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IN THE  TED Talk in the CDC, at the end of Season One of The Walking Dead, we get to see all of the lights in the grid of the human brain snuff out until all that’s left is the primitive core, a superstitious little sage-brush, smoting the pre-historic cave of the skull. Which could be an analogy for the way anyone in the business of dissecting popular culture has stopped paying any attention to TWD,  except to roll their eyes over it’s lowest common denominator spectacle and compare it unfavourably to it’s AMC cohort. Grantland writer and broadcaster Andy Greenwald, among others, gives it a big, fat diss as the derivative, cannibalistic end of the Golden Era of television. Picking over the carcasses for brains.  I  think we’re being squeamish about the real business of television. Not every post-Sopranos show is going to be the Great American Novel. Is no one interested in reading the entrails anymore? There’s more to the carcass than brains, you know. Genitals, for one thing.

On a good day, TWD is excellent pornography. As their demographics prove, they do a fair job of skewering the many headed hydra. We may not remember who half of the characters are, but when it comes to slaughtering the undead, they have a sweet Eros and Thanatos thing going on. All that penetration. All that sub-Olympian athleticism covered in sweat and dirt and sticky, sticky corn syrup and chunky styrofoam bits. It’s a damn shame that when there is actual, literal  sex on TWD, it is so vanilla. All of the bodily fluids have been spilled elsewhere on the  ZA barren ground. It could be that TWD is following the anyone-who-enjoys-illicit-sex-must-die rule of horror, or it might have something to do with AMCs whole don’t-say-fuck-but-it’s-okay-to-shoot-a-little-girl-in-the-face censorship thing. Or some kind of perfect storm of formulaic buzz-kill as a result. I never noticed the lack of fucking on Breaking Bad and that was possibly because it was, oh, you know, a 21st century masterpiece. There are other suggested worlds in the Breaking Bad universe, but the story we were being told was far more compelling than anything we can imagine.  In TWD the urgency and mess of sex and desire are so conspicuously absent from a story about the survival of the human species, that the fans have no choice but to create it themselves.

I’m shocked to find myself reading Caryl fanfiction. I’d never read any fanfiction previously. I can’t read romances and often resent romantic story lines on film, but I am heavily invested in Carol and Daryl’s relationship. I’d had crushes on fictional couples when I was a child, but  I am, as an adult, so bored by the whole industry of monogamy that I would rather slit my own wrists than read, say, Jane Austen. I was out after the first half of Homeland because of the love story. Of course, Twilight is a non-starter, but I can’t even watch any vampire stories, of any kind, because of the lifetime commitment subtext. On the whole, I find representations of heteronormativity vapid, demoralising and even more importantly – deeply un-erotic. I may not be in the majority, but I’m not alone in feeling ripped off by the so- called escapism of romantic fiction. So what makes The Walking Dead’s slow burn any different? Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker nails it when she writes:

Daryl and Carol should surely be sleeping together, given their chemistry. Instead, we’re forced to endure young lovers, Glenn and Maggie, who are so boring that I am willing to eat them myself. Among other tragic outcomes of a zombie apocalypse, the least deserving people get laid.

Boom. There it is. Because you deserve it.

The cynical bitch that rules my star-sign knows that Carol is the quintessential  L’Oreal demographic. Ageing, with a patchy C.V., used to feel angry, but has become philosophical about men. Haunted by a 12yr old daughter that is, or might have been. She’s you, right? She’s most certainly me. She’s an economic goldmine, that’s for sure. The good women who identify with Carol are the voice of social media, they guide trends and boost brands. The fandom devoted to the Caryl ship is crazy big, quite possibly second only to the evangelical church of Daryl Dixon. Nobody likes to think that they’re being exploited, I know. We all like to think we are smarter and more unique than we really are. But is it really exploitation, when you are getting something out of it?

Because what we are getting is a female fantasy. Carol represents the audience. While Melissa McBride’s performance as Carol might be as miraculous as a white rose blooming from a single teardrop, her transformation from grieving victim to resourceful survivor has never been anything but accessible. She’s not Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, for instance, doing chin-ups in a padded cell. Carol is not a super-hero or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or any of the exhausting gender reversals of the loser guy/ unobtainable goddess  iterations that a love interest can so often be. Carol has had losses, but she is most definitely not a loser. Her character is refreshingly sane ( shut the fuck up. She’s covering for Lizzie ) and free of the neurotic incompetence that bafflingly passes as complexity in a female lead character – Carrie in Homeland, Hannah in Girls, Lori and Andrea in TWD– characters so unable to make rational decisions that I suspect writers might use the DSM as a style guide when they write women. As The Earth Mother of the group she has become possibly the most well-drawn character from the barely tweaked archetypes on offer. She certainly gives  Reedus’ performance far more light and shade than he could have had as The Loveable Rogue. In the same article Emily Nussbaum describes him as:

a standard semi-reformed bad-boy, with modules in good with children

Whereas I would say that an inventory of Daryl Dixon’s iconic steez is far from standard and reads as though Han Solo has tracked down, killed and eaten Chewbacca, for all the canonical super-powers that have accrued to him.  Hell, what with the cross-bow, the motorbike, the angel wings, the poncho, the scars from the abusive childhood and the grasp of colonial injustice via that one perfect, wild white rose, Daryl Dixon has so much Wu-Tang he makes Jon Snow from Game of Thrones look under-dressed. Jesus, all Rick has is a hat and he has to share that with Carl.

While we’d all love to see Carol get some head in a comfortable bed,  it can’t be that simple. The rules of horror mean that initiating a smoking hot, feral sex montage with the fan favourite will be enough to put our heroine in an undead impasse. Not only just in terms of it’s Woman Problem, but not front-loading TWD with a romantic relationship for Daryl has been one of the smarter moves that the show has made in terms of dramatic tension. The large events and small beats that  make up the Carol and Daryl arc give the show a real sense of detail among the other spastic story lines that lurch about with all the fine motor-control of a zombie herd. Norman Reedus has said that he was initially against Daryl having a love interest, while all of the other characters were pairing off. I may be completely smitten by the Reedus charisma bomb, but I would like to think that as well as a strategic empire-building move, it could also have been a Darylesque gesture that gave both he and McBride some job security, because at this later stage of the game Reedus’ stats are nothing less than bulletproof and McBride’s are growing exponentially.  Reedus tirelessly promotes the brand with admirable composure and does a great job of building McBride’s reputation too. I suspect that they are already in preemptive Anna Gunn-style damage control, as every press release and interview with any member of the cast praises McBride’s superior talent. This is a Survivor alliance of smart, genre-savvy people, who are looking to play a very lucrative long game. Which is to say that if the plan is to tease the inevitable beyond four seasons, just to keep McBride in the mix, as much as I adore her – sister,  you can always get another job, because  the audience has been cock-blocked for far too long. Any later than the back half of Season Four would be borderline sadistic. For God’s sake, the Caryl fandom are close enough to militant.

If they simply follow the Tantric template of all the other lovely small scenes they’ve had together, they can’t go wrong.  I feel certain that TWD can deliver on that perfect first kiss and it will be instantly iconic. The sex scene however, might just be the deal breaker for me. I am so out if it’s a just a dimly-lit PSA on equality and respect. I do not want to see a bland sequence of unbroken eye-contact and considerate love-making that not only serves as some kind of restorative justice for Carol as a battered wife, but also caps off  The Civilization of Daryl Dixon Project. We already know that Carol and Daryl’s relationship is based on mutual respect and tenderness. Their intimacy has been established. The teenage girl/boy audience is already responsibly catered to by the youthful sweethearts Glenn and Maggie. I want to see something much darker and dirtier and more complicated than that. I want to see an epic, adult sequence that makes me believe that there really is fucking on The Walking Dead. After all, like Carol, we want it, we deserve it and we’ve certainly suffered enough.

 

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