dude, your wife is smokin! I can totally see why your buddy tried to jump straight to third base in the library...yeh thats right, Vi saw everything!"

    2) "Oh I'm not a doctor, I just stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

    3) "I liked you better in "Love Actually"."

    I also love the fact he shot a bullet through his zombie wife's noggin, I agree that its a horrible waste of a test subject. But wouldn't the MRI machine yank the bullet away from the person inside it? I guess magnetic fields dont apply to "The Walking Dead".

    I hope firing the writers works as planned. I read they are planning to use independent writers for each episode, which would make it very diverse and more interesting. I think "Arrested Development" used this method and it worked brilliantly.

    I do love the fact that each person who fires at the dead are crack shots. They have an astounding bullet or arrow to head ratio. They either spent a lot of time at the gun range pre-appocalypse or played the original 007 Goldeneye game incessantly.

    I will say I am looking forward to season 2 and hope its longer than 6 episodes. I feel like they are going "Sopranos" by keeping each "season" to a low number of episodes. But nevertheless I am hooked and will continue to watch, I might even read the comics!

  4. I have to say, I'm glad I stumbled on your blog, but it's also become a new distraction from homework. Your reviews have all been great from The Cape to Walking Dead, and I'm glad someone else sees the value in The Cape especially. With the Walking Dead we have an obviously great show from the only network that seems to have drama done right on AMC.

    All my common sense tells me to agree with the first commenter about Rick's survival on an IV alone, the fact that Shane may have just left in a panic. Personally I would have gotten out of there when SWAT teams seem to be cutting their losses and killing anything that moves, but I do have a bit of a screw ball theory that is probably in every way wrong and would be a terrible twist, but something that passed my mind. Again, just a disclaimer, I really don't think this would work in any way, shape or form, but it's more of an interesting thought to bounce around.

    What if Rick was infected in a certain part of the brain that's kept him alive, but not spread to the "twinkling lights" that count as his humanity. Something about the way they made a big deal about the varying times it takes the infection to spread and the in depth analysis of how the virus/parasite does its work would seem to lend itself to the theory, as well as the fact that Jenner didn't open up and reveal the results of the blood tests.

    In any case, here's to hoping you are a Breaking Bad fan, because I'd love to see your thoughts and discuss some if you keep this up.

  5. I'm a huge Breaking Bad fan, but I was late to the game so I think I'm a season behind. Hopefully I'm all caught up before the new season starts because I'd love to review it. I'm unfortunately having to start making some tough choices with what I review because there's just too much good TV to watch.