The Walking Dead: Too Far Gone

The Walking Dead has reached its mid-season hiatus, and pretty much everybody is now dead (well, okay, not really, but the television series remains true to the spirit of the graphic novel series on which it is based, and, thus, not even beloved major characters are safe). Although the episode aired over a week ago, perhaps this is a good time to note that there will be spoilers for anyone who is still catching up on the season.

As noted in earlier blog posts,  what The Walking Dead shares with a more traditional western is an interest in observing humanity in a “state of nature,” in returning to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization in order to examine what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society.  The frontier setting of the western provides a “state of nature” environment where that investigation can take place. Different westerns suggest different philosophical positions as to what human existence would be like in a state of nature.

In The Walking Dead, different characters suggest different philosophical positions. Rick, especially the Rick that consults with a committee before making decisions, has become (like Herschel) someone who seems to follow John Locke in believing in a social contract (based, more or less, on notions of property, even as both Herschel and Rick also believe in—or are at least open to—sharing property). The Governor (or Brian or whatever name he’s currently using) is thoroughly Hobbesian— believing that in a state of nature every person is out for himself, and that without the order of government (or another type of authority), we are in a state of continual warfare. In this state of nature, it is kill or be killed (or, in Walking Dead terms, kill or be eaten).

The property in question is the prison, which Rick and his group currently occupy and thus possess. From the Governor’s Hobbesian point of view, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to take the group’s property—if that is what is necessary for the survival of his group. The Governor’s speech to his followers doesn’t quite put it that way, but he convinces them to follow along.

The episode’s most explicitly western moment occurs when the Governor and his “army” drive up to the gates of the prison and the Governor tells Rick that he has “until sundown” to get out of town—or to get out of the prison.

Rick offers to include the Governor’s group in the social contract, to take them in and let them share the prison. This is a compromise the Governor is unwilling to make. Rick tells him, however, if he insists on taking the prison, Rick’s group will fight back. In Lockean terms, no one has the right to take your property from you, and you are well within your rights to fight and kill someone who tries to do so, as such an act would be a violation of the most fundamental—most natural—element of the social contract. And, as Rick notes, if the Governor chooses to act in (from Rick’s perspective) a savage manner and reject the civilized offer of inclusion in the social contract, the only result will be deaths on both sides, the destruction of the prison’s defensive properties, and the subsequent incursion of zombies, making the prison uninhabitable for either party.

If there is any doubt that the Governor is not “too far gone,” he ends it by beheading the captive Herschel. That act sparks a battle, and the body count is high on both sides, although a group from the prison escapes on a bus, and the last we see of Rick and Carl, they are fleeing on foot from the zombies (attracted by the noisy battle) who have flooded through the prison’s breached defenses. The final shot is a nice visual nod to the graphic novel series, filmed from a point and view and angle that replicates the drawing of the pair fleeing from the prison in the comic book’s version of the fall of the prison.

The problem with the Hobbesian world view, the episode seems to suggest, is that is too optimistic. A philosophy of kill or be killed suggests that someone will survive. “Too Far Gone” suggests that enacting that philosophy means that, instead of producing winners and losers, everybody dies.

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.

Goodbye, “Bad”

After five seasons, the most interesting “Western” on television, “Breaking Bad,” came to the end of its run this week. Like “Longmire,” the West of “Breaking Bad” is the contemporary West (New Mexico), and like “Longmire,” “Breaking Bad,” with its story of outlaws and lawmen, has always been aware of its roots in the genre western.

It’s been an almost a week since the final episode aired, but I will nonetheless announce “spoiler alert” for anyway who hasn’t seen the episode. Stop here if you want to avoid surprises.

searchersshot

Although, really, there weren’t that many surprises, at least in terms of who did or didn’t die. We’ve known since the first episode of the series that Walter White had 2 years to live (as he was diagnosed with terminal cancer), and, if he dies from a gunshot wound rather than cancer (and he does), the only question really has been how rather than whether he will die. At least, I haven’t been able to imagine a reasonable scenario that would have been true to the aesthetics of the show that would have allowed Walt to go on living.

And when the episode begins with Walt discovering a cassette tape of Marty Robbins’ “Greatest Hits” in a car he’s breaking into, you pretty much know where the episode is going. There’s no doubt that we’re going to hear Robbins’ cowboy ballad of doomed romantic love, “El Paso,” and we don’t have to wait long to hear it (it starts playing when Walt fires up the car). From the moment we see the cassette case, we know that the episode is heading into Western territory, and when they lyrics come on of saddling up and going on the run, that is further reinforced. And, for anyone who knows how the song ends, the use of it at the beginning of the episode is pretty clear foreshadowing of what is to come.

Ever since Jesse Pinkman was taken captive and forced to help out with the meth cooking in the previous episode, I have been thinking that what we were heading for was “The Searchers,” a story of capture and rescue, and with the main character (as does John Wayne’s Ethan Hunt in “The Searchers”) having an ambivalent attitude toward the captive. Will he kill her/him or save him/her when finally found?

It was great to hear series creator Vince Gilligan comment on the influence of “The Searchers” (“we only steal from the best”) during an interview on “The Colbert Report” (please watch the interview, and stay tuned after the interview for the hilarious coda). What is interesting to me about “Breaking Bad” is that way it takes such influences and really reimagines them–not only in terms of plot parallels but also stylistically. The final scene of “The Searchers” (see image above) in which Wayne, framed by the doorway, watches the reunion of mother and child, but does not enter, and then slowly walks away from the house in the final shot of the film, no longer a figure in between civilization and savagery but one who is firmly on the outside, is a classic, and it’s a framing that has been repeated in Western film after Western film.

What “Breaking Bad” does is take the idea of the hero on the border between the civilian and the outlaw (Walt, certainly) and develop it over the series, as it takes Walt further and further “outside” and away from the interior space (his house, his family) that symbolizes his connection to civilization.  The house, abandoned and trashed by partying teenagers, in the final episode is no longer the place it once was, and with the loss of the house, we see there’s no hope for Walt to return to the life he once lived.

That final scene of “The Searchers” comes back to us in an interesting way. After making arrangements for his son, Walt, Jr., to get the remaining money from his meth days, Walt goes to where Skyler is currently living to explain how that will take place. It’s his final views of Walt, Jr., that play on “The Searchers.” Walt, because he has to hide, is continually looking at his son from the outside, often through windows. In a reversal of “The Searchers,” it’s Walt, Jr., that gets the classic John Ford frame–initially, as he steps off the school bus, and the doors open up to frame his departure. In the next shot, it’s Walt, Jr., in the door frame of the house, except he’s going inside rather than outside. In contrast to “The Searchers,” in which we observe Wayne from the inside of the house, the camera here takes the outsider’s perspective, as we watch from the Wayne/Walt position as the child returns to civilization, and the outsider can only watch his wish realized from that outside perspective. When Walt is placed in a position similar to Wayne, it’s done very abstractly, as we see the last image of Walt in this scene through the distorted perspective of a pane of glass, the same basic idea as in “The Searchers,” but done so in a way that references the earlier film without obviously or directly copying Ford’s stark framing technique.

And that is much of the way that “Breaking Bad” has approached the Western throughout the series. The allusions and references are there, but often in more abstract form, not always direct or obvious, but still an important component of the storytelling and the visual (and auditory) style of the series.

New season of “The Killing”

Okay, The Killing, I’m watching you; please don’t break my heart again.

With three episodes of season 3 now aired (the most recent, “Seventeen”), I may be falling in love again. At least, those elements of the show that I liked from the beginning, the relaxed pace, the absence of the by-the-numbers plotting of most procedurals and the everything-wrapped-up by the end 0f 40 minutes format (usually after a montage of crime scene investigation magic set to a fast-paced popular song), and, the extended attention to the Pacific Northwest landscape, and, goddammit, the rain, rain, rain, which I have loved, because it sets the show apart from every other television show on the air (especially those filmed in southern California); those elements all seem to be back. The Killing is visually interesting and stylish, particularly in its visual rendering of the urban and natural landscapes of its setting. Very few American television shows are as consistently attentive to striking visual compositions as The Killing, and very few television shows are as attentive to capturing the specific natural elements of a particular place (in part, because so few television shows are actually shot on a location that is anywhere close to their fictional settings).

And I love Linden and Holder, especially when they are together. They haven’t been together that much early on, with Linden officially off the force (through the first two episodes), and Holder with a new partner. We get the sense, though, that they are moving toward one another as the investigation moves forward.

I even liked the unresolved cliffhanger at the end of season one. I was genuinely surprised by that, and it’s a rare television show that does something that is authentically surprising (because, when they do, instead of being pleased that a show has done something unexpected, audiences instead whine, complain, demand closure, swear to never watch the show again, launch letter writing campaigns, etc.).

What I did not like was season two, when the series veered into Native American stereotypes (and also repeated the same old problem of casting non-natives to play native characters), and especially when they decided to explain Linden’s dedication to solving the crime to pat and clichéd psychological reasons (you see, this time, it’s personal). The ridiculous resolution to the mystery didn’t help.

I hope they can avoid those issues this time around.

They also seem to have dropped the political angle. That has always been (and continues to be through its third season) a central element of the Danish series on which The Killing is based. However, I’m not sure how well that played out in the American context, and the focus instead on Seattle street kids seems, thus far, to be more interesting than having a group of politicians as potential suspects/victims. Actually, with the street kids, the series reminds me of DaVinci’s Inquest, the Canadian series set in Vancouver (perhaps in part because The Killing is shot in Vancouver and probably shares some of DaVinci’s shooting locations).

Longmire returns

It’s been awhile since we last saw Walt Longmire on A&E. The second season of the series has aired two new episodes, with more to come. Of the two episodes, “Unquiet Mind” and “Carcasses,” I found the second to be the far more interesting. Although “Unquiet Mind” was based on the novel Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson, which I generally take as a good sign, the episode itself ended up being kind of confusing (I thought). In the novel, a serial killer being transported across Absaroka County engineers an escape involving several other prisoners. The first part of the episode follows the set up of the novel closely and effectively stages the escape and the subsequent carnage.

However, it’s perhaps key to the novel that Walt is the narrator, and much of the action, which involves Walt following the escapees alone up a mountain in a snowstorm, is filtered through Walt’s consciousness, as he reflects back on past events and as he meditates on what has become an important feature of the novels: not only does Walt respect the beliefs of his Cheyenne neighbors, he also increasingly (if reluctantly) comes to share them. A number of supernatural (or possibly supernatural) events happen in the novel, with Walt’s narration helping to create some ambiguity. Is Walt hallucinating? Or is he really getting help from spirits?

The episode jettisons the exploration of Cheyenne cultural and religious beliefs that is an important part of Hell is Empty and instead shifts the story to the narrowly psychological. Walt is feeling guilty about past actions, and various characters appear to him as he makes his way up the mountain to make various obscure comments pointing to that sense of guilt. What is effective about the novel—the sense that the exterior landscape and Walt’s interior psychological and spiritual landscape become increasingly entangled so that we can’t quite tell one from the other—does not work very well on television. The spiritual elements of the novel are gone, and the psychological exploration of Walt’s character is clichéd. And since television is not an effective medium for conveying interiority, we have lots of scenes of Walt walking around in the snow, and the episode literally meanders.

The episode “Carcasses” returned to what the series does best: good solid detective fiction (based in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, as suggested by Branch’s revelation of a tattered “Hound of the Baskersvilles” paperback) with vividly drawn and lively secondary characters (both victims and suspects): Holly Whitish, the psychologically troubled (as we discover) collector of roadkill (which she uses for composting) who discovers a dead human body in her (animal) body farm; the (also psychologically troubled) female veteran suffering from PTSD; her bruised husband; a sharp witted prostitute working a Wyoming truck stop.  The plot of the episode may have had a few too many parallels to last season’s “A Damn Shame,” but I like the way the episode joins its western rural setting with the sensibilities of hardboiled urban detective fiction, and the episode may ultimately have been more Elmore Leonard than Arthur Conan Doyle (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

The Walking Dead “Walk With Me”

It’s been a while, but Merle has returned to The Walking Dead. Losing an arm after being chained to a roof in the first season hasn’t improved his personality much, and neither has the intervening time. He comes upon Michonne and Andrea as they (like Merle’s group) are attracted to the site of a helicopter crash.

We also get our first sight of the Governor in this episode, as Merle takes Michonne and Andrea to Woodbury. He’s not quite what I was expecting, at least not in terms of physical appearance. He’s been styled quite differently than the character in the graphic novel. Woodbury also looks more like a suburban shopping plaza, at least from what we’ve seen thus far. This is not a bad thing, just a difference in the way the set has been conceived. The prison, on the other hand, seems to have been modeled very closely on the graphic novel. Regardless, the contrast between the seeming luxuries of Woodbury and the stone bleakness of the prison are quite clear.

I do love Michonne’s constant expression of disapproval and distrust.

The Governor has a nice speech about the rise of civilization, but it looks like he’s mainly concerned with retaining his own position of power.  Well, I would have been gravely disappointed if they Governor had turned out to be a nice guy in this version of The Walking Dead.

The Governor has a good strong John Wayne stance, especially when he’s speaking.

Season Finale: Longmire

The first season of A&E’s Longmire concluded by returning to the first book in Craig Johnson’s novel series, The Cold Dish. Several of the episodes in the television series have drawn bits and pieces from various novels along the way, but this is the first episode to provide an adaptation of a particular novel. As in The Cold Dish, the back story is the rape of Ayasha, a developmentally disabled Cheyenne teenager, by four white teenage boys from wealthy families. Although Walt arrested the four boys, they were found not guilty at the trial. There’s seems to be little doubt in the community or on the Reservation that the boys indeed committed the crime, and the resentment at this lack of justice seems to point toward various suspects out for revenge (the dish best served cold) when the boys start turning up dead—murdered, in the novel, by a long-range Sharps Rifle, and, in the television series, by a bow and arrow.

If you’ve enjoyed the television series, you should definitely check out the novels. Even in the case of “Unfinished Business,” which adheres fairly closely to the plot of the novel, there is enough difference between the episode and The Cold Dish to make the book a worthwhile read, and, in some ways an entirely different experience. And don’t think you’ve been “spoiled” because you know how the story comes out after having watched the episode—the solution to the mystery is completely different in The Cold Dish.

“Unfinished Business” is interesting as well for the way it directly addresses racial tensions between the town and the reservation. Walt ends up being caught between the two. Some of the Cheyenne blame him for the failure to convict at the trial. White citizens are angry at him when he hesitates to arrest Ayasha’s brother Veo for the murder of the boy. Certainly, Veo has motive, and that’s enough for Branch—despite the lack of anything other than  circumstantial evidence against him. Q’orianka Kilcher plays Ayasha, and it’s a brief role, but, for fans of The Killing, where she played a friend of Rosie’s, it’s good to see her on-screen again.

There’s a nice fist-fight between Branch and Walt, broken up by an exasperated Vic.

There’s also some resolution to other unfinished business in the episode—why the Denver police have been trying to track down Walt for a chat. And this is convoluted, and, I must admit, I’m not exactly buying this particular plot twist, although it does explain the otherwise inexplicable change from the novel in the date of Walt’s wife’s death—from four years in the book, to one year in the television series. Although Walt has told his daughter Cady that her mother died of cancer (and, I guess, has told the same story to everyone but Henry), that is not the case. The visiting police officer reveals that she was, instead, murdered, and he wants to talk to Walt because the murderer has been discovered—in a shallow grave with a broken neck, where he has been since, roughly, about the time Walt stopped pestering the Denver PD about solving the crime. The police officer suggests that that change of behavior is slightly suspicious.

The cancer story, in addition to serving as a convenient way to keep this information from the viewing audience until it can be revealed as a surprising revelation, is supposedly to conceal the truth of the murder from Cady, who Walt feels should be protected (and, he says, at the insistence of her mother) from the feelings of revenge that a murder would cause. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me for multiple reasons, not the least of which is how exactly a slow death by cancer (even if the disease moved quickly, it’s still much slower than being stabbed to death) could have been substituted as a cause of death. Cady wouldn’t have at some point visited her mother dying of cancer in the hospital? Cady, the intelligent, sharp, and up-and-coming lawyer couldn’t have discovered the truth about her mother’s death by, say, googling her name and seeing what popped up in the Denver newspapers?

I’m not sure why the series could not have gone forward with the knowledge of the murder having taken place from the beginning. The surprise of the discovery of the dead body of the murderer could still have been accomplished—and without the fairly incredible idea that Walt could have fooled almost everyone he knows including his smart daughter with a made up story about cancer.

Well, anyway, it was nonetheless an interesting first season of Longmire, and I’m looking forward to season two. In the meantime, I’m still reading my way through the novel series, and, for fans of the television show, shame on you if you don’t pick up one of the novels to read between now and the next season of Longmire.