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?