Friday, March 15, 2013

Race on The Walking Dead Part II

We have looked at Race in The Walking Dead before, back near the beginning of season two and we covered many of the problems with the show has when it comes to its POC, especially compared to the comics.

Unfortunately, the show hasn’t improved, quite the opposite in many ways, and it has reached a point where our original post now needs a sequel. Insert your own “I can’t believe I still have to complain about this” macro if you got ‘em.

Let’s start with the character who occupied so many of our complaints before - T-Dog. T-Dog the silent. T-Dog the characterless. T-Dog who did nothing but fetch and carry. Well, T-Dog lasted through the whole of season two and if he said more than five lines I’d be astonished; he disappeared for entire episodes, was completely ignored when anyone made any kind of decision and was, quite literally, background colour.

There seemed almost to be a shift in how he was treated in season 3 - he started to talk! He had lines, actual lines! He even... reach for your smelling salts folks... he even expressed an opinion over the prisoners and whether they should be allowed to join the group. He even disagreed with Rick!

Of course, it was too good to be true and shortly afterwards he was plunging into the walkers, sacrificing himself to save a White woman, Carol. Which means all of his sudden participation wasn’t so much an attempt to redeem his broken character as it was a way to desperately humanise him - or even remind us that he actually existed - before he died so we could believe the (very brief) sadness of the group afterwards. Though, maybe not, it’s not like they spent more than two seconds grieving for him. Three episodes later and he was barely mentioned again - I can think of one occasion, when Hershel tells Andrea about the group he tells her of T-Dog’s death. This causes her about 2 seconds of thought and then everyone moved on.

We could probably have predicted T-Dog’s death by Oscar’s appearance. After all, does the show really need two silent token Black men? And Michonne and Glenn as well? Inclusion cookies have been earned! It’s almost like a remake of Highlander - there can only be one silent Black token! Oscar himself should probably have paid attention to that lesson, after several episodes of doing his duty, standing there and being Black, he too was killed off in the fight in Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie. This seemed to happen partly because the fight in Woodbury had to cost the group something - so Rick could later refer to it costing them. It’s hard not to see Oscar as a disposable, throw-away character used to add weight to the feud between the prison and Woodbury.

The other reason he died? Well, Tyrese was introduced -
THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE! I feel there should be dramatic music for that.

So far we have not seen a lot of Tyrese, which, as we said before, is already a big deviation from the comics where he was an integral member of the group since before the survivors even reached the prison or Hershel’s farm. This delay means Tyrese didn’t join the group when Rick was still accepting of outsiders, willing to share leadership roles and welcome of help; instead he arrives when Rick is paranoid, suspicious and violently hostile. In a desperate attempt to fit in and be accepted, Tyrese goes beyond accommodating and is positively servile. Whatever they need, whatever they want, he bows, he crawls, he begs - desperate and subservient.

When Rick turns him out anyway, he is directed to Woodbury by Andrea and we see the same repetition of the same fawning, servile behaviour. He even volunteers them to join Woodbury’s fight against the prison - Tyrese and his people have no stake in this fight and good reason to stay away, but he’s there, eager to please.

The sad thing is the contrast between the bowing and scraping Tyrese of the TV series and the powerful, capable co-leader from the comics is glaring. He used to join in the decision making, being consulted by Rick; he was actually one of the few characters who did and would check him. It’s deeply sad how different this character is. I desperately hope he improves but given the record that’s probably too much to hope. He arrived with Sacha - but she’s had virtually no time to establish any characteristics and I rather think she’s dead woman walking (since we already have Michonne - and there can only be one!)

One thing we were very excited about was the introduction of Michonne to the cast. Michonne was one of our favourites in the comics, she was obviously a strong, dangerous fighter, but she was more than that as well - she was deep, complex with her own pain and losses from the Walkers. She was educated, she was intelligent and while she was never talkative, she became one of Rick’s closest confidants and was a valued member of the group and, though she faced distrust, she wasn’t regarded with near the same level of hostility. She wasn’t perfect by any means, but she was such a great character and has even recently challenged Rick for treating her like a weapon.

Now to the TV series - Michonne the Angry Eyed. That pretty much summed up most of Michonne’s character; Kristen Stewart’s characters have greater range of emotional expression than Michonne. After saving Andrea and playing nursemaid to her to get her to Woodbury, she then got stuck on one emotion: rage. Anger anger, rage. For strings of episodes she barely said a word and just glared at everything. In Woodbury, at the prison, on the road - silent glaring was all she did. Any conversation with her was a painful attempt to drag words out of her. It was like someone sent down to central casting for an Angry Black Woman. She’s a sword and a pair of glaring eyes.

The way others treated her was also sorely lacking, the only bright spot being the writers changing her showdown with Phillip - and we’re desperately thankful that scene was changed so much from the rape and torture of the comics. When they arrive in Woodbury, Andrea dismisses all of Michonne’s concerns and worries about the place. She stays when Michonne leaves. I can understand Andrea wanting some stability, but Michonne had treated her, tended her through her sickness and half carried her to safety; when Andrea got back on her feet she had more time for Phillip than the woman who saved her.

At the prison everyone treats her with the deepest suspicion and hostility. She helps them find Woodbury and rescue Glenn and Maggie, but the fact she went to investigate Phillip without Rick completely overrides the help she gave. The fact she wasn’t there at Rick’s beck and call at all times and dared to pursue her own agenda - after already helping them far more than she owed - was sufficient to have her be considered untrustworthy. It’s not until she actually goes on a mission with Rick and Carl and helps and protects Carl while he endangers himself looking for a family photograph that she finally earns grudging respect. And how does she earn it? The twelve year old boy says she’s ok. She had to earn the approval of a child to be considered worthy of not being thrown out.

It was also on this trip that Michonne mentioned some of her past and pain - the fact she talks to the people she lost. While it’s good to have some emotion from Michonne that doesn’t centre around her Angry Eyes, this moment was used entirely to validate Rick’s hallucinations - her emotional pain exists to support his growth. Which brings us to the brief return of Morgan

We were first introduced to Morgan in season one. In need of guns after Philip had his men attack the prison, Rick decided to travel home with Carl and Michonne. Once there, they find that Duane, Morgan’s son is dead and a much changed Morgan. Like Rick, Morgan is clearly struggling with PTSD and survivors guilt. Though the scenes between the two men were really well acted, it was clear that Morgan’s appearance and his pain and suffering were little more than a teaching moment to Rick, who just the week before had been having visions of his dead wife Lori. Morgan had clearly given up and didn’t even have the strength to kill himself. The lesson in this was that if Rick did not get his mental house in order, then he would end up just like Morgan and sure enough, the very next episode, Rick was in control enough of himself to enter into negotiations with Philip. Like Michonne’s pain, Morgan’s trauma existed solely to help Rick grow

Glen is now the sole character of colour who has survived since season one.  He has much changed from the geeky kid who talked Rick out of a jam in season one. The problem with Glenn is that no matter how much he has sacrificed for the group he has continually been taken for granted. It was Maggie who pointed out how willing the rest of the group was to dangle Glenn in a well to free a walker. For a time, Hershel didn’t even know his name and referred to him as the Asian kid.

In season three, we have seen Glenn really emerge. He was taken captive by Merle and taken to Woodbury where he withstood a beating rather than give up the location of the prison. He fought of walkers to keep both him and Maggie safe. When Rick went off the deep end so to speak, it was Glenn who took control of the group citing his existence as the sole able bodied male (yes, sexist we know). This however did not pacify Hershal who went out immediately to talk to Rick claiming that Glenn could not hope to fill Rick’s shoes. So rather than a young able bodied male, Hershel preferred a man who was hanging around outside of the gates talking to his dead wife. As far as Glenn has come, he is still not seen as the equal of Rick.

The defining moment was the group’s acceptance of the presence of Merle. They know that Merle is a virulent racist and what he did to both Maggie and Glenn, to say nothing of hunting Michonne, but chose to accept him rather than face the possibility of losing Daryl. Even when Glenn makes it clear that no one asked Rick to live with Shane (thank goodness he’s dead) Rick refused to budge on keeping Merle at the prison. The very first opportunity Merle got he moved to ignore Glenn’s specific orders which lead to a fight. Merle knew where Glenn stood on the pyramid of power simply by the fact that he was allowed to remain at the prison and therefore had no problems challenging him. As much as Glenn has changed, become stronger and sacrificed for the group, he is clearly understood as not the equal of the White male cast. Daryl is Rick’s go to guy in a tight spot and Hershel is his advisor, where does this leave Glenn?

Outside of these characters, there have been few other POC and none of them great. We had a random Latino family on the road for Daryl and Merle to rescue which basically served as a growth/redemption moment for Daryl. They were there for Daryl to prove that he wasn’t like his brother, not as people in their own right. As a bonus in this scene he even told Merle that Glenn is Korean, as though knowing this fact made him uber liberal. Similarly when Darryl saved T-Dog in season two, it was used to suggest that T Dog’s fear of racism in the group was irrational even as it separated Daryl once again from Merle. It’s worth noting that each of Daryl’s interactions with characters of colour served the purposes of redemption only and he has no real interactions or friendships with them.

In Woodbury,
the Black mole people are out in force again - POC in the background with no real roles. In a surprising moment, a relatively major character in the comics was recast from a White man to a Black woman, however it should be no surprise that Dr. Stevens had a much much tinier role that has, so far, been limited to a brief appearance one episode.

In all, The Walking Dead has a terrible history when it comes to race and one that has got worse, not better. Nearly all of the characters are considerably less well developed than their White counterparts, having far less lines and far shorter screen times. They have died in a disproportionately high numbers compared to the White folks and their deaths have largely been less meaningful. In addition, this is another fantasy world, another dystopia, where issues of race have magically disappeared with the rising of the dead. Other than Merle, the man everyone’s supposed to hate, we still lack any kind of acknowledgement that any racist attitudes or mindsets have survived in any of the cast. The closest we have ever come is still the fevered imaginings of T-Dog which were quickly dismissed. All of these characters are supposed to be products of their environment, it’s a stretch to believe any learned prejudices have magically disappeared or been concentrated in Merle - who is a classic racist depiction. Someone so extreme and violent that other White people can point to him and say “I’m not like him, so I’m not racist.”

In many ways, we’re amazed that the same people who wrote the (definitely not perfect) comics also wrote this show. And, with it’s ratings still going strong, we’re sure more seasons await which, alas, means we’ll probably be returning for a part three.