The Walking Dead

The Trouble with TV Consumption: When Will “The Shocker” Flatline?

the walking dead season 4 part 2 michonneI don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I feel like I know every inch of its body like it’s a ghostly lover I’ve only dreamt of courting.

The allure is real and tangible everywhere I turn. HBO’s healthy marketing budget has made it so that I can’t wait for a bus or click on to my favorite site without seeing an ad plastered on some physical or digital space.

I don’t have a problem with marketers doing their job. What I detest, however, is the devolution of A&E journalism from being the stimulant to the easily-stimulated.

Sunday evening through Monday morning, the headlines are inescapable: “Game of Thrones Shocker!” or “The Walking Dead Spoiler: Discuss the Season Finale Shocker!” I know we’re living in the era of the resurgence of event television, but I  don’t appreciate it when I’m bombarded with an array of  headlines aimed at shaming me for casual disinterest.

“Shockers” don’t impress me much anymore.

I guess the headlines are a preferable alternative to the quick-fire “OMG SERIOUSLY? #GameOfThrones” that fills my Twitter timeline when any given buzz show airs, but the fact remains that you can’t simply exist as a casual consumer (of the fan or non-fan persuasion) any more. You’re either part of the in-crowd or the outcast. There’s no middle ground in the world of quick-fix television.

I’m forced to indulge in the cultures of these shows, though watching rabid fans salivate over something they fail to realize–in their fits of, well, “shocked” outpouring of digital discourse on social media–was constructed specifically to send them off their rockers is entertaining in itself.

How easily we, as a collective audience, have relinquished control.

I’m supposed to form a relationship with a show. I’m supposed to curl up in its embrace—by myself (who needs people?)—and drift off into the sweet nothings it whispers into my ear. It has to be consensual. A show hinging itself upon shocking me fosters a souped-up, manic consumption that leaves no room to explore new routes. It conditions expectations of topping itself, and makes it impossible for its writers to explore even terrain. 

Still, I feel like the industry wants me to feel like I’m missing out on an irresistible fuck-fest to draw me in. They want me to feel like the outsider. They want me to submit to their show’s ability to travel so long right around a circle that the only way to keep things interesting is to yank the wheel to the left.

I miss the days of connecting with fans on the basis of quality versus surprise. LOST, while inspiring a fan culture all its own, propelled itself forward on the grounds of dramatic resonance. Each bit of absurdity fueled the show’s personality. It became a character drama with an affinity for the absurd. The show was never defined by its insanity, and its twists and turns inspired crescendoed momentum instead of reaching a peak, diving off the side, and climbing back up only to repeat the same suicidal event two weeks later.

Plot twists used to serve purpose, but now they’re used as buzz topics for tomorrow’s articles that tap into everyone’s innate desire for inclusivity. We all want to be a part of something, but this shocker business feels too constructed.

I admit that I watch event shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Of all the buzz shows, The Walking Dead most justifiably earned its right to assert dominance over the pop culture discussion at large. It’s a huge cable production that trumps nearly every scripted network show in terms of revenue, ratings, and response from the key demographic. But, the show evolved from a quiet, subdued drama that it was in its first two seasons. It has adapted to fit within a culture that demands spectacular stimuli–including the shocker. Its ever-bloated cast list grows by the season only to be cut down without warning in an inevitable, unmotivated bloodbath. It’s a show that was once defined by a singular character’s will to survive, but now rides from high to high on the fumes of its audience speculating who will die next.

And everyone eats it up.

In a sense, it’s impossible for us to fairly gauge a show’s quality when it follows the shocker format. What this does is allow an otherwise brilliant show to become predicated by superficial elements; character deaths, tonal shifts, plot twists—moments whose foremost purpose isn’t to advance the story, but to get you on your phone tweeting about it whether such elements work or not.

We don’t challenge ourselves to accept what’s happening and if it works with the ideology of the show. It’s simply golden if it’s unexpected, and I’m sick of it.

It’s easy to see how the passively-accepting, actively-responding, binge-watching culture has adopted other more subtle series as posterchildren for buzz-crazed consumption before they had a chance to hit their stride. That’s why Homeland sputtered out so fast: It was a show that was genuinely compelling in its first season, fueled by intricately-woven character dynamics and twists & turns that served a purpose in context. The media ate it up. It became the show to watch, picking up steam long after its premiere, and the show adapted to this too-soon ejaculation accordingly. It became a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The solid shell of season one is now haunted with the extravaganza of the (literally) explosive season two finale and melodramatics of season 3. It’s a show that needed to be caught up with, not a show that needs to play catch-up itself. Now, all we care about is the spectacle; all we care about is if a show can sustain the demographic’s boner.

The fact that everyone is so hung up on the shocker has even managed to tarnish the reputations of brilliant minimalist shows like True Detective and Looking.

True Detective’s first season was a character drama disguised and marketed as a crime/detective thriller. Its stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, played two characters that were infinitely more interesting than the murder case they tried to solve, and the show unfolded accordingly. People expecting a procedural were intensely disappointed to learn that the focal characters brought far too much weight to the table; Their stories—and how they reacted to the crimes and each other—were too complex to ignore. 

Because True Detective dared to make its central mystery of uncovering the murders the least important part of its identity pissed people off once the finale aired. They were unable to appreciate the philosophical gravitas or the beautiful intricacies of its characters and their connection to the world around them. People don’t see characters anymore, they see play pieces atop a board game; but, who wins in that situation?

Screen-Shot-2014-01-12-at-11.38.10-AMBecause Looking, a drama revolving around a group of gay friends in San Francisco, didn’t follow a traditional structure and because it dared to linger in silence where any other show would try to cram in flesh, blood, and bone, it became a detractor to the gay community in the eyes of the Internet Court. Twitter ripped it apart every week. According to them, it either probed too little into gay culture or became a stereotypical representation of the gay fantasy. It was never good enough for the contemporary audience. It was held to an unrealistic standard of upholding the image of the gay community when all it aimed to do was explore its characters without their sexuality as a defining factor. It never asked to be a champion of the gay community, nor did it beg for people to look upon it as a trailblazer for the queer identity. It was a show about people, but “real” people wanted it to be something traditional, but still expected it to be something different when it bored them. People looked for something to latch on to; the gay factor must define this show because people are too impatient to dig anywhere under the surface. It’s a dynamic show that defies classification, and that frustrates the casual audience to the point of not simply disinterest, but violent backlash.

What does this say about us? Can we no longer handle simplicity? Are our minds descending so deep into the quick-fix abyss that the only time we allow ourselves to come up for air is to take another hit from the shocker to carry us through to next week’s episode?

Networks are not the problem. They have to make money somehow. I’m troubled by rabid audiences consuming television like a drug, moving from high to high, plot twist to plot twist, shocker to shocker. It’s empty consumption, and it’s clear to see that TV shows like The Walking Dead and Homeland are evolving to fit this mold when they started out as completely different shows than what they are now. People live for the inclusivity versus the art of the show.

Sooner or later, you’ll come to expect it, and that’s when the shock will flatline. The high will fade, and Twitter will go silent. We can only hope it comes sooner rather than later, but where do you go from there once it happens?

Make no mistake: I cannot judge a show I’ve never seen. I can only react to the coverage a show receives and how that coverage reflects a much greater shift in the way TV is consumed and produced for our quick-fix culture to the point where I must endure a barrage of industry “coverage” that’s only bent on making me feel like an outsider for not stepping inside the loop.

That’s not something I can warm up to any time soon.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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A Post-Andrea Apocalypse: Why Can’t Women Survive on “The Walking Dead?”

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Where the film industry gives us one Ryan Stone, TV gives us twenty Carrie Mathisons.

In an age where quality roles for women in film are drying up, it only makes sense that another medium would harness the opportunity to showcase strong female characters on a large scale.

Thanks to television, we have the likes of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation, Hannah Horvath on Girls, Selina Meyer on Veep, and countless other characters on network and cable which reflect the diverse palette of female representation streaming into our homes night after night.

The Walking Dead, one of the most successful shows of the decade, has seen a viewership increase of nearly 10 million (up to 16.1 watching its Season 4 premiere) since its first airing in 2010, soaring in the key demo week after week. It’s popular. It’s the perfect blend of fluff-fun and narrative beauty. It’s also a show which fiercely defies the progressive environment for women the contemporary television industry has blossomed into by pitting most of its heavily-developed female characters against death in a losing battle.

Season 3 of the hit series saw the demise of Andrea (Laurie Holden), a character who was never really given the privilege of being taken seriously beyond what the audience wanted her to be, thanks to the public’s never-ending hatred for her seemingly ill-informed decision-making. Andrea’s arc on the show was, to me, some of the most compelling character development I’ve ever seen (read my initial analysis before the start of Season 3 here.)

What began as a throwaway, cliched take on a down-and-out woman ready to take her own life evolved into a fruitful, satisfying examination of reversed will, clear mind, and determined spirit. We watched Andrea evolve from the brink of death (nearly by her own hand) into a woman actively rejecting a reversion to gendered hunter-gatherer society that would most likely emerge in a real-world post-apocalypse.

We most clearly observed this transformation during the bulk of Season 2, where Andrea’s superficial “failures” can only be seen as byproducts of her victimization by a world which can no longer tolerate feminism, as truly evolved “society” has crumbled and become far too advanced for those surviving in Andrea’s group. Though their version of “society” very much reverted back to the demeaning, gender-specific hunter/gatherer delegation of responsibility that predates contemporary life, most of the women seemed comfortable taking a backseat to the men throughout Seasons 1 and 2.

Lori, Beth, and Maggie took pride in keeping Hershel’s farm tidy and functional, preserving what little shred of normalcy they could, albeit inadvertently bringing an intangible dream to the group’s fingertips, though their hands could never close upon it. Fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of lemonade on the table for the men returning from a zombie slaugtherfest became a fantasy merely  teasing of a way of life that had long since disappeared.

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And thus the show evaporated the place of the woman within its world. Carol, worse so than the women bustling to maintain the state of the home, was defined purely by her maternal responsibility; the first half of Season 2 is dedicated almost entirely to finding her lost daughter, Sophia. Though emotionally-crippling in its revelation, the discovery that Sophia was amongst the imprisoned zombies in Hershel’s barn (she’d been dead the entire time) came as affirmation that women could no longer retain their natural roles as mothers, let alone foster some sort of domestic mirage Lori tried to uphold inside the house.

Andrea, however, rejected these roles. Always the independent, she fought for her equal place among the men. She made countless mistakes along the way (accidentally shooting Darryl being the most glaring), but these only worked to solidify her status as second-class in the eyes of the men. A girl playing catch-up, if you will. Should it have gotten to the point where Andrea felt the need to try so desperately to win male praise that her judgment is clouded, allowing her to mistake one of them for a zombie?

This sort of gendered acceptance issue wasn’t present in the other female characters, and that’s what made Andrea interesting. Season 3, however, shows us that within the confines of The Walking Dead ideology, womankind has no place in this zombie-infested post-society. The fact that Lori dies after giving birth comes as confirmation that nurture has reverted to nature.

Lori is the epitome of a passive, secondary citizen woman in this archaic era of reversion. We can even look at her sexual exploits in contrast to Andrea’s and see that her fate was sealed from the start. Throughout Seasons 1 and 2, Lori is sexualized by Shane and lets the desires of the men, whereas Andrea sexualizes Shane herself by initating the act. Lori takes pride in taking care of Hershel’s house with the other women while Andrea resists it, and spends the rest of her time pregnant. The result? Immediate death upon the fulfillment of her “duties” as woman.

On the other hand, Andrea comes to represent the death of the feminist woman in this era, albeit after a struggle for acceptance. She only dies once she relinquishes her independence as she succumbs to the pitfalls of affection and enters a dangerous relationship with The Governor of Woodbury, becoming the sexual, emotional, and psychological property of a male tyrant amidst her own struggle for independence and power. She submits to what she wants most. The Governor’s power trumps her rejection of “natural” role. Her death at the end of Season 3 solidifies the end of the powerful woman in a society that reverts to a “natural” or primitive social structure which relegates women to second-class status.

Her death is the death of the independent woman, and we’ve yet to come across another female character with this kind of symbolic importance.

What we have now is a mish-mash of female characters who are either shoved to the forefront of our attention because the other previously-developed women have died (Carol), or placeholders merely filling their roles as “sister” (Sasha), “girlfriend” (Karen and Maggie), “caretaker” (Beth), or even death itself (the female hiker who kills herself in front of Rick in the woods).

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Our sole hope at this point lies in the hands of Michonne, whose femininity has only come into play at one key point throughout her entire arc on the series. Last week, Beth placed Judith in the hands of a reluctant Michonne. In these few moments, we watched her face grow from bitingly angry to hopeless. In these few moments, we’re able to see the pain’s origin, and a glimpse of the person Michonne used to be. Did she have a daughter? A child she was close with and lost in the zombie takeover? Does she long to return to her own days of innocence as a child relying on the care of others?

We saw Michonne not as the tactical, cold defender that she is, but for a moment as a human. Intentionally ambiguous, the reason for her tears isn’t–and hopefully, won’t be–fully-explained. The mystery of her origin is meaningless, as being a “woman” is meaningless within the society of the survivors. Women fulfilling “duty” are killed, and women resisting it are eventually put into place.

Whether this is intentional or merely an exerted analysis may never be known. Whether the show’s reluctance to let the female “win” in this post-society world is brilliant commentary or lazy regression remains to be seen, but at least with Michonne we have a (re)starting point to piece together what Andrea started.

Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.