Wolves Not Far: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season Finale

Is it in the best interest of the group to stand by Rick’s side amid the rising discomfort in Alexandria? Maybe the better question is: What even constitutes “best interest” in a post-American nightmare world?

bnockknockEvery community becomes its own kind of cult. We don’t need The Walking Dead to tell us that, but I doubt if any television show has been so thorough in examining how the process happens. Every high school drama and fish-out-of-water comedy relies on cliques and other ad hoc social groups for its conflict, but those groups never seem to evolve; it’s more like they’ve always been there, and their occupants aren’t people but seat-fillers for whatever the communal philosophy happens to be. Even in adventure films like Guardians of the Galaxy, where we see the evolution from ragtag, motley crew to fully functional team, the group is defined more by their goal and their individual eccentricities than any overarching ethos. The camaraderie of shared experience can only explain so much.

We could easily say that the strictly defined groups of The Walking Dead are similarly bound by a single goal: survival. But while that’s certainly not untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Whenever the series becomes dependent on a centralized location to anchor the group—the farm, the prison, Woodbury, Alexandria—the business of day-to-day survival becomes a matter of course. This is how life in the civilized real world operates: yes, we must do certain things to survive, but the relative ease (in general) of survival—the lack of immediate threats, the comforts of a dedicated living space—allow us to spend our energies elsewhere. This is when we develop opinions, interests, beliefs, personal philosophies. The world of The Walking Dead is never comfortable, but there is downtime between its epic battles, and it’s during that time that the show’s intermittently warring factions unconsciously hone their belief systems.

Consider the Wolves, the newest crew of sadistic derelicts to show up in the periphery of our beloved heroes. It would be one thing if the Wolves were simply a nasty-ass group of hunter-murderers prowling the Virginia countryside for new recruits to their army of the undead. That’s bad enough, but the killers also bear the same mark as their prey—the ubiquitous W on the forehead—suggesting that they’ve evolved from a group with a sick way of doing things to a cult that brands its members with Manson-like scars. The Wolves have taken the act of tactical killing to the level of ritual; they’ve allowed their personalities to be erased in the service of the group’s philosophy, what Lacanian psychoanalysts might call the big Other.

This is a shared quality of every fringe group we’ve encountered in The Walking Dead, and we can’t pretend as if the Grimes group is immune. The Ricktatorship flourished in earlier seasons because Rick seized power through the force of his zero-shit-taking personality. This isn’t an unheard of method for establishing dictatorial authority (see: John Fogerty) but what happened in the season five finale, “Conquer,” was more interesting. A good portion of “Conquer” was devoted to Rick’s followers offering testimonials to his righteousness around a highly unnecessary campfire. (We know Alexandria has electricity, fer crissakes.) It was half party convention, half premature funeral. Anyone with enough gumption and weaponry can ascend to office by force; it takes a true dictator to convince the populace of his own holiness and have them swear by it, regardless of their own best interests. (See: Machiavelli.)

crrlIs it in the best interest of the group to stand by Rick’s side amid the rising discomfort in Alexandria? Maybe the better question is: What even constitutes “best interest” in a post-American nightmare world? The havoc and horror have trained our heroes to cut down their reaction time for big decisions. That may have benefited them in the wild, but here in Alexandria things are slower. We have tribunals for open debate and personal living spaces where we can sit with our thoughts without jumping up to kill walkers or being interrupted from our reverie by not-so-distant gunfire. Carol calls the Alexandrians “children,” but the truth is that they simply have more time to think than does our band of traveling survivalists. That means more time to reflect, to develop moral compasses guided by something other than suspicion and paranoia. The Alexandrians are just as adapted to their environment as our people are; the difference is that their environment doesn’t involve constant, immediate danger. Abstract concerns make plenty of sense when there’s little else to worry about.

Despite all the flaws that have been parceled out to our heroes, the show ultimately has little interest in portraying them as anything other than (generally) moral. This is why Rick’s disciples stand with him when his reputation is put on trial. As with all controversies, we know that the point of all this isn’t the accused himself; it’s what he represents in the immediate context. In this case, Rick isn’t just a loose canon, but a defender of the victims of abuse. If his followers were asked to really sit down and think about the dubious virtues of their fearless leader they might have come to some more complicated conclusions, but that isn’t what this is about. A vote against Rick has become a vote in favor of spousal and child abuse. You’d think a politician like Deanna would have seen this campaign strategy coming three states away.

“Conquer” plays with our ideas about crime and punishment so deftly that, by episode’s end, we feel as if we’ve done something wrong. I couldn’t have been the only audience member begging, begging the television screen to let me watch Glenn kill Nicholas, to let me pump my fist as Pete’s brains exploded in the firelight, to at least give me the satisfaction of seeing Gabriel take one in the balls. None of those wishes came true, of course, because this episode was about restraint. We had to be reminded that, as much as we’ve lost on the long road to faux Xanadu, our people still possess the capacity for forgiveness.

Though he was mostly relegated to the role of deus ex machina in “Conquer,” Morgan was the episode’s spirit guide, a stoic warrior who refused to kill even those who would kill him if given the chance. Morgan’s appearance in the episode’s final moments was perhaps the most emotionally grounding moment of the series thus far. Our love for our heroes had previously blinded us to the moral ambiguities of capital punishment; we’d been conditioned to hate Pete and rightly so, but we’d also been conditioned to call for blood before reason because that’s what our steadfast, courageous leader had wanted. Morgan is the pious priest we run into on our way out of the brothel; we don’t feel bad about what we did, but we’re ashamed of ourselves, and the shame forces us to question our dark impulses. We couldn’t even enjoy the moment of Pete’s death; director Greg Nicotero shielded us from the sight of his dead body to show us something even more jarring: the arrival of a person who might have offered a more levelheaded solution.

Morgan’s return offers new possibilities for The Walking Dead going forward. No outsider could ever rival Rick for supremacy within the group, but Morgan’s moral code—or the fact that he even has a moral code—makes him attractive as a possible new guru, a gentle sage whose strength in battle is tempered with humanity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the life and times of Dale. Morgan may not pose a physical threat to Rick, but his ideology—“all life is precious”—may come as a welcome salve for a group that is war-weary and exhausted. Group lifers like Rick, Carol and Daryl like to believe that their dark sides have aided and enabled their survival, but Morgan has gotten all the way to Alexandria on his own without any such bloodlust. (True, he was far off the deep end back in season three, but that’s also when Rick was talking to his dead wife on a rotary phone.) Whatever humanist epiphany revealed itself to Morgan, it didn’t weaken his will to survive, and the combination of his survival skills with his peaceful attitude might lead him to outshine Rick in future episodes. Rick devotees like Glenn and Sasha found it in themselves to forgive, to treat all life—even despicable, wasteful life like that possessed by the coward Nicholas—as precious. They didn’t know it, but they were part of Team Morgan all along.

What the Hell Am I Missing Here?: ‘It Follows’ Movie Review

‘It Follows’ feels like David Robert Mitchell took a class at the Lars von Trier School of Moodiness, and got a C+.

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Maybe I’m too picky. Maybe details really matter to me. Maybe my expectations were too high. It must be me, because why else would I disagree with so many people whose opinions I usually share?

Or maybe it’s not me. Maybe It Follows is fooling everyone.

The sophomore effort of three-first-name writer and director David Robert Mitchell is a 100-minute-long teen indie horror flick, and it’s taking everyone by surprise. Originally slated for VOD release, the solid positive buzz surrounding the film led to its limited theatrical distribution, including a spot at my favorite little cineplex. The first really good film of the year, I thought. I can’t wait to see what everyone’s talking about!

Turns out I have no idea what everyone is talking about. It Follows did none of the things for me that my favorite critics said it would. It Follows did little more than annoy me.

The film surrounds Jay, a late-teens, early-20-something girl who has an ill-fated (and super duper lame, by the way) sexual experience; the partner of which leaves her with a condition whereby a sex monster follows her with the sole purpose of killing her. He tells her (after drugging her and tying her to a wheelchair. Romantic!) that her only escape from the sex monster is to have sex with other people and pass this condition along, and eventually it will leave her alone in favor of other sex-having-people to kill.

You can just taste the allegory, can’t you? Fortunately, the film didn’t try to push an agenda or serve as a cautionary tale, because if it had I’d call the premise conservative, prudish, propagandist bullshit. GOD FORBID young people have sex.

Ultimately, and to my surprise, the premise is not what annoyed me. Instead, I was distracted by an apparent lack of (and inattention to) detail, and because I was distracted was I consistently taken out of the story. Primarily: How the hell do people know about this sex monster? Wouldn’t the person that originated the beast be killed before they could form a conclusion as to why this happened?

Horror films in general tend to require a good amount of suspension of disbelief, I’m aware, so I’ll let that one slide in the effort of not killing the plot straight away.

Most of my distractions arise from extraordinarily inconsistent production design. The film doesn’t seem to know (or care) where in time the story takes place. The bulk of the movie features old cars, corded landlines, autumn-toned fabrics reminiscent of the 70s, and rabbit-ear televisions playing black and white movies. And yet, the opening scene shows a different ill-fated girl with a flip phone, and later one of Jay’s friends has a pink sea shell compact with a screen like a smart phone, and they’re the only two characters with any semblance of modern technology. Either we’re dealing with a filmmaker who couldn’t make up their mind, or a filmmaker who thinks he’s saying something profound and if you have a problem with it then you just don’t get it. Neither one of these is better than the other; the former shows laziness and the latter shows a kind of pretension I hope to never experience in real life. If there was meaning here, it was totally lost on me.

(There also seemed to be some confusion about what time of year the film was taking place. In one scene Jay is swimming in an outdoor pool, and in the next scene she’s in a cable-knit chunky turtleneck under a heavy cardigan, and the rest of the film they’re in shorts and t-shirts and the like. I’ll go ahead and answer my own query: lazy.)

I think I can hear the screaming of people condemning my cynicism. But how can I be less cynical when I’m so preoccupied with plot holes and disparities in detail? The design of a film is supposed to add, not detract, from the story, right?

To those screaming, I’ll give the movie its due credit: it is a beautifully shot film. As much as I think tying Jay to a wheelchair to provide exposition was just as excuse to use this shot, the camera mounted on the spinning wheelchair was quite fun. The cinematography aided to the somber mood of the film, which was also bolstered by our strong, full-of-angst lead and supporting cast. Most importantly, the movie was, indeed, scary. (It had a lot of scary moments, anyway.) I’m mainly just glad this movie didn’t act like your typical horror movie.

Something to appreciate about It Follows is the caveat that the sex monster will appear as a person, but never the same person twice, and (though I also have a problem with this) sometimes it can appear as someone Jay knows.  This shape-shifting is as unnerving for us as it is for Jay, particularly when it appears as a mutilated woman urinating on the floor or a seven-foot-tall man towering in the hall or a stark naked dude on her roof. That element of surprise was utilized well, but the fact that it could appear as someone known to Jay was not utilized well enough.  She never mistook a sex monster for a regular person, and the audience did only once.

A more effective method may have been to take out the regular-person footnote entirely and make it so that all of the sex monsters appear as people who had died of this, the world’s worst STD. That way, when Jay battles the final sex monster, there could have been an added level of understanding on her past. It seems to me the moment would have been stronger if the person the sex monster morphed into in that scene was just a coincidence. (Vagueness for the sake of spoilers.)

My specific gripes could go on (that final battle was flimsy, there was no dramatic build, the excuse about the absentee parents felt like the answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, Hugh is an awful fake name), but more than anything it feels to me like our three-first-name filmmaker got lucky. He had an idea of how a film should look and feel, but cared little about overall the end result, and he’s subsequently lapping up the praise. (I feel this way particularly after reading an interview where he had little of anything substantial to say about his decision making. Just look at how often he says the same thing three different ways.)

So many people are being moved to think and feel things that this movie doesn’t actually provide, which is usually a good thing. It just didn’t happen for me. Their reactions remind me of my own reactions to films like Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, where the audience feeling something in the pit of their soul is almost more important than the story itself. It Follows feels like David Robert Mitchell took a class at the Lars von Trier School of Moodiness, and got a C+.

Maybe I’m missing the point entirely. But It Follows reminds me of a quote from a classic film: “I’ve found that a hit record is like a stew. All the ingredients have to come together just right. Otherwise, it’s just soup.” Except in this case, the hit record is this movie, and I’m eating the stew with a slotted spoon. I’m catching all the hefty bits, but the substance is falling away, and all that’s left is soup.

AH