Watch­ing the re­turn of The Walking Dead this week was a bit like tak­ing a base­ball bat to the face

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - PA­TRICK FREYNE

A base­ball bat wrapped in barbed wire and drip­ping with blood is the look ev­ery post-apoc­a­lyp­tic road war­rior must have this sea­son, and new Walking Dead an­tag­o­nist Ne­gan wields his with haughty in­sou­ciance.

Ne­gan (Jef­frey Dean Mor­gan) has just killed a char­ac­ter you love but the Walking Dead’s (Mon­day, Fox) creators are a lit­tle slow to re­veal who it is. They left us at the end of the last se­ries with a humdinger of a cliffhanger. Ne­gan and his crew had en­cir­cled our he­roes and then Ne­gan bat­tered one of them to death with the afore­men­tioned bat.

This was pre­sented from the point of view of the vic­tim, sug­gest­ing that the viewer him/her­self was among this cir­cle of shud­der­ing, cry­ing peo­ple, all ter­ri­fied by what might oc­cur in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture (it re­minded me of a work­shop I at­tended about jour­nal­ism in the dig­i­tal age).

And so in the first episode of the new se­ries, the writ­ers toy with us for a while by flash­ing for­ward to af­ter the killing. Was the vic­tim, Ne­gan asks our hero Rick (An­drew Lin­coln), Rick’s “right hand man?” Oh no! Not tac­i­turn, greasy-haired, ridicu­lously un­ques­tion­ing Daryl! Who will help over­see Rick’s stupid, morally sus­pect plans that don’t make sense, if Daryl is killed?

It’s not Daryl. Daryl sur­vives. The teas­ing con­tin­ues, un­til even­tu­ally, af­ter much waf­fle from Ne­gan and some snotty weep­ing from Rick, we get to see a flash­back in which Ne­gan chooses a vic­tim from the cir­cle and beats their head into a bloody pulp.

It’s Abra­ham. Yes. The big gin­ger mil­i­tary one. His last words: “Suck my nuts.”

Ah Abra­ham, noth­ing be­came him so well in life as the leav­ing of it. “Suck my nuts” in­deed. These words will no doubt be etched on his grave­stone and in­spire a po­etic move­ment in this new zom­bie era – the Nut­sists.

Sin­is­terly smi­ley

Abra­ham was a big gin­ger whinge, so his death feels like a cop-out. But we don’t re­ally have time to think about this as Ne­gan drags Rick off to give him a sin­is­terly smi­ley lec­ture about how he, Ne­gan, now owns Rick’s “axe”, and then makes Rick re­trieve that im­ple­ment from a gath­er­ing low-front of slaver­ing zom­bies (zom­bies are now barely com­mented on and are akin to a weather sys­tem in The Walking

Dead; char­ac­ters prac­ti­cally wet their fin­ger­tips, hold them in the air and say, “It’s a bit zom­bie-ish out, you should wear a hat”).

Any­way, there’s some­thing amus­ingly ho­mo­erotic about all of this cov­et­ing of an­other man’s axe. (Maybe it’s the echo of the words “suck my nuts”.) But the writ­ers are just tri­fling with us again, be­cause af­ter much grunt­ing from Rick, and some high-en­ergy speechi­fy­ing from Ne­gan, we get an­other flash­back in which it is re­vealed that af­ter killing Abra­ham, Ne­gan smashes Glenn’s head in with the bat.

No! Not Glenn! Not the last ma­jor char­ac­ter left with a fig­u­ra­tive moral cen­tre but also a sur­pris­ingly gooey, bloody and fleshy lit­eral cen­tre!

Yes folks, Glenn. That’s tele­vi­sion. I mean, it’s not good tele­vi­sion. But it’s cer­tainly tele­vi­sion. And who amongst us doesn’t think that Mag­num PI would have been im­proved by the dis­em­bow­el­ing of Hig­gins, or that The Smurfs could have been en­hanced by the slow star­va­tion of Gargamel?

It calls to mind John Lo­gie Baird’s oft-quoted line: “Some­day peo­ple will use this de­vice to watch beloved char­ac­ters have their heads smashed in with a base­ball bat and frankly that’s why I cre­ated it.”

On a ba­sic level, killing Glenn was a shock­ing move (this is what hap­pens in the comics, but the TV show usu­ally remixes the source ma­te­rial). He’s one of four beloved, ar­guably three-di­men­sional char­ac­ters in this show (along with Mi­chonne, Daryl and Carol). But art is all about get­ting the viewer to ask ques­tions, and as I look at Glenn’s gib­ber­ing, caved-in head, his eye pop­ping from its socket, his tele­vi­sion wife weep­ing, I ask ques­tions too. Ques­tions such as: “Is this what a se­ri­ous head trauma ac­tu­ally looks like?” and “What the hell am I watch­ing this for?” and “What is the Walking Dead even about any­more?”

Worse than zom­bies

Zom­bies are be­side the point now. “Peo­ple,” the writ­ers have no doubt un­der­lined on their writ­ing room white board, “are worse than zom­bies.” The writ­ers hate peo­ple, not least the view­ers.

“What ter­ri­ble things will peo­ple do in or­der to sur­vive?” the writ­ers won­der hys­ter­i­cally, but in­creas­ingly, I feel like the char­ac­ters’ lives would be im­proved if they con­cen­trated more on the hus­bandry of live­stock and less on bad­lythought-out re­venge fan­tasies and de­spair. There’s a grow­ing sense that our he­roes are among the stu­pid­est pos­si­ble dis­as­ter sur­vivors and that Rick is the worst pos­si­ble leader.

Ev­ery­where they go they bring chaos. Alexan­dria (their cur­rent home) was, be­fore Rick ar­rived, an idyl­lic utopia. Since Rick ar­rived ev­ery­one there has lost loved ones and learned the true mean­ing of grief. It wasn’t the first place to be Rick-rolled. Her­shel’s farm in se­ries two, the lit­tle colony of pris­on­ers and the Gover­nor’s au­to­cratic but per­fectly or­dered town in se­ries three, were all op­er­at­ing just fine un­til Rick stum­bled along with his crew of tooled-up, emo­tion­ally scarred de­pres­sives.

Even the can­ni­bals in se­ries five had a nicely func­tion­ing so­ci­ety and farmer’s mar­ket un­til Rick ar­rived with his small-minded squeamish­ness about be­ing eaten and had them all killed.

Rick, like all true mon­sters, be­lieves him­self to be a nice guy and thus he can­not see that he’s as bad, if not worse, than Ne­gan. He’s ba­si­cally the type of post- apoc­a­lyp­tic strong man that grumpily tweets com­ments with the hash­tag #no­tall­postapoc­a­lyp­tic­strong­men.

In the last se­ries, Rick over­saw a mas­sacre of Ne­gan’s men that in­volved knif­ing sev­eral of them in their beds. Af­ter that, Ne­gan is ac­tu­ally show­ing com­mend­able re­straint by just smash­ing two of our he­roes’ heads into paste. Hor­ri­fied as I was by these deaths, I also found my­self say­ing, “fair enough” and “this is what lead­er­ship looks like”.

Ne­gan coolly op­er­ates a ter­ri­fy­ingly or­dered, Clin­to­nian diplo­matic pol­icy built on rules and con­se­quences and doesn’t just flail around wildly and im­petu­ously in re­sponse to what­ever an­gry bub­bles of fear and sus­pi­cion are per­co­lat­ing in his brain like Rick “Trump” Grimes. He also has a lovely smile and I would to­tally vote for him or fa­tal­is­ti­cally sub­mit to his rule if given the op­por­tu­nity.

More ul­tra­vi­o­lence

The episode ends with an­other threat­ened act of ul­tra­vi­o­lence when Rick is asked to chop his son’s hand off (like Abra­ham in the bi­ble; “Suck my nuts,” sayeth Abra­ham). Ul­ti­mately Ne­gan doesn’t make him do this. In­stead he takes Daryl as a hostage and our trau­ma­tised sur­vivors sit in a cir­cle and weep (like I said – a hol­low form of es­capism if you work in print jour­nal­ism).

Any­way, my emo­tions blunted by hor­ror, I no longer care what hap­pens to these self-de­struc­tive dimwits and I in­creas­ingly sus­pect that there’s no com­pelling dra­matic rea­son for these repet­i­tive cy­cles of dark­ness be­yond nev­erend­ing Walking Dead­lines (the ti­tle of The

Walking Dead, isn’t a ref­er­ence to zom­bies at all, but to the poor writ­ers). That said, if the pro­gramme fi­nally ac­cepts what it has only hinted at so far – that Rick is the real vil­lain and not a tire­some, ends-jus­tify-means tough-guy archetype – I’ll come back on board.

Un­til then, for my zom­biepoca­lyp­tic japes, I’ll stick with the low-bud­get, good-hu­moured and joy­ously creative Z-Na­tion (Tues­day, Pick), a show in which a hu­man-zom­bie hy­brid fa­thered a “Zom­baby” and sev­eral un­dead trudgers were crushed be­neath a gi­ant, rolling cheese, and which I feel is ul­ti­mately more re­al­is­tic, hu­mane and rel­e­vant to my way of life #no­tal­l­zom­bieshows.

There’s a grow­ing sense that our he­roes are among the stu­pid­est pos­si­ble dis­as­ter sur­vivors and that Rick is the worst pos­si­ble leader

Smashie, not nicey: Jef­frey Dean Mor­gan in The Walking Dead

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