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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

a few thoughts on ‘The Walking Dead’: “Tell It to the Frogs”

This is last Sunday’s episode I’m talking about here. Sometimes stuff I need to watch gets put off not by choice, but out of a lack of less than 47 hours in each day. But it’s been easy to put off The Walking Dead, because so far it’s worse than utterly unenthralling: it’s infuriating. Since there’s only a few episodes left in its short first season, I’ll stick with it. But unless something changes dramatically by then — and I don’t see room for that happening — I’m done with it.

First of all, the show seems a little too enamored of depicting domestic violence and basic general misogyny as just sorta the way things are, and what else should we expect from humanity, anyway. Merle the angry white racist idiot handcuffed on the roof: he really likes using the words bitch and pussy a lot, don’t he? Sawing his own hand off is too good for him, frankly. (Merle’s idiot brother is no fun, either.) Then there’s the other guy who appears to hold that any woman who dares to talk back to him is an “uppity smart-mouth bitch,” and doesn’t hesitate to smack his wife around in front of other people… although, granted, those other people were just other bitches, not anyone who really matters.
Then Shane, the asshole sheriff’s deputy, gets to be the “hero” in that scenario, coming in to beat the shit out of the wife abuser. And yet I’m not really sensing that there was any irony intended in that situation: I don’t get that anyone involved gets that there’s a vicious cycle kind of thing going on there, that violence in response to violence isn’t gonna help things. And if any of the women understood that, as at least some of them probably would, given the realities of women’s lives, there’s no chance for them to express that, either.

See, this is my major problem, so far, with The Walking Dead. I can’t deny that it’s true that come the apocalypse, whatever form it takes, many of the problems of our society will remain, and some of them will be amplified: Stupid, violent men will still be stupid and violent, and indeed they will have many more opportunties to indulge, unchecked, their idiocy and their anger. But what we’re seeing here isn’t really looking at that from the perspectives of people who are used to things being a little more civilized: the attitude is, instead, as if they barely notice their lives have changed at all, apart from the lack of coffeemakers and washing machines. And no, having the women lament the loss of those things doesn’t cut it, because it’s the overall tenor of the drama and how it is presented to us that is the problem. Like this: the only things that appear to make Rick the upstanding sheriff hero so far appear to be the fact that he doesn’t call women bitches and smack them around. That’s a low barrier to herohood.

Oh, and of course we’re meant to understand that Shane, having lost his pussy back to his best friend, now that Rick has returned, was only coming to the aid of the woman who was beaten because he needs a new receptacle for his penis. So he’s merely only a slightly more cunning sexist asshole… as is true, again, of the show overall. The sheriff’s wife, Sarah, is so brutally cruel to Shane — and it had to be bad for me to actually feel sorry for that jerk — that it all but confirms Rick’s characterization of her in that scene early in the first episode, when Shane and Rick were debating whether women are stupid or women are evil: Rick came down on the side of “evil,” and here she is, with absolutely no use for Shane anymore now that she’s got Rick back. She has not one kind word for him, not even an “I’m really sorry…” If we’re meant to see her as anything other than calculatedly hitching her wagon to the alpha male and switching allegiances when the alpha male changes, it’s hard to see what that might be.

Of course, some men — not all — really and truly are stupid and violent, and some women — not all — really and truly are calculating bitches. But while the male characters are a little more varied beyond the stupid-and-violent, the only nod to even a sort of faux feminism so far was this episode’s joke about the women missing their vibrators, which they all laugh a bit too heartily about… and which doesn’t even make sense. Every fucking Wal-mart and Target and Walgreens and supermarket are lying open, ripe for cleaning out, with perhaps only one or two walkers shuffling about. Go and pick up some batteries. Or, you know, just use your fingers.

On the whole, though, that vibrators scene — which culminates in the woman getting hit by her husband and then the husband getting beat up by Shane — seems designed to suggest that any woman who thinks she doesn’t need a man, if only for protection (though, as with Shane, we know that comes with a price), is deluding herself.

The whole thing is just really, really unpleasant, and I’m not talking about the zombies. If perhaps this show was intended to demonstrate that humanity is worthy of being saved from zombiefication and the subsequent eating of one another’s brains, I’m not seeing it.

The notion that the Wal-mart out by the interstate is open for business of a sort never seems to cross the mind of Rick, who uses the need to retrieve his duffel bag full of guns from the streets of Atlanta as his excuse to go back and release Merle. Now, this may be merely a ruse on Rick’s part — he really is so noble and upstanding that he can’t bear to leave Merle to die of thirst, and that’s okay, as characterization goes — but why doesn’t this alternative occur to anyone else who objects to risking their lives for Merle? If they’re going to chance downtown Atlanta again, which is swarming with zombies, then certainly there should be much less risk in clearing out the megalomarts on the edge of the city.

Maybe all these people do deserve to get their brains eaten…

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