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Walking Dead Watch: The Big Decision

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Spoilers for the season finale of The Walking Dead coming up:

Because it had to create a first season of only six episodes so that AMC could air its first season starting Halloween, The Walking Dead had to fit a lot into a few hours. It ended on an installment that, while suspenseful and exciting, didn’t seem as much like a season finale as what could have been the sixth episode of a thirteen-episode season. But “TS-19” ended admirably without a cliffhanger, instead giving us some interesting information about the past, a slightly bigger picture of the world at present and some unsettling clues about the future.
About the past: we got our first glimpse of what survivalists call the SHTF period (I’ll let you Google it), as we see that Shane did in fact try to save his buddy Rick. The chaotic scene raised some questions about just who was on whose side as everything went south: the troops in the hospital were shooting living as well as undead. (The living were, I’m guessing, either infected or presumed so, since the troops made sure to shoot them through the head.)

As for the Rick-Shane-Lori triangle, the scene complicated things. Shane did see Rick alive—but he did, after all, try to save him, and had pretty good reason to guess that he must be dead. And he did lie to Lori, maybe not without ulterior motive, but he’s likely right when he says Lori and Carl would never have fled for safety had he not. It may very well be would Rick would have wanted him to do, minus the hooking-up-with-his-wife part. So: on the one hand, Shane isn’t an out-and-out villain from the get-go here; on the other, Rick’s undeniably alive now, and Shane almost forces himself on Lori in the process of confessing to her.

The bigger picture we might have inferred, but is filled in by Jenner, and the eerily mesmerizing story that unfolds about his wife—the test subject of the show’s title—who like most of the scientific community died before the outbreak could be solved. Jenner’s narration of the disease’s process while watch her MRI die, revivify and die again was haunting. (Though the HAL-like talking computer seemed a little sci-fi for The Walking Dead’s usual milieu, which is zombies in the real world as we know it.)

Which leaves a pretty bleak picture of the present and future. The vague reference to “The French” leaves some hope that a cure could still be in the works somewhere–perhaps across a more or less now-uncrossable ocean. What else is out there? Not much, Jenner surmises–with enough confidence that he’s ready to die and take the survivors with him.

On the one hand, it’s just a guess, since he’s largely cut off from contact with the outside world. On the other hand, he’s cut off because the grid is down, communications are down, fossil fuel stores are running out–in short, however bad things are now, they’re about to get much worse. (To return to the analogy to The Road, that took place in a dead world about a decade after a cataclysm; we’re still in the first year.)

Each episode of this short season has dealt with a moral question faces by the survivors. Who can be trusted? What are the new rules? How do they deal with the infected and the newly dead? So it was fitting that, rather than some climactic showdown, the final episode combined a claustrophobic (and short-on-zombies) escape scenario with the big implicit question: is it worth staying alive?

For Jenner, it is not. (Another issue I had: he must have known for a while that CDC was low on fuel and soon ready to self-immolate–there is a countdown clock, after all. But in his video from the last episode, in which he says he’s considering blowing his brains out tomorrow, he doesn’t sound like a man who knows the building is going to quickly kill him anyway.) And maybe he should know well, because he’s seen a lot of this epidemic, from the inside, as everyone he knew died or committed suicide around him.

But he’s seen it alone, and he has no one left; sitting in the dark for a month probably destroyed his will long ago. For the band of survivors–some of whom have family, others of whom have made new friends–it’s more complicated. Are you obligated to stick it out for your loved ones, for humanity? Is it better to make the end quick if, in fact, “There’s nothing left”? And it’s an interesting enough, if morbid, dilemma that I wish it had had more time to play out, under less rushed circumstances.

What if, for instance, instead of hiding the truth from the survivors and attempting to trap them in the name of a humane death, Jenner had leveled with them, and given them the choice: run and have hope–but probably die horribly–or stay and end it now? That could have made a gripping episode in itself, as each character made his or her decision, rather than begging Jenner for a chance, then having seconds to flee or stay.

The episode did do a decent job of compressing the issue, as Jenner confronted the others with Rick’s belief that things were hopeless for them in the outside world. (And I liked how Andrew Lincoln played Rick’s almost physical desperation to pry some kind of hope out of Jenner.) But as it was, for instance, the scene between Dale and Andrea depended for its emotional force on a connection between them we’d barely had time to recognize. “TS-19” was compelling, but it again made me look forward to a second season in which The Walking Dead had time to catch a breath.

So what does the future of our characters and the series look like? On a practical level, the survivors are running, quickly–and based on what they’ve said about their fuel supplies, not very far or with many good options. (Though what did Jenner whisper to Rick in their last seconds together?) On a series level, the way the CDC story played out suggests a kind of wagon-train format, in which the party goes from one seeming haven to another, learning a little more about the new world each time before having to flee.

Once again: I have no idea if that parallels the books (though the CDC, if I’m not mistaken, is largely new for the series), but I wouldn’t assume the series necessarily will going forward. With its writing staff being rebuilt, in fact, it’s possible Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman et al. are weighing exactly where they want to take the series next.

In the process, I hope they’ll work on sharpening the scripts and deepening the characters. I’ve eagerly watched every screener as soon as I’ve gotten it because I’m hooked on the plot. But there are still moments of pat dialogue and staging that throw me. (To take a picky example here, having Andrea in the shower, hugging her knees to her chest, is such a worn-out symbol for woman-in-emotional-shock that it was a How I Met Your Mother joke a few weeks ago.)

On the other hand, the show has an urgency and bravery that make it something special. I admire how it’s willing to let scenes like the zombie attacks and the escape from CDC go into all-out pathos—screaming, children crying, shrieking and confusion—as I’d imagine they would in real life, had they ever occurred. It’s hard for a TV series, with regular cast members and a guarantee of another season, to give you the sense this it will go anywhere and no one is really safe, but The Walking Dead has done that, episode by bloody episode.

The show has gotten a good start, and now it has time for the improvements that would put it (with channelmates Mad Men and Breaking Bad) in the top tier of current TV dramas. Like the terrified survivors being driven off with little fuel and few plans, I can’t wait to see where they go next.