At long last, after slogging like a one-legged walker through a Georgia mud slick, The Walking Dead reached the Season 3 finale Season 4 midway point with all the subtlety of a tank storming a prison wall. Beloved characters died; not-so-beloved characters died. The prison went up in a final symbolic fire. The result: a midseason finale of fits and starts that continued Season 4’s cherished tradition of spinning its wheels for 30 minutes only to ultimately shoot like an ill-aimed Acme rocket out into the great beyond.
You're forgiven for thinking it’s still May 2013, because apparently the writing staff does. Maybe it’s showrunner’s remorse for that hiccup of a Season 3 ender, but Scott Gimple & Co. did a rewind with Episode 8, giving us the Governor vs. Grimes grudge match (and accompanying AK-47 soccer riot) that we’d all been anxiously anticipating — eight months ago. This time, the violence and mayhem were less anticlimactic; it was even dark, melodramatic fun in spots.
Still, following the nonevents of the first half of Season 4, there's no doubt what our first question needs to be:
Most seasoned political observers agree that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous maxim “There are no second acts in American lives” is as misunderstood as it is misused. Many gifted leaders, often of questionable character, have managed to rise, phoenixlike, from the ashes to mount comebacks for the ages. Take Richard Nixon. Or Steve Jobs. Or the Governor.
It took six episodes, but The Walking Dead has finally built up momentum in its fourth season following the merciful conclusion of the stagnant plague plot that was essentially a redux of Season 2’s stultifying farm cycle. “Dead Weight” gave this season a full head of steam as it cruises down psychopath lane, setting El Guv on a promising collision course with Rick Grimes and his not-ready-for-zombie-time players.
“Behold! The day is come, foretold by the IMDb, when he of the One Eye shall rise again and walk through the cul-de-sacs of the dead, fearing no bites. He shall save us from pestilence, and the boredom of watching it get cured. He shall wield a bone like a can opener, and there will be backgammon and oxygen for all.” —Book of Hershel, 4:6
That’s right, all ye Walking Dead faithful: The Governor is back! And for those of us who’d grown a tad weary of the West Georgia Correctional Facility follies, El Guv strode through last night’s episode like our own one-eyed savior, providing a radical change of pace as Georgia’s most bloodthirsty Grinch felt his villainous heart starting to grow. Forget Rick’s failed pig farm, Hershel’s existential crisis, or even Carol’s Williams-Sonoma self-defense classes: Episode 6 was all Guv, all the time.
Except that this Governor wasn’t last season’s psychopath rock star with the sexual charisma of a young Bill Clinton. For his return, the Governor rocked it acoustic-style. This was Philip Unplugged, minus the zombie cage matches and fish tanks full of severed heads. I was captivated by this flashback-story curveball, so much so that I looked past its less-subtle moments. But it’s been a while, and there’s so much catching up to do with our new bestie “Brian,” so let's get to this week's questions.
It's Monday, which means it's once again time to worship at the Church of the Good Zombie and confront all those bouts of existential nihilism we suppress during the week by YouTubing puppy and baby videos. We can watch dogs licking laughing newborns all we want, but eventually we must face the fact that we're all merely a lethal lack of horse penicillin away from the Void. So, open your bibles to the Book of Hershel and let us ponder the eternal questions, such as where’s the best place to store assault rifles in case of a zombie fence breach?
Watching The Walking Dead remains an hour for introspection and contradictions. Try as one might to watch with a light zest and armchair blood lust, cable’s highest-rated show sometimes slaps us across the face with a Steinbeck quote burdened by moral pretensions the show simply can’t support. But just as our souls are ready to break under the weight of the heavy-handedness, the show rewards us with the touching sight of a father and son, AR-15’s confidently nestled in the crooks of their arms, mowing down a mass murder of zombies. One minute, we're rolling our eyes at Hershel’s insistence that all preemptive undead braining be done in private (and just as the freshly turned are ready to give the show's stars some love bites); the next, we’re praising God that someone had the good sense to keep a shotgun in a hermetically sealed cell block full of patients knocking on undeath’s door.
And oh yeah — the Governor’s back. So, children, let us not ask to understand the mysterious ways of showrunner Scott Gimple as we ponder this week’s Three Questions. Some things are for Gimple, and Gimple alone, to understand.
Forgive me for going all Dangerous Minds for a second, but I once had a brilliant teacher who taught with a hard-boiled idealism and alcohol tolerance more often found in Dashiell Hammett novels than in real life. Not surprisingly, some overprotective parents got the teacher axed. As such, this week’s The Walking Dead stirred up some long-buried feelings of sadness as it sent another maybe-unhinged-but-damn-compelling character into the wilderness. Yes, I’m talking about Carol.
Even if you don't agree with Carol's stance on preemptive euthanasia, there’s no denying that she has long been one of the most interesting characters on a show whose other headliners can often soliloquize the viewer to sleep. She went from being a helpless victim of domestic abuse to being a grieving mother to being the story-time drill sergeant teaching wide-eyed tweens how best to shiv any zombie punk that came at them in the prison yard.
One of The Walking Dead’s incidental pleasures — a thrill totally independent of plot progression or body count, both of which were on the low side last night — is that it helps us appreciate all the little perks of civilization we might otherwise take for granted. I’m not even talking Louis C.K.'s marvels of air travel. Take Theraflu, for example. What wouldn’t Glenn or Sasha (or the nameless day-player carrion the writing staff have sacrificed to the zombie influenza) have given this week for some boiled water spiked with acetaminophen? Instead, all they got was Hershel’s homeopathic elderberry tea, which, much like Beth’s flinty pep talks, really doesn’t cut it while coughing up your own lung and staring from the dirty window of a prison quarantine block at the graves you dug that morning.
Don’t you just love October? The leaves are turning, whiffs of spiced pumpkin lattes fill your local Starbucks, and the decapitated heads are ripening at the zombie patch. That’s right, fanboys and hate-watchers: Basic cable’s highest-rated show is back. But after Ranger Rick and his ever-shifting backing band ended last season by vanquishing the one-eyed, surplus Nazi better known as The Governor, then incorporating the survivors of his demented Mayberry into their prison paradise, it’s a whole new game. This season already feels radically different, even if it looks fundamentally the same. Most of the characters we loved to hate — [cough, Andrea] — are gone, taking selfies alongside Gus Fring and ASAC Schrader in TV heaven. Scott Gimple has taken over as showrunner. And Rick — he of the agonized facial hair — has finally found that precious balance between survivalist lunacy and Hamlet-esque handwringing.
Maybe it’s those Three Questions that Rick and his Jedi Council have come up with to determine who gets to feast on their homegrown, 100 percent organic kale and who’s left to fend for themselves. So, in honor of this thin thread Rick has found to keep a leash on his fragile sanity/humanity, I figure Three Questions is a pretty good lens through which to examine the nihilist community garden that is The Walking Dead.
Three episodes into its third season seems a bit early for a show to have split its fan base into distinct, warring factions — Breaking Bad, by contrast, waited until the very last hour. But Homeland has never been a particularly patient series, so here we are. On one side of the divide are the Brody Banishers, die-hard fans who feel frustrated by Sergeant Nick's stubborn refusal to die. To their eyes, Homeland is still a worthy show, but one being held back by its slavish devotion to the diminishing returns offered by its original story line. On the other side are the True ’Shippers, those who feel — not unjustly — that Homeland elevates only when its two touched-in-the-head leads are furiously touching each other. (The True ’Shippers, I should add, would have a much stronger case if Carrie and Brody's names lent themselves to a catchy portmanteau like all other important 21st century couples: Bennifer, Kimye, et al. But "Brarie" has unfortunate connotations and "Carrody" sounds gross.)
If last week's recap didn't make it clear, I've been firmly planted in the banishment camp ever since the second-season finale. That was when Carrie, in the post-crater chaos, fled Langley and pushed her ginger gentleman across the Canadian border. (Sorry, Canada! He's your problem now. Consider this payback for Tom Green.) By choosing exile over death, I thought showrunner Alex Gansa had stumbled upon the ideal way to have his Emmy-winning cake and eat it too. With Brody gone for at least half a season — and ideally more — Homeland could get down to the busy, necessary work of securing itself against other threats and prepping for other story lines. One True Pairings like Carrie and Brody can easily sink a show, even if said Pairings aren't explicitly intended to be romantic. Like a blackjack dealer in Vegas, a showrunner is nothing if he can't repeatedly shuffle his own deck.
If Homeland's title had ever intended to double its length, I'd always assumed the missing word would be "security." But two seasons and two episodes in, I now think "stability" is a better fit. In a country as big as ours and with psyches as damaged as the ones belonging to these protagonists, stability seems like a much more workable objective, something more pliable and forgiving than the all-or-nothing implications of security. After all, when do you know something is truly secure? When it has been tested? Or after it has failed? In matters relating to both bureaucracies and mental health, a status quo is much preferable to any sort of dramatic swing — regardless of the direction.
And yet, after two installments of this treacherous third season, stability continues to seem well out of reach for all involved. Carrie in particular has devolved into the hottest of messes. After Saul threw her under the wheels of the Senate bus, she spent the opening moments of the wonderfully titled "Uh ... Oh ... Ah ..." bursting into his home in search of ... well, it's not quite clear. Revenge? The last word? Yes, Carrie's bipolar, but her real weakness is her tendency toward binary thinking: Those who aren't with her are immediately assumed to be against her. The only gray area she ever tolerated was the one she found between the sheets with Brody. In lieu of foreign enemies, Carrie has now settled for domestic ones. (I guess it helps that Saul will never pull an Abu Nazir and confuse things by shaving.) After freaking out Mira, Carrie headed straight to the de-mothballed set of All the President's Men in order to suicide bomb herself in the most spectacular way possible.
It's been a big week to talk about TV endings. So, now that The Bridge’s unique first season has come to a close, let's talk about beginnings. Deciding when and how to start your story is much more critical to a television show than the way you decide to finish it. (That's why Walter White's tightie-whities will always be more iconic than Mr. Lambert's keychain of doom. And deservedly so!) Audiences need to be quickly hooked, network concerns need to be nimbly ameliorated. There are actors to coddle, themes to establish, purposes to declare. A baby show may appear to have its whole life ahead of it, but prenatal decision-making can go a long way toward determining whether that life will be long or short.
On a micro level, The Bridge aced this test. The pilot and subsequent establishing episodes were fascinating and deeply nuanced. It was a show that appeared to be in control of all the little things that can add up to TV greatness: compelling leads, interesting supporting characters, and a clean, distinct point of view. Rather than lose itself into the fictional abstraction of popular entertainment tropes — the Mafia, say, or a lush period piece — The Bridge was set resolutely in the here and now. Its vision of Mexico, though far from perfect, was refreshing. The country wasn't presented as ominously opaque, unknowable other. Rather, it was an equal partner subsumed in the shady crosscurrents of culture, crime, immigration, and politics that have come to define the border in the 21st century. Like all truly great series, The Bridge presented a world with its own rhythms, its own language, and its own stakes, and did so without apology. The pilot wasn't a road map. It was an invitation.
There has always been a strong element of silliness to Homeland, but the way it has been handled has been consistently smart. At its very best, the show mimicked not the plausible particulars of our national security mechanism, but instead the real emotional mania that has rumbled like a subway line beneath the insecure decade since 9/11. Claire Danes's Carrie Mathison was so spooked and ravaged by the massive intelligence failure that defined the beginning of her career that she'd lost all perspective on what she was looking for; in her medically maintained head, the ideas of saving her country and saving herself had become dangerously intertwined. By asking questions that were almost impossibly crazy — a Marine hero turned Al Qaeda sleeper? Turned congressman? Turned presidential running mate? Turned CIA asset/doomed hero? — Homeland actually found a way to dramatize ideas that were uncomfortably, often painfully, true. How can we spy on the world without taking a hard look at ourselves? Do we want actual security or just the illusion of safety? And is one more possible than the other?
Though the show's second season wasn't nearly as catastrophic as some critics maintain — in fact, some of it was outrageously good — its latter half did give itself over to a certain kind of madness. Part of it was commercial: In a business as unpredictable as television, it's awfully hard to kill off an Emmy-winning co-lead, no matter what the facts on the ground are telling you. But even reasonable business decisions can have creative consequences. Despite Damian Lewis's dwindling usefulness, Homeland’s brain trust seemed so wedded to the idea of keeping him employed that it transformed Carrie and Brody's fatal attraction into a full-fledged harlequin romance, thus imbuing something wonderfully twisted with a bogus, unpalatable righteousness. The two had an extraordinary connection, sure, but it's the same one an addict has with the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Pretending otherwise seemed to serve Homeland’s long-term viability more than its audience. Mistaking the couple's kink for commitment felt like staging a Catholic wedding in an S&M dungeon, and it was about as easy to watch.
"Felina" brought Breaking Bad to a close in the most perfect way imaginable. It squared each circle. It righted all the wrongs. Everything that had been done was undone. The pieces fit together. The keys were in the car. The car was in the compound. The gun was in the trunk. The cat was in the bag. And the bag's in the river.
In the end, there was no art. Only science. And this was sort of the problem, wasn't it? After five-plus years of watching everything break bad, the finale gave us 75 minutes of watching everything break just right. There was plenty of sweet coincidence and even sweeter revenge. The timing was deliberate, and immaculate. Where Heisenberg's plans once rained down on Albuquerque with all the grace and subtlety of an exploded airliner, Walt's endgame tumbled like dominoes. Everything, even the promised M60, fizzed and popped so perfectly it felt almost sterile. Walt — and at the end it was only Walt — finally got his clean lab, his pristine experiment. As he lay dying, surrounded by the beakers and tubes that were his most constant companions, he could smile and rest easy knowing that the purity of his last cook was 100 percent.
Just seven days ago in this space I was bemoaningThe Bridge’s strange, potentially fatal choice of exit ramp. A show that had gotten so much right in the beginning suddenly couldn't stop going wrong. Brilliant mastermind David Tate had hijacked Marco Ruiz's life and, with it, the show itself, dimming what had been a haunting, nuanced world with the black-and-white, all-knowing mumbo jumbo of a dastardly genius. I mourned not only for Gustavo Ruiz, drowned in a plastic barrel of revenge-tainted nonsense, but for the show itself. The Bridge seemed headed to an ignominious, one-season-and-done end.
If last week's "Ozymandias" snapped and cracked like a hangman's noose, Sunday's "Granite State" was the long, slow walk to hell. Not any conventional hell, mind you. This is still Breaking Bad. Even now, science reigns. The binaries that matter aren't good and evil, but rather action and reaction, cause and effect.
I didn't do that well in chemistry, so I can't say for sure if there's a textbook that accurately traces the downward trajectory of this fascinating and deliberate penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. With apologies to Mr. White's no doubt carefully curated curriculum, what last night did remind me of was something I once read in English class: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre's infamous bottle episode of a play. No need to get too in-depth — do you know what they call a spoiler in France? — but the gist is this: Three sinners arrive in the afterlife expecting Sisyphean torture, but instead find a room. With no punishment in sight, the three continue to deny their guilt before falling into bitterness, self-pity, and ennui. Eventually they realize the truth: No God or devil could ever devise a worse fate for them than the one they're bound to make for each other.
For Walter White to end up where he did, 2,200 miles from home, with the desert sands replaced by hard-packed snow and frost, was the cruelest kind of joke — which is to say, the kind that's not the slightest bit funny. The unnamed vacuum cleaner repairman — played, in a brilliant and sly piece of casting, by classic knockaround guy Robert Forster — had sucked Heisenberg out of the certain disaster he had made for himself and transported him across the country inside a gas tank. But when the newly christened Mr. Lambert arrived at his prepper cabin in New Hampshire, he looked anything but flammable. He looked exhausted. His legend had gone viral, but he was too sick to notice. It turns out living free and dying aren't mutually exclusive after all.
The alcohol- and regret-soaked body of Daniel Frye wasn't the only thing that went flying off The Bridge last night. Right along with him went my sympathy, my patience, and, if we're being honest, most of my hopes for a second season. Other than a brief shootout between Tampa Ray and some soon-to-be dead men in the teaser, "Take the Ride, Pay the Toll" was a strangely brief (39 minutes sin commericales) episode that was completely hijacked by the deadly nonsense of a madman. When the unflappable David Tate swerved across the Bridge of the Americas, then stripped to his Semtex skivvies, my thoughts went immediately to the same place as Hank's. "There is no good outcome here," he hissed. "None." I hate to say it, but he's probably right.
It's a very strange, very specific experience watching a TV show jump the rails. It's a bit like seeing a car crash in slow motion: You want to yell out, warn everyone. But it's too late. The brakes aren't working. The brick wall is too close. Last night, the flapping of a few script pages in Denmark finished their transatlantic journey as a hurricane that upended one of 2013's most promising new shows. I hope I'll have a chance to ask Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid about their decision to track the inherited plot from Broen so closely — assuming the decision was theirs to make. I wonder if it's just a case of something seeming stronger on paper. Or — and this strikes me as more likely — a serial-killer plot just seems more dependable in those first, fevered days of season-planning and story-breaking. At least with a mastermind you know what you're going to get, even if it turns out to be depressingly formulaic. In the early going, before the cameras rolled, there was no way to assume that The Bridge would be able to capture such a hypnotic sense of place and mood, that its colorful rogue's gallery of supporting players would prove superior to the main casts of most other cable dramas. It's hard to blame Stiehm and Reid for doubling down on the big thing. How were they to know that the little things would add up to so much more?