Monday, February 11, 2013

The Walking Dead Episode "The Suicide King" Reviewed: Upon Whence Tyreese Does a Mantan Moreland And Runs Away From a Crazy White Man Named Rick

The Walking Dead is back from its hiatus. The returning episode, Suicide King, was a solid return to form for the show. It featured zombies, the Governor, some shooting, a brotherly reunion, and some "father-son" time for Glenn and Hershel. In keeping with its earlier trajectory, the midseason premiere also featured the same tired treatment of black characters that has typified the show to date--a pattern against which I have repeatedly intervened.

The Walking Dead is a TV show prefaced on anxieties about white male authority. To that end, people of color are rendered either literally or symbolically mute (see T-Dog), limited by an informal quota to no more than one black male character on the show at a time (see the prisoner who was killed to make room for Tyreese), or typecast according to long-standing tropes: T-Dog was the black manservant butler and aide to the white characters; Michonne is a magical negress and near savage huntress who was introduced as a caretaker for Andrea; Tyreese appears to be the "reasonable" Morgan Freeman-like black man who is righteous and measured).

As compared to the rich source material wherein people of color are treated with respect, and have central roles in the narrative, The Walking Dead TV series is an exercise in racial and gender "heliocentrism"--this world is Rick's, and the show revolves about how white men and those in their orbit negotiate this fact.

I am likely not alone on this point: I will continue watching The Walking Dead in order to see what happens next. However, I am increasingly disappointed by the rushed plot, questionable decisions by characters, and the show's unapologetic wallowing in the white racial frame (as well as the White Gaze) in terms of how black folks are developed in the narrative. As such, I have some questions about the show that, if so inclined, you can help me work through.

1. Suicide King was notable because it was one of the few moments where race was spoken to explicitly by The Walking Dead. This episode featured Merle's stereotypical white nationalist screeds against T-Dog. A previous episode introduced the "Latino gang bangers" who were actually helping their community. Later, Dale and T-Dog talked about race while hiding from a herd of zombies in a moment where the black character, in keeping with the rules of post-civil rights colorblind racism, was depicted as paranoid and irrational for suspecting that race may actually continue to matter in a world overrun by the undead.

In Suicide King, Merle--entertaining and witty as always--made a great allusion to the irony that is Michonne keeping two "walkers" in chains as "slaves." Tyreese joked about being the only brother who wanted to break into jail. Axel cosigned by observing how he is the only white boy who does not want to leave prison.

Race is coded for in The Walking Dead TV series in a number of ways. Where are the writers going next with these explicit mentions of race and racial difference in the text? Is this an acknowledgment that there are now two black characters on the show in (ostensibly) important roles? Consequently, the "race stuff" is going to have to be dealt with at some point?

2. What do the writers have against Michonne? She is a fan favorite and an iconic character. Why treat her with such disrespect? The response by Rick is also problematic: she brings food to the prison, points out the Governor's compound, helps with the rescue, fights off zombies, etc. and is still a subject of suspicion and mistrust? I am befuddled.

Is this a case of white writers not knowing how to--by choice and willfulness--"do" black characters, more generally, and "strong black women" who are not caricatures, in particular? Or is there something more basic and existential here. Could it be that there is quite literally no place for an independent and self-reliant black woman in Rick's community? Thus, she is depicted as a troublesome, dangerous negress who is not to be trusted? The dead can walk the Earth; but Michonne is out of place in The Walking Dead TV show.

3. Does Rick's behavior make any logical sense at all? Is his hostility to Michonne and Tyrese a reflection of his disassociative disorder and paranoia? Something else?

4. Do we really need to see Rick go all Baltar on Battlestar Galactica and now have his own "head Lori" that only he can see? On a related point, do you think that Rick's talking to a disconnected phone (an allusion to the comic) should have been saved for later--as opposed to a public breakdown in front of the group?

5. AMC spent a good amount of money on the Woodbury and prison sets. But, are the writers and producers lingering there too long as a result? Am I the only person who felt that the Woodbury arc should peak in the next few episodes as the community's reaction to the Governor's failings feels contrived and overwrought-and this could be a sign of even larger problems with the resolution to that storyline?

6. For fans of the original graphic novel: am I alone in my belief that The Hunters should have come before the prison storyline in the TV series? Moreover, that the main party could have met up with Tyrese and his group in route to the prison? Or alternatively, Rick finds Tyrese's party already present upon their arrival  at the prison and has to find a way to coexist? Subsequently, the two groups form an alliance when the Governor attacks?

7. Tyreese is a well-developed and fully fleshed out character in the graphic novel. The viewers of the TV show are still being introduced to him. But given the very problematic racial stereotypes that the previous black male characters have been forced to fulfill, are any of you worried that Tyrese will be the "good," "accommodating" "reasonable" black man who exists only to soothe Rick and to be his loyal buddy and conscience?

8. Second point. I couldn't resist laughing when Tyreese and company bugged out during Rick's "crazy white guy moment," the former's running away had a certain Mantan Moreland "we's be gettings out ah here boss" quality to it. Am I a bad person for expecting/hoping for Tyreese's eyes to pop out of his head in the best race minstrel tradition as he ran away from Rick's group?

9. Who is the audience for The Walking Dead TV show? Who are the creators and producers writing for?


Wavenstein said...

I hear everything that you're saying. I even posted a comment on an IGN discussion board that I'll copy and paste

here. "I find RIck to be unlikeable as a character. His mistreatment of Michonne has been problematic and now bordering on offensive. I found his speech about not wanting to be "responsible" for the newcomers to be arrogant as well. He maybe the leader of this group, but him assuming a burden of responsibility when he meets black characters is very troubling for me. This assumed burden comes with an implication of incompetence and general uselessness. These folks are looking for allies, not a stepdad and a meal ticket. The fact that newly introduced characters of color have been treated as nothing short of burdensome annoyances leaves me with a very uncomfortable feeling about this show." As you can expect, my comment was met with denial and accusations of "bringing up race when it has no place here." The white racial frame and the investment in it was running rampant on that board as well as others with commenters bringing up similar issues. Did you find Rick bringing up "responsibility" when faced with presense of blackness as well as the possibility of black leadership transference to be problematic as well?

chauncey devega said...

When I did that on the Daily Kos, pointing out some basic questions, many went ballistic. How dare people insert that "race stuff" in "their" story. Proves the very point about who The Walking Dead TV show really is for--a fantasy of the White Gaze where non whites know their place.

What is the url for your comment. To be honest I had not noticed that connection--Rick, to my memory, has not talked about new white members as carrying their weight or being burdens. That is really deep and disturbing. But, a perfect fit for our political moment where people of color are routinely discussed as being leaches, parasites, etc.

I will meditate on your great observation. Great stuff. I learn alot from the good folks here on WARN!

Wavenstein said...

I think they have deleted my comments on there, I go by Wavenstein on that site as well. Here you go though

Jeffrey Collis said...

Both my partner and I identify as white males, he late 30s, me early 40s, and we see and discuss the obvious and inherent problems of race for The Walking Dead. Having read the comics and appreciated the inclusiveness there, we've been disappointed at the treatment of ALL the black characters.

When Jacqui chose to end her life in the first season we didn't think much of it, she was just another one of the characters, coping with things as she saw fit. We thought Morgan and Duane were an example of a strong family, surviving.

But then T-Dog? Good lord, the poor fella made it all the way to season 3 with barely more than a few sentences, and what does he do? Sacrifice himself for a white woman; yes he had already been bitten, but... I think T-Dog was a great guy and his actions are those of an all around great man.

So then Andrew, Tomas, and Oscar. Come on already, Oscar was a F.I.N.E. looking man and we both screamed in anger when he got shot, dammit.

Michonne is not without some issues, but Rick's treatment of her is absolutely unacceptable. Not to advocate violence but he needs to be smacked! And that dimwit Andrea? Come on you know Michonne is good! After watching this most recent episode I commented to my partner that her character is beginning to remind me of "What you talkin' 'bout Willis.' Seriously, Michonne is one of the most amazing characters ever in the comic book.

So now with Tyrese and Sasha. I'm seriously hoping something changes soon, and for the better.

Like both Wavenstein, and the most fabulous Chauncey Devega, we too are tired of reading or hearing that race isn't an issue, or that it isn't as big a deal as we're making it out to be. I've been shocked when sharing these views with progressive black friends who are also watching. Thank you Chauncey for not making us feel like the weird ones.

Jeffrey Collis said...

In case you've not seen this, it is good too.

chauncey devega said...

Actually, I think we are the sane ones. To not see the obvious with TWD is an act of amazing denial. There is something profoundly wrong with this show...and I say that without any claims on "politics" I mean that as a fan of good smart TV and storytelling. And of course as a ghetto nerd zombie loves.


Glad to hear from you. Do chime in more.

Wavenstein said...

Explain to me the concept of the white gaze and how it relates and differs to the white racial frame. I tried google but it's not helping

chauncey devega said...

It is part of cultural/film theory/studies. Re: gender it can be applied to other types of issues of representation, the body, sexuality, etc.

Wavenstein said...

Appreciate the info, I went to Abagond's blog and that really provided some great insight. I think I'm going to be spending a lot of time on this blog here

Marcuss Vessey said...

Nice blog, I linked in from thyblackman and your article on Donner, which I am going to comment on in a second. I think you are on point in one area and over reacting in another.

I absolutely agree with you on T-Dog and the other brother that was a prisoner and then on the team getting unceremoniously killed. They have now inserted a new character to fit the role of "large Black man". It seems they can only have one at a time, but they do need one! lol.

In regard to Rick's mistreatment of Michone. I think it is perfectly consistent with his character and where his head is at right now, so I think you are over reacting on this part. The show has done a great job in my opinion of showing the mental arc of Rick's character. First he was a befuddled lawman just trying to keep the group together and survive and now he has turned into an obsessed protective patriarch of the group pushed to the brink of insanity by the loss of his wife who he didn't reconcile with.

As a result, his actions towards Michone and towards any new individuals that could potentially threaten or become a burden to his 'family' is perfectly logical in his manic state. I think it is a well written descent into madness and that it is not reflective of Michone's race at all.

Now, I do agree with you in how the writers are portraying her character. I think they have stripped out the complexity of all the Black characters to date and left them as simple homogenous orbiting moons around the more complex written white characters.

As a reader of the comics I agree that the TV show has done an injustice to the minority characters based upon how they were treated in the books.

Shady Grady said...

You are not alone. One writer blasted the show.

I've only watched it a few times so I am not as invested. It is what it is...

chauncey devega said...

"I think it is a well written descent into madness and that it is not reflective of Michone's race at all."

As was smartly pointed out here by another commenter, why does Rick seem to have a more hostile reaction to the new black arrivals than the new white characters when he encountered them?

Also, and I have commented on this elsewhere, what of the pattern the show has of fitting black characters into racist, tired, old tropes. Michonne the magical savage untrustworthy almost feral negress--she is one step away from grace jones in Conan. T-Dog--black mute butler. Underdeveloped black "criminals." Etc.

This is just a conceptual point. I always point out that The Walking Dead is a TV show. As such it is not real. It exists on a soundstage.

The "decisions" of the characters are written by people who have made choices about what is to happen on the show. They could have easily made other choices too.

The writers of TWD have for 3 seasons made a series of choices to make the show an exploration of white masculinity in crisis via Rick and Shane. Patriarchy and racism are part of this process. I agree that the show is told from Rick's point of view--he is the protagonist. But, that too is very revealing as a white male character written by white writers (I think there is one black showrunner) would reflect the White Gaze and the white racial frame so damn perfectly.

Resonant isn't it when you connect the dots?

Do chime in, glad you found the site.

Miles_Ellison said...

I will attack this from another angle. I don't think that there's much of an audience for complex, 3 dimensional black characters. When you look at the kind of entertainment that is popular, black complexity and dimension is not a significant part of the equation. There is a limit to the amount of fleshed-out complexity that white people will tolerate and that black people will demand.

Sabrina Beard said...

" Daryl cosigned by observing how he is the only white boy who does not want to leave. "

That was actually the prisoner who was trying to get cozy with Hershel's young daughter.

I was a bit confused too when Rick and Glenn's girlfriend confronted Michonne about Andrea as if she snatched her up and was keeping her existence a secret from them. How was she supposed to know Andrea was attached to their group when she came upon her while she was alone and about to get eaten. Andrea certainly didn't know about the prison in order to be able to tell her of her previous group. We knew Merle was going to bring his racism back. But, when Rick said "we patch you up and you leave." I almost thought I heard the "n" word on the end of that. I have not read the comics so I don't know where the story is going but it appears that Tyresse has a bigger role. I look forward to that.

chauncey devega said...

Which character so I can correct that, bad memory/misread on my part

Daniel Benny Simanjuntak said...

I’ve always felt Daryl to be an underrated character in this series. He’s a lot more important to the group than the previous episodes have shown and he finally gets recognized for his efforts in this episode—talk about not realizing how important something is until it’s gone. Daryl stands by his “code” and doesn’t ditch his bro behind like everyone thought he should.

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SabrinaBee said...

That was Axel. The prisoner with the mustache. Daryl hadn't gone back to the prison.

Sabrina B

me said...

Why does it seem so many want to turn every show into racist thing? Let me tell you that when looking into college the one perquisite to get help was to be of color and to have "children" and not working. So sorry, what about the single WHITE girl WORKING and paying for her own food but couldn't get help cause she wasn't of color. At least working was trying and not just looking for a handout just for an little help. But that wasn't provided cause I didn't sit on my ass doing nothing. All wanted was a LITTLE help but was not eligible cause only had ONE kid & a low paying job. What is wrong with this scenario? At least I was trying & not expecting to be handed everything!!!! PS I will take a drug test every hour asked with no problem.