The Best Fictional Moments of 2012

Ah, the new year. Of course you just know that means it’s time to look back at 2012 and arbitrarily list our favorite media. BUT WAIT! After an absolutely exhaustive 2011 Facebook note ranking the movies and everything else I’d seen, I decided that this time I wanted to mix it up. So while I’m sure to collaborate on a best/favorite films list on my podcast sometime in the coming weeks, for now I’m going to do something a bit more unique and discuss all of my favorite moments from movies, television, video games, and books that were released in 2012.

Naturally there was plenty that I missed out on, but if I watched, read, or played it in the past twelve months and it had a moment of brilliance that left an especially strong impression on me, then I’ll discuss it here. I’m not ordering them by quality, only by the general sequence I came upon them.

As an arbitrary rule, only one moment from each property (film, TV series, etc.) is allowed.

Oh, and **SPOILERS FOR THINGS FOLLOW** Don’t worry though, I won’t blatantly ruin anything in the titles.

So with that, let’s begin.

The Grey: “Once more into the fray…”

I was a far bigger fan of the “Liam Neeson vs. Wolves” movie than just about anyone that I know. I expected complete nonsense, but instead found a deeply affecting story of survival (and lack thereof) in the face of impossible and admittedly unrealistic odds. Wolves aren’t like this, silly movie. That said, I’m sure it’ll always hold a special place in my heart as the first film I ever reviewed, something I really enjoyed doing this year.

Its closing scene was spoiled by the trailer, but that didn’t stop it from being a ridiculously cool, glass-knuckled tribute to the human spirit, with lone survivor Ottway taping shattered bottles to one fist and a knife in the other for his final showdown with a vicious pack of canines. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Kill List: Hammer Time

This movie came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a clue what it would be going in, and whenever I thought I had a grasp on things it completely redefined itself. I guess it’s a horror film, but there’s so much going on that I’m uncomfortable even confining it to a genre. It might be the most disturbing thing I’ve watched all year, especially at the halfway point when a man is gruesomely murdered with a hammer. Everything I’ve implicitly learned about film led me to believe the camera would cut away right before metal met skull. I’m pretty sure everyone in the theater jumped when it didn’t. If brutality isn’t a turn off, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Journey: Sand Surfing in the Sunset

For anyone who thinks video games are filled with nothing but zombies and people shooting each other in the face, this downloadable title from That Game Company might be the ultimate counterexample. A simple game about a hooded figure trying to reach a distant mountain, it happens to be one of the most beautiful things the medium has ever produced. No combat, no spoken words, no bonus missions or explicit instruction. Just a creature with a magical scarf and a random online companion walking, jumping, and flying to their destination through a series of gorgeous environments.

While the ending was amazing, no sequence had quite as strong an effect on me as the part where you glide across an ocean of sand as it shimmers in the setting sun. Simple, elegant, and totally jaw-dropping.

The Raid Redemption: The Final Fight

Nonstop insanity from start to finish, this Indonesian martial arts film was almost immediately hailed as one of the gold standards for what an action movie can be. What it lacks in a complex or thoughtful narrative it more than makes up for with some of the most incredible fight scenes ever put to film.

The last battle between the two brothers and “Mad Dog” is just relentless, going on well past the point of reason. I saw this movie in a stuffy room full of film critics, but even that couldn’t really stifle the energy of the scene. Once the final blow was struck, I’m pretty sure everyone would have clapped and cheered if I’d only started them off. Still kind of regret it.

The Cabin in the Woods: “Let’s get this party started.”

The first hour of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the horror genre is good, solid stuff. It’s what I was expecting from the movie, but admittedly not quite everything that I wanted. While undeniably funny and well-put-together, I spent most my first viewing hoping it would manage to somehow attain that extra level of brilliance that I knew its creators were capable of reaching.

And boy, did they ever. Dana and Marty’s infiltration of the facility and subsequent unleashing of the nightmare army escalated the stakes to exactly the insane degree that I was craving. It’s ten minutes of beautifully orchestrated mayhem with so many monsters shoved onscreen at once that it demands repeat viewings just to fully appreciate how much is going on. From the terrifying (psychopathic masked arsonists) to the hilarious (death by unicorn) it was everything the movie was building towards from moment one. Easily the second-best thing Joss Whedon put his name on this year, because after all what could beat…

The Avengers: Puny God

I’m not ranking this list except for the following exception: The Avengers was my favorite thing this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun watching a movie than I did this long-awaited superhero team-up. Its existence is an anomaly, its quality a miracle, and make no mistake there are about thirty moments from this masterpiece that I consider as good as anything else in this post, so picking one isn’t exactly easy…but that said there’s no way I can really go with anything other than the Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech to smash the ever-loving hell out of him.

It’s such an astonishing, unexpected, flawless moment of crowd-pleasing ecstasy that not until my third viewing could anyone in the theater actually hear Hulk’s line over the sound of their own cheering. No other moment of 2012 validated the things I love quite like that.

Game of Thrones: The Battle of the Blackwater

If there was one thing from A Clash of Kings—the second book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—that HBO absolutely needed to get right with their adaptation, it was this. They’d already avoided showing major battles a couple of times before, but budget restrictions be damned there’d be no excusing the exclusion of the most pivotal conflict in the war that the entire second season was built upon.

Lucky for everyone they stepped up to the challenge and depicted the Baratheon assault on King’s Landing in a way that not only lived up to the text, but may have actually managed to transcend it. Thanks to the legions of extras, Peter Dinklage’s awesome speechifying as Tyrion, the stomach-churning violence, Cersei’s drunken breakdown, and the Hound promising he’d rape the corpses of any man who died with a clean sword, this may have been the year’s best episode of television. Focusing on a singular event was a huge departure for this show, and it couldn’t possibly have worked better. No surprise George Martin himself penned the script.

The Legend of Korra: Amon a Boat

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender might not be the flawless work of genius I had hoped for based upon my devotion to the original, but it still had a lot to love. I found its greatest triumph in the antagonist Amon, a forceful revolutionary who unified the disenfranchised nonbenders of Republic City behind his Equalist movement.

I was sure his storyline would be resolved by the end of the season, but I wasn’t sure how. Just when it appears he’s going to escape towards the end of the finale, his brother Tarrlok blows up the both of them after a hauntingly beautiful scene that suggested the possibility for redemption. But no, instead this Nickelodeon series went with a murder-suicide. After dozens of pilots parachuted to safety from their exploded planes over the previous couple of episodes, I was unprepared for so bleak a turn. The scene’s music really sold it.

Killer Joe: K Fry C

While I missed out on Magic Mike and The Paperboy, I can state based on this film alone that Matthew McConaughey had an excellent year. The totally amoral hitman might not be the most original trope, but here he proves that there’s still so much fun that can be had with compelling killers who will do anything for what they’re owed.

Take the last fifteen or so minutes of this movie, in which the titular murderer forces the woman who double crossed him to suck on a fried chicken drumstick like it’s his penis. He certainly acts as if it is, in what makes for one of the most disturbing “can’t look away” scenes I’ve ever borne witness to. And the violent aftermath was superb. This film is rated NC-17, by the way.

Breaking Bad: “You’re Goddamn Right.”

I’m fairly certain that if most people were asked to pick the standout moment from the eight episodes making up the first half of the greatest show on television’s fifth and final season, they would pick either the train heist, its terrible and immediate consequences, or perhaps something from the installment that Rian Johnson directed—say, Skyler wading into the pool.

Yet I can’t help but choose Walt’s cocky as all hell “negotiating” that opens the seventh episode. To me it’s the apex of his journey, the moment where he so fully embodies an intimidating drug lord that it’s almost impossible to remember the sad little man he was at the start of this story. In some ways it’s everything the series had been building towards. Now all that’s left is for Walt to fall.

The Master: Processing

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were both incredible in the latest work of genius from Paul Thomas Anderson, and never more so than in the early scene where cult leader Lancaster Dodd subjects budding disciple Freddie to an intense question and answer session as a way of forcing him to confront his past. Hypnotic stuff.

Looper: Temporal Mutilation

Rian Johnson’s third feature film wasn’t quite the mind-fucking cat and mouse game I was hoping for, but as a totally original science fiction story with grit and personality reminiscent of a bygone era of high concept filmmaking, it’s still one of the year’s highlights. Its most memorable contribution to the time travel mythos is the scene in which Paul Dano’s older self tries to flee from the mob after the younger version is captured. A faded scar on his arm appears telling him where to go, and then parts of his body start disappearing as the bad guys cut them off in the present day.

It’s something that’s never really been done before (outside of an episode of Invader Zim, technically) and though of course it suffers the logical flaws of any fourth dimensional narrative, it’s so chilling and memorable that I couldn’t have cared less. Perhaps I would have preferred the latter half of this movie to go in a different direction, but there’s still so much here to admire.

Seven Psychopaths: The Insane Climax That Wasn’t

I found very few things this year more delightful than Martin McDonagh’s second feature film. Perhaps not as resonant as In Bruges, it was nevertheless a crazy ton of fun with some of the year’s best performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

The latter really shined, especially when he described/acted out a hypothetical shootout between all of the movie’s characters. By showing us an over-the-top conclusion as a deranged fantasy, McDonagh got to give us our cake without any of the calories. Some might see it as a cop out, but I thought it worked perfectly. I just wish that dog had fired the flare gun in the actual showdown.

The Walking Dead: Postpartum Depression

Still a little shocked at how impressively this show turned things around this year. If you told me a scene involving the horribly unlikable Lori would almost make me cry I never would have believed you, but then I also didn’t think they would actually be bold enough to kill her off.

And she doesn’t just get eaten by some zombie, oh no. She undergoes an emergency c-section with no anesthesia or medical resources of any kind, 100% sure that it’s going to kill her. And her son watched. Brutal stuff, even if you find Carl a worthless, annoying character. I say they’ve improved him a lot this season, but even if they hadn’t, watching him perform a coup de grace on his own mother so that she wouldn’t come back as a walker wouldn’t have been easy.

And then she gets eaten by a zombie, as Rick discovers when he tries to find her corpse. Now that’s what they mean by adding insult to injury.

Boardwalk Empire: Van Alden Irons Out Some Problems at Work

Though it’s never been the most talked about series, for me Boardwalk Empire was the one I most enjoyed following on a week-to-week basis this fall. Maybe that’s because it was the show I always watched with friends on the night it aired, but I still think it’s not as appreciated as it should be.

This year they were telling a very specific story with a great antagonist in Gyp Rosetti, but the highlight of the entire season had almost nothing to do with that. The show’s greatest resource might very well be actor Michael Shannon, who was sidelined for much of this season to the point where it felt like he was only in about half of the episodes. Maybe that was because he was busy filming Man of Steel or something, but it’s still unfortunate considering how he can utterly bring the house down when he needs to. Case in point: The scene where he’s finally had enough of his asshole coworkers and presses a hot iron into one of their faces, then freaks out and destroys the office as they all scream and cower in terror. His hideous grin is what really brings it all together. I want to see a new version of Frankenstein just because of how obvious it is that Shannon was born to play the monster.

Flight: The Crash

One of the most unifying theater experiences of the year was the palpable, edge of your-seat tension the entire audience shared during the harrowing catastrophe that kicks off Robert Zemeckis’s surprisingly explicit exploration of a man who will do (almost) anything to avoid confronting his addiction. Though the film is all character drama after the plane goes down, Denzel Washington’s performance manages to hold it together. I admit I found it less impressive on a second viewing, but for those first few minutes I was spellbound.

Red Country: Cosca Tells it Like He Sees it

EVERYONE GO READ EVERYTHING BY JOE ABERCROMBIE RIGHT NOW STARTING WITH THE BLADE ITSELF HERE’S A LINK. And with my requisite attempt to get more people to discover the genius of the greatest fantasy author working today, I can say that his latest—a fantasy western—does indeed continue in the incredibly good vein I’ve come to expect. It may be my least favorite of his in a while, but understand that of those words I’m still very much emphasizing the “favorite.”

The passage I reread twice immediately after I’d finished it is a beautiful piece of cynicism from infamous soldier of fortune Nicomo Cosca, who lays out a world-weary philosophy on the inevitability of change that’s as heartbreaking as it is true. It’s a cruel world Abercrombie has crafted, and I may never get enough of it.

Homeland: The Interrogation

The second season of this series was completely insane. Put six former showrunners in a writer’s room together and the result is that they all try to stave off boredom by burning through four seasons of potential plot development in about as many episodes. I was excited just to see what Homeland would be with each new week. By no means did it always succeed, but when it did it was astonishing.

The highlight was the confrontation that the entire show had been leading up to, a face off between Carrie and a captive Brody with everything more or less on the table. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis already got Emmys for their first season performances, but this one scene was good enough to warrant another for each of them. Just flat out amazing work.

Django Unchained: The Shootout at Candie Land

In a year mostly defined by the way my expectations were exceeded, subverted, or all-too-often disappointed, I was just thankful that this Western (well, actually a Southern) from Tarantino was precisely what I thought it would be: Two hours and forty-five minutes of luxurious dialogue, bloody action, and badass movie-going glee from the undisputed master of…whatever the hell it is that Tarantino does.

The whole thing was great, but I knew I would walk out satisfied once the two biggest supporting players’ deaths lead seamlessly to one of the goriest gun battles I’d ever seen. Curiosity, attention, devotion, adoration…as far as I’m concerned Tarantino can have it all.

Zero Dark Thirty: SEAL Team Six Goes to Work

This movie was an experience. In the spirit of the war it portrays, it left me shaken and awed on a more profound level than Bigelow’s similar Hurt Locker from three years back, and I loved The Hurt Locker.

Yet by focusing on true events and presenting them with an unflinching matter-of-factness, this film rose even higher. It’s a testament to the talent of all involved that the raid at the end—in which I knew everything that would happen ahead of time—was the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful twenty-five minutes I spent in a theater this year. Impressive, especially considering how weird it was to see Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation in such a stark environment.

The Walking Dead (video game): The Final Farewell

Perhaps the most affecting video game I’ve ever played, I don’t hesitate one instant to say that it’s a better story of survival horror than the television show. Over its five episodes players are taken through the wringer as they make incredibly tough choices affecting their place within the linear narrative. You may not always be able to affect who lives and who dies (in fact most of the time you can’t), but your choices surrounding these events—how you react and make other people feel—all matter. The way it tells you how your decisions compared to all other players after each episode is a fantastic touch.

SPOILERS HERE, Seriously I’d feel bad about ruining this one

And this game doesn’t compromise. No matter what happens,  the main character Lee will die. It’s inevitable, and the fact that he’s bitten at the end of the fourth episode fills the final chapter with incredible purpose. Whatever happens, it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. And it ends as emotionally as it could, with a heartfelt and tearful goodbye to Clementine—the adorable little girl who you’ve watched over and protected for the entire game. Your final choice is whether or not she shoots you in the head to keep you from coming back. I didn’t make her. But what mattered more to me was what you choose as your last words. I told that poor child not to be afraid.

This is what games are capable of, people.

Well, that would be that. A pretty good year, I’d say. Here’s to the next one. Now everybody go party.

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Adapting the Governor, Sexual Assault, and the Mishandled Aftermath Thereof on The Walking Dead

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.56 PMWhen it comes to killing zombies, The Walking Dead is the best show on television. Judged by most other criteria—writing, acting, characterization, storytelling—it’s certainly alright, but to put it kindly, airing on the same night as Boardwalk Empire and Homeland doesn’t do it any favors. That said, this year it’s definitely stronger than ever thanks to some new characters (who we’ll get into shortly) and a plot with far more forward momentum than all that nonsense on the farm from last season. All told, the recent improvements have done just about enough to raise it from the level of guilty pleasure to a viewing experience that, if not quite transformative, is at least plenty interesting. It also can’t be overstated that the zombie killing really helps hold my attention.

Not to say it’s shallow per se, but I can’t deny that most of my appreciation for the series can be attributed to its world class make-up and effects team. Thematically, it’s not going to challenge anyone too deeply, and previous attempts at doing so haven’t been anything to write home about (“Should we kill this guy?” “Yes.” “But what would that make us?!” “BUT WE HAVE TO!” “NO! ” Repeat for five episodes). So when a recent installment featured a scene of sexual assault, I was more than a little nervous. That’s not an easy event to tackle. In fact there are a litany of reasons that make it one of the most difficult: Trying to give it the desired impact, realistically portraying both perpetrator and victim, taking every measure not to exploit the act in the interest of titillating the audience or as a quick and easy way to provide character motivation. It’s not something to approach lightly, and needs to feel both necessary and natural to the story being told or else it’s just not worth the risk.

All that said, I was actually impressed (if that’s at all the right word) with the way they went about it. Before getting into specifics, though, I need to set the stage a bit.

With its third season The Walking Dead has been adapting the most renowned storyline from the comic book source material. Integral to these events is the Governor, leader of a group of survivors in a town called Woodbury. In the comics he’s a complete monster. A long-haired biker type who’s clearly bad news from the moment you see him, he’s an unrepentantly sadistic psychopath with no redeeming qualities. In bringing him to the screen, however, the makers of the show decided to add a few shades of grey. Played by David Morrissey, AMC’s take on the Governor is older, kempt, and charismatic. He shows compassion towards those who depend on him for protection, and though his methods are extreme enough to leave no question as to whether or not he needs to be taken down, he’s not quite the soulless villain from the comics.

Yet the show has this really weird thing going on where the writers want the Governor to be more believable, but aren’t willing to entirely sacrifice any of the bizarre, over-the-top character traits that made him so memorable in the first place. So on the one hand he seems stable enough that eighty or so people would put their trust in him, but on the other he has a giant aquarium full of silently moaning zombie heads that he stares at to unwind. It’s strange. Thankfully, at least one change was handled well.

The Governor as originally written is a violent rapist. After capturing Michonne (a total badass zombie slayer with a katana, of all things—as far as I can tell she’s nearly identical in the comic and the show) in the original version of the story, he repeatedly rapes and beats her as a means of torture, and there’s no question that he enjoys it. Robert Kirkman’s original comic, if it needs to be said, is some really bleak stuff—gut-wrenching on a level that I doubt the television series intends to fully embrace. Not that the show can’t be intense (one character death this season actually was darker than I’d ever thought they’d go), merely that the comic reaches a level of graphic brutality that sets it apart from just about anything else.

So the show’s dilemma here becomes how to keep the Governor less entrenched in the moral black zone than his comics counterpart while still including the proclivity for sexual violence that made him stand out as a villain in the first place. The way they go about it works quite well.

First of all, in the show it’s not Michonne who’s captured, but Glenn and Maggie—a romantically involved couple who, unlike the aforementioned katana-wielding badass, are not modern day samurai. They lack Michonne’s near-superhuman fortitude and, as such, it’s much more nerve-wracking to see them in danger (sidenote: Glenn was also captured alongside Michonne in the comics, as well as the lead character Rick. In that version, Glenn makes it through with the least trauma). The Governor and his men interrogate the two of them in an effort to learn the location of the rest of their party. Glenn is savagely beaten by the Governor’s Number 2 man Merle, and then has a zombie let loose on him while still tied to a chair (he kills it—awesome).

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.41 PMMeanwhile, the Governor interrogates Maggie. After untying her, he opts first for the diplomatic approach, cordially asking for the information he’s after. When that fails, he asks her to stand up. She refuses, and he drops the polite facade, now ordering her to stand in a voice so icy you can practically see his breath. He tells her to remove her top, or he’ll chop off Glenn’s hand (a shout-out to the comics, where the Governor does just that to Rick). Once she’s standing there half-naked, he gets out of his chair, very deliberately removes his holster, and strides over to her. He brushes her hair with his fingers before forcefully bending her over the table and asking one last time whether she’s going to talk. But Maggie won’t break. She tells him to do whatever he’s going to do, and that he can go to hell. At that, the Governor backs off. He was bluffing.

The contrast between the two versions of the Governor is fairly clear. They’re similar in that they both find sexual assault an effective means of torture, but whereas the original had no qualms about raping Michonne, the live action version predominantly uses the threat of rape to get what he wants. He makes it apparent that he has absolute power over Maggie and could do to her whatever he pleases. It’s pure intimidation. He draws out the process, forcing her to strip and gradually building up to the moment when he actually touches her. The scene isn’t about what he does to Maggie, it’s about what he could do. It’s an exercise in suspense, made effective thanks in large part to strong performances from both actors—David Morrissey’s Governor dominates the room while Lauren Cohan as Maggie tries to stay strong in a situation where she’s utterly powerless (incidentally, much of The Walking Dead’s cast has some degree of British accent in real life, and these two follow suit—Morrissey more so). The anxiety from watching it play out is guaranteed to make even a mildly empathetic viewer’s skin crawl.

With this scene the show did exactly what it wanted to. The season’s antagonist is further established as a loathsome fuck who sexually assaults one of the female characters, but the way he goes about it allows them to avoid showing or implying graphic rape. There’s also no question that it makes the Governor more interesting, specifically because of the subplot involving the relationship between him and another female character with whom he has consensual sex. That he has no trouble behaving romantically one minute and using sex as a weapon the next might make him just as despicable as his original incarnation. In the scene with Maggie, his own physical gratification isn’t a factor. He does it purely because he knows it will hurt her. If he enjoys it on any level, it’s due to the rush of power he gets from threatening a defenseless woman.

Essentially, while the Governor on the show is different from the comics, that doesn’t mean he’s any better a person just because his actions are less explicit—he’s simply a bit more complicated. Does that complexity arise in part from the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too? To give us a grounded, charismatic antagonist with so many touches of over-the-top villainy that he isn’t quite believable if we try to take him in all at once? It’s possible, but I’d argue that at least in this one instance he’s been perfectly adapted into a Governor who, while less intense than in the comics, is just as big a threat and every bit as twisted as the source material dictates.

Now forgive me, but none of what I’ve just discussed inspired this post. I’m not trying to waste everyone’s time (purely incidental); that was all necessary set-up and contemplation better taken care of before we dive into the actual scene that got me thinking so intently about how The Walking Dead‘s adaptation process has affected its sexual politics.

It’s a scene of aftermath that occurs a few minutes into the next episode, which also served as the mid-season finale. Glenn and Maggie sit together, trying to hold it all together after their respective interrogations. When they were reunited, Maggie was still topless, shoved over to Glenn by a disturbingly affectionate Governor. Glenn knows nothing else of what she went through, so naturally the horrible mystery of it is killing him. More than anything he wants Maggie to be ok, and to know the specifics of whatever the hell she suffered. So he breaks the silence, starting to ask “Hey, did he—”, when she immediately cuts him off with, “No, he barely touched me.” She’s more concerned that Glenn’s alright—understandable, considering that Glenn looks much the worse for wear. But then Maggie, after briefly reflecting on the potential cruelty of man, comments on his appearance, to which Glenn answers “It doesn’t matter. As long as he didn’t…” and Maggie once again interrupts, assuaging his fears. “No, I promise.”

As I was watching it, their entire exchange simply didn’t sit right with me. I could tell the writers were trying to be as tactful as possible, but that they’d definitely made some misstep. By all rights I should have shrugged and moved on (especially considering a moment later Glenn rips a bone from a corpse’s arm to use as a weapon GAH have I by any chance mentioned that this show handles violence in a highly compelling manner okjustchecking), but I just couldn’t help contemplating the scene and its exact choice of dialogue over and over again and now here we are.

The problem is that the phrasing of Glenn’s questions puts the emphasis on the exact logistical nature of the Governor’s actions. It’s not “Are you ok?”, it’s “What did that man do to you?”. Now don’t get me wrong, his behavior is incredibly realistic. In terms of accurately portraying how most men in his situation would word their concerns, that’s spot on. And Maggie’s response also makes sense. All of the characters on this show have gone through a hell of a lot just to survive, and while the sexually threatening nature of the Governor’s interrogation was a different kind of trauma than the series has previously depicted, Maggie being able to hold herself together jibes well with the fact that, frankly, if these characters weren’t all incredibly level-headed in a crisis they’d be dead.

Not to mention she could even be feeling guilty, in a way, as Glenn certainly had to endure more physical punishment than she did. Her language backs up that interpretation. In her own words she was “barely touched,” while Glenn is drenched in his own blood. One objective of the scene that I wholly commend is how it establishes that they’re both primarily concerned for each other’s well-being. I must admit it makes their relationship more involving; I never really had strong feelings about the couple either way until they were put in danger, whereas now my response to a small portion of their arc has just crossed the two thousand word mark. My issue, then, isn’t with the portrayal of the characters, but with the way the show executes what I perceive to be the scene’s other objective.

This is a big episode, with a lot of moving pieces. Rick is leading a group into Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie, Michonne is out to kill the Governor*, and a new group of survivors are introduced in an entirely separate storyline. Juggling it all isn’t easy, and if there’s one thing that viewers need to have clear it’s the emotional and physical state of the characters. Primarily, this means establishing that recent torture victims Glenn and Maggie are able to cope with the action to come.

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.17.10 PMAnd that’s admirable. It’s important that Maggie’s emotional state wasn’t taken for granted, but instead communicated to the audience. Unfortunately, the language of the scene suggests that Maggie is ok specifically because she wasn’t actually raped. The questioning is emphasized in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel like the writers were popping their heads out and letting me know everything’s really alright, don’t worry, because a penis never went inside her, you see, so she was only violated in a superfluous and tasteful manner.

Now once again, the fact that she’s able to cope with the event is perfectly acceptable, but the implication here is that Maggie is still functioning because the Govenor spared her. It’s not about her personal reaction to the assault, but rather where her experience belongs on some scale of objective sexual trauma. As if, purely by knowing what happened to her, we’ll somehow suddenly understand how she feels. In no way is that the case. There is no easy way to deal with trauma because it isn’t a routine, predictable thing that can be easily assessed. Every scenario is different because the people involved are different. Knowing what happened is next to useless when compared with how the person actually feels, and though the scene is clearly concerned with Maggie’s reaction, it goes about it the wrong way, using the event as an indicator for what she’s “supposed” to be feeling instead of assessing her reaction as a consequence of what happened. It goes backwards. “This is what happened, ergo Maggie will be ok.” instead of “Maggie is ok because this is how she feels in regards to what happened.”

It’s an easy, all too common mistake. The scene was done with the best of intentions, and the characters were behaving realistically. In terms of sexism and misogyny on TV there’s infinitely worse content every day, and there’s just as many things to praise about the way The Walking Dead handled the subject matter as there are to criticize. Maybe even more.

But fuck that’s why it’s so damned upsetting. Here, even in one of the most supposedly mature series out there, in a scene where they were obviously conscious of the difficult ground they were walking and trying to get things right, they still wound up with dialogue that could be uncharitably interpreted as “Now be honest with me, were you legitimately raped, or can I stop worrying?” So that’s kind of not good.

Of course, I didn’t actually want a twenty minute scene of heartwrenching empathy with Glenn and Maggie baring their souls and weeping into the night. Like everyone watching, I wanted them to get the fuck out of there and kick some ass. But that could have just as easily happened after Maggie said she was fine for now. Or that she wasn’t fine but they had more immediate things to worry about. Or that she was more worried about him. The fact that she had to swear to Glenn that nothing had happened to put his mind at ease, of all things, was just so frustrating. Just think about what it actually means for Glenn to have said, “As long as he didn’t—”. Well hey, what if he did? What if he had raped her? Then what? Then that’s not ok, she’s doomed, there’s no coming back from that?

I understand that his character wouldn’t be thinking—in that particular moment—about everything that his statement could possibly imply and that he has no experience with a situation like this. But the authoritative perspective of the show seemed to me to suggest that it was the right thing for him to say in his position and it wasn’t.

Why is that a big deal? Why do I care? Because no one watching The Walking Dead is ever going to have to survive the zombie apocalypse. And that’s alright. Few people believe in the value of the fantastic more than I do. But if you’ll permit me to take a moment to step away from heightened reality, genre fiction, and gleeful carnage to say this:

I guarantee that hundreds—hell, make that thousands—of people who watched this episode are, at some point in their lives, going to have to help someone cope with sexual assault. Like Glenn, there’s a very good chance they won’t be sure what to say in whatever scenario they may be facing. It’s not something we prepare for. As minimal as it might have been, there was an opportunity for this show to do a bit of genuine good simply by depicting positive, supportive behavior. I’m not saying it should have been a wholly didactic scene, or a “very special installment” of The Walking Dead or anything remotely that extreme. I’m only saying that stories matter. We learn from them, even (and especially) when we don’t realize it. They influence our behavior. So it upsets me when this scene, which could have been truly progressive, instead propagated what I perceived to be mostly negative attitudes in response to sexual assault. I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but if we want to make things better it’s most important to address the passive errors, because they’re the ones that we have the greatest chance of fixing.

It’s possible I’m overreacting—that I misinterpreted things, or even that they plan to explore Maggie’s feelings in greater depth. But I doubt it. Believe me, I don’t relish the chance to be offended. This isn’t the sort of thing I go looking for. It was just there,  and I couldn’t ignore it. I can’t deny that it got my head absolutely spinning about the adaptation process the series has gone through (something I thoroughly enjoy pondering) and at the very least it allowed me to start what I hope can be a useful dialogue. Because ultimately, if such a short scene—so innocuous at first glance—can contain so many upsetting implications, the odds are we’ve got a long road ahead if we want to make things better.

So please, share your thoughts whether you have a response to this specific example or to some other story where you couldn’t help but notice the ways in which it dealt with attitudes towards gender, feminism, assault, sexuality, or anything that this post brought to mind. Because really, the only thing I know about improving this stuff: We have to talk about it.

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*Another interesting point: The fact that the Governor doesn’t rape or torture Michonne in the show is notable considering that she kills his zombified daughter and gouges out his eye at the end of this episode. Whereas in the comic she was getting revenge (and did far, far more damage than David Morrissey’s portrayal suffers here. Oh he loses the eye, sure. But from a glass shard. In Kirkman’s black and white pages she scooped it out with a goddamn spoon. After she nailed his genitals to a board. Yeah, really can’t stress this enough: Comic is fucked up), on the show she beats him in a fair fight. A brutal one, but it’s not torture. And at the end of it, she’s done more to him than he ever did to her. A much different conflict from the way it was originally depicted, and all because of the route they decided to go with the characters in regards to sexual assault.

Buffy Reflections: Season 4

After adoring the second and third seasons, I was more than ready for Buffy to continue dazzling me as the slayer embarked on her freshman year at UC Sunnydale. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as graceful a transition as I’d hoped for.

I’d gotten so used to the strength of the central storyline—from everything with Spike and Angel to Faith and the Mayor—that it was hard not to be somewhat let down by the new developments centering around Riley, Adam, and the Initiative. There was simply a lot less momentum to everything. At first there was the mystery over what exactly the Initiative was, then once we discover that Riley and Professor Walsh are part of it (a great reveal, actually) it takes longer for Buffy and the others to catch on. Walsh’s inevitable betrayal followed that, no surprise to anyone familiar with Joss’s mistrust of shadowy government conspiracies. Then finally Adam murders Walsh and becomes the season’s Big Bad…only he barely does anything until the finale and in the mean time he has a stupid green face.

It likely would have been a more compelling backbone for the season if Riley had more going on, but as a love interest for Buffy he can’t really hope to compare to the drama Angel stirred up, and at his worst he came off like an irritating farm boy.

Aside from the main plot, the rest of the season was wildly uneven in terms of quality. All of the “getting used to college” episodes at the beginning felt like a waste of time. The show didn’t seem to know what to do with Giles or Xander anymore, though at least the latter got to keep dating Anya, who’s quickly become one of my favorite characters. Spike is now a main cast member, and of course he’s a very welcome addition, but he spent far too much of this season whining and moping around. Let’s hope he gets a bit more proactive, because right now the once terrifying threat has been reduced to comic relief. He’s effective comic relief, sure, but I like him with teeth.

It also felt like their were fewer standout episodes compared to last season. “Hush,” “Who Are You,” and “Superstar” ranked up their with the best of the series, but they were the exceptions in a season that—despite having no shortage of enjoyable moments, with characters as consistently well-written and acted as always—felt like a step down whether assessed as a whole or in terms of its individual installments. “Doomed,” in particular, might have been my least favorite episode of Buffy ever. I couldn’t even enjoy it on a camp level like I do so many of the sillier episodes (“Beer Bad” and “Where the Wild Things Are” being this season’s brilliantly heavy handed misfires).

There was, however, one major bright spot in Willow. Everything about her was fantastic; her relationships with Oz and Tara broke and warmed my heart, respectively, and she truly felt like the character the writers best knew how they wanted to grow over the season. Her arc was wonderful.

I also watched a few episodes of Angel, which certainly has some growing to do, and by God its flashy scene transitions are idiotic, but there’s obvious potential there.

Though I was a little disappointed with this season, it was still enjoyable and, most importantly, still Buffy in all the ways I’ve come to love. I might be wary for the immediate future were it not for season five’s sterling reputation.

Onwards we go.

Buffy Reflections: Season 3

Throughout the third season the one thought I had again and again was how relentlessly enjoyable a show Buffy is to watch. It’s pure fun (except when it’s heartbreaking) and once again that all comes from a feeling that only a few very special series are able to create: Watching it is like being friends with the characters.

We know them—what makes them great, their flaws, their fears, all their little inside jokes. Seeing them interact isn’t just watching the story unfold, it’s as if we’re hanging out with them too. And the connection only gets stronger as the series goes on, so please Joss, stop hurting them.

Season 3 actually has a pretty rocky start with everyone treating Buffy horribly after she comes back to Sunnydale, but once it gets past that and introduces Faith things pick up. Her arc wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but as the emotional core for much of the season, her journey and relationship with Buffy worked really well.

What didn’t work was watching Xander and Willow cheat on their respective others with each other. It got to be infuriating, actually, because I already borderline disliked Xander as a character and seeing Willow jeopardize her relationship with the much cooler Oz over someone who already had his chance with her was not fun.

But luckily that ended pretty much the way it should have, though Cordelia’s subsequent removal from the Scooby Gang (as I understand they’re called) was unfortunate. Luckily Xander redeemed himself with “The Zeppo,” perhaps the funniest episode thus far.

That was the best of several great episodes (“Band Candy,” “The Wish,” “Earshot,” “Dopplegangland”) that used a clever central premise to play with character dynamics, all to stellar effect. More of that, please.

Then there was the central villain of the piece, the overly-amiable Mayor of Sunnydale who founded the town expressly so that he could turn into a massive demon a century down the line. Not sure he was ever more terrifyingly effective than last season’s all-bad Angelus, but he was damn fun to have around. Hopefully the show can continue the trend of unique and compelling evildoers.

With the characters all graduating from high school and some of the cast splitting off to star in Angel (a spinoff series that I will not be watching at the moment, regretfully. While I do think it would be great to experience them side-by-side as they first aired, it’s just a lot to commit to right now) this definitely marks a big moment of transition for Buffy. Somehow, I’m confident it’ll still be worth watching.

Casts, Columns, and Catch-Up

Well hey there blog and the people who read it. Been a while, mostly because my need to discuss media has been channeled elsewhere for the past few weeks. This semester I’m working as a columnist for The Daily Trojan, with an article running every Friday in a series called “Fandomination.” Here’s a piece on Whedon, for instance. There are five or six others, so far. It’s fairly basic, informational stuff so that people who aren’t already indoctrinated with devotion to the things I love can learn a little and, hopefully, check it all out for themselves.

More exciting, though, is something new I’ve started with a few friends—The Post Credits Podcast. We talk about newly released movies, though we’ll branch out whenever we have something else we’d like to discuss. It’s been really fun so far, and I think it’s genuinely enjoyable to listen to if you’re open to this sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to podcasts like this, and there’s no question that I’ve wanted to try my own hand at doing one for quite a while. It’s very fortunate that I have like-minded friends to do it with, and so far I’m pretty happy with the content. Hopefully a lot more to come. If you’re at all interested, check it out! Even better—rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. Oh, and any emails sent to postcredits@gmail.com will get discussed on the show.

Beyond that, everything’s been going well. Breaking Bad was excellent. Fall TV is back in force. Movies are starting to live up to my expectations after a largely disappointing summer season. I’m making my way through a giant stack of literature that I’m sure I’ll write about in depth here as I progress. Just finished season three of Buffy last night, and I’ll have thoughts on that posted soon.

So that’s what’s new with me.

Buffy Reflections: Season 2

I certainly didn’t expect to be writing the next one of these so soon, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Buffy it’s that the show is watchable as anything. We finished up the season in a five episode marathon a couple of days ago, and not for one second did I want to take a breather.

Becoming a Buffy fan is every stereotype of the Whedon experience distilled to its purest. The dialogue is playful. The characters are lovable. The stories are earnest. Things are, occasionally, silly. But most importantly it hurts. Whedon’s reputation for ripping out the hearts of his viewers wasn’t earned for nothing, after all. Two of his greatest strengths as a storyteller are his ability to deeply endear audiences with his characters coupled with a willingness to use that attachment to create pain.

He won’t just kill Giles’ love interest Jenny Calendar, he’ll put her corpse in his bed. And why stop at turning Angel evil the moment he and Buffy consummate their relationship? In their first post-coital scene, the newly soulless vampire mocks Buffy’s inexperience while she—at her most vulnerable—gradually breaks down in tears, unable to understand why the person she loves most in the world is suddenly acting like their relationship is meaningless, and that she’s to blame.

The only reason it works so well is because 90% of the series is more or less lighthearted. Sure, students at Sunnydale have a higher mortality rate than deep sea fishermen, but that’s almost part of the fun. It’s all banter and fighting and friendship until the darkness hits, which is why it hits so fucking hard.

The trajectory of this season was fantastic, and a great sign of things to come. The vampire leadership shifting from the Anointed One to the scene-stealing Spike and Drusilla to Angel felt natural, as did the relationships that continued to develop amongst the core cast. Everything progressed naturally, with even the episodes that appeared to stand alone including scenes that built the overall narrative.

There were still some unintentionally dumb stories, but watched with a roomful of funny people, those are wonderful. The highlight this time around was “Go Fish,” featuring an idiotic message about steroids and a swim team coach with some of the least believable motivations ever devised. Great stuff.

But for the vast majority of episodes this season, I didn’t need any sense of irony to deem them great. Bring on Season 3.

Buffy Reflections: Season 1

This has been a long time coming. Of all the shows I’ve known I needed to watch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always near the top of the list. From the subject matter to the clearly rabid devotion it inspired in its fanbase to the fact that it’s the longest running thing that Joss Whedon ever created, there was never a doubt that it would fit in perfectly with the rest of the media I take such delight in geeking out over every day. The only thing that’s been holding me back is that, once again, it’s the longest running thing Joss Whedon ever created. 144 episodes over seven seasons, to be precise—Not something to dive into lightly.

But it just so happens that I have friends who like Buffy. A lot. One has seen every episode something like four times. Last year they spent several months going through the whole series and, luckily for me, they have every intention of repeating the feat, only this time I’m along for the ride. We began around a couple of weeks ago, and have managed at least an episode on most days. It’s pretty addictive. As we make our way through the show, I’m going to post reflections on each season chronicling my long overdue indoctrination into Whedon’s first phenomenon.

I’d heard very few encouraging things about the first season (which is probably part of the reason I never took the initiative to start it on my own). By most accounts it was a rocky start that barely reflected what the show would eventually become, and at only twelve episodes there were some who advised just skipping it all together and starting with season two. Not an approach I ever really like to take. Even if it wasn’t great stuff, I was willing to do a bit of slogging if it would earn me a more complete perspective on the series and even a slightly greater appreciation for what would follow.

Imagine how great it felt, then, to find that I genuinely liked nearly every episode. Even the one about the evil hyenas (oh who am I kidding? Especially the one about the evil hyenas). Sure, it’s obvious that the show is finding its footing, testing the waters, working out what it wants to be. And of course the production values aren’t anything to write home about, but they’ve got that endearing, low-budget earnestness that can be plenty effective if you’re willing to meet it halfway.

But what really matters are the characters, and they’re wonderful. Buffy is Whedon’s prototypical badass, pretty, clever action-girl. Willow is so adorable it hurts. Giles is probably my favorite—so gloriously British. Xander…well a lot of the time he’s not annoying.

I’m sure they’ll all gain new dimensions as the show goes on, and the already really solid writing will just get sharper.

Happy to say I’m already a Buffy fan, with the knowledge that the best, of course, is still yet to come.