Episode 6: “TS-19”
The CDC isn’t a fire burning time bomb. Also, just ducking when a building blows up doesn’t really do anything, especially when the bomb is a pseudo-nuclear weapon. Am I willing to suspend my disbelief and go for an entertaining ride? Yes. However, I don’t enjoy visual media blurring the line while demanding empathy, riding melodrama into cheap sentimentality. The season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead did just that. That doesn’t mean there weren’t great moments or that I didn’t enjoy the episode, but I understand why writers were fired.
The final episode, TS-19, really jumped the shark. It overplayed trite dramatics; it traversed into territory generally reserved for mainstream shows, where lowest common denominator reigns. Where earlier episodes adhered to the source material’s sentiments, this episode erases that; stirring that horrible feeling when something you really like goes askew. Remember the disappointment following the Star Wars prequels? It’s similar to that. At least The Walking Dead isn’t a generation’s formative text. This doesn’t mean I’m abandoning the series (especially with new writers forthcoming), but I’m having severe reservations. Some moments this episode were embarrassing; overtly sentimental nonsense fishing for cheap compassion. It’s trying too hard to win over an audience instead of just being honest. Up until this episode I felt it was trying but now I’m not so sure.
This episode begins with the group entering the CDC and confronting Dr. Jenner (Noah Emmerich). Alone in an underground compound, Jenner’s been searching for a cure and seemingly diagnosed with cabin fever. He allows the group showers and feeds them (they haven’t eaten in six day). Afterwards Jenner divulges information, a resource the group’s lacking. He reveals the process of demise, showing a brain scan on an infected person dying and then the resurrection. Apparently the disease is like meningitis, spreading through the brain and causing death. Rebirth only occurs in the brain stem, sending off minor impulses and animating the body. Then a bullet goes through the test subject’s head on the screen, jarring the group.
Jenner’s speech about the brain, about how a zombie’s frontal lobe is dead and so forth is sappy. Jenner’s monologue, starting with, “somewhere in all that organic wiring, all those ripples of light…is you,” continues into mediocre writing and acting, discussing the process of life and death until finally he concludes with, “the human part that doesn’t come back…the you.” My thoughts on Joe’s situation from last week’s episode materialize this episode. Instead of symbolic implications, Jenner’s speech becomes maudlin, revealing what the audience must feel. The product’s gone Hollywood, putting on a fresh face for the millions watching at home. Why shouldn’t it?
The answer, at least in my opinion, comes from an earlier assertion: the episode’s trying too hard. The first few episodes really played off the uncertainty of their situation. This horrific natural phenomenon drives each characters actions – no explanations, no news, nothing. What keeps the comic’s fresh is navigating this alternate reality where all the social constructions we believe in are dead, symbols of a world that’s never coming back. By incorporating this explanation into the series it negates that tension keeping the struggle so fascinating. Will they ever find out? Will we ever find out? It’s like sexual tension, which can kill a story once it’s broken.
Jenner’s sociopolitical commentary about fossil fuels isn’t invalid but its insertion seems preachy and heavy handed. The group’s living conditions are proof enough the industrialized world is completely dependent on structure, paralyzed without the wheels constantly moving. At the same time, I appreciate a television series addressing these issues; it’s not very often television is philosophical, even if wrapped in schmultz. However, it’s not just this issue that damaged the season finale’s credibility. Instead a barrage of mawkish scenes does the job.
For instance, the group’s showers, complete with hot water (a trope from the first episode), reveal the characters’ emotional status. Andrea’s holding herself and crying, Lori and Rick couple, Shane’s drinking and angry, etc: this much is evident from previous episodes and again tells the audience too much. This much symbolic exposition isn’t necessary – we’re not five years old. The episode’s climax, where Jenner tells everybody the CDC will “decontaminate” when the power runs out, uses a blatantly overdramatic score for added emphasis, mimicking mediocre action films and television drama. The music keeps building, becoming louder with Jenner (and his ridiculous female computer companion, which I’ll discuss in a moment) explaining the situation. The plea for life, for the chance at survival, isn’t good. Actually, it’s pretty awful writing, once again explaining why Darabont fired the writing staff. They took a great comic book and reduced it to mediocrity.
For those who haven’t read the comic I’m probably spoiling this, but I feel it’s necessary. A few graphic novels in the group find an abandoned prison, clearing it out and making it home. They live without power and very carefully, meticulously combing the facility for zombies for a long time. There’s a generator, but limited fuel keeps it off most of the time. The CDC facilities are state of the art. The duration of their stay isn’t relevant, it’s the scope of the set that is. There’s a talking computer, reminiscent of HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, that’s pretty insipid and the state of the art complex is a bit overdone, inserting absurdity into the episode. Of course a zombie apocalypse is nonsensical to begin with, but adding a self terminating government lab elevates it into silliness.
If you think I’ve forgotten the attempted rape scene, don’t worry – I’m at that point now. Shane, drunk and properly showered, confronts Lori about their former relationship and leaving Rick behind. Since the episode starts with Shane at Rick’s hospital room during society’s downfall, this sympathetic scene, where Shane fights for survival against a belligerent military and a horde of zombies, explains why Rick survived all the turmoil. Trying to escape himself, Shane places a stretch in front of Rick’s room and blocks the entrance. Shane argues he believed Rick dead, but his actions speak otherwise. Given the circumstances, I can’t fault Shane’s decisions. Lori does, convinced Shane acted inappropriately. Shane’s feelings of rejection and his drunken stupor lead to an attempted rape. He forces himself on Lori, clutching her and imposing himself on her. Lori escapes by scratching his face, leaving hideous marks. The scene was well crafted, with Lori’s emotions seeming genuine. I’ve never been privy to a rape before, but I bought her performance.
My former assertions that Shane and Rick will clash eventually seems even more relevant.
This episode, once again, relies heavily on character development and dialogue, but there are some excellent action scenes. When the group leaves the CDC they fight four zombies – all of which are brutally slaughtered. The head shots in this scene are quite graphic and there’s even a decapitation. Unfortunately this brief encounter doesn’t overshadow the 45 minutes of middling television. The explosion was derisory, derived somewhat from Cyberdine’s in James Cameron’s Terminator II. I felt like I was watching a highly forgettable summer blockbuster that’s only good on an airplane or when it’s 100 degrees out and the movie theater is an air conditioned oasis. It defies everything enjoyable about the comic, instead appearing common and banal. Thankfully the comic is still good and comes out every month.
This move into mainstream Hollywood tactics is also apparent in the actor’s appearances. Covered in dirt and grime for most of the earlier episodes, TS-19 features the characters looking like stars. Andrea’s unnatural blonde hair would have roots now; they would be weak and gaunt after a six day fast; their haircuts are too excellent for post-apocalyptic conditions; they’re wearing make-up. In the comic the characters look haggard, reflecting the conditions they live in. The amenities of society are gone, but the characters on the show all look good – some are sexy and others just look well put together. I find this insulting, especially from a series so insistent on authentic emotion. Once again, pursuing high ratings after already receiving them has damaged the show’s authenticity; its quest for the lowest common denominator impairs its realism.
It’s probably a year until season two begins and I’m not waiting with baited breath. Of course I’ll tune in and I’m curious if the new writers will pan out, but I’m unsure whether it’ll repair the damage done this episode. All the potential the season had went out the window tonight, resulting in cliché storytelling implementing overly sentimental and prosaic devices. Watching some of the actors deliver these poor lines, I felt embarrassed for them. Much of the dialogue was just awful, uninspired dribble conforming to mainstream standards akin to network drama. It makes me wish the show was on HBO instead.
Also, the episode ends like Lost in Translation, with Jenner whispering something into Rick’s ear – presumably about Shane almost raping his wife. Although the two spend a moment together earlier on, discussing the world they now inhabit, I didn’t think their relationship warranted such a contrived display. Plus, this device works better when followed by The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey, not an exploding government building.
Here’s the trailer for this episode