Monday, March 3, 2014

WALKING DEAD: "Still" -- Survive vs. Thrive and the Money Metaphor

An entire hour of The Walking Dead devoted to developing the mysterious character of Darryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). This is the kind of episode I live for.

Not just because it's a full hour of Reedus (which might be reason enough for some), but because it's a full hour spent on just one storyline. It allows for deeper character exploration and more intricately layered scenes than those episodes that jump between multiple stories.

While this alone would be entertaining enough, what made "Still" so impactful is how the emotional evolution of both Darryl and Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) was written as a commentary on how the outlook of the future has shifted for the entire show.

Up until now, the series and its characters have been focused on survival. However, these episodes after the destruction of their prison sanctuary have shifted into a new kind of hope. One that looks beyond simply surviving amongst the zombie hordes, towards defeating them in order to build a new world.

And no episode better delineates the mental shift each character will need to make in order to accomplish this lofty goal, than "Still."

Prison in Perspective

Before launching in to exactly how "Still" accomplished this impressive task, it's important to note why the prison can't be considered as the building of a new future.

Between the pigs, and the crops, and the water purification system, and all the other little things the group did to make life "inside" bearable, it's important to note that these things were all still motivated by survival. Rather than working toward thinning and eliminating all walkers, or gathering equipment and materials to build a new world, the group stayed focused on scavenging necessities, such as food and ammo -- things they'd need for survival.

Rather than searching for construction materials that could transform the interior into a home and build a more formidable exterior wall, they focused more on making due with what they had and staying ready to fight or flee when (not if) things went bad... as they inevitably did. 

Even Rick Grimes' (Andrew Lincoln) farming endeavors were more a hobby to hide in than an effort to grow foodstuffs for the future -- the crops were too small to be anything more than a fresh treat. And let's not forget Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) who killed a fellow group member to ensure the group's survival, just in case the disease they had turned deadly.

Clearly, the group's survival mentality would always prevent them from achieving the peaceful, prosperous future they've all been hoping and longing for. 

Knowing this, the prison's destruction wasn't only inevitable, it was necessary.

Survive vs. Thrive

"Still" opens with Darryl and Beth stuck in survival mode both literally and figuratively as they hide together in a cramped car truck, tense and terrified as an unseen walker herd overtakes them. Come morning the herd's gone, leaving Beth and Darryl to scavenge what they can from the wrecked car to set up a survival camp. Only Beth's had enough of simply existing...

Being underage (and strict Hershel's daughter), Beth has never had a single sip of liquor or gotten drunk, and that's a fact she's determined to change now that her father's no longer around to stop her.

On this surface, this mission seems frivolous and selfish, but it's soon clear she's motivated by a need to be more than who she's become since "the turn." Beth had taken a back seat to her stronger sister and skilled father. She stayed home to care for the children rather than standing guard or scavenging. In the eyes of the group, including Darryl and herself, she was still very much a child herself. And she knows that if she wants to survive and thrive, that needs to change. 

However, I don't think that's the real reason Beth became fixated on her desire for hard liquor.

Darryl Rich and Poor: The Money Metaphor

In my opinion, the quest for alcohol was the excuse she latched on to in her attempt to bring Darryl back to the world. 

You see, in "Inmates" Darryl's retreat into the woods made perfect sense. They were in a mad dash to escape the walker hordes attracted by the prison battle, so the woods were a safer bet.

But now, in "Still," Beth can see that Darryl doesn't intend for this forest retreat to be temporary. Instead he's regressed back into the unredeemable drifter redneck he was before the turn. And, as she says to him at one point, he truly does just see her as "a dead girl" he's putting up with -- the last obstacle in his path to becoming a backwoods, nomadic hermit, surviving alone until death claims him, too.

This regression has stirred up old habits and resentments in Darryl that are evident throughout the entire episode, but only become clear at the end:

  • He ignores Beth's attempts at conversation; a return to his previous disregard for the value of companionship. 
  • He steals money and jewelry from the country club zombies, even though Beth notes their worthlessness now; a commentary on the jealousy and resentment he must've felt toward the wealthy back before the turn. 
  • He abandons his crossbow to mercilessly beat a small pack of once-wealthy walkers into oblivion with a golf club, rather than dispatching with them efficiently.
  • He even smashes the peach schnapps Beth had found in the country club bar for her first drink and takes her instead to a poor man's shack to get drunk on bad moonshine crafted in a homemade still -- the liquor he grew up on served in a hovel just like his childhood home.

Darryl reluctantly joins Beth in getting drunk, but it's clear he's just indulging her because he's got nothing better to do. Only he's a mean drunk who rages against Beth with all the bottled up resentment he harbored toward anyone better off than him, which includes Beth and her idyllic pre-turn childhood.

This aggression soon becomes a confession as Darryl admits his guilt over not hunting down the Governor with Michonne (Danai Gurira) -- an act that would have prevented the prison's destruction. 

In a quieter moment, Darryl also admits to the meaningless existence he led before the turn, content to follow his brother Merle's (Michael Rooker) violent, merciless lead. 

He regrets this perhaps most of all. The ability to easily accept the prison losses because his upbringing got him so used to things being ugly.

Thankfully, Beth is there to remind him that he's changed. He's no longer that shiftless, amoral man who cared for nobody, not even himself. He's changed. He's grown beyond his past into a hero who'll be the last man standing. All he has to do is to "stay who you are, not who you were."

The past has to be abandoned or it'll kill you... internally. And if that happens, what would it matter if the walkers got you, too.

So the pair proceeds to do just that, abandoning the past by burning it -- literally. Using the moonshine as an accelerant lit by a burning stack of the country club money he stole.

While the burning of the moonshine shack would be symbolic enough, it's the flaming greenbacks that really send the message home.

What used to be valuable before the turn is worthless now. And those skills and killer instincts that were sneered at and feared before are more valuable than ever. 

And they're even more valuable still because they exist in a man who has also exhibited great courage, intelligence and selfless heroism -- making it very likely that he will indeed be the last man standing...

At least, he'd better be.

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