Posts Tagged the Walking Dead season 3 finale

Roger Ebert, the Walking Dead, and the decline and fall of Fairfax Media

The list of what can be better described as “tributes” than obituaries marking the passing of film critic Roger Ebert (including one by President Obama) reflect the tremendous impact that he had on the cinematic world. To pick just one, the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross said that:

Learning from Roger Ebert : The New Yorker.

The wonder of discovering “Aguirre, Wrath of God” or Errol Morris’s “Gates of Heaven” redounded on the man whose enthusiasm led you across the threshold. It could have been anyone, I suppose, but for quite a few of us, it was Ebert. There was some kind of missionary fire beneath the easy, conversational surface of his writing.

Ebert knew cinema better than anyone else. One of the most touching pieces of writing that I have ever read was his reflection on losing the ability to speak due to cancer, which meant that he could no longer get to know actors, directors, and producers the way he used to. Still, he wrote some of the most insightful reviews out there – as well as some of the most scathing. Take, for example, this excerpt of his review of the goddawful second Transformers movie:

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews.

The plot is incomprehensible. The dialog of the Autobots®, Decepticons® and Otherbots® is meaningless word flap. Their accents are Brooklyese, British and hip-hop, as befits a race from the distant stars. Their appearance looks like junkyard throw-up. They are dumb as a rock. They share the film with human characters who are much more interesting, and that is very faint praise indeed. …

The human actors are in a witless sitcom part of the time, and lot of the rest of their time is spent running in slo-mo away from explosions, although–hello!–you can’t outrun an explosion.

Reading this review and others brought to mind another critic’s review that I had seen recently: the review of The Walking Dead season 3 finale written by Giles Hardie, the Entertainment Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald‘s website.

The comparison was not exactly flattering.

You see, reviews serve two purposes for readers. The first and most obvious is for people who have yet to experience whatever is being reviewed (for the sake of convenience, I will assume a TV show from here). Here, the reviewer’s job is both to give their audience a sense of what the show is about, and to say whether or not it is worth seeing.

The other purpose is for those who have seen the show already. Here, the reviewer is there to help their audience to process what they have just seen. For this reason, I always look up reviews straight after I see anything very thought-provoking. A good reviewer is there as an expert speaking to the masses. They can point out techniques used that most people would miss. They can put the show in context and explain how it relates to other shows, what its makers were trying to achieve, and what kinds of themes it had beneath its surface.

Roger Ebert was not just a good reviewer, he was a great reviewer. Whether or not I agreed with his assessment of a movie, his reviews were always entertaining and insightful. They were easy to read and, without fail, I would walk away with a better understanding of the movie.

That brings me back to Giles Hardie.

Hardie is currently trying to fill the shoes of Doug Anderson – the Herald‘s long-time TV critic, who was recently one of hundreds of layoffs that the Herald‘s parent company Fairfax Media made last year in order to cut costs. I can only assume, therefore, that Hardie is being paid a lot less than Anderson was to do more or less the same job. If that is indeed the case, boy are they getting what they pay for.

The review starts out with the sub-heading “So what happened?” It then proceeds to not so much “run” through the episode as “trawl” through it – he quite literally reprises every moment in the entire episode, pausing to interject with “funnies” like this:

Over at the prison Carl is angry. It isn’t clear if this is because Rick almost betrayed Michonne, if it is the first signs of post-apocalyptic puberty, or if it is because Rick called Shotgun on the road trip they are packing the cars for.

Get it? Because Rick called shotgun? Hilarious right!!!

And there’s the reflection on the episode, which comes across as completely brainless (I’m really sorry, I couldn’t help myself). For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll give my thoughts on the episode, as well as a more extensive critique of Hardie’s thoughts, below.

I do want to say, however, that I do not have any animus towards Hardie. He isn’t a great TV critic, but not everyone has to be – I’m sure he’s not bad at being the online entertainment editor for the Herald. What is sad to me is that the online entertainment editor also has to double as the TV critic these days after the real TV critic is laid-off. Critics do an important job, and good ones definitely draw me (and I’m sure others) to a publication.

Publications like the Herald are taking exactly the wrong approach to the digital age. They are resisting change for as long as possible, then cutting their biggest assets – their writing staff. Fairfax is still delaying putting up a paywall around the Herald and the Age, years after everyone else did it, and its pages seem to be filling with more and more syndicated content instead. All that means is that when the paywall does finally go up, there will be no reason to subscribe.

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*****SPOILER WARNING*********

So what did Hardie love about the season? The Governor:

The beauty of this season was they gave us a villain, a live villain, who could have his own character arc and ambitions. This was always the struggle while the zombies were the main threat, they are not only nearly inanimate physically, they are entirely unmoving as characters. … The Governor is a great character, who posed an evil-genius threat. He also gave a standard by which to measure all other evil, and this as much as anything facilitated Merle’s journey back to… well his own approximation of goodness.

Before I talk about the Governor, I want to address that Merle comment. I didn’t see Merle going on a “journey” to some kind of goodness, so much as Merle being the same old Merle, then suddenly going “hey, you know what would be a great idea? Why don’t I suddenly do something really dramatic and completely out of character, without any real explanation?” Merle’s journey was not facilitated by the Governor, it was facilitated by bad screenwriting.

As for the Governor, I don’t necessarily disagree that having a human villain is a good idea. The problem is that the Governor was about as one-dimensional as the zombies. It took a few episodes for the show to tell us just how evil and twisted he really was – and that was some entertaining television. After that, it started to feel like the Governor could just jump out in front of a crowd wearing a t-shirt saying “I’m a bad guy” and start mowing people down with an assault rifle and nobody would notice that he was a bad guy.

In fact, it took the governor jumping out in front of a crowd and mowing people down with an assault rifle for them to realise quite how bad he was. Here was Hardie’s take:

The Governor’s genocidal betrayal of his people was, well, necessary from a narrative perspective. It was also terrifyingly believable from what we knew of his character. That was the final chapter in The Governor’s journey from beatific leader with a room full of heads and a zombie-girl in a pillowcase to out-and-out bad guy.

I do want to say that I find the use of the term “genocide” here to be quite offensive. The Governor shot a few deserters. There are a lot of words to describe that: homicidal, sociopathic, psychopathic, insane, murderous, brutal, massacre, etc. What he did not do was try to wipe-out any race of people. Ergo, not a genocide. Genocide is a very serious thing and it’s not a word that should be thrown around like this.

Also, this little massacre was not “terrifyingly believable” and it does not complete any journeys. The Governor has been an “out-and-out bad guy” for half a season already. The only “journey” this may complete is the journey from a smart bad guy to a dumb bad guy. Until now, the Governor had killed when he wanted to, but had also been careful to preserve his power. Here we have him firstly leading his people into what can only be described as the Most Obvious Trap In The History Of Television (I mean, seriously! “Hey, where is everyone? I know, why don’t we follow this note that they left us into those narrow and unlit corridors  What could possibly go wrong there?”) and then doing the one thing that he could have done to show the morons in Woodberry that he’s not actually a good guy (see above).

Most annoying of all, the Governor then drives away with Unquestioning Henchmen A and B, without being killed. This episode was supposed to be the one where the Governor and Rick had a big show-down and the Governor was killed. There were so many options: dramatic shoot-out with Rick in the prison; Andrea lunges in a final moment of desperation; Michonne sneaks up on him from behind and twists the knife a little; Tyreece finally does something interesting. The writers were spoilt for choice, but instead they decided to keep this past-his-sell-by-date villain around for God knows what reason. Yes, killing him would have been the obvious choice and we didn’t expect him to not be killed this episode – but this is one time where I wish they had done the obvious thing.

Speaking of obvious things, I need to mention Andrea’s long drawn-out demise (and to his credit, Hardie did mention this one). The set-up to the situation at the beginning of the episode actually worked very well. The Governor torturing Milton was pretty powerful, the scheme of leaving Andrea tied-up while Milton slowly dies was clever and built a lot of dramatic tension.

Problem is, the show’s writers decided to squeeze every last drop of dramatic tension out of that scenario and then keep on squeezing just in case. This meant Andrea casually shooting the Breeze with Milton for a while, then looking over at him a lot, then checking on him – and more or less spending all of her time worrying about Milton instead of, you know, escaping. It even got to the point where poor Milton’s last words were something like “uh, Andrea, you should probably try and escape now”.

And THAT was good characterisation. Where a lesser character would have been screaming “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! SHUT UP! NOW IS NOT TALKING TIME, NOW IS GETTING OUT OF HANDCUFFS TIME!”, Milton is polite and reserved as ever. It’s a shame really, Milton was a genuine, well-written character with a compelling character ark. I would have liked to see him hang around. This was another poor choice by the writers – there was no shortage of boring characters to kill off, why take the one interesting one?

As you can probably tell by now, I thought this was a very weak episode, capping off a weak half-season. That’s a huge shame, because the first half of season three was great. TWD has a huge amount of potential, it just needs to rid itself of the mediocre writing and it would be a great show.

I’ll leave you with the words of Jeffrey Goldberg, who along with JJ Gould and Scott Meslow has written reviews of TWD worth reading all season:

‘The Walking Dead’ Season 3 Finale—in 1 Word – Jeffrey Goldberg, J.J. Gould, and Scott Meslow – The Atlantic.

A post-catastrophe world dominated by zombies would be, if nothing else, an interesting place to observe. Somehow, The Walking Dead has made such a place boring.

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