Monday, October 3, 2022



 Dead End

Remember watching Star Wars for the first time? Remember the profound change it set off in your little heart? Maybe it wasn’t Star Wars. Maybe it was a different passion. Star Trek. Lord of the Rings. Thor or Wolverine. Maybe you leaned into sports. Your hero carried a ball or hit the ice. Hero tales. The sincere story and classic characters call to you, offering hope and drama. Victory. Star Wars was my hero tale and it settled in my head. It was a big deal. And no, I didn’t have a crush on Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

When The Walking Dead hit the small screen, a similar, though less impactful, thing occurred. I was a new mother, and I was set by an unfamiliar, overwhelming drive to keep someone, my children, safe. I wanted to be decent, tough and powerful. I wanted to be Rick. The peaceful badass doing the hard thing, the right thing. Swinging his red-handled ax and keeping his family safe by any means. Ripping-out- the- throat- of- a- man- with- bare-teeth tough. A person willing to do whatever it takes to take care. Sure, I didn’t need these skills at the playground, but if a mindless, drooling freak wandered up, I would take care of business.

Years later, the end of this original journey begins. The Dead is nearly done. The show has been gripping, crushing, frustrating and hopeful. The story about a man fighting the dead to find his family has gone far beyond expectations and opened an even larger universe with Fear the Walking Dead, World Beyond, and Tales of The Walking Dead. These additions have been compelling, the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, and truly spooky, Samantha Morton’s prequel turn as Alpha, but our fascination has always been with the survivors from Georgia. The original family. And because they were, in a way, our family, the show was able to deliver some of the most poignant and devastating moments on television.

This week a few of my friends have joined me to tell us about their favorites.

E.A. Aymar

The lovely, talented and Anthony Award-nominated E.A. Aymar’s most recent thriller, THEY’RE GONE, was published in 2020 to rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus (starred), and was named one of the best books of 2020 by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. His next novel, NO HOME FOR KILLERS, is coming out in 2023 by Thomas and Mercer.

“Last Day on Earth”

I can’t recall an episode of television that had me more stressed, to the point where I was actually peering through my fingers at the screen, than the season finale of The Walking Dead’s sixth season, “Last Day on Earth.” This was the episode that first introduced Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan.

I know that the following episode, where Negan (spoiler!) brained Abraham and Glen drove fans away, but this episode was a masterful work of tension. The increasing anxiety of Rick as they drove their camper down different roads, only to find each exit blocked by groups of silent, dangerous men, sparked a similar anxiety in me. I think it’s possibly because Rick, in his role as group leader, had been challenged and overwhelmed and almost beaten numerous times, but I’d never seen him this broken.

Rick was failing, slowly, and it was a terrible thing to behold. It’s the fear of entering a fight you know you’re going to lose, and The Walking Dead profoundly captured that horrible feeling.

Eryk Pruitt

Mr. Pruitt is a spiritual guru, screenwriter, novelist, and filmmaker living in North Carolina. His films have won top awards at film festivals across the country and his novel WHAT WE RECKON was nominated for the Anthony Award. His next novel, SOMETHING BAD WRONG, will be published on March 21, 2023. When he's not writing at his desk, you can find him tending bar at Yonder in downtown Hillsborough, NC.

“No Sanctuary”

My favorite episode of THE WALKING DEAD? Damn, Marietta, could you have come up with a more difficult assignment? The first five (ok…six) seasons of TWD contained some of the best and most thrilling television in history, but I’m supposed to pick one?

OK, I guess if you put a crossbow to my head, I would have to say, “No Sanctuary,” which led off the spectacular fifth season. And boy, did it.

After our heroes had been separated following the Governor’s assault on the prison, the back half of season four all sent them toward a place known only as Terminus. Each character group got their own stories as the character development grew richer and richer, until they finally were mostly reunited upon reaching Terminus at the season finale.

What was Terminus? There were no answers in the source material, as this was one of the places that the showrunners deviated from the graphic novel. Anything could happen, and if you were watching week to week, you (like me) probably spent the entire summer break parsing that last episode for clues. The prevailing theory was that Terminus was filled with cannibals…but the show, at this point, had a way of subverting expectations that was god-level.

This was before Glenn and Dumpstergate. This was before the great Negan S6 finale fakeout. This was before that idiot Gimple expanded the universes and populated them with clever little reveals and Easter eggs. This was back when TWD was all about the genius of storytelling, we knew that anything could happen, and anyone was expendable.

So, when Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Bob, and the RedShirt were lined up on their knees before that bathtub and Gareth stalked behind them with the baseball bat for the “bloodletting scene,” I don’t think I had ever white-knuckled a television show that hard before. It was a masterclass in tension and dread. Who was going to die? How the hell were they going to get out of this one? Even if they did, how would they rescue Carl and the others back in the freight cans? We had deviated from the source material, so they could do anything. We already knew that Glenn, in the comics, met his end from a baseball bat, so was this that moment? Daryl had no source material counterpart, so were we about to see the demise of our beloved biker boy? What about Bob???

My stomach hurts just remembering this episode. And its resolution had been set up seasons in advance!! Carol, who had been banished for making hard and brutal decisions, was on a redemption tour. Partnered with the meek Tyrese and infant Judith, and fresh off the murders of Mika and Lizzie, it was fascinating to watch her come into her own. This was basically the culmination of Badass Carol and launched her character into a new stratosphere, (one that would eventually peak in my other favorite episode, “The Same Boat.”)

Oh, what an episode. This had to have been what it felt like to be a kid in the 50s and watch the serialized adventure stories before the feature film in a movie theater. Our heroes had been put up against insurmountable odds, and in this case, our heroes were the show’s writers. And they delivered tenfold.

It is bittersweet to note that the episode was written by the man who singlehandedly destroyed the Walking Dead: Scott M. Gimple. He wrote some of the best episodes, but his ham-handed handling of the series (and subsequent “franchise”) ruined what had been, for five full seasons, one of the best shows on television. If I was ever allowed to go back to 2015 and stop one man from taking power—Scott Gimple or Donald Trump—I’d need a minute to think about it.

Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan, aka the Queen of Halloween, is the founder and EIC of Dark Dispatch. In March 2022, Dark Dispatch released The Dead Inside, an identity horror anthology co-edited by Laurel Hightower and Sandra Ruttan. Ruttan's novels are available online, and if you're looking for a place to start, she suggests Harvest of Ruins. Her story, "The Goddess Complex," will be part of Hell Hath Only Fury, a charity anthology due out this month.

"What Happened and What's Going On"

Marietta and I used to chat on social media each week after The Walking Dead. When she asked me to write about a favorite episode, I did think of "The Grove." That season 4 episode is a standout, for so many reasons. However, "The Grove" is also the midpoint of a specific character arc that ends in the season 5 episode "What Happened and What's Going On," which is the episode I chose.

"What Happened and What's Going On" picks up after Beth dies. The group had thought her lost, figured out she was alive, and planned a rescue. And they failed. They saved Noah, but lost Beth before Maggie got a chance to reunite with her sister. Everyone's reeling, and the group seems a bit lost.

They decide to aim for Noah's home near Richmond, Virginia. Although there are walkers and the group has to fight them off at various points, this is an episode that doesn't focus on the action. Shots of a portrait of a house flash in and out, and soft lights frames glimpses of characters we've lost.

And Tyreese talks to Noah about what his dad called "the high cost of living," about being aware of what's happening in the world around you. He talks about the radio being on all the time, being constantly aware.

Tyreese tells Noah he craved violence when he wasn't facing what was happening.

Tyreese has been in pain for a long time. Back at the prison, his girlfriend, Karen, got sick. When she was found murdered, Tyreese boiled into a rage. He was blinded to the logic of taking proactive steps to prevent people from infecting their group, consumed by his loss and his desire for revenge.

It takes the events of "The Grove" for Tyreese to come to a turning point. When he sees how far Lizzie - a child - has gone, how dangerous she is to everyone around her, he understands sometimes, you have to make impossible choices. And it's because of the events that culminate in "The Grove" that Carol comes clean and confesses to Tyreese that she killed Karen.

In "What's Happening and What's Going On," Tyreese is calm. The rage is gone. He's watching Noah lose hope and, after all he's experienced, he's reaching out and consoling Noah.

"I wanted to die for what I lost. Who I lost. I stepped out into a crowd of those things. Just trying to take it all out on them until they took me. Put them all in front of me so I didn't see anything. But I just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith when she needed me. I saved her. I brought her back to her dad, and that wouldn't have happened if I'd just given up, if I hadn't chosen to live... This isn't the end."

Halfway through the episode, a walker bites Tyreese and he starts losing blood. This leads to scenes with people who've passed on already, such as Bob, the governor, Lizzie, Mika, Beth. These scenes, these moments when a still-living man interacts with the dead, give this episode a cinematic, cerebral feel as Tyreese reflects on what's happened to the group and the people he's cared about.

Michonne asks Rick, "Don't you want one more day with a chance?"

Meanwhile, the Lizzie beyond the veil tells Tyreese it's better now, and Tyreese hovers between life and death while Noah runs for help.

The dead from the group console Tyreese, telling him he has a choice, while the Governor mocks him for forgiving Carol. Tyreese finally stands up to the Governor. "I know who I am." He confirms he forgave Carol, and that he didn't lose sight of himself when he did. It's clear Tyreese truly overcame his death wish, and this is what breaks your heart, because now that Tyreese is finally at peace with living and the living, his time is at an end.

The group fights just as hard to save Tyreese as they ever did to vanquish threats, they beg him to hold on as Beth sings and the soft beams of sunlight slip through the trees. And then he's in the van with Rick, Michonne, Noah. And then he's no longer with the living, but he's driving with Bob, Beth, Lizzie, Mika.

"It isn't just okay," Lizzie says.

"It's better now," Mika says.

Tyreese makes his choice. The radio's cut in and out during the episode, and Tyreese finally tells them to turn it off. He doesn't need to know what's happening now. For him, it's over, and he drifts away.

I remember at the time thinking how they'd given him such a beautiful death. In a way, a peaceful death. Where his passing was underscored by the comforting embrace of those who'd gone before. Where Tyreese finally experienced complete peace. It broke my heart then, and breaks my heart now, and while this episode doesn't make a lot of top 10 lists, it's such an incredible end to a character's arc that it stayed with me all these years.

Will Viharo

The absolutely thrilling Will Viharo writes existential pulp fiction. He lives with his wife, Dr Monica Cortés Viharo, and Googie, a fat cat, in his dream city of Seattle WA. His favorite horror movie is the original "Dawn of the Dead." His latest “All Souls Are Final”, is out now. Look for “Dixon Guidry Gets Lost / All Souls Are Final: A P.I. Tales Double Feature.”

“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”

It’s hard to pick just one episode out of such a long running series. My favorite story arc is the Governor (David Morrissey) and the prison. But he’s only my second favorite villain. My first is Negan, thanks largely to the charming charisma of Jeffrey Dean Morgan. So, I’m going with the controversial moment that defined his character and immediately enshrined him as an icon: “the bat scene” from the seventh season premiere, entitled “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” 

For many fans this was when the show jumped the proverbial shark (though for me that came when Andrew Lincoln left, since Rick was the Captain Kirk of this enterprise), but as someone who has been there since the beginning, initially shocked and thrilled that the gloom and gore I loved in the films of George Romero had finally made it to the small screen, it was a reanimation (as it were), once again boldly going where no network series had gone before. Due to the backlash, the show has never been the same since, too tame and full of platitudes for my hardcore grindhouse tastes. But Negan remains as entertaining as ever and I’m looking forward to his spinoff, “Dead City.”

D. Alexander Ward

The terribly zen D. Alexander Ward is an author and anthologist of horror and dark fiction. In addition to his latest novel POUND OF FLESH, he is the author of numerous short stories and the novels BLOOD SAVAGES and BENEATH ASH & BONE.

As an anthologist, he edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthologies LOST HIGHWAYS: Dark Fictions From the Road and GUTTED: Beautiful Horror Stories (co-edited) from Crystal Lake publishing as well as the anthologies THE SEVEN DEADLIEST (co-edited) and SHADOWS OVER MAIN STREET, Volumes 1 and 2 (co-edited).

“The Grove”

I must confess I am not a Walking Dead fanatic. I like it well enough and was a regular watcher for many years. That said, there are a number of episodes that really stuck with me. Chief among them would be the season four episode, “The Grove.” If you know the episode, then you know the moment I am thinking of. This was a hard moment to watch in a show that had already shown us some difficult things. However, the realization that the child Lizzie was too broken and was on a path to becoming someone increasingly horrible in a world already brimming with horrors, Carol’s internal struggle of what to do about that… these things always resonated with me.

Exploring themes of maintaining one’s humanity during the zombie apocalypse is something the show constantly does. In the end, in a world gone utterly mad, where a new “law of the jungle” has been established, sometimes even the right choices are still madness. The impact of that final decision… this choice Carol makes that is unthinkable… it is haunting even now, all these years later. For me, The Walking Dead is not about cool and creepy zombies and the inventive ways in which they are presented. For me, the show is at its best when it turns its focus to the human condition, asking the question: How much of one’s humanity can be retained in a world stripped down to its primeval core and rife with both physical and ethical perils?

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