I mentioned last week that I'd started reading The Walking Dead graphic novels, and while I don't think the comic series is as infinitely superior to the TV series as some of my compatriots do, it is more interesting and addictive, if only because it moves at a breakneck pace and changes its locale, situations, and cast of characters often enough that it never gets dull. (As opposed to The Walking Dead: The Show, in which I feel we've been on Hershel's farm for so long that Sophia will be a chain-smoking grandma if and when we ever see her again.)
The characters in the comics are also more interesting, because they actually develop in response to their extraordinary experiences. For example, in the comics, the changes Rick undergoes through his travels and traumas are almost the entire point: he begins as a simple man trying to do the right things, and gradually metamorphosizes into a man he himself barely recognizes.
On AMC's The Walking Dead, however, the characters don't change, except in ways that might be perceivable by time-lapse photography. (It's taken a year and a half to even hint at what Andrea becomes in the comics.) Rick is basically the exact same decent, frazzled guy who stumbled out of the hospital way back in the pilot episode, and pretty much everyone else has stayed similarly stuck in their (mostly one-note) roles.
Except Darryl (Norman Reedus). Not coincidentally, Darryl is one of the few regulars who doesn't appear in the comics—at least as far as I've read so far—and I wonder if that makes the writers feel like they have more freedom in letting his character develop naturally. When Darryl first appeared (back in the third episode of Season One), he was a one-note character too: Redneck Merle's smaller, stupider redneck brother. He began as a violent and impulsive loner, but Darryl has developed into the most intriguing character in The Walking Dead, revealing surprising depth and wisdom ("Am I the only one zen around here?") and quietly affirming his loyalty and concern about the group (as he showed last episode, comforting Carol [Melissa Suzanne McBride).
Darryl gets the focus in "Chupacabra," and it's about time. Continuing his quiet, seemingly obsessive search for Sophia, Darryl is thrown from his horse and falls down a cliff side while alone in the mountains. Impaled on one of his crossbow quarrels, and woozy from a head injury, he makes his slow, painful way back up the cliff—only to fall again all the way back to the bottom. (These extreme efforts followed by total setback—like getting the zombie out of the well last week—are something of a recurring motif in The Walking Dead, and, in their Sisyphean futility, feed my half-serious Camusian interpretations.)
Having conked his head yet another good one, Darryl starts hallucinating, and sees his brother Merle (Michael Roker). It was a relief to see that Merle wasn't actually back—at least not yet—and was instead being used to introduce some welcome insight into Darryl's character. We see that Darryl has changed: he has changed, we now realize, in part because his brother is no longer around. Inner Merle gives Darryl the strength to get up and keep fighting, but he does so by taunting his little brother, questioning his worth, and reminding him that he can count on no one but himself. This Merle explains a lot about why Darryl is the way he is, but also shows us how different Darryl is now, out from under his brother's thumb and learning to care for other people. His presence here is Darryl's internalized awareness of how he's changed, a manifestation of his own doubts about his worth, about his place with the other survivors. "You're nuthin' but a freak to them," Inner Merle tells him. "Redneck trash. That's all you are. They're laughin' at you behind your back, you know that, don't ya?"
The payoff for this is a nice scene at the end, once again with Carol, who kisses him on the head. "You did more for my little girl today than her daddy ever did in his whole life," she tells him. When he protests that he didn't do anything Rick or Shane wouldn't have done, she says, "I know. You're every bit as good as them. Every bit."
This is excellent: this is the kind of situationally driven character work at which The Walking Dead should—but seldom does—excel. My question is, why can't they do this with any of the other characters? If this episode had focused solely on Darryl, it would have been my favorite episode of the series so far—but no, every time we get back to the rest of the group we veer back into the appallingly stupid, the disappointingly shallow, and the troublingly sexist.
Glenn (Steven Yeun) sacrifices the good will he earned from me last week by demonstrating his misogynistic stupidity—"You think Andrea's on her period?" he asks Dale—and clumsily lusting after Maggie (Lauren Cohan). (As seduction lines go, "We've still got 11 condoms" is not terribly smooth. Her comeback—"You see 11 condoms, I see 11 minutes of my life I'm never gettin' back"—is well-deserved.)
As I mentioned above, Andrea (Laurie Holden) takes a baby step towards becoming (SMALL SPOILER ALERT) the kick-ass sniper she is in the comics. "I don't want to wash your clothes anymore, Dale, I want to help keep the camp safe." But she does so in the stupidest way possible, grazing the returning Darryl because she just can't wait to shoot something. Granted, Darryl does sort of look like a walker—lurching into camp all covered in blood—but she ignores the warnings of the others to hold her fire even though they have the situation well in hand. Especially now that I've read the books, the "Andrea-and-her-Guns" storyline is now my least favorite example of the show's troubling view of women: Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) patronizingly took away her gun a few episodes ago, and then condescendingly gave it back, and now the writers seem to be giving the men another reason to take the guns away from the silly, possibly hormonal woman. Don't give her a gun: she's on the rag.
I don't mean to keep comparing the show to the comics—I promise I'll stop soon—but this neutralization of Andrea's power is all too typical of the patronizing view of women this show seems to have. Every storyline involving the women is about sex (Lori and Maggie), marriage (Lori and Carol), or motherhood (Lori and Carol again), and seldom in a positive, empowering way. The women do laundry and make dinner, while the men get to go out and kill things. (This week we also have Hershel [Scott Wilson] attempting to control Maggie's sex life, and—worse—Dale agreeing with him. "Did it ever occur to you how her father might feel about this?" he asks Glenn.) The women aren't agents: they're objects, hysterical victims to be protected and shrill problems to be discussed. It's insulting, it's condescending, and if it doesn't get better quickly it could be the final deal breaker between me and this show.
To be fair, some of this is inherited from the comics as well: the difference in Andrea's character aside, Robert Kirkman's series is not exactly a feminist manifesto. But perhaps that's part of the problem. It says a lot to me that the most successful character on The Walking Dead—and the only one that has been allowed to grow and develop—is one that Kirkman didn't create.
Whether the writers just can't re-imagine the characters they inherited, or whether they feel hamstrung by the developments in the (still ongoing) comic series, I don't know, but I find myself longing for the show to take a page from the book in a different way. One of the things the comic does very successfully is clean house every once in a while: getting rid of old characters and bringing in new blood. I wouldn't mind seeing this show kill off some of these characters that it can't seem to advance, and bring in some new ones that it could develop as fully realized characters.
If one or two of them are strong, kick-ass women, that wouldn't be the worst idea.
- Another pointless and wasted pre-credits flashback this week: the firebombing of Atlanta was a nice image, but what the hell did it even have to do with the episode, let alone bring to it?
- We're really going to spend the whole fucking season looking for Sophia, aren't we? Personally, I agree with Shane (Jon Bernthal) that it seems very unlikely the girl could still be alive (though I bet she will be). My assumption—and this is not a spoiler, since this storyline isn't in the comics—is that someone has found her and kept her alive. My money is on (the inevitably-returning) Merle.
- Hey, what are all those zombies doing in Hershel's barn? Nothing like the stench of rotting flesh to ruin the mood. Poor Glenn, he just can't get it right, can he?