Subtlety, Symbolism and Diegetic Music Return to The Walking Dead

wheelAfter two dreary episodes stuck on a single thought – look everyone, Negan’s here – Season 7 of The Walking Dead finally rolls to life.

“The Well” introduces Carol and Morgan to the Kingdom, a new setting with its own secrets. These discoveries catalyze refreshing changes in both, who have been rehashing the same tired argument since “JSS” (October 2015). Season 7’s second installment is rich in layers and symbolism, which is when The Walking Dead excels.

The very first image is a wheel (a symbol of civilization) moving forward (progression and advancement).

SPOILER WARNING – Spoilers follow for Season 7, Episode 2 of The Walking Dead

Subtlety

The opening shot pans up (optimism) to the damaged sleeve where Carol hid a gun (continuity), past a bloodstain on her jacket (cost) to her bloody hand and face. Carol’s position on a horse-drawn stretcher is grimly reminiscent of the many corpse hauls over the years. Watching the sunlight through the leaves – Carol’s own perspective – reminds us of Tyreese’s final moments (5.1).

Carol’s jolt off the cart is a clue that this episode is going to knock her off her rhythm. Carol’s hallucination that walkers are people tells us that Carol can no longer tell friend from foe. She tries to run, and finds herself with her back to a fence, surrounded by people who tower over her on foot or horseback.

She’s acting more like a wounded animal than a person. Do we know anyone who’s good at helping wounded animals? Maybe we’ll meet someone.

Symbols

aMorgan carves a sideways “A” into a mailbox post to point the way back to Alexandria. (He also flips the flag up, which is helpful if you’re trying to find a particular mailbox from far away.) The symbol “A” – not coincidentally the first letter of our alphabet – has been used by Walking Dead characters in 4.16, 5.1, 5.3, 5.13 and 6.2.

white roomThe first image we see when Carol wakes in the Kingdom is Morgan’s (white) rabbit’s foot, originally given to Eastman by his daughter (6.4). Carol wakes surrounded by white: walls, bed, curtains, side tablewalls are white, the curtains are white and soften the sunlight streaming through. Even the metal bed and nearby table are white (close enough).

Then follows a cornucopia of wish fulfilment imagery as Morgan takes Carol on her first tour of the Kingdom:

A kid carrying a soccer ball, goats, horses, other animal pens, a class in session, and organized planters of every kind, including repurposed file cabinets. People everywhere look happy and busy.

More Subtlety

The camera follows Carol from (our) left to right, across the Kingdom and inside the auditorium. Moving the same direction we read implies moving from wrongness into rightness in the language of cinema; villains go on the left, heroes on the right. (For example, when Negan and Rick occupy the same frame,  you will usually see Negan on the left.) Carol enters left, from the darkness, while King Ezekiel is brightly lit.

negan-left

villains-on-the-left

ezekiel-on-the-right

 

 

 

 

 

7.2 also brings three new credit slides to the Opening Titles after 7.1 introduced just one for Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), another subtle move because one would normally expect this change to occur with the Season Premiere. Doubling down on the cliffhanger idea and dragging out Negan’s introduction turned 7.1 into more of an extension of Season 6; now we begin Season 7 in earnest.

The new slides are for Tara (Alanna Masterson), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and Rosita (Christian Serratos). The images all mean something, but more on that later.

skepticalLayers

The moment I realized the potential in this episode was when King Ezekiel asks Carol a simple, but pointed question:

What do you think of the Kingdom? [beat] What do you think of the King?

This seems like a simplified version of Rick’s three questions or Deanna’s interviews. Rather than quiz people who enter the Kingdom, Ezekiel just asks them one thing: What do you see? What did you notice? Walls? Tiger? Costume? Inscriptions? Food? Organization?

As over-the-top as Ezekiel is (tiger, costume and all), Carol’s starstruck amazement seems completely wrong. That level of innocence worked on pre-Rick Alexandra, but Ezekiel seems immediately skeptical. He doesn’t preen under her flattery. (Note Carol is still positioned left.)

The whole business of offering Carol fruit and Carol refusing, and King Ezekiel’s dictum “drink from the well, replenish the well” is a red herring, including the name of the episode. The whole theme of “What will I owe?” invokes shades of Terminus and Grady Memorial, and makes Carol even more wary.

It’s a welcome relief when Morgan admits his philosophy is not the secret of life while simultaneously trying to convince Carol to stay. Finally! Carol’s being dumb while Morgan grows wise. (“Dumb” is too harsh; the point here is that Morgan has good instincts while we know Carol does not. Both are shedding layers of their personality.)

This layering continues as Morgan earns the trust of the Kingdom step by step: Aids the hunt, saves a man, accepts a request, takes a student. After Morgan has completed these quests on our behalf, we get our second look inside the Kingdom.

The Kingdom doubles down on too-good-to-be-true in four-part harmony.

Diegetic music

“Diegetic” refers to sound that’s within the story – basically, when characters hear the same thing that viewers hear (such as dialog). Diegetic music is particularly meaningful in The Walking Dead for four reasons:

  1. Art is a luxury
  2. Noise is a risk
  3. The world is even quieter than the TV show (Rick doesn’t get to hear Bear McCreary’s stunning compositions)
  4. Musicianship is not a valued skill

The last time the show featured diegetic music was Episode 6.10, “The Next World.” Rick prepares for the day to Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” and inflicts some Rockabilly on Daryl as they drive. But the last time someone sang in the Walking Dead? That was Beth, lost to the group 25 episodes ago. She self-accompanied with a funeral home piano in 4.13, 37 episodes ago, and neither Carol or Morgan was present. Live music is a real treat in the apocalypse.

Eight people singing flawless a capella harmony? That’s heaven. The lyrics?

Don’t think twice

It’s all right, it’s all right

Listen, I’m a musician. I’ve competed at the state level in eight-part a cappella ensembles. The chances of eight random people sounding that good are almost nil, but that’s the point: Everything at the Kingdom is over-the-top luxurious. Fruit, education, clothes, music. The choir director is even pregnant.

Kleptomaniac Carol is nabbing weapons and chocolate left and right and nobody notices. (Watch for more shots with Carol on the left.)

More layers

You knew it was too good to be true. Morgan knew it, too. The nice thing is, that’s only the beginning.

Now that Morgan’s earned trust, Ezekiel takes him behind the curtain a little, and we learn that the Kingdom pays tribute to the Saviors. But there is a clear progression here, almost a learning curve as each community is introduced:

  1. Alexandria (Rick included) is naive to the Saviors threat
  2. The Hilltop/Gregory has been paying tribute, but it’s not enough and he’s already fallen short
  3. The Kingdom/King Ezekiel pays in full, on time, and has his own men under strict discipline

There are more layers in the way Ezekiel manages his own people: Civilians who stay in town for choir practice, fighters who can help on the hunt, an inner circle who gets to know more, precisely because they may have to be trusted to do exactly as the King commands, even when it means getting punched in the face by a total douchebag.

By his interactions with Morgan, Ezekiel gradually reveals himself not just to be a good leader,but a kind person and a wise man, although all of this still fits his kingly persona.

And then the good King finds a woman stealing fruit in his garden.

The final circle

It’s easy to imagine the worst at this moment, something our showrunners were counting on after the shitstorm in 7.1. What is Carol expecting? Vengeance? Retribution? She practically begs to be banished from the garden.

But unlike most people in The Walking Dead — unlike most people in Rick’s group right now — Ezekiel does not see a trespasser, thief, or spy. He sees a wounded animal, and the first thing he does is let his guard down, quite literally, by dismissing his bodyguard.

facadeAt first, Ezekiel challenges Carol in character: I’m onto your act, here’s what I already know. She counters by laughing at him and calling his community a fairy tale.

The moment he sits beside her, his entire act vanishes. Previously towering over everyone, he slouches below her. His royal diction is gone. His expression is open. For this conversation, Carol is finally positioned on the right, not because Ezekiel is villainous, but because Carol is regaining her hero status. It’s a sign that Carol is moving from wrong to right, from disorder to order, with Ezekiel’s help.

While sharing his origin story is a way of opening up to Carol, the specifics of Ezekiel’s story are not coincidental. His story begins by admitting that his deception is deliberate, but helps his followers. (It seems like Ezekiel is talented at meeting people where they are. Morgan hopes to retain his pacifism, Ezekiel recruits him for a pacifist mission. If a newcomer marvels at the amazing king, he just lets them. If they call his bullshit, he tells the truth.)

Ezekiel saving Shiva helps explain why people made up stories about him, but he’s trying to tell Carol that even at great risk to himself, all he really wants to do is help. When she challenges this, why would anyone do that when it’s such a risk, (all Carol can see anywhere is danger and risk,) Ezekiel gives the best answer ever:

Because it makes me feel good.

In the denouement when he visits her cottage (is that not the most perfect “a witch lives here” house with that fence and the graveyard?), he’s lost one more layer of his facade: Even his costume is gone.

Contrast Ezekiel as a Leader:

  • Rick: Ezekiel seems to be one step ahead of the Saviors AND doing well for his own people. Of course, we don’t know what this may have cost in the past OR how long it will continue. Whereas Ezekiel impresses people with theatrics (and lets them see what they want), Rick has tried to win friends and influence people by waving his gun around and telling people why they need to kill others first. Rick is always himself with people, which can reassure your allies, intimidate your enemies, and scare the shit out of people who don’t know you.
  • Shane: I think Shane would find Ezekiel too idealistic, but he might be impressed with the results if he gave it a chance. It would kind of depend what mood he was in.
  • The Governor: Both the Kingdom and Woodbury seem too good to be true, have secrets, many of them for the good of people who don’t know what it takes to protect them. At the moment, Ezekiel seems like a man who has found some measure of peace, whereas the Governor was tormented by demons. Ezekiel drops his guard for Carol almost immediately, whereas the Governor plays Andrea with lies on top of lies.
  • Joe the Claimer: Joe’s men compete for everything. Ezekiel commands that you “replenish the Well,” but he freely offers you to drink first. Joe enforces his rules with absolute violence, Ezekiel commands obedience to the point of passive resistance. Joe is more honest than Ezekiel, and highly respects honesty besides, criticizing Daryl for downplaying Rick’s bad side.
  • Gareth of Terminus: Both Gareth and Ezekiel put up a massive facade for their community, and both offer you a meal intending that you repay their kindness by contributing in turn. Gareth provided for his people by eating those who wouldn’t join. Ezekiel provides for his people by leveraging wild boars and walkers as bait.
  • Dawn of Grady Memorial: Ezekiel asks you to replenish the Well (and reminds you with giant inscriptions), Dawn sees to it that you will absolutely repay every moment of care with servitude at the point of a gun. Dawn is completely honest about her community, but her command structure is corrupt and her lieutenants do whatever they want (which is to rape and pillage).
  • Deanna of AlexandriaDeanna makes you audition for membership, but Ezekiel auditions himself to be your leader. Deanna interviews you on camera, Ezekiel just asks what you see.
  • Negan: Both men enjoy pompous theatrics. Ezekiel puts up a total persona, but Negan is himself right out of the gate, and a self-proclaimed “man of my word.” Negan is every bit as sociopathic, theatrical and terrifying with an audience of one or one-hundred. Ezekiel will keep up his performance with an audience of one when he thinks it helpful, and we have only seen him drop his performance entirely for just one person. Whereas Negan enforces his rules with violence, we don’t know how Ezekiel enforces discipline, but his men are disciplined even to non-violence.

Loose Threads

  • “I forgot to mention…Ezekiel has a tiger,” is a line from the graphic novels, but it doesn’t quite work here. Realistically, I thought Carol and Morgan would discuss every aspect of the King before she would go to meet him, even accounting for the fact that Morgan gets a better read on Ezekiel and wants Carol to give it a chance.
  • I speak of Carol being knocked off her rhythm, but it remains to be seen whether she’ll rinse and repeat her previous behavior, or if King Ezekiel can help her find true change.
  • The Kingdom seems to occupy a school. Maybe that choir survived from the beginning. They might even have access to instruments and practice rooms.
  • After 7.1 gave fantasy versions of even the character deaths that didn’t happen, Carol seeing walkers as normal people was disturbing in the sense that I hope special effects teams and directors aren’t so bored with killing walkers they want to keep pushing the violence envelope. Now they’re visually killing people even when people aren’t there? Less is more.
  • The Kingdom has way too many likable characters…some of these guys are certainly doomed, especially if it will torment Morgan and Carol.

 

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