Monday, November 29, 2010

THE WALKING DEAD Episode 1.05 Review

The Walking Dead
1.05 "Wildfire"
Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson
Written by Glen Mazzara

I'm writing this just minutes after watching the latest episode of The Walking Dead, so I'm not sure how coherent it's going to be.  Up to this point, it's been kind of easy to discuss the show, since I've been intimately familiar with the comic and love the entire genre of zombie narratives.  Sure, a lot of the field is awful.  But there are gems in there, to be sure.

The best works tend to deal with the people realistically.  Which means with all the tragedy, anxiety, hope, fear, humor, successes, and failures.  That's one of the things that The Walking Dead does best in its comic format, and it's one of the things that the TV series is shaping up to do best, too.

Most of this episode is straight out of the comic, but we're getting a huge plot shift here, and I'm not sure how to react to it just yet.

Get your Spoiler Shields up, and let's see if I can figure out what it is I want to say.

Like I said, we open this episode just where you'd think we would, in the aftermath of the zombie attack on the camp.  If the group seemed a bit large in the previous episodes, don't worry.  After that night, we're down to just about the numbers that we saw in the opening chapters of the comic.

Shane blames Rick for the severity of the camp's losses, since he took valuable manpower away from the camp.  Rick says that if it weren't for the guns they brought back, the losses would have been worse.  Lori's stuck between the two of them.  It looks like we're gearing up for the confrontation we all know is coming, between Rick and Shane, for the direction of the camp.

This opening act is filled with nice character moments, from Andrea forcing Rick away at gunpoint while she stands vigil over her dead sister, to Daryl claiming the camp had it coming for what they did to Merle, to Glenn demanding that bodies of their dead camp-mates stay separated from the bodies of the zombies, to Carol taking the pick-axe to her dead husband's head - repeatedly. 

This is the sort of thing I was hoping for when I first heard about this series getting made.  It helps that writer, Glen Mazzara is a seasoned pro at television writing, and that director Ernest R. Dickerson has over twenty years of experience, having directed films like Juice and one of my personal favorites, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, before moving almost entirely into TV direction, with credits directing episodes of everything from Heroes to The Wire to Burn Notice to Treme, and Dexter

That experience all pays off as we get another solidly crafted piece of work, moving us one episode closer to the season finale.  All of the character moments mentioned above are original to this version of the story, and if you ask me, are improvements.  Not that the source material is lacking.  This just fleshes out some elements that weren't addressed in the comic, and it improves the story overall.

The moment this week drawn directly from the comic, Jim choosing to be abandoned to die on his own, was played almost exactly like the source and it fit perfectly with the characterizations and plot developments brought to the narrative by the other writers and directors so far.  That blending of the source with original material without losing the feel or the voice of the comic is impressive. 

Which brings us to the biggest narrative change to the series yet. 

In the comic, when the group decides to leave, it's because it's no longer safe there.  Rick pushes for it, Shane resists.  In fact, Shane goes crazy and threatens to kill Rick.  Carl, who's been given a gun and trained with it over the previous issue or two, shoots Shane dead to protect his father.  It's a powerful and gut-wrenching scene that wraps up the first six-issue sequence of comics and serves as a pivot point as the story moves away from the camp.

I've been worried about how they were going to pull this off in the series, since Shane isn't the threat he was in the comic.  In fact, he's an okay guy, doing his best to hold things together.  When, this week, he points his rifle at Rick while doing a perimeter sweep and considers killing his best friend, it was disturbing not because of the act itself, but because it felt like a natural reaction to what he's been through.  The look on Dale's face when he catches Shane considering the murder says everything.

There's a little bit of astonishment, and a little bit of fear.  It's a very effective way of introducing the possibility that somewhere down the line, that confrontation from the comic may occur, but when Shane decides to back Rick's suggestion of heading for the CDC Headquarters, it appears that we may put that moment off for a while.

From this point on, we're in virgin territory.  There was never any clear destination in the comic when they packed up and left the camp, they were just looking for somewhere safe.  So it came as a bit of a shock when as we move into the final act this week, we cut to an entirely new character.  A scientist experimenting in isolation, trying to find a cure for, or at least an understanding of, the zombie plague.

We get to see his experiment go south, and in a very dangerous moment, he is nearly killed by toxic fumes from the chemicals he's working with.  He barely gets out of the room and into detox before security protocols destroy the last of the tissue samples he had to work with.  From there, it's a short hop to considering suicide after a good all-night drinking binge.

Until the survivors show up at his doorstep.  In a harrowing scene, Rick and the others make their way through the hundreds of corpses, actual ones, not the walking around kind, that are scattered all around the CDC Headquarters.  The buzzing of flies is ever-present, making the scene even more unnerving. 

After pounding on the doors, the rest of the group is ready to leave, desperate to find shelter before nightfall, but Rick is sure someone's inside and screams, pleading with them.  And then the doors open, revealing a blinding white light and the episode ends.

I admit, I wasn't sure about this when I started writing.  We're going completely off-course from what I was expecting to see happen.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing.  The CDC Headquarters is a great place to hole up, both from the point of view of the characters and from a stylistic angle.  The place just looks amazing, and gives us an interesting new set of possibilities and dangers.

And given how well the writers and directors have done so far when they've introduced original elements, I think enough trust has been built up to accept this shift and see where they plan on taking us.  With one more episode to go, we should find out fairly quickly whether or not this works or was a bad idea.  I have a feeling this is going to work out nicely for the story, if not for the characters.


  1. I might be completely off base, but I'm guessing/hoping that the CDC doesn't last long, and that the finale ends with the 9 cast members from the comic fleeing an overrun CDC. Part of my thinking comes from the fact that they are slowly whittling down the cast to characters from the comic -- and from the fact that Daryl, T-dog, nameless black woman, and Dr. Jenner didn't so much make the rounds for the press junket.

  2. Jenner's after fresh samples, because the zombies aren't good enough for him. Jim would have been.

    What's the betting that he tries to deliberately infect one or more of the group for his own ends? Perhaps he should have been called "Burke" instead. ;)

    My guess is that it's Shane who gets infected, leading to the expected shooting.

  3. I am also hoping that they don't go too far with the disease angle. As I recall from the comics, the infection caused by a zombie bite kills the victim, but it doesn't cause the dead to rise; that part remains a deliberate mystery.