Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Not So Post-Racial: The Walking Dead Episode "Bloodletting" Reviewed

With the exception of the show's premiere episode, Bloodletting is the closest that The Walking Dead TV series has come to the style, tone, and spirit of its source material.

With the departure of Frank Darabont, I was prepared to finally judge The Walking Dead, pardon my pun, a dead project. "Bloodletting" demonstrates that perhaps there is some hope for the series, that despite its high ratings and crossover appeal, has stumbled mightily in comparison to its source material...

This is a critical essay. If you want a summary or traditional review of The Walking Dead Season Two's episode Bloodletting you should look here, here, or here. What follows is spoiler territory.


As I have suggested elsewhere, part of the appeal of the zombie genre is its flexibility. The rising of the dead, what is ultimately the unthinkable, grants the storyteller a rich premise with which to explore issues of society, survival, human nature, science run amok, psychic trauma, and identity. And as exemplified by movies such as Zombieland or Return of the Living Dead, zombie fiction can also just be good fun that allows readers a brain eating, gore filled, ass kicking, 90 minutes of distracting joy.

I am a huge fan and long-time follower of The Walking Dead comic book series. The graphic novel is decidedly "about something," i.e. it is a text that meditates on serious matters of life, death, and existential meaning, as opposed to being "about nothing."

Here, The Walking Dead comic book plays with issues of race, gender, and identity in a decidedly subtle way: the most important "difference" in a world where the dead now walk the Earth is the new "racial" divide of zombies versus the living; skin color, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are now obsolete as categories that order and frame human society.

If race is a social construction, then the divide between the living and the undead is real and fixed. Moreover, race, as well as other once socially relevant categories of difference, is discarded because the Other is now all of us. The zombies are now the in-group; the living are the out-group. Humankind is now suffering, in mass, under the threat of real power.

[In all, the walking dead are us; the walking dead are them. Do you get the double-meaning?]

Race is still real: the brilliance of The Walking Dead comic book, as well as its most recent TV episode, lies in how both acknowledge this fact. The concept gains meaning because it is not directly discussed in the text. And because popular culture tells us something about the moment in which it is created and consumed (the Age of Obama; a country still negotiating the challenges of the colorline; the Great Recession), race cannot help but be present in both the graphic novel and the TV series.

Or channeling Stuart Hall, The Walking Dead is rich with semiotic possibilities, and the floating signifiers of race, class, and gender cannot help but be present even in a world that is possessed of the unthinkable and the absurd, where the cycle of life and death is broken, and our breathing, living humanity struggles for existence against the heretofore unimaginable.

Bloodletting is an episode that is explicitly about race. HBO's Boardwalk Empire duly noted, Bloodletting also features one of the most dense, as well as ideologically rich, moments in recent television.

T-Dog, The Walking Dead TV series' stereotypical, hyper black masculine caricature of authentic ghetto negritude, was injured in the previous episode. In Bloodletting, he sits with Dale, one of the original (and most well-developed) characters from the graphic novel and they discuss the realities of race in an conversation straight out of the movie Crash. Because The Walking Dead TV series features standard characters such as the "redneck hillbilly," vulnerable women who are the damsel of the week in need of saving, wayward children who do stupid things, and black women who are emotionally broken and give up on life, the dialogue is melodramatic and heavy handed.

T-Dog, apparently suffering from the effects of blood poisoning, reflects on the likelihood of his survival given that he is surrounded by poor white trash and Southern Cops--a group he believes are more likely to lynch him than to offer aid and comfort. Dale, a good, trusting, white man of a certain age, can't accept that "race matters" during an apocalypse. To Dale's eyes there is no evidence of racial malice or prejudice by Daryl (or any other members of the party), so why would T-Dog even worry about such a possibility?

In this exchange there is racism denying, white privilege, conservative colorblindness, and the need for people of color (and the Other) to convince the in-group of the validity of their experiences. While counter-intuitive, I would suggest that this scene in Bloodletting is so utterly transparent that it borders on genius. In all, T-Dog and Dale break the fourth wall. They signal an aspect of the show to the viewers which has been obvious since its first episode: race and gender matter in this story, even as a superficial reading of the narrative would suggest that it does not.

Race also works symbolically in Dale and T-Dog's exchange. "Racial contamination" has long been a dominant theme in science fiction and speculative literature. Science fiction embodies this concept by transposing the historic White fear of miscegenation and interracial sex onto aliens, robots, and monsters. For example, films such as Alien, Blade Runner, and the The Thing are extended meditations on the twin fears of racial passing and racial pollution.

T-Dog is a racial contaminant of sorts because he is the only black man in a small group of white survivors. T-Dog also represents the fear of racial contamination in other ways as well. Primarily, T-Dog could 1) be infected with the zombie virus (we know that he was cut by a jagged piece of metal, but could some zombie blood have gotten in his wound?) and 2) will inevitably turn into a zombie if he dies.

The scene that immediately follows T-Dog and Dale's conversation about the realities of race in The Walking Dead is another signal that race matters, and will continue to matter in the story, even if it remains little discussed. In a continuation of last week's storyline, the remaining characters are battling a group of zombies in a wooded area. Andrea, The Walking Dead's stereotypical, white, female character (and thus always vulnerable and perpetually in peril) is attacked by a shabbily dressed African American zombie. He tries to bite her--an act of violation and penetration--and his body falls atop her in a position which suggests rape and sexual violation. Who comes to her rescue in her fight against an undead black rapist? Maggie, a white, blonde haired maiden riding a horse, who then proceeds to kill the offending ghoul.

Nationalism; patriotism; white womanhood as the embodiment of the Racial State (and to be protected at all costs); and white women dispatching black brutes are all present in this one moment in Bloodletting. While certainly not The Clansmen or Birth of a Nation, the visual and thematic union of sex, violence, and race is hard to overlook and dismiss as being a mere coincidence--especially given how it flows from the racially pregnant conversation between Dale and T-Dog.

Bloodletting is a great episode. The question remains as to if the writers of The Walking Dead will drop these issues of race and identity, or return to them given that they have been introduced explicitly in the narrative. I hope Glenn Mazzara pushes the story forward while innovating and improving on what Frank Darabont and Jonathan Hickman fashioned during Season One.

As always here are some questions.

1. The events that will occur at the farm have been pretty well telegraphed. Readers of the comic book know that there is a surprise in one of the barns. If you were writing the TV series would you follow through on one of the best storylines from the source material or would you continue to deviate as the show has done to this point?

2. Why shoot Carl now? This is another huge moment in the comic book. What is accomplished in the long run by playing this card now? Carl has so much growing to do, does this action take away from what should have actually happened in the first season (you know, all that necessary and nasty stuff with Shane).

3. How long do you think the affair was going on between Shane and Rick's wife Lori. She is pregnant by him, implies that he let Rick get shot on purpose because of their affair, and then continues on with the affair once the plague begins. Is Lori a tragic figure? Or is she contemptible? Could she be both?

4. There is a quota for black characters on genre TV. Michonne will debut this season. When T-Dog dies will this open the door for Tyrese? Or are AMC and the writers of The Walking Dead reluctant to have too many "strong" black characters on one TV show, lest white audiences become uncomfortable?

5. The writers of The Walking Dead are already playing fast and loose with the comic book's source material. Given their "creativity" in this regard what do you think we will see next? The Prison storyline and the Governor? The Hunters? Or will the next arc be something all together new?

6. George Romero recently said that he does not prefer the TV show over the comic book. Words of wisdom or a matter of personal taste?

7. The racial allegory comes full circle at the end of Bloodletting. Daryl has the necessary medicine to save T-Dog's life. Is this hackneyed and a further advance of the earlier Crash-like melodrama? Or will this moment build to something where Darryl confronts T-Dog because he senses some element of racial anxiety or fear, emotions that Darryl takes to be an offense and a slap in the face?

8. Dead pool. In the comic book no one is safe. In the TV series, which character do you think will die next?

9. Zombies are all the rage. Folks are bandwagoning all over the place. To point: have any of you read Colson Whitehead's zombie opus Zone One? Anyone check out The Walking Dead novel Rise of the Governor? Are either worth buying?


Improbable Joe said...

Quick answers:

1. Deviate. Why not?
2. Budget reasons. Getting them off the road and in a single location let them save money. I'll bet all the tromping in the woods happened just inside the treeline so they could go with a half-assed second unit versus two full crews.
3. Lori is just sort of sloppily written figure, so who the hell knows what she'll do or how it turns out?
4. Who says T-Dog isn't Tyrese(-ish)?
5. Probably the prison. Again, for budget reasons.
6. Books are usually better, right?
7. Neither. Daryl is just the hidden hero of the show. Always does the right thing, sometimes even says the right thing. Bad writing again?
8. I'm guessing Carol.
9. Can't help you.

Quick comment: I thought the T-Dog/Dale scene was good and breaking the fourth wall, but for a different reason. It seemed to be a commentary on how dramatic TV doesn't really know what to do with actors who aren't white, fit, and between the ages of 25-50. If the cast has to be cut, it is obvious that the old man and the black guy are out, and the oldest woman and the Asian aren't far behind. Considering all the firings and budget cut drama on the show, that might be the subtext the writers were going after.

But then again, I missed the "black zombie violating the so-white-she's-transparent woman" bit in the context of that conversation, so your theory makes sense.

Chris Sharp said...

I watch as little TV as possible so I am going to have to sit this one out. On the other hand, I do listen to the radio. Any chance of us getting your take on the Occupy movement and its potential impact on the pathology of Whiteness anytime soon? I heard an interview on NPR this morning where someone was talking about the "unconscious diversity" of the Occupy movement versus the "conscious diversity" of the pandering liberals. The interviewee also described it as both a cultural and moral movement in addition to it being a political movement. I thought it was a good observation and it seems to me that this may be an opprtunity to have some conversations that our country has been avoiding for far too long. I have enjoyed your focus on Herman Cain but in my humble white opinion (which may be worth nothing) it would be nice to change topics for awhile.

chaunceydevega said...

@Chris. I hear you. He is my pet project and I have one more thing I am going to do. It may be here or on Salon.com if they agree to run it. There is lots of other stuff to talk about. I am still figuring out the OWS movement. If you have some thoughts send them along as a post. There is some new data that came out today I will comment on later, and also there is a part of the 99 percent vs. 1 percent narrative this is missing--I will call it an unstated assumption that I want to address.

Watch TV it is bad for your brain!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I know I am late to this, but I always assumed T-Dog was the Tyrese character. In my opinion, the most blatant racial critique is the reduction of T-Dog to the status of an "extra," while in the comic book, he is a central character. Shane, on the other hand, is shot early on - but he is a primary character in the tv show.

Yes, I believe the tv directors and writers are pandering to racial preferences of white television viewers. They cannot claim that it is an accident that T-Dog lost the centrality he has in the book version. Perhaps they slightly changed his name to convince uncritical people that he is a completely different character, but that excuse would not stand up to scrutiny.

Another thing -- the Latino family was dispatched early, and the black woman committed suicide at the CDC. Glenn (Asian American) is getting a slightly larger role. But in terms of race, we see the same hierarchy. You could make the same arguments about gender.

Men make the critical decisions; women have to comply (even if they are allowed to express opinions). And now we are getting the "pregnant white woman" storyline, which will lead to extraordinary acts of heroism among male characters in future episodes. Finally, Glenn's girlfriend is portrayed as a "Sybil" character; one minute she is breathing fire over something Glenn has done, but the next second, she is kissing him and giggling.

I like this show, but watching it requires exposures to cultural stereotypes about race.

PS: As for T-Dog's diminished status on the show, he had about 10 words in the mid-season finale (when did tv start having mid-season finales?). I would not be surprised if his character soon died.

NelsonStJames said...

Just found this blog after watching season one of The Walking Dead on Dvd. The death of Jacqui stood out for me, because it reminded me of another character from a SF show that also out of the blue decided to give up on life, Dualla from BSG. Sure these shows are far apart, but if one researches the issue Black women the last time I'd heard were the lowest group when it came to suicide. Not so in SF television. The more I watch now the more I'm of the mindset that PoC really need to begin creating a new mythology as other groups have done and especially in film and TV. In 2012 which is rapidly coming to an end it is still the case that in large ensemble casts if you have a Black character no matter how many seasons that show runs when all is said and done the Black character will generally be the character you know the least about. They will also be the character will the most ill-defined motivations. Well, at least we still have Django to look forward to. Got my fingers crossed.