Welcome to the first of what we’ll informally call “Raw Story’s don’t-call-it-a-recap of popular television shows.” Because recaps? You can find those anywhere. Only here, however, will you be able to find the proprietor of the AV Club’s Internet Film School breaking down your favorite television shows on a weekly basis. You may also know me from such places as, well, here. A complete collection of my visual rhetoric pieces can be found here.
The title of tonight’s episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead couldn’t have been more misleading: “Isolation” is an episode about the utter lack of isolation in the confined settings of a prison-cum-anti-zombie outpost. Even those moments in the episode in which characters were ostensibly isolated — as when Herschel tells Carl that “It’s peaceful out here” when they’re “alone” in the woods collecting elderberries — were undermined by:
Or, even more obviously, when Daryl, Michonne, Tyrese and that-other-guy-from-The Wire were driving along an empty road and heard voices on the radio, indicating that they weren’t isolated, and then ran into this lot:
Those are the more prevalent examples of the episode’s visuals defying its title, because they’re both keyed in on plot points: Herschel appreciates being alone when he isn’t, and Daryl et al accidentally run into one of the most populous zombie hordes on the show to date after hearing a faint voice on the radio. But I’m more interested in how the visuals themselves undermined the idea that this episode was, thematically, about “isolation,” and you can see hints of it in that first image of Carl and Herschel above.
If you look at it, there are three planes within the frame: in the foreground, you have Herschel; in the mid-ground, you have Carl; and in the background, you have the walker. All of the planes are occupied in a way that, conventionally, makes a frame feel “crowded.” If a director — in this case, Daniel Sackheim — uses a shot in which three people occupy all three planes in an episode once, you might not notice it. But in this episode, Sackheim consistently stacks the frame, almost from the opening shot of the episode:
Granted, those aren’t exactly people, but they all stand-in for them: the glasses that belonged to Patrick, the child responsible for the plague, in the foreground; the gun, so often discussed in the previous episode, “Infected,” as to almost be a character, in the mid-ground; and Glenn, digging graves, in the background. It’s as if the episode is announcing its content-related themes in the first shot — disease, violence, and the awful labor of death — while simultaneously declaring its visual-related themes — organization and claustrophobia.
Because if you look at that shot, it’s neatly composed, but still crowded. The shot might seem merely emblematic — designed solely to draw attention to the content-related themes — were it not for the fact that Sackheim consistently stacked the frames the entire episode. One stacked shot will call to mind a Bergman film. An episode that consists, almost entirely, of them will have the effect of tightening up the world.
Of making it seem as if characters are never — and can never — be alone, that they’re hemmed in, at all turns, by other people. For example:
Did I mention that this purely visual effect is being enhanced by the fact that all of these people are in a prison? Not only are they stacked three to a frame in a manner that creates a claustrophobic impression, the diegetic space is, strictly speaking, imprisoned-with-plague-victims-and-surrounded-by-zombies. Those bars behind Daryl’s head — not to mention the thick, brick wall behind them — reinforce the closeness of this space, and the orderly staggering of the characters within it is equally oppressive.
This pattern recurs throughout the episode, as people can’t even have a simple conversation about the best reason to meet inevitable death without Sackheim stacking them in an orderly fashion:
Other examples abound — any of the “confessional” scenes between Maggie and Beth, with the tempered glass reflecting one of their faces, for example — but I want to close by noting that there are possible objections to my argument: the two-shots in which Sackheim reverses from one to the other, for example, when Rick apologizes to Tyrese:
Yes, it’s a two-shot, so the planes aren’t fully stacked — but look how tight the framing is. In a normal two-shot, the shoulder over which the director shoots is barely visual and typically out-of-focus. Here Sackheim chooses to have Tyrese in focus, and to have him occupy half the frame. The same happens when the camera reverses to Tyrese’s face: Rick’s body occupies an unusually large amount of the frame. The effect, I hope obviously at this point, is that the shot feels cramped, and that’s before mentioning that the dominant background element is a barbed-wire fence.
In “Isolation,” appropriately enough, “Hell is other people.” They’re trapped with each other, with no exit in sight.
[All images are copyright AMC Film Holding LLC]