The Walking Dead: “Live Bait”

As we’ve noted before on the blog, we’re interested in television shows that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Live Bait,” played around with several western motifs in a story that centered on a character known as the Governor (or Phillip, in a former life, and Brian, the name he adopts in his most recent self-invention).

One of the early scenes of the Governor, alone and wandering, plays out with the sound of “The Last Pale Light in the West” by Ben Nichols playing on the soundtrack. If the Governor is not literally walking West in this episode, the song suggests that at least metaphorically he is doing so, as the protagonist of the song is walking toward the “setting sun” that is “in his way.” Even if he (like the speaker of the song) is asking for “no redemption,” the song connects the Governor to those two classic western motifs–heading west (into the sunset), looking for, or accidentally finding, redemption along the way.  And what better way to seek redemption than to help out a trio of stranded female homesteaders—I mean, post-apocalyptic survivors—after their father dies? The episode moves forward with the Governor moving on with a new family of sorts, including a young girl that reminds him of his own long-lost daughter.

Throughout the series, the Governor has struck me as being portrayed in a way that suggests or recalls John Wayne. Actor David Morrisey, who plays the Governor, does so somewhat subtly in his vocal delivery, but, I think more clearly in his body language, at various times striking poses that recall Wayne’s cowboy persona. And when he shows up onscreen in “Live Bait” with an eyepatch and an unruly beard, there’s more than a little resemblance to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn (and a whole lot of resemblance to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York), or maybe it’s Jeff Bridge’s version of Rooster that is striking me when I look at the Governor.

As the episode progresses, he shaves his beard, keeps his eyepatch, and indeed looks like a new man. Is redemption possible for the Governor?

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Ripper Street and the Western Genre

When it comes to western television, I’m most interested in series that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The F/X series Justified places the western and its Stetson-wearing hero U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens in contemporary Kentucky, where the metaphorical state of frontier lawlessness has been brought about by local drug dealers and crime families hidden away in the Kentucky hills and worsened by incursions of organized crime from the metropolis of Detroit. (See, for example, the blog post Justified: Season Two Begins.) Breaking Bad similarly uses a contemporary setting for its story of  and outlaw chemistry-teacher-turned meth kingpin, but actually locates its story in the American West, New Mexico.

One of the most interesting post-westerns at the moment is Ripper Street, a joint production of BBC One and BBC America. Ripper Street is particularly interesting to consider as a western in large part because its setting comes nowhere near the American West (or America). A collaborative British/American production, Ripper Street fashions a deliberately British/American hybrid drama by setting the drama in nineteenth-century Whitechapel. The Jack the Ripper murders are in the recent past, but their effects are felt throughout the series. But it’s not Jack the Ripper, really, that dominates the series—it’s the setting of Whitechapel presented as a kind of frontier town. One character describes the East End of London as Frederick Jackson Turner did the frontier, as a “safety valve” destination for civilized London’s excess population: in this case, the immigrants, homeless, criminals, prostitutes, and addicts.

With plenty of mud, blood, and violence, Ripper Street combines the sensibilities of the series Deadwood with those of the British costume drama. With its focus on a police station in 1889, with its central character Detective Inspector Reid, played by Matthew McFadden, and its fascination with the early days of the medical post-mortem, you might think of Ripper Street as combining Deadwood, Downton Abbey, and C. S. I. And for those of us who miss the creative cursing of Deadwood, it’s quite a thrill to hear one Ripper Street character call another “A low murdering false son of a bitch cocksucker.” The allusions to Deadwood are quite clear and deliberate.

The television post-western  signals its genre roots through visual signs and other allusions to western conventions (e.g. Raylan’s hat in Justified). Ripper Street’s most obvious western allusion is the character Homer Jackson (American actor Adam Rothenberg), an American in London, who is the Al Swearingen of the series, operating a brothel with his wife and partner Susan. As we discover, not only does Jackson have medical skills, which he employs as a kind of freelance coroner, but he is a former Pinkerton agent—a staple character type of the dime novel western.

In the most clearly western episode of the series, “A Man of My Company,” a group of Pinkertons arrive in London as bodyguards for a wealthy American investor. In the group is Frank Goodnight, who has a grudge with Jackson. The Americans do what Americans do in British drama: bring crateloads of guns with them, ignore the rule of law, beat up women, torture journalists, and engage in kidnapping, murder, and general brutality. The climax of the episode is a showdown in the center of a city street between Jackson and Goodnight. As is typical of the hybridization of the series, the gunfight plays out in ways that suggest both a European-style duel and a western showdown.

Given the popularity of the western in the golden age of television, almost all television programming in America since the 1970s is in a sense post-western. What is unique about the contemporary shows that I categorize as post-western is that they very clearly, even obviously, draw our attention to their roots in the genre western.

Season Two of Ripper Street is currently airing on BBC One and is scheduled to air on BBC America in 2014. The first season of Ripper Street is currently available on DVD for American audiences.

Western Roots of Justified’s New Episode “Fixer”

Is FX’s new series Justified a “Western”? The episode “Fixer” suggests that the series is very much rooted in the genre Western. Although the setting of the show is contemporary Kentucky, multiple elements of the series suggest that while the geographic place of Justified may be the east, the series’ generic home is the western.

In the third episode of the series, “Fixer,” which aired last night, the story centers around Arnold Pinter (played by David Eigenberg, Sex and the City‘s Steve the bartender), a fixer, a bookie, and also a snitch for the Marshal’s office. Originally from Brooklyn, Pinter finds himself “here in the hinterlands,” where “you gotta diversify” to survive (and, ultimately, he hopes, get enough money to get back to civilization). Pinter is a familiar enough western character, operating on the borders of the legal and illegal, his Brooklynness a variation on the archetype of the foreign gentleman (often British) who is sometimes a tenderfoot character and at other times (like Pinter) a player who has his hand in various schemes.

References to the historical West and to the movie West abound in the episode, ranging from a poster for the Overland Stage company that we see near Raylan’s desk to multiple comments about Raylan’s “cowboy Marshall” persona. Referring to the quick draw killing that got Raylan moved by the Marshal’s Office from Florida to the “hinterlands” of Kentucky, Pinter comments, “You’re the guy that pulled a Wild Bill.”  Other characters comment that Raylan “Gary Coopered up,” or that he’s that guy “dressed up like the Marlboro Man.”

One of the episode’s bad guys, Curtis Mimms (Page Kennedy from Weeds), is fascinated by Raylan, and he ultimately wants to play cowboy with him. “I thought you were going to go High Noon on him,” comments one of his colleagues, after Mimms has a discussion with Raylan.

In that first encounter between Mimms and Raylan, we indeed see Mimms playing cowboy, and the scene is set up like a Main Street showdown, with the two characters facing each other at a shooting distance. The camera work in this scene is also evocative of the western, with several shots set up at hip-level looking from behind one shooter toward his opponent, the shooter’s gun hand dangling conspicuously in the corner of the frame.

If Mimms is playing cowboy, playing shootout, Raylan knows what a shootout is really like. “You think that’s really how you do it? Lots can go wrong with a draw.” This is good advice, and prophetic, and, as the episode continues, we see just how many different ways a draw can go wrong (but I won’t say anymore so as not to spoil the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet).

The next episode also looks interesting (particularly from a western perspective), as Raylan indeed goes West, to California, and, in that classic western narrative turn, heads South, across the border into Mexico.

Is Justified a Western?

The premiere episode of FX’s new series Justified aired last night. So, is it a western?  Is Harlan County, Kentucky, indeed (as FX advertising claims) the  “21st century Wild West”?

Well, Justified is certainly a post-western, consciously drawing on and reinventing traditional genre conventions. The series alludes to those conventional westerns in several ways: by casting Timothy Olyphant in the lead role (and thereby alluding to his earlier role in Deadwood, connecting, via the actor, the characters of Seth Bullock and Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens); via the character’s signature clothing (Stetson, cowboy boots, gun holstered at his hip); and a number of other smaller ways as well.

On the wall of the Chief Deputy’s Lexington office is a large poster for the film Tombstone, a visual reminder of the series’ awareness of its western roots. There’s a nice moment when Raylan meets up with old friend and new enemy Boyd Crowder that is reminiscent of Deadwood exchanges between Bullock and Swearengen—they toss back a shot glass of moonshine together.

And Raylan is the fastest gun in the west (or, rather, the east, or, well, probably anywhere). His fast draw speed places him in a long line of western heroes. He’s fast enough to draw and shoot first against a man who already has his gun in hand.

That said, the first episode was very attentive to establishing the place of the series in Kentucky, and the landscape of the series is that of eastern mountains and valleys. Justified seems serious in acknowledging its debt to the genre western, but it also seems serious in depicting a setting that is specifically Appalachian and not western.

So if you’re interested in the American West, should you watch Justified?

I think it’s worth a continued look. At the very least, it’s good to see Timothy Olyphant on screen, and, boy, is he looking good. He seems younger than in his role as Bullock, and he wears jeans and a black shirt as well as he wears his Stetson. I will also be curious to see if the series continues to make allusions to western conventions and to specific westerns. Why use the poster in the Chief Deputy’s office to highlight Tombstone and the OK Corral? A hint of what might be in store for Raylan?

Motorcycle Westerns

I wanted to pick up on an earlier thread about the post-western in general and films such as Sin Nombre and Frozen River in particular, and look at a currently airing television series that seems to be a kind of post-western, FX’s original series about motorcycle outlaw gangs, Sons of Anarchy. To quote from Neil Campbell’s earlier post and an article that helps define the post-western:

From the website ‘Five in Focus’ (on Sin Nombre): ‘The elements [of the western] are all there––the vast landscapes, the frontier justice, the gangs of outlaws, and a train noisily slicing through the frontier. They are just re-organized in a different way.’

Similarly, Sons of Anarchy, set in the town of Charming, California, but also including forays into the desert and into Nevada and Utah, utilizes the “vast landscapes” of the western in its frequent shots of motorcycles roaming across western highways. Replace the motorcycles with horses, and many episodes of Sons of Anarchy play like a conventional western, especially in the chase scenes. For example, in a season one episode, central character Jackson “Jax” Teller (played by Charlie Hunnam) and another club member hijack a tanker truck, and the scene is shot much like the classic western scene of men on horseback robbing a stagecoach.

Charming, California, is also a lot like one of those frontier towns in films such as Dodge City or My Darling Clementine, dominated politically by a group of outlaws who have the local sheriff under their thumbs. The Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO or simply Sam Crow), both protects and dominates Charming. A vigilante group that works outside the law and predominately for its own interests, SAMCRO justifies its criminal behavior by policing Charming, particularly against a rival “south of the border” gang (the Mayans, a Mexican ethnic gang) and a white supremacist gang called the Nordics (and led by Ernest Darby, who is played by The X-Files‘s Mitch Pileggi, who often appears decoratively in a white sleeveless t-shirt). Further adding to the “westernness” of the series, Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter of Deadwood) plays the compromised Charming Chief of Police.

Unlike, say, Dodge City, our point of view characters are the outlaws rather than the new sheriff come to town to replace vigilantism with civilized justice.  This is good and bad, at least in the first season (season two has aired but I’m still a year behind). Early episodes dragged at times. Quotations from anarchists such as activist and philosopher Emma Goldman just seemed pretentious and inapt when applied to a group of outlaws who are essentially capitalists (the illegal weapons trade), even if working outside the “system.” Likewise, Jax had a tendency to read passages from his deceased father’s memoir about Jim Crow life in the early days (which tended to wax dully philosophical). Also, the outlaws versus law enforcement element of the show has bordered on Dukes of Hazzard-style farce, given that the police were either compromised by being in league with the outlaws or were generally incompetent.

Midway through season one, things have picked up, in part because tensions between the dominant gangs have ratcheted up. Perhaps most importantly, Sons of Anarchy‘s equivalent of Errol Flynn’s Wade Hatton has arrived to clean up the town in the person of Federal Agent June Stahl, who appears to be a worthy adversary for the “sons.”

Agent Stahl is played brilliantly by Ally Walker, who I know primarily through her work in the HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, in which she played a character who could hardly be more unlike Agent Stahl, the motherly sexually inactive Katie. Agent Stahl is all cool cockiness and tough swagger. In the episode I watched most recently, “Better Half” (directed by Mario Van Peebles, who contributed Posse to the film western archive), Agent Stahl goes after the sons by arresting their wives and girlfriends in an attempt to get testimony against the outlaws.

Stahl believes she has information from a jailed ex-Sam Crow member, procured by arresting his wife.  However, in the interview area of the jail, he catches her off-guard, and, in a shockingly violent scene, slams her head repeatedly against a table. What’s interesting about all this is Stahl’s response. She shakes off attempts to help her, and, in the final scene of the episode, she stands in front of the camera, bloodied, and livid with a barely contained rage. The attack shatters her cool and cocky swagger, but what has been concealed by her mask of cocky toughness is the real toughness—and the potentially deadly anger—that’s underneath. Ally Walker’s performance is amazing in this scene, and, for the first time in the series, there really is a new sheriff in town. At this point, I almost wish the show would shift its focus and become the Agent Stahl show, as she has emerged as a far more interesting character than any of the outlaws.

I’ve pasted in an FX promo that features Ally Walker’s Agent Stahl:

On Sin Nombre and Frozen River as Post-Westerns

From Neil Campbell:

Some Thoughts on post-Westerns Sin Nombre and Frozen River:

The ‘post-industrial’ post-Western.

The website ‘Five in Focus’ was one of the first to recognize the ways by which Sin Nombre had ‘reinvented the western’. In a piece entitled ‘Sin Nombre’s Westerns’ it argues that the film ‘reinvents the western––our [ie USA’s] most classic genre of people striking out for a better life’. It continues: ‘The elements are all there––the vast landscapes, the frontier justice, the gangs of outlaws, and a train noisily slicing through the frontier. They are just re-organized in a different way.’ Equally, in ‘The L Magazine’ Benjamin Sutton wrote,

Looks can be deceiving, though, and just because there aren’t any stirrups, 10-gallon hats and dusty Main Street showdowns in theaters right now doesn’t mean the Western’s been put out to pasture. Its setting has simply shifted from the Southwest to South of the Mexican border, its protagonists no longer tight-lipped Hollywood hunks, but young, desperate dreamers scrambling North from Latin America. Immigration movies are the new Westerns, and Sin Nombre is the refashioned genre’s latest iteration.

In a recent article in The Guardian (17th July, 2009), however, Xan Brooks argues that this trend for ‘refashioned’ ‘new Westerns’ extends to other points of the compass as well:

The western, it transpires, has not died out. It has simply changed shape, colour and compass point … Sin Nombre focuses on a bunch of imperilled Central American migrants who hop a train to Texas, travelling to America ‘not in God’s hands, but in the hands of the devil’. In Frozen River, Melissa Leo plays a single mum who helps the local Mohawk tribe smuggle Pakistani immigrants across the Canadian border. One film is heading north; the other headed south. Both, according to their directors, are essentially westerns. (4)

These brief, astute comments remind us that the post-Western’s chameleon shape-shifting continues deep into the twenty-first century, looking to re-energize its generic elements into new and different patterns. Frozen River’s story is of the north country of New York state, near the little city of Massena on the St. Lawrence River and the Mohawk Nation reserve at Akwesasne – “the rez” – that straddles both the mile-wide river and the US-Canadian border. Melissa Leo (its leading actress) was advised by the director Courtney Hunt to watch John Wayne’s ‘reined in’ style of acting and in many other ways both her film and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre reflect the intertextual influences of the Western on contemporary filmmaking.
‘The western is the story of America,’ says Courtney Hunt, ‘in that the story of America is the story of migrants, of people moving forward. The original settlers saw the wilderness and thought “That’s our backyard” – we just haven’t got to the end of it yet.’ (4) Elsewhere Hunt has amplified these comments:

Well, you think of the classic American story venturing into that which is lawless territory. A border is lawless territory. The Wild West was lawless and there was a sense that anything could happen. And that’s sort of the feeling with “Frozen River.” These two women are in a space that doesn’t have any law and order. And so that’s one big thing. And the other thing is just the style of John Wayne’s acting, which I had recommended that Melissa [Leo] look to as a guide. John Wayne was really amazing at what he didn’t do, and how much his lack of expression was really full of emotion.

As Brooks goes on to say in his piece,

The parallels don’t stop with the acting. Sergio Leone claimed that the best westerns operate in a lawless terrain ‘where human life has no value’. This seems a fair summation of both Sin Nombre and Frozen River, which replace covered wagons with freight trains and car boots, white settlers with Asian migrants and Mexican wetbacks – and yet still keep the bandits reassuringly in situ. (4)

Sin Nombre’s director Fukunaga says ‘You’ve got the wagon train, and the outlaws, and the brooding, loner hero. Plus the whole notion of immigrants crossing a wild country. That’s a purely western story.’ (4) In another interview he adds to this, ‘My producer, Amy Kaufman and I have differing points of view on whether the structure of the film could be described as a Western or as a Greek tragedy, I’m more for the Western …’
In discussing his impetus for the film and for its cinematic style, Fukunaga is again drawn to the significance of the Western genre, calling it ‘a good old-fashioned post-industrial Western tale of redemption’ and adding ‘The images conjured up a post-industrial version of our own iconic Wild West, but instead of covered wagons it was a freight train, and instead of the classic Hollywood version of “the savages” it was marauding bandits and tattoo-covered gang members who seemed to have been pulled from general casting in Mad Max. And yet this wasn’t the Wild West; it was real and it was happening, is still happening, just south of our border. This was the story I wanted to tell’.

Although his reference points are often classic Westerns, there is also his awareness of later excursions into the genre, in particular through his admiration for the work of Terrence Malick whose Days of Heavens is clearly evident in Sin Nombre, both through the iconic use of immigrant journeys via train, and in his sweeping panoramas resembling the ‘magic hour’ cinematography of Nestor Almendros for Malick. In another interview Fukunaga argues that his structural model was the journey — it’s basically its own version of a road film. But the elements I liked in terms of how to treat it cinematically were drawn from westerns, so I watched Peckinpah films, some Ford and Huston, and got a sense of how they covered landscape. Although I wasn’t going to be doing these grandiose Utah Cinemascope shots, I wanted a few wide shots. I got two or three near the end. [laugh] But I think of it as a post-industrial wild west story, if not a western.

Hunt and Fukunaga’s tales play out in a tangled, messy present, spotlighting a modern strain of frontier lawlessness and implicitly debunking the notion of America as a promised land of unbridled opportunity. They do not simply breathe new life into the genre. They may also have reclaimed it for a fresh generation of American pioneers. (4)

So long as there is border country, and huddled masses to move across it, there will always be a place for the big-screen western. (4)

The Road and Theorizing the Post-West

From Neil Campbell:

Theorising the postwestern

I’m interested in David’s comments on the ‘post-West’ and felt moved to include a brief extract from my work-in-progress on Post-Westerns. It begins (at least in this section) to comment on and define how the term might be applied.
EXTRACT: “The problem of the meaning of the prefix ‘post’ is critical to this discussion of what I am calling ‘post-Western’ cinema for contained within the debates surrounding it much is revealed about the relationships of the Western to its ‘past’ , ‘present’ and ‘future’.  Commenting on the use of ‘post’ in post-colonialism, Stuart Hall argues for it as a continuum, as ‘not only “after” but “going beyond” the colonial, as post-modernism is both “going beyond” and coming “after” modernism, and post-structuralism both follows chronologically and achieves its theoretical gains “on the back of” structuralism’ (Hall 1996:253).  A similar logic can be usefully employed to discuss the relations and tensions between the Western and its ‘post’ forms as both ‘going beyond and after’ its earlier ‘classic’ structures and themes. To borrow the phrasing Hall uses, ‘It is because the relations which characterised the “colonial” [read classic Western] are no longer in the same place and relative position, that we are able not simply to oppose them but to critique, to deconstruct and try to “go beyond” them’ (ibid.:254). The ‘post’ never just means the ‘past’ as in the term ‘post-Western’, but rather ‘a process of disengagement’ from the system it is in tension with, in the full knowledge that it is ‘probably inescapable’ from that system as well (ibid.:246).  Thus Westerns and post-Westerns ‘never operated in a purely binary way’ but always interact, overlap and inter-relate, as argued earlier, in complex dialogical ways.”  This may help in moving closer to how the post-Western functions – certainly in texts like ‘The Road’ (maybe) or, in my case, in films like ‘Down in the Valley’ or I’d argue ‘No Country for Old Men’ (with its irony and deep yearning and loss).

Anyway enough … the post-western ideas are in my ‘Journal of the West’ article on Down in the Valley (Post-Western Cinema: David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley; Winter 2008) and forthcoming elsewhere … the book is in process …

[Editor’s Note: I moved this from the comment section into a post for easier access and reading]