Well, that’s it done and dusted. After all the anticipation and all the hype, Season 1 of The Walking Dead seems to have zoomed by in a blur, and now we’re back into the anticipation stages all over again, looking forward to next year’s Season 2. But before I wrap up with my thoughts on the season as a whole, let’s get down to talking to this week’s finale, “TS-19”.
I talked in my last review about how it seemed I’ve been repeatedly saying how the latest episode was even better than the previous week’s. Well, I don’t think this finale quite managed to top last week’s excellent “Wildfire”, but it was still a very strong outing, and one I’d probably rank in the top half of the season’s episodes, quality-wise. It’s given a boost once more by looking to veterans from The Shield – both co-writer Adam Fierro and director Guy Ferland were heavily involved in that series, with Fierro writing one of the best scenes of television of the past decade (one that also involved Laurie Holden, coincidentally) in that show’s penultimate episode, “Possible Kill Screen”.
“TS-19” was an interesting set-up for what has long been billed as “the zombie movie that never ends”, in that here, condensed into a single episode of television, was the plot of your classic Romero zombie film: a band of survivors find a safe haven, personal divisions sour the paradise, and at the end the remaining survivors are forced to leave and go back on the road, headed for destinations unknown. There were some twists on that formula, of course – rather than the standard siege scenario where the zombies breach the haven, this episode hardly had any zombies at all in it and was more based on the survivors trying (or not trying) to get out of this death-trap. But still, the basic scenario made this episode fall into the trap the rest of the series (and The Walking Dead comic) has largely avoided, even when treading familiar ground: giving us a sense we’ve seen this story before and playing by the rules of the genre.
But that criticism aside, there was plenty of joy to be found in the execution of this story. After so much complaining and proclaimations of doom last week about how the introduction of the CDC was going to give us all the answers about the cause of the zombie apocalypse and thus forever ruin the concept of the series, we see that – much as many of the more level-headed observers predicted – the function of this episode was to do exactly the opposite of that. By going to the CDC (established as the one place there would surely be answers if there were any to find) and learning that there is no explanation, no origin, no cure – that despite the computerised look at the transformation process it could still just as easily be “the wrath of God” as a viral outbreak – Dabaront and co. have effectively closed the door on that avenue of storytelling.
This is why, on further consideration, this was actually the perfect choice for a finale episode on this debut season. Remember, the vast majority of the TV audience haven’t read the comic, and many of them may have been approaching this as a Lost-style “we need to solve the mystery of what happened” story. As such, this was perhaps a necessary pit-stop, addressing that approach head-on before nipping it in the bud, and leaving us with the closing message that, no, finding out the how and why of what happened BEFORE is not important, what this story is really about now is survival, how our characters will live on AFTER the world as we know it has effectively ended.
The restricted setting here made the episode almost feel like a one-act play, with us really getting into the characters and their motivations as comfort quickly turned into claustrophobia, and then dread started setting steadily in with realisation of the situation they were in. Noah Emmerich’s Dr. Jenner was key in making this work. Note how in the early scenes we see how his uncertainty and despair is balanced with a kind of cautious joy at being with other human beings again. But as the episode goes on and his true plans become more apparent we look at those early conflicting emotions in a whole new light. Much of the work Emmerich does here is non-verbal, and works very well in its subtlety. And though by episode’s end Jenner has been killed off as quickly as he was introduced, he has managed to leave an impact. He could easily have just been a straight up psychotic Big Bad our heroes had to stop, but he ended up being more sympathetic than that, and as a result perhaps more frightening. We learn he is a family man reduced to suicidal despair after the loss of his loved ones, and as such in him we can see a foreshadowing to what Rick might become. Even in Jenner’s decision to wear his lab attire on the day of his death, we see Rick’s devotion to maintaining the integrity of his uniform, clinging on to that symbol of his past life. And that final look on Rick’s face before the group drives off and the season closes suggests Rick might see the similarity too.
If I had to pick a weak link in the ensemble this week, it would once again be Jacqui. She has always been a bit of an infuriating non-entity to me this season – always present, regularly doing stuff, but with no real coherent pattern in those actions or any substantial justification for her presence. As such, her death had little impact on me, not just because she wasn’t the most compelling character, but because we had seen very little of her behaviour beforehand that might have set the stage for her to make this suicidal decision.
I was more pleased with the increased focus given to the pairing of Dale and Andrea. One of my favourite relationships from the comics, the TV show is really putting the work into establishing the connection between them. After the deserved praise given to Laurie Holden over these past couple of episodes, it was Jeffrey Demunn who really stepped up and impressed me here. In his angry refusal to let Andrea just give up on like and “check out”, we see Dale reliving the heartbreak of his wife deciding “she was ready” and succumbing to cancer, as he described on last week’s episode. I really look forward to seeing this relationship continue to develop next season.
But for me, the true standout performance of this episode was Jon Bernthal as Shane. His arc was really at the foreground this week, with the brilliant pre-credits sequence establishing just how much he truly cared about Rick, and just how much he has changed since that time. We’d already gotten an unnerving look at the darkness within Shane in the last episode, but here we really see him crumble, and thanks to that opening sequence we get to understand it all from Shane’s perspective. At the otherwise happy dinner scene, he sits gloomily within the shadows like a ghost at the table, ready to undermine everyone else’s happiness – Glenn (who provides several welcome moments of levity throughout the hour) rightly calls him a “buzzkill”. Over the course of the hour, Shane repeatedly challenges Rick and goes against him, culminating with Rick having to take him down and decisively take that leadership role within the group of survivors away from Shane. Also decisively taken away from him in this episode is any chance of his love for Lori being requited again, in a very uncomfortable scene where his heartfelt confession of love quickly descends into attempted rape.
Indeed, this steady decline of Shane, this taking apart of every anchor of decency he maintained, led me to believe that the episode and the season would be ending in the same way that the first graphic novel ended. I was sure that’s where we were going, right up to the ending music kicking in, to the point where I was literally shouting “Don’t end!” at my screen until it did just that. Initially, this event not happening (yet) was a major, episode-souring disappointment for me, as I was so looking forward to its realisation on-screen. But upon further consideration, perhaps I’m being selfish. Shane is emerging as one of the most fascinating characters in the ensemble, and to bring his arc to an abrupt end for the sake of adhering to the comics when there is still a lot of dramatic mileage to get out of this scenario would have perhaps been a wasted opportunity. We had one Shane story in the comics. A big advantage of a different version of The Walking Dead in a different medium could be the chance to tell that story differently.
And that’s a point I feel is important, the major potential in this adaptation that I feel deserves to be addressed. No, this is not the comic series. It is a TV show, its own seperate entity. But as I’ve established in my reviews, in my opinion at least, the actors are doing such a stellar job inhabiting their roles that they have effectively become the characters from the comics. And for me, one of the biggest pleasures of this TV show is the chance to see those characters we know and love placed in different situations we haven’t seen them in before, and seeing how they react. And that’s something “TS-19” did brilliantly.
So, in closing, I think I’d call Season 1 of The Walking Dead a massive success. Not everything worked out, and some episodes were better than others, but the season established a compelling scenario, with a great ensemble of masterfully-performed characters. With its all-too-brief 6 episode run, I find myself reminded a lot of the first season of another excellent AMC show, Breaking Bad, which only ran for 7 episodes. Like that show, The Walking Dead Season 1 is a streamlined machine of a season, plunging us into the plight of its protagonists and giving us drama by the bucketload, but at the same time giving us a sense that this is only an extended preview – dipping a toe into the murky waters of the world it has established – and suggesting that it’ll be season 2 before we get to the really good stuff.