Much of the conversation about The Walking Dead has focused on the problems at the top, and rightly so: The transition from Frank Darabont to Glen Mazzara was shrouded in secrecy and network spin. But perhaps we were looking on the wrong side of the camera. Mazzara, newly installed as showrunner, deserves a modicum of audience patience as he attempts to rejuvenate a rigor mortis-laden series. But he’ll be powerless to save the show unless he does something to address the lingering issues at the top of the call sheet: Rick and Lori.
It’s time to ask the question: Are they the two least-compelling characters ever to topline a successful television drama? The former is a personality-free jawbone who spends so much time yapping about morality and leadership he barely has a chance to prove he knows the first thing about either. In fact, Rick talks so excessively about protecting people that it’s beginning to sound a little bit like Steve Carell musing about getting to second base. The only place our sweaty, stubbled cop has ever led his dwindling charges is straight into a dead end. Meanwhile, Lori is a shrill harpy who fluctuates between aggrieved and furious, sending survivors on life-risking, unnecessary pharmacy runs as if they were mid-afternoon strolls to the Piggly Wiggly. Last episode, she bemoaned how her son was turning “cold,” as if he were spending his days in the Ayn Rand School for Tots, not a blood-scarred, postapocalyptic zombie wasteland, and decided that the best way to protect him would be to secretly drive into town herself to find Rick, who had only left moments before. That “Triggerfinger” began with her unconscious body being menaced by a toothy walker, desperate to crack open her smashed sedan shell and devour Mrs. Grimes like a succulent walnut, was another epic misread by the producers. The scene got us exercised, all right, but not out of terror. I was frustrated that I couldn’t leap into the screen with a crowbar and help the brain-dead geek snack in peace.
That The Walking Dead whiffed so badly on providing us with living characters for whom to root may end up being the metaphorical fatal screwdriver through the show’s eye socket. Last night’s episode proved that Mazzara has an instinct for small-screen drama that Darabont sorely lacked and an inclination to go as batshit broad as the show’s supernatural subject matter requires. But unless a star-crossed Korean couple and an Iraqi torturer parachute into Hershel’s farm, we’re stuck with these squabbling zeroes for the foreseeable future. And as long as that’s the case it will lead to all sorts of character-based confusion, like rooting for Shane over Rick, despite the former being a half-cocked rage monster, and preferring the idea of Lori providing strength and succor to a peckish zombie than to her own living family.
It will also, I suspect, lead to episodes like “Triggerfinger,” where Mazzara, despite his best efforts at redecorating, can only cover up the central rot for so long. Still, the first half of the hour was as tense and engrossing as anything The Walking Dead has yet attempted. While Lori fought off corpses by using her roadside emergency case in ways Click and Clack never intended, Rick, Glenn, and a remarkably lucid Hershel were barricaded in the bar, dodging the bullets and sports-radio invective of Dave and Tony’s Philadelphia phriends. Last week, in the best performance on the show to date, Michael Raymond-James suggested a future for the series in which the dangers of the new world aren’t all staggering flesh-eaters. There are plenty of flesh-and-blood survivors out there, too, most of whom have differing and, let’s be honest, more successful survival strategies than Rick’s preferred method of ethical hand-wringing paired with judicious helpings of anguished facial expressions. While the remaining Fishtown refugees weren’t given the screen time — or charisma — of Raymond-James’ Dave, they certainly followed his methods, opening fire the minute Rick started pelting them with his “It’s like that now, you know that!” speechifying. Even better, the showdown at the I’m Not OK Corral was diverting enough to keep the audience from drifting back toward the show’s many inconsistencies, such as Hershel’s ability to metabolize a bottle of whiskey in under 10 minutes and his sudden transformation from pacifist preacher to cold-hearted button man. And if the logic was faulty behind the decision to doom two-thirds of the attackers and then risk life and (getting torn limb from) limb to perform a field amputation on a kid barely old enough to recognize Michael Irvin, let alone cheer his spinal injury, at least director Billy Geirhart kept the nervy energy of the scene crackling throughout. Besides, Rick’s gotta learn eventually that being a leader means being willing to break a few eggs, not to mention some calf muscles.
But when the gunfire and screams of agony died down, there was still half of the episode to go. And without the increased adrenaline, the old issues floated right back to the surface. Take, for example, Shane who, with the infuriating Grimeses missing, seems to be settling easily into the role of head chicken carver at the horse farm (the migration into the house does not make me optimistic about our chances of seeing Nebraska anytime this season, let alone Marietta). Of course, the gang hasn’t even said grace before they notice bonehead Lori’s gone missing, and so Shane takes to his remarkably well-lit Hyundai to go fetch her. It’s clear the producers are tying themselves into monkey fist knots trying to convince us of Shane’s villainy, but it’s just not sticking. Andrea’s right: He may be an asshole, but at least he gets stuff done. First he scoops up his former eff-buddy in about five minutes, because as Lori’s nearly ruinous map would have told her, there’s only one road. His decision to hide the truth from Lori about Rick is also completely logical: She simply wouldn’t return to the farm for treatment if he didn’t lie. Unfortunately for him, her concussion doesn’t seem to affect the part of the brain that makes her the worst and soon she’s calling him names and hissing about how he killed Otis which, by the way, of course he killed Otis. If there’s one thing Rick’s brotherly loveless confrontation with Dave and Tony has demonstrated, it’s that the only morality left in the world is to take care of your own. By jaking the fat man, Shane not only kept himself alive, he also brought back the necessary medical equipment to magically resurrect Carl. And yet by episode’s end, Lori is in full jezebel mode, whispering sour nothings into Rick’s ear about how Shane is dangerous. Let’s be clear about something: Dangerous is good! I would rather have dangerous Shane on my side in a zombie wasteland than a hundred kindly Dales. The former may shoot too much and have a strange hand-washing fetish, but at least he’ll keep me alive. The latter will have plenty of time to tut-tut his disapproval while being gnawed on like a gristly piece of overaged steak.
There’s so much overhauling being done to The Walking Dead on the fly that it’s practically possible to smell the Red Bull and desperation leaking from the writers’ room. For every feint in the right direction — Maggie’s monologue about sisterly affection was exactly the sort of meat-and-potatoes character building that Darabont ignored — there’s a potential backslide. Bringing the wounded cheesesteak-eater back to base will at least inject some fresh blood into a cast in desperate need of a transfusion. But is a limping teenager really the best they could do? Besides, any new character would be unlikely to wrest screen time away from the exhausting Rick and Lori. It may be an amputation too extreme for even Hershel’s delicate sensibilities, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the only way to salvage The Walking Dead creatively is to lop off the two brain-dead leads.