Teaching the Dead: Shock v Substance

I have to admit, I’ve been kind of torn on how to analyze the season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead. I initially gave it a quick 10; it gave viewers exactly what they would want from a premiere that ended last year with the line “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” We had gore and violence, slicing throats and human meat hangers, confident Rick dialogue, crafty escape plans, exploding tanks and airborn flaming walkers, Mary’s demise, a back story, a flashback, Eugene being told to shut up, and the conflict over when do we kill or just let die. The episode, in terms of starting a season, was perfection. Lots of shock and awe, tons of boom, and even a few tears of joy. So why have I had such an issue putting my analysis into words?

I finally got it while trying to decide if it was “worthy” of showing my Suspense class to analyze…..there wasn’t a whole lot to analyze.

I’m not saying there was nothing there. We had some very interesting parallels set up in this episode. First and most obviously, the foil between Gareth and Rick. Here are two leaders “doing what they have to do” to keep their groups safe and alive. For Rick, it’s a new and improved “take no prisoners” attitude. To echo the Governor, “Kill ’em all” and “Kill or be killed.” For Gareth, it’s a detached way of looking at humans. When dead, they are a protein to be consumed, “Nothing personal.” Be the slaughter or be the sheep. Both are more alike than they care to admit.

The second parallel is between Mary and Carol. Although I don’t agree that Carol should have been the one to take Mary down (I would have preferred it be Maggie or someone who was locked in that boxcar), I understand why they had the two of them face off. Carol, in many ways, is being set up as the matriarch of the prison group of survivors. The fierce female protector who is, once again, willing to do anything it takes to save her den. Mary, obviously, is the queen of Terminus. I would have loved to see if it was Mary who first suggested cannabilisim as it seems like that would be her role to suggest it. These two female leaders of their groups debate how Carol could have “fit in” and is actually “one of them,” and, in many ways, Mary was correct. Carol may not be able to eat her friends or any other human, but like the rest of Terminus and Mary, the will to survive drives them to commit acts with are questionable at least, inhumane at most. Even Mary’s death isn’t humane. Carol leaves her to the walkers when a shot to the head would have worked.

This episode also set up the theme surrounding the moral issue “when do we kill, leave someone to die, or save another.” Rick is all the way on the “kill em all” end of the debate, while Glenn has taken that idealistic “save them, that’s who we are” role. Actually the entire group, save Carol, is at least holding on to middle ground. (Daryl said nothing, because we know whatever Rick decided he would do.) We don’t have to kill, but we won’t save either. Still shreds of humanity exist in them, while Rick and Carol are all the way on the other end of spectrum: “Kill or be killed.” They’ve lost too much and learned too much from their losses. Tyreese is battling this same issue within himself. He can’t kill, not even Walkers, and only when Judith was in danger did he take action, shouting, “I won’t do it” as he beat a man to death. It’s a theme I think we will see develop more throughout the series.

We had touching, if not unexpected reunions. The Daryl-Carol reunion was the most realistic and emotional ones we’ve seen this series. Rick’s with Judith was also a tear jerker, and his acknowledgement of Tyreese’s role in her survival was equally as touching. We saw a surprise appearance by a beloved character, and some great dialogue (my award goes to Eugene. I was completely blown away by his monologue).

All of this, in one action packed episode.

However, my indecision comes from the fact that these themes and parallels were hidden beneathe the BAM and BOOM of exploding propane tanks. It seems like they traded substance for some thrills.

My criticisms are minor, and do not detract from my enjoyment of the episode, but they do play into my analysis of it. As I say to my students, there’s a difference between evaluation and analyzing. To evaluate is to judge if you enjoy it or if it was effective – this episode clearly was – to analyze is to “tear it apart,” in my case, for literary content and merit.

I had some issues with the episode – as I said, minor ones. First of all, I felt it was unbalanced. In order to allow Super Carol to save the day, other characters were sacrificed screen time or even any role in their own rescue. I would have loved to see Maggie, Michonne, and Carl fight their way out of that box car instead of waiting for Rick. Maybe one of them could have killed Mary and gotten some air time? Maybe one of them could have done some sharp shooting. Who knows, but I would have liked to see more of them then just being stuck there and arguing with Eugene. Maybe Eugene could have blown open the door!!!! Proving he is a scientist extraodinaire and quelshing doubts about his story. Also, I don’t understand why the group mutinied over Rick going back to kill the Terminites. Did they not remember the Governor???? And after Carl spent all of “After” blaming his father for the prison fall and the death of his mother, now he wants his dad to not finish the job at Terminus? We all know how much that’s gonna bite them in the butt later, especially if the Terminus survivors become the Hunters who will (I think) eat Bob.

I also would have liked to learn more about the Terminites, especially since I feel the flashbacks weren’t very clear. I hope more is revealed later about them, because they are quite an interesting group and I think there’s more story to tell. Most people I spoke to mentioned that the Terminus storyline was so big a lead up that to end it in an episode wasn’t a big enough payoff. They wanted to learn more about how they became cannibals.

Once again, minor points in an overall great season premiere. For a series that starts it’s season so slow in the past, this was a welcome change in pace. However, I just wish it was a little more balanced and had more meat on it’s bones…..ummmm, pardon the pun……

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