Monday, October 15, 2012

In Season 3 of "The Walking Dead" T-Dog is Still a Butler and Michonne is a Black Maid with a Sword

Some thoughts on The Walking Dead's newest season. Those of you who want a traditional review should go here. If you would like to remain spoiler free and/or have not read the comic books upon which the show is based, you are forewarned as there are minor spoilers ahead.

The third season of The Walking Dead premiered last night to record ratings. Based on the first episode of the new season, the show seems to be finding its stride after the abrupt departure of Frank Darabont last year. We have the obligatory gore, some cool zombies, and a narrative that is now firmly separate and apart from the source material--Rick Kirkman's great graphic novel series of which I am a long time devotee.

The TV show's effort to create its own universe is also the root of a major problem, one that remains unresolved from last year.

In "Seed," Rick Grimes and his party of survivors have finally reached the prison. This is a key storyline from the comic book which, to my eyes, was the moment where we knew that The Walking Dead was a great series. The comic book was built to last; the events that transpire with the prison and the Mayor simply reinforced that The Walking Dead was/is one of the finest entries in the zombie genre.

The graphic novel reached a crescendo in that moment because of the relationships which had been established between the characters. Now, with Shane having survived (which spun the TV series in a direction separate and apart from the comic book), Dale's death, and now Hershel being "crippled" (he is now a composite character who draws upon what happened to the latter character in the comic book), those relationships have been fundamentally changed. Adding an additional problem, the rich relationships between the people in the comic book are also not present in the TV series because the show has defaulted to tired stereotypes for its two African-American characters.

In the third season's premiere, T-Dog remains a semi-mute black buck butler who finally gets to talk about halfway into the episode. Michonne, a fan favorite, has been made into a black maid and "black best friend protector" for the white character Andrea. Historically, in the gaze of Hollywood Whiteness, black folks are put in stock roles and tropes. They are the best black friend, black servant or confidante, the "strong" black man or woman, the thug, the silent protector, the mammy, buck, or "the magical negro" whose only purpose is to help the white protagonist. Sadly, The Walking Dead TV show seems unable to break with that formula.

In watching the first two seasons, and the newest episode Seed, the absence of Tyrese, an African-American character in the comic book, is made painfully obvious. The relationships Tyrese forms, his murder by the Governor, and iconic moment of epic zombie brain smashing in the prison with his trusty hammer will not happen in this universe. Sure, T-Dog will be shoehorned in as a "Tyrese-like" figure. But the black buck mute is no replacement for the fully evolved character that the latter was in the graphic novel.

If the TV series stays at all true to the graphic novel, Michonne is going to have an unforgettable encounter with the Governor. What occurs with her character in the comic book remains one of the most controversial happenings in the series to date (and in comic fandom more generally). As I have argued elsewhere, race is all over The Walking Dead; it is so omnipresent (in the graphic novel) that it remains almost invisible (and the TV series has departed in this way too). In all, during Michonne's character arc, the Mayor reminds the reader of how her body is both racialized and gendered.This moment and its aftermath must be handled with maturity, grace, and yes, by expert writers.

To this point, I am unsure if The Walking Dead TV show is up to this task. It has become a truism that white writers don't know how to "do" black characters and other people of color. Given how segregated our society and social networks are, as well as the fact that approximately 95 percent of the creative, executive, and other jobs in Hollywood are held by white men, their racial myopia should not be a surprise. This is an observation; this fact is no less problematic simply because it is true. The writers and producers of The Walking Dead have made a decision to depict the black characters on the show in a certain manner. For that choice, they should be held accountable.

Ultimately, it is disappointing that the TV series will not be able to capture the iconic moments that made the comic book the sophisticated and excellent drama that it has proven itself to be over the last few years. Sadly, the whitewashing of the show (the Governor was "coded" as Hispanic in the graphic novel and is now played by a white actor), and its caricaturized depictions of black folks have hurt the dramatic possibilities present in the TV series. There is also something grotesque in the fact that the black zombies on the show, the undead, have shown more personality (and likely had more screen time) than either T-Dog and Michonne.

In order to preserve the dignity and power of Michonne, I hope that they rewrite her character so that she becomes something other than a sword wielding maid and black Amazonian human pitbull protector for the white women on the show. And lord please don't let her be the archetypal"angry black woman."

I must be realistic. The smart money suggests that Tyrese will have a second typecast African-American companion on the show.

Perhaps between the two of them they will get more than one line of dialogue per episode? I can dream can't I?


Anonymous said...


Surely you must be aware of the number one rule of horror movies and to a lesser degree science fiction. The black guy must die. It's negotiable for the black female. Remember Battlestar Galactica? Every black person that had a speaking part was killed off.

Frankly, I am surprised that T Dog has survived this long. And yes, Michonne's character will wind up being the angry black bitch, which I think is better than the maid, protector and mammy she seems to be headed for.

Ben G-

_ said...

Wow.. I'm glad I wasnt the only one who saw serious issues in how Michonne was being depicted.. Mammy/Maid bullshit indeed.. Hell after learning T dogs name, I was done with that character, been down hill since the first episode

Its all ironic considering a black man, Ernest Dickerson directs many of the Walking Dead episodes...

Invisible Man said...

Tight son!

Man, they need George Romero to rewrite this so much whiteness, cause he knows how to treat Black folks! Wake up Sucka! And what's up with Michonne's chained and armless Zombies!!!!!! There're BLACK!!!! That's just wrong! One of them SHOULD be Shane. I think Uncle Ruckus is one of the silent writers for this show

chaunceydevega said...

@IM. there is a back story for that in the comics. you can read michonne's origin online.

Shady_Grady said...

Chauncey you are the second writer I've read who is pushing alarm bells about Walking Dead.

I wasn't really interested in it before and your review just confirms that decision.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who see this! I'm a bit of a horror fanatic, more so in my youth, and I've seen a very simple formula:

1. All blacks must serve whites
2. The black guy dies first
3. Even better, the black guy must die protecting a white woman
4. If there is any black people, they must have NO personality.

I'm saddened by this show and I don't really watch too much TV.

billybullshot said...

The fact that you only care about the color of their skin makes you racist. The show needs extras with no backstory to kill off, to make it more dramatic.