The ‘Too Close’ Olympics

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The Season 13 version of Group Hysteria on American Idol offered few of the highlights of previous years. There were a few highly touted prospects who were left by the wayside, but there weren’t as many cuts as usual. There was no one group that was so amazing we’ll be talking about them for years, and I’m not sure anyone we weren’t already pretty well sold on really came to the fore. There was drama, but a lot of it happened offstage. If the episode was auditioning, it would have gotten a “not your best effort today” from Harsh Charlie. Still, even a lackluster Group Night has its wicked appeal.

The hour begins with a welcome reminder of Group Rounds past. Ah, the unhappy memories. Even Phillip Phillips, Candice Glover, and Scotty McCreery (who was famously dissed when trying to find a group to take him in) had their struggles! I can’t get enough of that one Brittenum brother in Season 5 with his “I. Don’t. Do. Groups!” pronouncement.

Fortunately for lovers of Idol drama, this bunch looks to have numerous potential train wrecks. Ryan Seacrest even informs us that “many groups who clicked the previous evening are quickly finding the harmony is short-lived.” Hooray! Emmanuel Zidor is openly hoping his chances are not sunk by someone who sucks; I’ve heard the guy and I am sure his group-mates are thinking the same about him.

The first group to go is called Three Mo’ Days, a name possibly having to do with the  fact that its members — Sarina Joi Crowe, Tony Foster Jr., and David Oliver Willis — have all been to Hollywood before. David even made it to the top 40 last year, and thus takes advantage of a rule change that allows someone who gets to a voting round to try out for Idol again, as long as they haven’t reached the single-elimination finals. They seem loose and confident ahead of time, but David also believes they will be judged more closely because they’re veterans. The three black singers upend expectations slightly by doing the modern rock “Too Close,” and it’s a little ragged in spots, albeit with some good harmonies. One thing they do here is something I’ve suggested before: basically ignoring choreography on the grounds that no one really cares, or will be cut because they can’t dance.

Jennifer Lopez says she loved the harmonies, but notes that there wasn’t much stage presence — which means I may have been wrong above. After announcing that about half the singers will be cut in the round (there are 104 left), the verdict is in: Tony is out, while Sarina Joi and David stay. Tony asks, not in anger, if he can have a reason why he was cut; J-Lo answers in generalities but Harry Connick gives him a specific critique: the performance was too introverted and he spent too much time staring at the floor. Tony seems satisfied to have had an actual reason, though it’s obvious he’s disappointed, and even wondering if he made a mistake partnering up with two very good singers (thus making it less likely he’d survive if the judges were reluctant to keep all three).

Next up is the three Southerners with country leanings who make up the “Backstreet Cowboys,” Casey Thrasher, Ben Briley, and Dexter Roberts, all attired in unflattering plaid. Their gimmick was in doing an actual Backstreet Boys song, “I Want it That Way,” and it worked out wonderfully since the judges were completely in the tank. Truthfully, though, it wasn’t very good, with all the guys sounding unpleasantly nasal and Ben throwing in runs for some reason. They were fortunate that none of them had Tony’s problem, but in the long run, these three are all natural competitors, so it will be interesting to see who the last one standing will be.

Several of our “favorites,” as Ryan likes to call people we’ve seen in the auditions, are namechecked quickly in the ensuing segment. Neco Starr, who sang Bruno Mars in his hangar performance, is part of a group singing “Treasure” along with the possibly superior George Lovett. It’s solid and the group seemes drama-free and well-rehearsed. Paula Hunt, the Air Force vocalist, has a much more youthful image now than when she auditioned; she and Andrina Brogden lend an edge to The Band Perry’s “Done.” M.K. Nobilette, who had so much trouble finding a group to stick with, did O.K. with “Royals,” but one of her co-singers, Briana Oakley, seemed to choke a bit, putting ill-advised runs into the tune. Don’t force it, Briana! This shouldn’t be hard for you.

The two of them, the unnamed other girl in the group, Andrina, Paula, Neco, and George all moved ahead in the competition; as did three others we didn’t hear sing at all: Brandy Neelly, Kenzie Hall, and Emily Piriz. One of Emily’s partners was Jesse Cline, and he’s still in it as well.

Hottie McHotterson Spencer Lloyd has wound up partnered with Megan Miller, who we haven’t heard from since her audition; and Alyssa Siebken, who sang in the hangar. Spencer steered the others into choosing a song he already knew, “Best I Ever Had” by Gavin DeGraw. It’s a little wordy and not exactly “Royals” when it comes to ubiquity, so the ladies needed rehearsal time (recall Alyssa complaining the previous show about certain people not wanting to practice with her?) that Spencer was unwilling to provide. When it came time to perform, the results were predictable: Spencer sounded assured, Megan completely blanked on her verse, and while Alyssa was a little better on recall, she just looked annoyed even as she was singing.

Megan remembered enough to pull out some big notes on the last bit of harmony, which may have been key for her. After Jennifer told Megan not to cry (she already was), she chided the group members for not trying to help each other. Alyssa insisted they had actually gotten better, which probably didn’t help. Keith Urban told them that one thing th group round measured was how you can stand out in the midst of chaos, which might explain why Megan and Spencer were spared, while Alyssa got cut. She didn’t take the news well at all, suggesting that “hidden agendas” were at work. Megan, for her part, said truthfully, “Thank you Jesus — I did not deserve that.”

Several others we’re familiar with who fell in groups are mentioned at this point: Madisen Walker, who really needs more time to develop into something other than a Carrie Underwood imitator;  Stephanie Petronelli, who still has the New England Patriots; Austin Precario, whose mom will be glad to see him again; and Adam Roth, who has the sound healing to fall back on. Also leaving is Keith London, who made Idol history of sorts with the most frank acknowledgement of one’s homosexuality the show has ever had, not that that’s saying a lot.

Tiquila Wilson didn’t even make it to her group performance. She came onstage to tell the judges that she had decided her heart was in singing gospel, so she was leaving of her own volition. I guess Harry’s question about whether her congregation would be happy with her singing secular music hit a nerve? At this point, Harry joked that he was leaving american Idol because he doesn’t like the other judges, and flipped the panel off as he was walking offstage. Don’t tease us like that, Connick! You’ve been a solid addition.

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Will the saga of Matthew Hamel have a happy ending? He went searching for a new group overnight when one member got too sick to perform and Jessica Meuse got sick of him. He wound up in a more chill pack, the Freedom Breathers , with Tyler Ahlgren, C.J. Harris, and Caleb Johnson. They might have been a little too chill. Tyler started out singing “Too Close” with the famous lyrics, “I don’t know the words ’cause I forgot them/But I’m gonna keep singing for y’all.” Mathew did a little better, though he was mumbly in some areas, possibly due to words he didn’t know either. Only Caleb, who had a mike stand befitting his front-man-of-a-band-in-1976 look, really stood out in any way.

Harry cited an old bit of Henry Mancini wisdom when he called Caleb “next to closing,” i.e., really good. He said C.J. wasn’t at his best, but was still way better than Tyler and Matthew, who he claimed made a smart move leading into Caleb and C.J. instead of following them: “You couldn’t hang with them today.” Tyler took the news of his ouster in stride, but Matthew wasn’t pleased, insisting he had “killed it.” Score one for Jessica’s good judgment.

Now, it’s  a return to the drama that broke out at the end of the previous episode. The group Clarity — Munfarid Zaidi, allie Odom, and Jena Asciutto — is hanging around and not even rehearsing, waiting to see if the under-the-weather fourth member of the group, Sikenya Thompson, will be able to make it or not. She had talked about asking for a day off to rest her voice and body, but that obviously can’t happen. Finally, by midafternoon, Sikenya looks and sounds a little better, and is ready to rejoin society. To the camera, she claims she doesn’t care if the others will be mad at her, but they all seem happy to see each other again anyway.

Before they begin, Sikenya mentions having been sick, which Harry suggests wasn’t a good idea to admit. When she tries to answer, Munfarid steps in so that she won’t strain her voice, and vouches for her having really been in distress, which is nice of him and possibly good for all of them. When the song begins — another damn  version of “Too Close” — Jena sounds great, while Sikenya sounds …fair. Not to mention she blanks on the words here and there. But the judges give her  props for both showing up to begin with, and for not giving up when she ran into problems n the lyrics. For reasons I didn’t quite get, Allie is the one leaving out of this quartet. Maybe she needed the flu? Sikenya came up to hug J-Lo (with Harry joking he didn’t want to catch what she has), while she tried to soften the blow to Allie by saying she would get her front-row seats for the tour. Something every just-cut singer wants to hear!

The four Austin auditioners who teamed up after the solos seemed like an unbeatable group, but John Fox, who was singled out for special attention in that episode, was so clunky on “Royals” yhat they basically had no choice but to bounce him, with Harry saying, correctly, that it’s hard to see how he can possibly get more comfortable. Colleague Savion Wright, still reeling from the recent death of his brother, is inconsolable afterwards.

It’s time, at long last, for the end of the saga of Jessica Meuse. I think circumstances have borne out that she may have been in the right when it came to her dissing of Matthew Hamel, but she’s not helping herself by continuing to be snippy regarding the new group that took her in late. Her issues with the buttinski-ness of the mom of Stephanie Hanvey are ongoing. Before they begin performing, Jessica admits she’s “kinda struggling” with the song due to her joining the group so late, which sounds like a cop-out ahead of time. Stephanie and Nica Nishae graciously say that Jessica has been a great addition, and off we go.

The song is “Single Ladies” — really Jessica? You don’t know this song at all? Nica is very good, Stephanie is energetic but a little garbled, and Cara Watson is decent. Jessica doesn’t seem to be contributing to the harmonies, and when it’s time for her solo, she ends up relying on the others to cover for her (especially Nica, who must be a great person outside of Idol). Jennifer winces at the solo, but Jessica seems a little more comfortable by the end, and she at least covered her agony like a pro. Stephanie’s mom is confident.  After Jennifer praises the girls for looking out for each other, and Jessica in particular for hanging in there, it’s judgment time: Nica, Cara, and Jessica get to stay; while Stephanie is leaving.

Momma calls out from the audience that Stephanie is great, and a future superstar, while Harry tries to soften the blow by saying everyone getting cut at this stage is really very talented. The good feelings are about to end. Offstage, the mom says that the judges didn’t see what happened behind the scenes, and the bad attitude Jessica brought in. She also dings her for not learning the lyrics, which is hard to deny. Jessica sticks up for her effort and walks away, claiming later that “drama follows me everywhere!” Stephanie is prevented from giving her full final statement because her overbearing mother doesn’t want her to cry on camera, but she’s probably on to something with her appraisal of Jessica’s chances going forward: “America’s not gonna pick her.” I think she’s really promising in her own genre, but it’s true, she’s probably mud with the voters now.

Two groups left! Love’s Angels had the drama surrounding the weird behavior of Terrica Curry, who wandered back to her room without giving a reason and basically had to be coaxed into coming back. The bad news here is that the song choice, “Say My Name,” fit the sensibility of Emmanuel Zidor almost to a T, but not so much Terrica or Carmen Delgina. Terrica in particular sounded both flat and too slow throughout. There was decent harmony at the end, but all in all it was a mess. Harry dinged them for picking a bad song with no melody (no comment), but said that Emmanuel at least had the potential to be something special. So he survives.

The sight of Malaya Watson’s stretching means that it’s almost time for our last act of the night, Loud & Fierce. These four had trouble with lyric retention and Olivia Diamond’s tendency to give loud obnoxious lectures. But in the ensuing few hours of rehearsal, it sounds like they nailed down “I Want You Back” pretty nicely, though Christina Collins to me was a bit shaky (did Michael Jackson put runs into the verse of this song? Why no, he did not). Malaya comes in for particular praise regarding her command of pitch. Jennifer scares them a bit by saying the performance contained “some good, some bad,” but all four — Olivia, Malaya, Christina, and Queen Bulls — end up advancing.

77 out of 104 survived the groups, which is a lot more than the half J-Lo said would make it. Maybe “the dreaded group round” has lost a little of its fearsomeness over the years?

Hangman Is Comin’ Down To The Hangar And I Don’t Have Very Long

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“If you think you know Hollywood Week … think again!” said Ryan Seacrest at the outset of the first night of the process by which American Idol trims its successful auditioners down to a more manageable group for viewers to eventually start voting on.

But did we see a Hunger Games-style fight to the death? A game of HORSE? Did the contestants race with J-Lo’s luggage? Well, not really. Except for one element at the beginning of the night, the first night of Hollywood unfolded about the way we could have expected. Once again, we got reminders of the existence of some of the singers who seemed to get particular attention in the auditions (thought the major pimping jobs of the past were basically done away with in Season 13′s audition round — no Lazaros this time around), we heard from some folks who hadn’t really been featured before now but look like they might be worth remembering, others who looked like real contenders in their audition were dispatched with barely a notice, and some who seemed questionable all along enjoyed what proved to be a short visit to SoCal. Much shorter than ever before, in fact.

The night begins with shots of young hopefuls pulling their luggage through the snow, saying goodbye to their pets etc., as they prepare for the journey west (or south, in the case of singer/songwriter David Luning). everyone seems to arrive at LAX at about the same time — don’t ask me how — and are piled onto buses for the trip to their … oh wait. They’re not going to the hotel. They are being driven to an empty hangar. Is this some sort of joke? Are they about to be executed by Iranian spies who have cleverly been disguising themselves as Jennifer, Keith, and Harry all along? This might actually help those ratings!

The purpose of this hangar trip is a new round of the Hollywood process, though one which only applies to those the judges consider the most marginal ticket-holders. Certain contestants are going to have to sing for their lives in front of the judges, without having had any prep time or notice that anything would be expected of them today. (Some reports suggested that those singing in this round would be the singers who advanced to Hollywood by a 2-1 vote, but this was not said explicitly.) The 212 are seated, a judges’ table is put in place, and then the judges re-introduce themselves. Everyone stands and cheers. Oh yeah, now you’re cheering. Just you wait!

The judges spell out the rules of the day, with Harry Connick Jr. throwing in the news that there will be some cut as a result of their performance. The first one called forth is Johnny Newcomb from the Salt Lake audition, who the judges originally felt had been putting on an unnaturally gruff voice. he does “Pumped up Kicks” this time around — with guitar; I suppose all the guitar kids were allowed to retrieve their instruments for the occasion — and he’s better than the first time we heard him, though still a little faux-intense on the chours. Mostly, I’m just surprised Idol allowed someone to sing about a school shooting in primetime.

The judges aren’t going to be offering any comments to the singers, though they have plenty to say to each other. Harry’s succinct remark on Johnny is “I don’t feel like I want to see that,” but Keith sticks up for the caliber of his voice, if not his good judgment. Next up is Connor Zwetsch, a young woman I don’t recall seeing in Atlanta, who croaks out a version of the already croaky “Let Her Go.” There’s a flashback to Atlanta where Harry told her he doubted she had a strong enough voice; this time the judges all seem pleased. Ali Jane Handerson, yet another teen with a guitar, managed to impress despite hauling out the now-completely -cliched acoustic reinvention of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” (can it still be a “reinvention” if we’ve hard a billion versions of this on other shows?).

The first obvious, no-questions-asked disaster of the night came from statuesque teen Caitlin Johnson, who delivered a take on “Only Girl in the World” that was so bad, other contestants were agape. She admits to stage fright later, a small problem in a would-be American Idol. “I don’t know what we saw in her,” says Harry, who to be fair did vote against her in San Francisco. Well, I know what it was: she’s a hot blonde. A quick montage of three other overmatched contestants at least shows that Caitlin wasn’t the only one who couldn’t rise to the occasion.

Adam Roth, the “sound healer” from San Francisco, is next to perform. His yellow ticket seemed like a gimmick all along, so this ought to be where the ride ends, so to speak. He’s the first tonight to use a keyboard, and his effort on “Radioactive” reminds me why I didn’t really like him originally — the angsty bellow tapering down to a fey falsetto. topped off by a lot of off-key moaning at the end. Harry seemed peeved that Adam didn’t know the chord changes, and Keith Urban pointed out that he can barely play the piano. Jennifer, however, seemed ready to fight for him: “I feel like at least he has something going on!”

Tristen Langley is asked to sing next. The 15-year-old son of Season One contestant Nikki McKibbin probably needed that hook to be put through in Austin, and he sounds here pretty much like he did then — a nice kid who is at least several years away from truly being ready for this show. Like several singers so far, he admits to having been nervous, and it’s apparent that the judges’ whispers to each other after the performances are unnerving. Morgan Deplitch, the Boston teenager who put Harry in Dad Mode over her cover of the racy Grace Potter song “Paris (Ooh La La)” in her audition, completely tanks on Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.” Harry calls it “extraordinarily weak,” and the girl covers her face as if she knows how bad it was.

Stephanie Petronelli, the New England Patriors cheerleader, unwisely tries her hand at “Whipping Post,” a song she’s not remotely believable performing. A country crooner named Rich Lafleur is nasal and extremely nervous. His performance kind of peters out, and it seems to be what prompts Keith and Harry to interrupt the proceedings with a plea to please take this seriously and not phone it in. After having scared the hell out of everyone, Harry then grins and says, Good luck to the next contestant!” That next contestant is Eric Wood, the oil worker from the Boston auditions, who sounds appropriately impassioned on “She Talks to Angels.” Alyssa Siebken, whose Omaha audition won Harry’s disdain for her attempt to do an acoustic Waka Flocka Flame, is none too interesting trying to sing straight. Multi-year auditioner Neco Starr always sounds to me like a weaker version of about 20 other singers, but his take on Bruno Mars’s “Gorilla” showed off a little charisma.

The last of the 52 asked to sing in the hangar was Khristian D’avis from the Detroit auditions, she of the disappearing and reappearing accent. She’s enough of a character that I think she would have been OK had she shown anything at all, but her performance is really unpleasant with its exaggerated vibrato and little runs at the end of literally every line. “She’s like really into the sound of her own voice,” notes Keith.

At thus point, the judges dismiss the singers who were not asked to sing — they are safe, and will be taken to the hotel in order to prepare for their opening night. The judges pore over the other contestants and call out yeses and nos. Harry points to a photo of Khristian and simply says he’s changed his mind about her, which doesn’t sound good from my perspective. Finally, the 52 singers are put into two different groups, for two different buses: the lucky ones will head to the hotel, while those who failed will be taken right back to the airport ticket counter to head home. Everyone in the group with Caitlin Johnson — including Khristian, Tristen (whose mom is also there), Johnny Newcomb, and Rick Lafleur — has to feel pessimistic. The other group includes Neco, Eric Wood, Connor, Morgan (who was terrible), and M.K Nobilette, the butch singer from San Francisco who sounded like a soul mamma in her audition.

The buses leave separately. Caitlin is already in tears; she knows how badly she had done. But the main emotion is nervousness, since no one has been told yet which group is which. Those on the bus with Caitlin and Khristian  can see they are nowhere near Hollywood, and the signs for LAX soon confirm that they are heading back to high school or whatever coffeehouse they crawled out of to come to Idol. Caitlin is still making excuses for her nerves, when she ought to be thankful she wasn’t cut at the audition. Those on the other bus — only 20 of the 52 who sang at the hangar were kept, and amazingly, Matt Roth was one of them — are given the good news before they arrive at the hotel.

On to Day 2 in Hollywood for some, which is Day 1 for others. From here things go the way we’ve seen so many years in the past — the singers come out in groups of 10, one by one perform a song a cappella or with an instrument, the judges confer, and then cuts are made. Ryan Seacrest provides viewers with a little history lesson on the Dolby Theatre and Idol. Always good to see Taylor Hicks again!

First up to sing is the singer who went by Majesty Rose in Atlanta, and is now calling herself Majesty Rose York. She seems a little less like a busker waif than she did before, though she’s still awfully soft-spoken for an Idol wannabe, and suggests she’s about to cry when Ryan talks to her. She starts out nervously on Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4″ and seems distracted by her own guitar playing, but she eventually hits a nice groove, even showing off some power notes near the end. Also in this group are Samantha Calmes from Salt Lake, who is still fashion-challenged but sounds pretty good; and John Fox, the worship leader who was spotlighted at the start of the Austin episode. His face is alarmingly red by the time he finishes, which I don’t quite understand. Repeat Hollywooder Brandy Neelly is a little overwrought on “Stars,” but certainly good enough for this round.

The judges subdivide this group into two smaller groups; Samantha seems angry when she sees she is not in with Brandy, Majesty, and John. And she was right: she and a few others are heading home. She wistfully says she should have relied more on her voice than on the guitar. Well, yes.

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Spencer Lloyd, the hottie from the Austin audition, sits at the keyboard and pounds out a decent “Say Something,” a song I suspect we’re not done hearing this season. Jennifer seems charmed, not surprisingly. Keith notes that Spencer seems aware of who he is as an artist, which is always a good thing. He’s advanced, and is apparently so awesome we never even see anyone else from his line. Can you tell idol is invested in Spencer just a little bit?

Austin Wolfe is up next, sounding maybe a little more bitter than she wanted when she announces that she “more than anything, I want to perform in front of people that actually want to see me” (to which Harry responds, “I’ll explain what that’s like later, Keith”). Her Adele cover is pretty solid, as she tries to pull off with phrasing what she can’t quite with pure pipes. We also hear from Bria Anai, she of the dazzling lipstick, who I’m not sure knows what restraint means. Her big voice can be a potent weapon on this show — the judges rarely call anyone out for going too far — but it’s exhausting to hear her sometimes.

The last person up in this group is Selena Moreno, who tried out with her twin sister in San Francisco and had to hold back her joy when she was the only one sent through. Sis Sierra is there for moral support, but Selena is shaky throughout, and after one particularly wonky off-key section, stops in frustration. After encouragement from Sierra and the judges, she tries again, has another false start, then finally does finish, none too impressively. Austin and Bria keep on truckin’, while Selena is not surprisingly reunited with her twin. We also learn more here about two  haven’t heard yet today: the pride of Slapout, Jessica Meuse, is through to the next round; while Lauren Ogburn, she of the star-spangled attire, is heading back to face the wrath of Fancy’s mamma.

Several of the better auditioners show up in the next few minutes, led by Sam Woolf, the talented teen from the Boston auditions with the doting grandpa. Sam sings “Waiting on the World to Change,” which makes sense since John Mayer seems to be a touchstone for a lot of the WGWGs, and shows off more of his potential — though he might still be a little half-baked for the judges to like him this much. The little bit we hear of Detroit’s Keri Lynn Roche reveals deep layers of soul — she wins the Adele-off with Austin Wolfe. Ayla Stackhouse, who moved to L.A. to go into showbiz before going back to Detroit to audition, oversings a bit but still looks like a frontrunner for the “young Beyonce” role this season.

Guitar-picking soul-country guy C.J. Harris gets called “baby” by Jennifer, and then launches into Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble,” which is strictly in his wheelhouse. C.J. is no glamour boy and may be too old-school to catch on with America, but his deep feeling can’t help but resonate with viewers. After he’s first told to stand with those who will later be told they are going home, C.J. is put through from this line, along with Keri Lynn and Sam. Ayla is rather shockingly sent home — after her strong audition, would have thought she could survive a merely OK performance in this round.

Alex Preston and his weird assortment of faces kicks off the next line. His guitar work is undoubtedly excellent, up there with the best ever on Idol, but his decision to reinvent the idiotic will.i.am/Britney Spears collaboration “Scream and Shout” is a risk. The roots-blues thing disguises the essential dopiness of the lyrics, but the judges do want to hear actual singing at some point. Up next is Columbus teen Sydney Arterbridge, who is a little more flat than we heard her in Detroit. Austin alternachick Jesse Roach stays firmly in her pocket with a heartfelt “Angel From Montgomery.”

Clean-cut country boy Brian Watt, who Harry facetiously compared to superman in the auditions is decent but exhibits virtually no star quality aside from his teeth. “He had me and then he lost me,” Harry muttered at the end.  Jesse and Alex are safe from out of this group, while Brian and Sydney are history. Sydney is in tears afterwards, but philosophical about having more chances since she’s just 15. In a stunner, Jade Lathan was also sent home from this group — hers had been one of the more highly touted auditions, but she was cut here without us ever getting to hear her sing again.

Heading into a commercial, Idol plays a snippet of the performance by Madelyn Patterson, and asks us to guess if she’s staying or leaving. It’s a pretty good take on “Already Gone,” and this means she is staying. Good for her. Sweet young thing Kenzie Hall appears at first like she’s going to try a cliched acoustic version of Mackelmore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” but she doesn’t just do the chorus — she also raps while she strums. It’s one of those “moments” people will remember from out of this round, maybe the biggest one. Quaid Edwards, the college student whose mom had gigged with Keith in the day, is nasal and obviously over his head. Kenzie pretty obviously survives, while Quaid equally obviously does not.

The judges pause to tell Ryan that these are some tough cuts they are making. Now, it’s onward to a collection of guitar-playing boys. Tennesseean Ben Briley, eyes hidden by baseball cap, seriously underwhelmed with “Stars,” but the judges beamed as if pleased, and they’re a little more important here than I am. Briston Maroney, the teen who plays his great-grandfather’s old guitar, sounded weirdly petulant on “Royals,” as if he was stomping his feet while singing it. America is not going to back this kid. They might, however, like country boy Dexter Roberts, who looks the part, as long as the part involves being Southern and doing Southern things. Keith really liked him, and his request for Keith to play his guitar for him is the sort of thing that will endear him to voters. (Keith knows what he’s doing with a six-string, but the way.) All three men — well, two men and Briston — made it through.

Racehl Rolleri got a chance to show the judges she’s changed since her eye-rolling almost derailed an otherwise good San Francisco audition; she solved that problem here by singing with her eyes shut most of the time. Fathers Casey Thrasher and Maurice Townsend are in this group too; Idol obligingly reminds us about their kids so that we’ll love them more. Maurice does pretty well with Impossible,” while Casey clears a pretty high bar with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Jennifer says “Heartbreaker!” to the latter, as if she had never heard it before. Sigh. These three advance, and we hear snippets of several others who are moving on. I don’t think we herd George Lovett’s audition, but he survives; as does Tiquila Wilson (interesting gospel take on “The Climb”), Emily Piriz, and Malcolm Allen.

After a little time-killing segment, we re-acquaint ourselves with someone we met in the season premiere, Munfarid Zaidi, the guy that Harry picked up in his arms for reasons I can’t quite recall now. He might have to watch that he isn’t seen as a novelty, because his performance of “Proud Mary” came off as hammy and unserious. Boston WGWG Ethan Thompson sounds mediocre, though the song he picked might have something to do with that. Austin Percario, the teen who said he was hoping to leave his stage mom at home when he came to Hollywood, is still overwrought and Gleeish. None of these three are really noteworthy, but all advance.

Three more success stories in the next line! Caleb Johnson, the returnee with the booming RAWK persona, gives “Sympathy for the Devil” a brand new melody for some reason. Boston teen Stephanie Hanvey, who I seem to recall was just fair in her audition, is a little more impressive this time. Kristen O’Connor gets a little more time than either, as she delivers a strong guitar-aided  vocal. She’s more conventionally “hot” than most of the guitat girls, which could be an aid to her going forward. These three are all moving on as well.

Campy Emmanuel Zidor says he wants to be the next American Idol because he’s better at this than at his regular job (he works at the Atlanta airport). He says he’s going to be supremely fierce, but his “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is mostly just bizarre. But it’s early, he’s memorable, and the judges think he’s a hoot, so he survives also.

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We’re nearing the end! Returning Hollywooder Briana Oakley shows off her rare combination of power and pitch control, while all-night gas station attendant Jesse Cline goes the “backwoods haunting” route. Both make it through. Next up is a montage of People Who Failed, highlighted by one d-bag in a green scarf who tried singing “Come Sail Away.”

I didn’t really think Keith London deserved to get through; his audition was a little too mannered for my taste. But after saying he didn’t want to be just another face in the crowd, he set about making a name for himself. He began singing Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy,” which visibly bugged all the judges — the song choice, not the fact that he was again singing it rather poorly. “It doesn’t impress me. It is bizarre,” Jennifer muttered to Harry.  When he was finished, Harry told him the song choice was a big distraction (that, and having an out-of-tune guitar). Keith told them he was trying to send a message not to be judgmental, but the judges asked him to sing something else so they could get the heebie-jeebies out of the air … whereupon he began doing the sung portion of “Same Love.” I don’t think you have to be Perez Hilton to figure out here that the kid was trying to send a message about his sexual orientation, but the judges were apparently born yesterday. At any rate, Keith is both still not very good and in the competition. (Don’t ever play White Towns’s “Your Woman” for them, or their heads may simultaneously implode.)

One more line before we move on to the joy of groups! There’s a keyboard now on stage, and we’re about to hear some folks we remember playing it. Exuberant teen tuba player Malaya Watson’s inexperience shows at times, but her Alicia Keys cover is nice and fierce. Jena Asciutto brought her considerable lungpower to a song that doesn’t really need it,  “Video Games,” but she impressed Keith to the point he vowed to look up the original version. Savion Wright, who showed such great musicality in Austin, dedicates his performance to his brother, who died only a few weeks before; his oriignal song isn’t bad, but more to the point, it’s sung with passion.

These three move on to complete the group round lineup. 160 had to face the music at the Dolby Theatre (those who sang at the hangar did not have to go again); 104 remain. I can spot Marialle Sellers and Carmen Delgina as auditioners I recall who weren’t featured singing.

The judges now give the rundown for how groups will work. They will have to form groups of three or four, and pick from a song list. Jennifer says they want to see choreography and harmony, as well as “unique performances.” What follows is a montage of the upcoming drama, leading into commercial.

In years where the first Hollywood solo round was divided into 2 days, Idol instituted a rule saying that groups had to be made up of people from both days — this to prevent any groups from getting a headstart, and also to insure the continuation of the time-honored drama of group selection. There’s always someone who can’t find a home, someone who starts out in their group well enough but gets kicked out, and someone who torpedoes a group with bad work ethic, insistence on sleep, etc. What will happen this time??

Casey Thrasher, Dexter Roberts, and Ben Briley are obvious competitors down the road, but for Group Day, it makes sense that these like-minded country boys work together, and they buddy up in a hurry. Malaya Watson is asking in vain if she can keep her group of five together. Four people who all met in Austin  – Savion, Madelyn Patterson, John Fox, and Ryan Clark — have teamed up, named themselves the Rangers, and are the first to meet with the vocal coaches. Other groups quickly form a logjam behind them waiting to be coached.

A group made up of Clark King, Matthew Hamel, and Jessica Meuse is having some issues. Clark is having problems with his voice, and Matthew, who frankly seems a little, um, “slow” in this segment, can’t seem to understand the harmonies. Jessica, who even in her audition talked about the struggles of working on your own as a musician, is not a-meused. By midnight, folks are getting tired and nerves are frayed. Malaya’s group has kicked out its token male; she, Christina Collins, Queen Bulls, and Olivia Diamond are calling themselves Loud & Fierce; two girls who aren’t Malaya seem to be arguing  a lot.

Both Carmen Delgina and Terrica Curry are having trouble finding a group, but end up being taken in by Emmanuel Zidor and M.K. Nobilette, who had been in another quartet but bailed in frustration. Three of them appear happy about the new arrangement; Terrica still seems surly about something.

Jessica Meuse’s group is still all askew, as she is fighting tears over her frustration with Matthew’s inability to understand how to sing harmony. “You don’t understand how hard it is like to be a broke-ass musician,” she whimpers. She’s worked to ohard in too many dives to be deprived of this chance by some dopey kid! For his part, Matthew is sitting around, claiming that he’s ready to work and “the girl in my group” is off crying somewhere. Jessica is openly talking about finding another group when the ailing Clark reveals that his voice isn’t improving, and he’s going to have to decide whether or not to quit. He asks Jessica what the right move is, and she says well, leaving emotion out of it, it’s probably for the best. This whole segment is really torpedoing Jessica in the eyes of the fans, if she gets to the voting rounds.

There’s no way Jessica is going to stay teamed with Matthew as a duo looking for a third — she says it would be best if they just split up now, he readily agrees, and both go off in search of new group homes. The problem both face is that most groups are now happy and well into their rehearsal, and not in the mood to add a new voice who doesn’t know the song or the dance moves. Jessica tries to join up with her fellow Southerners, Casey, Dexter, and Ben, in the group now calling itself the Backstreet Cowboys, but they give her the bum’s rush. Matthew actually has better early luck, linking up in a group starring C.J. Harris and Caleb Johnson, the Freedom Breathers.

Some groups are calling it quits for the night by 3 A.M., but others are keeping the drama going. Emmanuel and M.K. had taken in Carmen and Terrica in a group called Love’s Angels; now Emmanuel and Carmen have bonded, but m.K. has decided to bolt (the second group she has left that night), and Terrica has just plain disappeared.

As the sun rises over Hollywood, some young singers are a little slower to awaken than others. That’s normal group drama, but what’s not normal is Emmanuel and Carmen having to search for Terrica mere hours before they’re supposed to perform, in order to determine if they even still have a valid group. Emmanuel claims Terrica had told them she was going to get her phone, and then just didn’t come back. Finally, they head to her room; Terrica lets them in and wanders about as Emmanuel in essence asks her “Um … what the hell is going on?” He finally asks flat out if she intends to perform with them, and her answer is :”I mean, y’all don’t have anybody else?” Carmen and Emmanuel just look stunned. A producer (behind the camera) asks Terrica if she thinks she has inconvenienced the others, and she denies it. Emmanuel says he’s satisfied to let Terrica think she won the argument — I didn’t even see an argument — rather than extend the bizarreness into precious rehearsal time.

The groups begin their final rehearsals, and the vocal coaches are still finding much to criticize. Madelyn Patterson is in tears, which can’t encourage the rest of her Rangers. The drama queens in Loud & Fierce are running through “I Want You Back,” and while there are some decent harmonies, remembering the lyrics looks like it’s going to be a major struggle. One of the girls chews out the others after the rehearsals, saying that they had wasted too much time learning the choreography. “I want us to smash this!” she says in conclusion. Malaya, as usual, finds it all amusing.

Other problems here and there: Sam Woolf feels lost without his guitar and feels self-conscious learning to dance. Alyssa Siebken is concerned about her group’s work ethic. Someone else is still learning lyrics. One girl offers up some good advice, saying that you can’t let unprepared group members throw off your performance.

Jessica Meuse has finally found a new home, in a girl group called Sparkles. But it’s filled with younger, pop-and-dance oriented girls (Nica Nishae, Carol Watson, and Stephanie Hanvey) that she doesn’t mesh easily with. Jessica gripes that they keep changing the dance moves while she’s still learning the words. Another problem is that the mom of 16-year-old Stephanie is lurking and very eager to offer constant advice. “I’m 23, and she keeps treating me kinda like I’m 16,” says Jessica, who is in too deep now to try switching groups again.

One last bit of drama as the time to perform nears, and it comes from a new source, a group featuring Munfarid, Jena, and some female redshirt. A fourth member of their group, named Sikenya, has decided she’s not feeling well enough to sing, and is going to appeal to the judges to take the day off. Oh sure, this should work. She actually writes out a long explanation for Jena to read to the others. Sikenya agrees to wait to make a final decision on performing or not until just before they take the stage, but in the meantime, the other three have to rework the song, just in case she isn’t there when it counts. Joy!

Will Sikenya make it? Will Jessica and M.K. finally stay put? Will the dopey sound healer finally get put on a plane? We’ll find out when Hollywood resumes!

Going To The Mattresses

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While The Walking Dead certainly puts the “popular” in popular culture, the greatest work of apocalyptic art so far this century is undoubtedly Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There is love at the very center of that tale — a father’s desire to teach his son the lessons he will need to keep going after his own death, despite the unlikelihood that long-term survival is at all possible — but overall, McCarthy’s world is one where any other surviving human is presumed an enemy or at least a competitor, where the weak are kept as slaves or consumed as food. As the character played by Alexander Skarsgard in the Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill put it, “All religious stuff aside, the fact is people who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.”

The Walking Dead has not exactly ignored the idea that even in the midst of the existential threat posed by the walkers, the real enemy is still our fellow man. Intergroup tension has been a part of the show since Merle Dixon was left on that Atlanta rooftop in Season One. The surviving inmates at the prison had the opportunity to show that their convictions were not exactly unmerited. Rick and Hershel came across some scary characters at the bar in Season 2, in what proved to be a kill-or-be-killed situation. And of course, while the Governor might have started out with the sincere intention of finding a cure for the zombie plague in order to bring his daughter back, at some point he turned into a tyrant.

“Claimed” hinted at an intriguing new direction for the show: the idea that in the zombie apocalypse, the more ruthless you are, the greater your chance of surviving. Or another way of saying the same thing, that those who treasure the notion of goodwill toward one’s fellow man will face the choice between living up to those ideals and dying, or learning how to kill those who aren’t dead yet.

The hour begins with the sight of walkers trying to reach for a snagged piece of fabric on top of a sign reading “Crook Rd.” The camo truck we saw at the end of last week is motoring along. Inside the bed of the truck, Tara is writing the street name on her hand with a Sharpie — why she had a Sharpie with her, considering her day began with the Governor’s raid on thee prison,  is anyone’s guess. There are more things written, so she’s been at this for a little while. It’s also left up in the air whether she is along for the ride willingly, or a prisoner — the guy who addressed her last week sounding a little ominous.

On the opposite side of the road, Tara sees an abandoned truck that had run into another vehicle and pinned a walker in the process. There are other walkers on the road, attracted by the noise. The truck pulls to a stop, which seems to alarm Tara a bit. As a trio of the undead grasp the back of the truck in a vain effort to pull it open, Tara prepares her rifle … when the Fu Manchu-wearing leader of the pack orders her not to fire. He gets out of the driver’s seat, chuckles at the sight, and takes a crowbar to the walkers, one by one. “Oh honey, look at you,” he laughs a female walker. “You’re a damn mess, ” he says as he finishes her off, with a little difficulty this time.

By now, Tara has gotten out of the truck bed, and the man asks for her rifle, so he can bash the woman and another walker already on the ground with its butt. Fu Manchi tosses it back to Tara with instructions on where to find rags to wipe it off. She just stares at him, and he asks what’s the matter. “I’ve never seen that before,” Tara says, which the man doesn’t buy, considering he came upon her in the process of beating a walker’s brains in. She clarifies: she has never seen anyone smiling as they took down the walkers (recall Rick in the pilot telling the doomed woman in the park “I’m sorry this happened to you” before shooting her in the head). The man laughs one more time and explains himself: “Well, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.” He then asks for help clearing the cars away from their current roadblock.

So. Villain? Hero? Off-kilter survivalist type like Daryl? I guess we’ll see soon enough!

The action now shifts to the house where we left Rick , Carl, and the newly arrived Michonne two weeks back,. Carl is eating cereal, and Michonne presents him with a couple of bottles of water to wash it down with, milk being in scarce supply in this day and age. She is wearing a white shirt that has apparently been liberated from someone’s closet, and he seems to find her appearance amusing. Michoone pours out a little cereal for herself — Carl didn’t leave much — and muses that she’d really like a little soy milk. Carl can’t believe it. He talks about a friend of his who had a dairy allergy and brought soy milk to school — he had tried it and nearly thrown up. He and Michonne are laughing as he recounts all the things that aren’t as gross as soy milk — powdered milk, Judith’s formula — oops. At the mention of his sister, who he believes is dead though she isn’t, all the laughter stops. and he abruptly gets up from the table.

Michonne walks into the kitchen, where Rick, no longer looking half-dead, seems to be rummaging through drawers. He thanks her, acknowledging her role in making Csrl laugh again. He tells her that he can’t be both a father and a friend to Carl, so he’s going to rely on her for that part. When Rick says she can let him know if she needs a break from that kind of responsibility, she sets her jaw and responds, “I’m done taking breaks.” That’s the Michonne we know!

Michonne now asks a pertinent question: is Rick thinking this house might make a new semi-permanent home, or is it just a short stop on the way to … something? Rick, looking a little shaky, says he figures they can stay until they “figure it out.” She decides against asking for more specifics, and says she will take Carl on a hunt for supplies. Rick volunteers to go too, and Michonne demurs, reminding him on his state just the previous day (answering our question about how much time has passed). You need to get your strength back, she insists. At least for one more day.

The two of them set out with a couple of empty canvas bags. Michonne says their canvassing shouldn’t take long. Rick hands his gun over to Carl — it looks like he can barely lift it — and reminds him to do what he’s told. Noticing Carl still seems down, Rick asks if he’s OK, and Carl responds that he’s just tired. They head out. Once back inside, Rick pushes the couch back into place behind the front door, which is about as much effort as he can exert. He goes upstairs to rebandage his wounds, and lays down with a book, ready to nap.

Michonne and Carl leave a house, both with bulging bags. As they walk down a woodsy path, she asks if he founds anything good: “Candy bars? Comic books? Crazy cheese?” She pulls out a can of aerosol cheese and agrees to let him have “first pull,” be the still sullen Carl turns it down. She wants to know what’s wrong, and he says he’s just tired. Her response is to fill up her mouth with the cheese and moan like a walker — the first time we’ve ever seen her do anything that could remotely be described as silly. Carl is not amused.

As they approach the door of the next house, she apologizes, saying that she isn’t good at making boys his age laugh. He claims that he was laughing, on the inside. Michonne, who has been rapping on the door as a zombie-check, informs Carl that toddlers find her funny, a reference that puzzles him since he can’t recall her interacting with kids that age. This is where she tells him that she had a three-year-old son, and he found her extremely funny. This revelation puts them on a similar level — he’s lost a sister, but she’s lost a son — and that’s something she can use.

Michonne cautiously enters the house, reminding Carl of the need for food, batteries, and water. She starts going through drawers, but Carl just wants to talk about this toddler: Why hasn’t she mentioned this before? What was his name? Was she married? Were there other children too? She makes a deal: she can ask him one question at a time, one per room, and only when the room has been cleared.

Back at the temp home, Rick is fast asleep with the book on his chest (Jack London’s short stories), and we hear the sound of unfamiliar voices. There are at least three, making the sorts of rambunctious noises young men on the loose will make. Rick’s eyes twitch as if he’s trying to wake up, but the sound of someone falling and others laughing (as if they had caused the fall) finally jolts him into alertness. Who the hell are these people?

Rick knows he won’t have much time. He reaches for his gun, before remembering it’s with Carl. He grabs his watch instead, though it’s hard to guess what good he thinks it will do. To the clomp of footsteps ascending the stairs, he rolls off the bed and peers around the entrance to the room. A man holding an automatic weapon opens the door to another bedroom. Breathing very heavily, Rick runs back to the bed, grabs the book, and crawls underneath — the bed, not the book. He begins to make a move back out, but then scurries underneath again when he hears Machine Gun Guy back in the hallway. The man enters another room, and we then see what Rick had tried to do earlier, as he grabs his half-consumed water bottle off the dresser.

Footsteps. The man enters, pauses in front of the bed. He kicks Rick’s stuff away from the closet door, opens it, then seems to pause and think some more. Rick is trying to hold his breath. The intruder seems to stand right in front of Rick for the longest time, then finally drops down onto the bed. Rick remains undiscovered, but he ain’t goin’ anywhere.

Back at the house where we know the intruders aren’t maniacs, Michonne stares at a painting of cute bunnies on a wall. Carl pops in and abruptly asks what her son’s name was. She tries to put him off, saying the room hasn’t been cleared, but he informs her that he fulfilled the bargain in the room next door. So she spills: his name was Andre Anthony. Michonne then tells Carl to look for cookies in the drawer before she heads out, refusing to answer his question about whether she had any other kids until after he’s done with that drawer, and by extension the room. Out in the hall, she tells him that no, she had decided that one child was enough, “and Andre was a handful, like you.”

He wants to know if clearing the hallway counts as a room, and she says sure, if he finds something useful. But all he finds is a painting that’s been wrapped up. He brings it over to Michonne anyway, and she accepts it, since one senses she’s been looking for an opening to talk about this with someone. Carl asks her how long it’s been (euphemism), and she answers indirectly as well: “It happened … after everything happened.” In response to the next question — she’s slipping! — she tells Carl that she hasn’t told Rick about this, or anyone else. Carl promises to keep her secret, and she denies that it really has been a secret. In a sense that’s true: till very recently she hasn’t had much to say about anything at all.

Carl enters another room, with weapon drawn just in case, and Michonne decides to unwrap the painting he had given her. She is startled to see the portrait of a young woman that has been defaced with stains that look like blood, and what may have been an attempt to make it look like a walker. She stares back down the hall at the closed door the painting had been sitting in front of, and starts walking towards it. She puts one hand on her sword, and opens the door with the other. Michonne enters a bathroom, walks through the door at the other end, and sees a child’s bedroom, seemingly undisturbed. There’s another door inside this room, and she walks into another bedroom, this one all in pink.

The sight here is less cheerful. There are four corpses on two beds, laid out as if the deaths had been prearranged. It’s hard to tell if all the dead were children, though it appears so. Michonne fights back tears, and then sees another body in a chair facing the beds, with a telltale bullet hole through the back of its skull. The sight of a family that died together, presumably in a murder-suicide, is more than she can take, and she backs out of the room just as Carl enters the adjoining bedroom looking for her. Noticing she’s agitated, he asks/states, “There’s a baby in there.” Michonne says no, it’s just a dog. Carl looks down — you can tell he’s not buying it — and has a secret of his own to reveal. “My dad let me name her,” he says of Judith, adding, “maybe her and Andre are — are together somewhere.” She composes herself, then hustles him out of the room, saying that it’s almost noon, the time they had originally agreed to return to home base.

That home base is still looking a little precarious from Rick’s point of view, which remains under a bed, atop which a man with a big gun is snoring away. He makes a move to scoot out, when once again, footsteps are heard coming up the stairs. A new man enters, sarcaastically asking, “Yo! Comfy?” The man in bed, annoyed, asks if he woke him up just for that question. The newcomer says he’d like to lie down himself, and the first man directs his attention to the other rooms. “Them’s kids’ beds. I want this one,” the intruder says, to which the awoken responds, really surly this time, “It’s claimed” (episode title!).

Inevitably I suppose, a scuffle breaks out; both Rick, and us, can see only feet scooting about, One of the men is dropped, then slugged in the jaw, then put in a chokehold in what has now become a fight to the death — we’re getting an idea of how these folks have been living since the apocalypse came. The man being choked has had his head turned towards the underside of the bed, and he sees Rick — but doesn’t have the breath to say anything. Rick merely watches with wide eyes. It was the second man in the room who wins the fight, and he hops onto the newly claimed bed, while Rick’s problems have just multiplied — if the guy on the floor dies, he’ll be a walker before long; and if he wakes up …

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Glenn! We hadn’t seen him during the opening to the episode, but he’s been riding along in the back of the truck with Tara all along, after having been passed out when the one-truck convoy showed up. He comes to, notices he’s in a moving vehicle. Tara sees he’s awakened and offers him a little water. Glenn asks what the hell is up, and it answers one big question: whether or not she came willingly or was somehow captured. “The back of the truck’s a little safer than the side of the road,” she tells him. Glenn, of course, had been on a mission to reunite with Maggie, and has been assuming she got on to the bus, which we know didn’t happen.

He asks if she saw the bus, and when she answers yes, she hesitates when he demands to know what she saw. Finally, she admits that everyone she saw there was dead. Glenn wonders how long ago that was, and she says three hours (how long is this day, anyway? I thought all this was happening the same day as the attack on the prison). Glenn bangs on the window to the cab and starts yelling, and gets a middle finger from the driver as a response. He bangs some more, now joined by Tara, as they demand to stop. Finally, Glenn gives the window a rap with the butt of the rifle, cracking the glass. THAT gets their attention.

The truck finally stops, with an annoyed looking Fu Manchu and his compatriots getting out. Even though the effort of hitting the glass just about exhausted Glenn again, his first reaction is to climb out the back, grab his gear and his rifle, and start walking in the direction they just came from. Fu Manchu calls after him; when ignored, he gets out in front and roadblocks Glenn, stating that this “mission” is time-sensitive, and he needs to get back in that truck NOW. Glenn demands he step aside.

Fu Manchu is about out of patience now: “It seems like neither one of you has been paying close enough attention to the hell on earth we’ve been living in. So let me tell you how to best avoid winding up just another dead-alive prick. You find some strong,  like-minded comrades and you stay stuck together like wet on water.”  The woman watches with interest, while the beefy dude with the mullet is keeping to himself. He says they need each other — that even though Glenn thinks he’s well-equipped, he won’t last the night alone. Glenn disagrees, and now Fu Manchu says he’s not going to let him leave, because “the fate of the whole damn human race might depend on it.”

Now Glenn is interested. He asks Tara who these folks are, and Fu Manchi introduces himself to Glenn, and to us. He is Sgt. Abraham Ford, the young woman in the come-hither shorts is Rosita Espinosa, and the guy with the mullet is Dr. Eugene Porter. The three of them are headed to Washington, because Eugene, a scientist, allegedly knows what caused the zombie apocalypse.

Glenn, naturally, wants to know what is, and Eugene says that it’s classified. Sgt. Ford adds that they had been in contact with the “muckety mucks” in the nation’s capital via satellite phone, but that no one has been on the other end for a couple of weeks, which doesn’t sound too promising. If true, this is the first indication we’ve had that there might be some sort of functioning government still — the CDC sure looked abandoned way back in Season One. Abraham says that they noticed how  the two of them handled the walkers earlier, and that they will come in handy. Glenn seems to think about it briefly, then simply says “Sorry” and begins walking away.

Tara follows, finally getting a chance to explain how they wound up in the truck. She says the road was too dangerous, especially since he was passed out and they were out of bullets. She says she wrote down directions on how to get back to the bus, and he says he’s going to go looking for Maggie “where she’d go to find me” — that is, on the bus (of course, we know she has already been there). Abraham and Rosita have been following, not ready yet to give up on these two, and the sarge tells Glenn that Tara had informed them what happened, and that he’ll never see Maggie again, alive or dead. Glenn stops, and Abraham tells him that there’s no need for him to die too — “get back in the truck; do something with your life.”

Michael Cudlitz is about twice the size of Steven Yuen. So it’s a little surprising, if not the most implausible thing to ever happen on a show that features dead people walking about, that he turns and decks the sarge with one punch.

“She’s alive, and I’m gonna find her,” says Glenn, gathering his things again. Abraham  obviously isn’t going to let things lie; he chases after him and tackles him. Tara  rushes to Glenn’s aid, and abraham tosses her aside like a dishrag. Rosita is trying to break it up too, unsuccessfully. Abraham soon gets the upper hand and puts Glenn in a chokehold. Eugene, still back at the truck, looks on with mild concern, which turns to mild alarm when a walker, attracted by all the noise, comes out of the woods. He yells to get the attention of the folks in the melee, but he’s unheard.

Tara finally manages to get Abraham to back off, but Glenn charges him yet again, suicidally. Meanwhile, Eugene, who is on his own here, has grabbed a rifle out of the truck, and fumbles with it like he’s either very nervous, or has never used it before, or both. As Abraham continues to whale on Glenn, more walkers emerge from the cornfield, and Eugene is just about surrounded before long. It’s amazing these people aren’t more savvy at this point, a good two years after all this began. The be-mulleted one finally figures out how to fire the gun, but he ends up spraying bullets everywhere — at the ground, at the truck, and very occasionally, at the zombies.

So much for the fight. everyone rushes back, with Abraham yelling at him to stop wasting their precious ammo. But given the numbers, there isn’t time for him to get his crowbar, or for anybody to do anything except grab their gun of choice and clear the area of the undead. Soon enough, the threat is extinguished. And there’s another casualty too: as Abraham discovers that in his panic, Eugene shot a hole in the truck’s gas tank. “Son of a dick!” he mutters, and I can’t say as I blame him,

In more immediate trouble is Rick Grimes, still hiding under that bed. Hearing the man in bed snoring above him, he scoots out oh-so-gingerly, nearly bumping into the shoe dangling over the side. Besides the sleeping man and the loser of the fight on the floor, there are other folks in the house as well; their conversation and random banging can be heard as Rick finally gets to his knees and then to his feet. He looks down at the man in bed, a young, bearded fellow. When a voice calls up from downstairs to alert the other guys, Rick scoots into the hallway. The banging sound is being made by a guy tossing a tennis ball against the wall, and he’s heading up the stairs, wondering why the others aren’t heeding his call.

Rick heads into one of the kids’ bedrooms, then backs around the corner into the room next to it as Tennis Ball Guy approaches. He throws his ball against the outer wall while he stands in the doorway, just barely unable to see Rick standing there. The man moves off, and Rick exhales. He heads to the windows, but is unable to budge any of them.  A voice calls out “I’m trying to sleep!” at the man who has just come upstairs, and who has made a discovery: there’s a woman living in the house. The other men are on the move upon hearing that news, but the voice says that the woman isn’t actually there; he just found the shirt she had washed earlier in the morning. Rick has grabbed a trophy off a dresser, which might be able to knock out anyone who comes in the room.

Two men walk downstairs; the man who had originally been in bed is still lying on the floor, and there’s a rifle in the now-vacated bed. One voice says that the woman wouldn’t have bothered washing a shirt she was going to abandon, and someone else “calls first” for when she gets back. Rick makes a move for the gun, but a man is coming back upstairs, and he barely has time to back out and duck into the bathroom before being discovered. He closes the bathroom door, turns … and sees a middle-aged man sitting on the toilet. A lot of good that’s gonna do, pal — it’s not like the plumbing works.

Rick has no time to think. He slugs the guy in the gut with the trophy he’s still holding. The man leaps up — I guess he was using the bathroom with dropping his pants? — and pushes Rick against the sink. Rick is able to wriggle out of that and tighten the belt holding the man’s machine gun around his neck. They struggle, bang against the wall, knock crap all over the floors, and generally make a LOT of noise that no one notices. The man tries to reach for a pair of scissors, but it’s in vain, and soon, Rick has one gun he didn’t have a minute before, and a new answer to his famous question, “How many people have you killed?” Here’s my question: how does a man who was basically in a coma the previous day win this fight? It’s not like he’s Jack Bauer.

Rick manages to open the bathroom window, though he cracks the door again before leaving. He throws his jacket onto the roof — awfully convenient it was in the bathroom all along — and crawls out with his gun. The mission now: getting down. He dangles briefly from the gutter before landing on the back porch. Realizing no one heard him land, he scrambles down the stairs and edges around towards the front of the house, gun at the ready. He’s just below the front porch, keeping one eye on the road for any sign of Michonne and Carl coming back, when the door opens. It’s the guy bouncing the tennis ball again.

Before we see how this all plays out, we have to find out what becomes of Glenn, Tara, and their new friends. Abraham is under the truck trying to mend it, telling old war stories about a boy and his vehicle, as everyone else tries not to look annoyed. Rosita, in particular, looks like she’s heard all this before, many times. The point of Abraham’s story is that this truck has been to hell and back, so how could Eugene have managed to render it a hunk of metal? “A fully amped-up state and an ignorance of rapid-firing weapons,” Eugene says, unhelpfully.

Rosita hands Glenn the photo he took of himself and Maggie, which fell on the ground in all the hubbub. Glenn hands the rifle back to Abraham, says he’s sorry about the truck, and that he hopes the mission to Washington is successful. He walks away, like he tried to do before. Tara likewise hands her gun back and calls after Glenn to wait up. Rosita considers the situation for a second, and makes the part of two a threesome. “Well, what the hell else are we gonna do?” she asks with annoyance. Abraham, losing the battle, yells after her, “Go to Washington! Fix the whole damn world!”

Eugene finally takes some initiative that doesn’t involve killing the truck, pointing out that they know the way they just came is clear, so they might as well follow, at least until they can find a new vehicle. Abraham looks unsure, and Eugene responds with extreme confidence, “Trust me. I’m smarter than you.” Big words for a man who is the entire reason they’re all on foot now. Methinks Eugene is hiding something about his true nature, but we’ll see soon enough. The men grab their gear, and the five of them head back down the lonesome road.

Rick is still waiting for the potential future rapist with the tennis ball to get the hell off the front porch. He keeps taking anxious glances, knowing Michonne and Carl are if anything now a little overdue. The guy (who we can now see is played by Jeff Kober, who has been in all sorts of things but will always be a Chian Beach alum for me) spits over the rail and parks himself on the rail of the porch, as he eats out of a can. Rick looks like he’s contemplating having to shoot the man, especially when he notices the others coming down the road at last. But just as he’s about to spring up with his gun, he and Tennis Ball hear a walker, shouts, and a gunshot. “Son of a bitch!” the man mutters, as he goes after whatever it is that has caused the commotion (presumably, it’s the man Rick killed, who is now un-killed). Rick takes advantage of the coast being clear to race across the lawn and mutter “Go!: to the other two. Michonne, Carl, and Rick retreat, laving behind some bad guys wondering what the hell happened.

Ther other group on the road has changed its configuration a little bit, with Rosita now walking just behins Glenn, Eugene in he middie, and Tara hanging back with the sergeant. “Gotta hand it to him — he’s a persistent sumbitch,” Abraham tells her. He says he knows she’s the loyal type, and he likes that, but the mission he is on is simply more important. And even if he does find Maggie, nothing matters in the long run unless Eugene gets to Washington, he adds.

Tara asks if he can tell she’s good just because she’s following Glenn, and he chuckles and says he knows she’s good. Tara insists he can’t know that, just like she knows nothing about him. She knows why Eugene wants to go to Washington, and she knows that Rosita will follow him anywhere, but what’s in it for him? Abraham seems surprised Tara would question his eagerness to save the world, but she’s about had it with self-appointed Good Guys after the Governor. “You don’t have to tell me why. Just don’t like to me,” she tells him.

Finally, we see Michonne, Carl, and Rick walking the railroad tracks, apparently heading out of town. Carl offers Michonne some of the “crazy cheese,” but Rick’s attention is drawn elsewhere,. The three of them all look at something, and Michonne asks what he thinks about it. “Let’s go, ” says Rick, as they walk down the tracks and away from a sign proclaiming the existence of Terminus, hanging from an abandoned boxcar.

So! Everything seems to be heading towards an eventual meetup in Terminus again, with perhaps a slightly smaller main cast (every transition on this show is accompanied by a death or three). The fleshing out of personalities, especially Michonne’s, is welcome; but is this show’s massive audience going to hang around for character development devoid of the threat of zombies munching on people? This was one of the most walker-free episodes of The Walking Dead ever; the “attack” on Abraham, Glenn and co. wasn’t really very threatening.

But ramping up the human threat — not via the cliched “Big Bad” but via the type of criminal gang that almost certainly would flourish in a civilization-free world — has some real promise.

Mother and Child Reunion

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“Inmates” was a curious episode of The Walking Dead, in that it was in many respects a “moving chess pieces about” hour, but also one that answered a whole bunch of questions — not to mention introducing, in its final seconds, three new characters who look like they might be important down the line. I mean, you’re not going to hire Michael Cudlitz to play someone who is getting killed off in a couple of weeks, right?

The way the first part of Season 4 ended promised that we would see novel character pairings, and folks thrown into unfamiliar roles, and we had some of that in this hour — Tyreese as the zombie apocalypse’s most unlikely surrogate father, for example. There are some positives here, but there is a lingering problem in that we’re not equally invested in everyone left standing after the destruction of the prison. A group made up of Maggie, Bob, and Sasha, for example, has one character we’ve really come to know and two relative redshirts — and “Inmates” reiterated that while The Walking Dead is certainly willing to kill off key characters, your chances of survival go way down the less we know about you. It’s inevitable that the old gang is going to be reunited, at least those who don’t get picked off along the way, but I worry that the show will be moving in fits and starts until then.

An illustration of this problem came at the outset of this hour, which was scored to a voiceover by Beth, a character we still know almost nothing about even though she’s been with The Walking Dead since the early moments of Season 2. We’ve at least gotten a bit of a fix on her personality this season, learning that she’s tried to follow in the example of her ever-patient and now deceased father, and that she is indeed able to kill the already dead when the need arises. We last saw she and Daryl escaping the burgeoning chaos as the prison became overrun.

We hear Beth reading from a diary she apparently resumed not long after Rick’s group arrived at the prison. over the sight of she and Daryl escaping through the woods, in the immediate aftermath of All Hell Breaking Loose. The contrast between the two of them running from walkers in the here and now, and the months-old diary entry in which she related Hershel’s hopeful vision of the prison as a permanent refuge, is a little on the nose (though since Beth talks about needing a place for Lori to have her baby, it’s clear that even this original hope was overly optimistic). Daryl kicks his typical ass and Beth awkwardly fires a gun at a dead person, and the two run onward through the late afternoon sun, entering a field and eventually collapsing in an exhausted heap. “This morning, Daddy said something: If you don’t have hope, what’s the point of living?” Beth says, as she relates the wish she made when the group arrived at the prison: “We can live here. We can live here for the rest of our lives.” Buzzards circle over Beth and Daryl, though there’s little chance “the rest of our lives” is exactly imminent, at least not for Mr. Dixon.

And sure enough, we pick up later that night, with Darly and Beth now sitting around a campfire. “We should do something,” she insists, with admirable pluck considering she saw her father beheaded a few hours before. Beth wants to interest Daryl in going hunting for others from the prison, though neither can be sure anyone else is alive. He listens, but says nothing. She urges him to use his tracking ability to find the rest of the group; then, becoming impatient with his refusal to say anything, grabs a big knife and heads out on her own. That gets him going; he puts out the fire, grabs the bow, and follows her.

The next morning, they are walking through the now walker-free woods when Daryl finally spots something: some smallish footprints. Beth is hopeful about the sign of life, but Daryl cautions her: “This means they were alive 4 or 5 hours ago.” The camera pans to show some rabbit corpses in the hollow of a fallen tree. They proceed along a path. Daryl notices some small fruit that looks to have been crushed underfoot. “They picked up the pace here. Gout out in a hurry. Things went bad,” he surmises. Beth wants him to have faith, but Daryl isn’t having any of that, grumping that faith didn’t help Hershel in the end. Beth grimaces at the mention of her dad and turns away, gathering some fruit off the bush. “They’ll be hungry when we find them,” she says. Daryl gives her a cloth to hold the fruit in, which is as close as he’s going to come to an apology.

Daryl seems to sense something and heads in a particular direction, down another path. Soon he and Beth come across two walkers that have been put down, and he spots some fresh human blood on a nearby bush. Beth, sticking to her “faith” stance, believes the humans must have fought them off, but Daryl points out how many walker tracks are on the path. Beth hears something and grabs her knife, but she never turns around and thus never notices the walker coming up from behind through the trees and grabbing her. Daryl wrestles it off of her and pins it to his chest, so that Beth can deliver the brain blow with her knife. They get moving again, until they reach some railroad tracks.

Alongside the tracks, three walkers are enjoying a fresh kill — though we can’t tell if any of the newly dead were from the prison or not. Daryl takes two out from long range with arrows; the third walker, so engrossed in his grossness that he hasn’t noticed new living creatures in the vicinity, is dispatched with a knife. While it’s still hard to tell exactly who died her, Beth sees a small shoe that seems to match the tiny print they saw just before, and this cracks her facade of hope. She weeps uncontrollably over the carnage; Daryl has already begun to walk away.

That night, Beth burns paper as fuel for a new fire, presumably pages from the diary whose words are now moot. “We’re not gonna die. None of us. I believe now. I believe for Daddy. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know how I can keep going.”

Back from commercial, we see a new group entirely: sisters Lizzie and Mika, tramping down another forest path. We had last seen them with two other children, a boy and a girl, and Tyreese, just after the born-again-hard Lizzie killed Alisha, the new girlfriend of Tara, the sister of Lilly, the main squeeze of the Governor, who ended up killing him in the end (you do remember all this). If I’m not mistaken, Mika seems to have grown since the last time we saw her; I don’t recall the actresses being nearly the same height before. Mika is crying, saying she wants Carol — who, you will again recall, hasn’t really been gone for very long at all in Show Time even though we haven’t seen her since early November. The mention of Carol seems to prompt Lizzie to give Mika a knife, and then she calls out ahead, saying, “It’s gonna get dark soon. Where we going?”

Up ahead, we see the back of Tyreese. Then he turns around … holding Judith. Well, well , well. I didn’t recall that this group escaped from the prison in such a way that they would have run across Judith’s baby carrier — the kids, you will again recall, were told to watch out for her — but I guess that’s what happened. He says they need to go a little further. Mika follows, but Lizzie, the morbid little weirdo, asks, “Is everybody dead?”

That night, Tyreese deals with a wound on his wrist, while Lizzie sits on a log  … and spots two litle rabbits. in a hollow. The pieces are coming together: this is the setting Beth and Daryl came across the next morning (they must have done a good job eliminating ashes from the fire, since no one mentioned them). Lizzie, who is obviously gone crazier than anyone knows, pulls out a knife, and we already saw the bunny corpses so no need to elaborate further. Judith begins to cry, and Mika is worried that they will be heard by walkers. Lizzie wants them to get moving, but Tyreese promises they can find a safe place soon. Lizzie hands him a bottle — does baby formula keep in the muggy warm air? — and Tyreese sets about quieting the tyke. The group gets moving after hearing the telltale rustle of walkers coming through the brush.

Early the following morning, the sisters, Tyreese, and the cranky baby are along the path where we saw Beth picking the fruit, and the crushed grapes on the ground. Mika pulls some grapes off the vine. It’s diaper changing time! Lizzie throws the dirty diaper away with disgust, though since everyone has been sharing living space with dead people for a long time now, you’d think she might be less squeamish. Mika is still worried about how much noise the baby is making, and nothing they do is making Judith stop crying. When there is noise through the trees, Mika grabs Tyreese on his injured wrist, he snaps at her,  and the girls start squabbling about who does and doesn’t understand walkers. He asks the girls to watch Judith while he peers into the brambles, hammer aloft, and when he peeks in, startled birds pop out. Mika runs away, Lizzie takes off after her (crushing the grapes), and Tyreese follows.

The two have trouble finding Mika, and Lizzie chides Tyreese for having yelled at her. Finally, they catch up with Mika in a clearing. She is embarrassed at having been scared, and he tells it it’s fine. Tyreese tells her you should always run from walkers, but also try to stay close to the rest of your group. Mika notices his wrist bleeding, and now feels bad about having hurt him when she grabbed it. “I know I’m not like Lizzie,” she says sadly. He says that’s OK, that the two of you get things done in your own way.  “Like you and Sasha!” Mika chirps.  Lizzie helpfully says that you’re not like Sasha at all, “Because you’re still here, and Sasha isn’t.” Tyreese looks at her like “What the hell, girl?” when the three of them — well, I guess Judith makes it four — hear definite human screams.

Tyreese hasn’t had an adult to spill his guts to in the last two days, so it’s hard to say if he’s had Sasha’s possible fate in the forefront of his mind the whole time, or if the mention of his sister by Lizzie sparks him to action here. At any rate, he doesn’t hesitate, lining the girls up with their backs to each other so that they can look for walkers in all directions, and handing the baby off to Lizzie for (cough) safe keeping. Tyreese tells them that people from the prison might be out there needing help, and he is going to go in the direction of the screams, which Mika in particular sees as a frightening idea for all concerned. Lizzie reassures him that the girls will be just fine, and gives Mika advice on keeping her knife handy. Tyreese gives Mika his gun, reminds them that if walkers come they need to run in his direction, and leaves the three children behind.

Tyreese emerges onto the railroad’s right-of-way, the same place where Beth and Daryl came upon the walker chowdown. What he witneeses now is the event that set it off. Two men, a father and son, are fighting the walkers off as best they can. A woman has been overcome and is already being consumed. It’s four walkers against two people, and the men are in trouble. Tyrees rushes to their aid with hsi hammer of vengeance.

Back in the woods, Mika is growing concerned about Judith’s increasing fussiness. She tells her sister to find a way to quiet her. This is not a good thing to say to someone who has developed a taste for killing tiny living things. With a look of demented determination on her face, she covers the baby’s mouth and nose with her hand. Judith struggles. Shades of the last episode of MASH! I don’t really believe here they are going to show a baby being smothered by a preteen lunatic, and it’s almost a relief when a pair of walkers — the same two that Beth and Daryl later saw dead on the path — begin stumbling towards the girls.

Back by the tracks, the younger of the two men is overcome by two walkers, and calls out to his father as he’s pulled to the ground. Tyreese brains the two zombies, but it will be too late for the kid. Back in the woods, Lizzie is still too into the notion of killing a baby to pay any attention to Mika, who is trying to alert her that walkers are coming. With no other option, she fires her gun, and Tyreese hears it. The walkers keep coming.

Tyreese takes down one more walker, but  is a split second late in warning the older man that he’s about to be bit in the neck by a zombie coming up behind him. He caves in the head of that one final walker, who had already done his damage, and is brought up short by the sound of an adult woman calling him by name.

Mika, Lizzie, and Judith are there, having been brought to the site by Carol — the Carol banished from the prison halfway through the first part of the season, after confessing to the killings of the first two superflu victims, one of whom was Tyreese’s girlfriend Karen. We can assume Carol is the one who killed the walkers that Daryl and Beth would later come across. There had not been time to tell Tyreese that Carol had confessed and that she had been forbidden to return by Rick — it’s unclear if anyone other than Rick and Daryl even realized she hadn’t been there when the prison was overcome — so she looks a little nervous when he comes up and gives her a hug of gratitude.

He begins to ask Carol how she was able to find them, before the group is interrupted by the sobs of the dying man by the tracks (it’s hard to be sure, but I think it’s the same man who, after his death and zombiefication, attacked Beth just before she and Daryl discovered the tracks). Carol and Tyreese ask the girls to stay back as they approach. The man tells them to stay on the railroad tracks, that leaving them had been his mistake. Carol points out that thr woods have more cover, but he says that he and his family had been headed to a refuge that can be accessed by continuing to follow the tracks. With little better to do, the four on foot plus Judith turn away and begin walking the railroad.

Mika, seeking to get back in the good graces of Tyreese, says with pride that she hadn’t run and abandoned her sister. Carol shrugs off her backpack, saying that there is some food and water inside. As Tyreese drinks up, he tells Carol he hadn’t seen her escape. She says she hadn’t gotten back yet, which is sort of true. She mentions that she and Rick had gone on a supply run, and that she had kept on looking after he headed back. She arrived back in time to see what had happened, and spotted Tyreese and the girls running away. Mika and Lizzie beam at the idea that Carol hadn’t left them behind — what she said to Tyreese probably had a lot of truth to it, in the sense that she was hanging around without Rick’s knowledge to keep an eye on the girls.

Tyreese suggests heading back for the car, but Carol shoots that idea down: “The walkers and the fire … can’t go back to a graveyard.” The girls, walking ahead, have spotted a poster that looks sort of new, and the group walks towards it. Mika reads: “Sanctuary for all; community for all. Those who arrive, survive.” Underneath is a map of Georgia with lines converging on the word “Terminus: somewhere near the center of the state. (Apropos of nothing much, Terminus was also the original name for Atlanta.) Tyreese gives a grim nod upon finding out that the doomed dad hadn’t steered them in the wrong direction.

Now it’s time for a new group, which is on the bank of a creek. We see a hand sharpening a knife on a rock, and from the look of the rock on the ring finger, it appears to be Maggie. She seems understandably grim. Behind her. Sasha is working bandaging a large cut that Bob suffered in the melee. Bob seems just a little too happy to be shirtless and be waited on by Sasha, and he apologizes for his dumb grin. She tells him it’s OK: “You’re alive, I get it.” Seeing how downcast she is, Bob tells her that Tyreese might have made it out, that they really don’t know who else might still be alive. Sasha responds that they can’t be sure anyone got out, but he says they yes, they do know.

Sasha walks over to Maggie. After filling her in on Bob’s condition, she points out that with the water to their back and good lookout points, it’s a good place to make camp for the night. Maggie says that yes, it will be fine — for the two of you. She, however, will go looking for Glenn, who was on the bus the last she saw. She says that while she has no idea what happened to Beth, she at least knows the direction the bus was going, so it might be possible to track it down. Sasha is concerned about her weaponry — just the knife — and the apparent futility of looking for a bus that with any luck made it far away. She promises she and Glenn will come back for the two of them. Sasha makes one more attempt to talk her down, but Maggie just turns and walks off.

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“You said it — we can’t split up!” says Bob to Sasha with another smile, as he walks after Maggie. Sasha obviously doesn’t like this plan, but she’s been outvoted. This trio is sticking together. They head down the road, past a now-moot sign telling them “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates.” Sasha isn’t happy, whispering to Bob that they ought to be looking for food and shelter isntead of going on a wild Glenn chase. Bob seems to be in the mood to flirt, and Sasha isn’t exactly unresponsive, but she has more on her mind. Bob is more philosophical about the search, saying, “We didn’t survive just to keep surviving.” He’s satisfied to have a mission, something to do beyond purely staying ahead of the walkers.

Maggie turns a bend in the road and sees it first: the bus stopped in the road, no sign of walkers or of a recent crisis, but no sign of human life either. She runs towards it, as Bob calls out for her to be careful. Finally, a female walker pounds at the window, and other undead inside reach through an open window Whether the bus broke down and got overrun, or someone on board died unnoticed and then turned (there were sick evacuees), the rescue mission didn’t make it — which now means everyone who came to the prison from Woodbury except Sasha, Tyreese, Lizzie, and Mika is now dead, one way or another.

Maggie tells the others they should leave now, and heads for the back door of the bus. When Bob and Sasha protest, she says she has to know if Glenn is on that bus. Bob says they will perform the task together. He wants to let them out the door one at a time; Sasha, looking annoyed but resigned, says she will help — they will need two people to keep the horde from pushing the door open. Maggie’s idea is to get a look at the faces of the escaping walkers before putting them down, one at a time.

The door is cracked and a former male, obviously not Glenn, wriggles out. Maggie knifes it. A couple more females follow. But the plan of an orderly dispatching of the undead is too optimistic, as the walkers put too much pressure on the bus door for Sasha to be able to close it again. The walkers, the former friends of these three, tumble out, and everyone goes to work on putting them down — all except Maggie, who is too dazed by the thought that the dead Glenn may be about to try to kill her to move. She is finally startled into action when Bob shoots a walker who is getting too close for comfort. Maggie, Sasha, and Bob set about removing the threat one by one, with Maggie grabbing one woman, beating her dead brains in against the side of the bus, and then stabbing her. Finally she croaks out an “I’m sorry,” paying respects to the people who once shared the prison with her.

Bob comments that the dead were “good people,” not that we ever actually met any of them besides that nice bus driver. Sasha is mostly just stunned that those who were on the bus ended up dead, while the three of them had to improvise an escape from the prison and are still alive. Maggie can see that none of the ten or so walkers lying beside the bus are Glenn, and she heads for the backdoor, ignoring Sasha saying she should be the one to check instead. Maggie enters the bus and walks forward gingerly. Blood is everywhere, but at first it seems as if every walker got off the bus when the door flew open. But up near the front, a figure on the floor is beginning to stir. The walker can’t move because a dead woman is on top of it; Maggie crawls on the seats, pulls the woman off, and tosses her out the front door. The freed walker can now stand, and growls its way towards Maggie. All we can see is that it is, or was, a male with dark hair. Maggie stabs it through the skull, and then sinks into a chair, seeming to alternate between crying and laughing. I couldn’t tell if that was just a strange acting choice by Lauren Cohan, or if we were supposed to sense that Glenn was alive, or at least not on the bus, from the fact that she didn’t howl in agony.

Speak of the devil! There’s Glenn now with blood on his face, seeming to come to. But where the hell is he? He senses, and we see, that there are walkers scrambling beneath him, having noticed something is alive up there. Turns out Glenn has been on the part of the old prison walkway that wasn’t turned into total rubble by the Governor’s tank. The last time we saw him, Maggie had gotten him onto the bus; we never saw him get back off (and he wasn’t really moving too well to begin with, having nearly died only a couple of days prior), but get off he must have.

He can see that the prison is a ruin, and that walkers are everywhere. He calls out in vain for Maggie. Since he can’t get down from where he is, he heads back into the prison, which for now seems walker-free. He makes his way back through the cell block with his rifle poised, using the light from his lantern. He sees and hears nothing. Still careful, he heads into the cell he shared with Maggie, and figures it’s time to get to work. He hauls out a bulky uniform complete with helmet — it looks like riot gear that was meant for use at the prison. He lays down in the cot — this is a lot of work for someone who has basically been bedridden for a while — and spots the photo he took of Maggie asleep in the guard tower.

He allows himself a few tears, and then it’s back to work. Glenn grabs some useful items (a knife, a lighter, clothes) from various cells — he’s assuming, correctly, that no one will miss them — and ends up with a nice haul. He emerges into the light of day draped head to toe in the riot gear, and simply wades into the walkers, pushing through the throng and seeing them chattering through the visor on his helmet. Using his rifle as a battering ram, he pushes through the mob and runs through the yard. A sight pulls him up short: he sees a young woman sitting on the other side of a fence, apparently safe from the walkers for the time being but not in a position to do much else.

Glenn looks away and sees prepared to head for the outer fence, but then thinks better of it and turns back in the direction of the woman, who as it turns out is Tara, who has lost a lover and a niece as a result of her family’s ill-fated association with the Governor, and proved to be a lot more useless in a shootin’ sense than her bravado to that point would have suggested she would be. Glenn wasn’t really a part of the defense of the prison this time so it’s unclear if he knows Tara was with the attackers.

Glenn pulls a walker off the gate to the little enclosure where Tara sits, and lets himself in. He grabs a pistol out of Tara’s hands, and is surprised to see it’s been unused. He then tells her “Let’s go,” and she doesn’t move. He asks if she has any plan besides staying here and dying. Tara admits “I was part of this,” and Glenn says he knows. She wonders why he would stay and help, in that case. Hie says he’s going to need her help with the escape.

He had spotted a bottle of booze earlier in the cell block; he has used that to make a Molotov cocktail. He gives Tara the pistol back along with a knife, lights the fuse on the Molotov, and tosses it at a car in the yard. The walkers are distracted and begin heading in the direction of the flame, giving Glenn and Tara an opening. He tells her to stay in front, and that he will cover her as best he can. He gathers his gear, puts his helmet back on, and they make their break, with Tara shooting a few walkers at close range but otherwise few problems (zombies love them some burning cars, apparently). They burst through the outer gate, and that may finally, after a couple of false starts, be the end of the prison as a set on The Walking Dead.

We pick up the new odd couple near what appears to be the same sign warning about hitchhikers we saw a half hour earlier. Glenn asks Tara if she saw anything — did any of the prison people make it out? Tara said she couldn’t remember anything except the sight of Lily being swarmed by the walkers — the pistol that she used on the Governor not nearly enough to save her in the end. This surprised me; I just assumed the show wasn’t done yet with Lily. Fighting tears, Tara said Lily wasn’t supposed to be there — that she had come on the mission because she had trusted “Brian,” who turned out to be a maniac chopping off the heads of nice old men.

Glenn had not witnessed the murder of his virtual father-in-law, and asks Tara if Hershel was the man’s name. Tara gives a quick nod and apologizes. She says the Governor had told them the prison people were bad, and she now knows that isn’t true. She’s mostly babbling, and Glenn isn’t really listening to her apologies through his anger and grief. “Why would you want my help?” Tara says, beginning to walk away. He answers that he doesn’t want it, he needs it, in order to find Maggie, who he identifies as his wife. He tells Tara he had gotten off the bus to help out, and they were separated in the chaos. He admits he can’t be sure Maggie made it out, but that Hershel, “a great man” (and he identifies him here as Maggie’s father for further educational purposes) had said that all you needed was belief, and that’s what he was going to do. After all, both have already beaten the odds by living this long.

Glenn says “Things aren’t over,” and starts to walk away. Tara, dealing with her own grief, says she wants to believe it’s so. But before this philosophical discussion can continue. some walkers begin to emerge from the woods near the side of the road. It seems that Glenn and Tara could just shuffle away down the road, but Glenn moves to confront them. He quickly knifes one but is grabbed by another, and nearly exhausts himself wresting himself away to deliver the death blow. Tara finally springs into action with a kill of her own, while Glenn hits the last one with a loaded backpack and sinks to his knees in agony. Tara tries to revive him; when she is grabbed by the Backpack Walker, she bashes its head in with the butt of Glenn’s rifle.

There’s a strange sight as we see Tara bashing the zombie’s head into the ground — the front of a large truck has come into view.Tara spots it and yells out, “Hope you enjoyed the show, assholes!” Whereupon three new characters pop out: a large man with a Fu Manchu (Cudlitz), a young woman wearing short shorts, and a fleshy guy with a bad mullet. The first two are armed; Mullet Man is carrying what looks like a walkie-talkie. “You’ve got a damn mouth on you, you know that?” says Fu Manchu with a little smirk. “What else you got?”

So who are these people? Good, bad, somewhere in between? Are they from Terminus? Do they have something to do with the radio message the drug-seeking search party heard on the car radio earlier in the season? I guess we will learn the answer soon.

The Terminus reveal is an indicator of where the show seems to be heading as we approach the end of the season. One group is already heading there, we know Daryl and Beth can’t be far behind, and the other three groupings, including Tara, Glenn, and the new folks, are all in the general vicinity. I’m just hopeful that what lies ahead is a little more than just Woodbury 2.0. The first version didn’t fully live up to its billing.

Omaha Not So Omahot

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American Idol oldtimers will always remember Omaha as the city where David Cook began his road to Season 7 glory. Somewhere on the big wide Internet is rampant evidence that I wasn’t always a fan of Cookie, but that’s neither here nor there!

Idol returned to Nebraska to conclude this season’s auditions, and I suppose it’s just as well that the weakest of the six episodes was saved for last. I don’t know that we saw a single person in this final hour who can really compete with some of the best we have seen so far, and that might be why, instead of beginning the night by finding an Omaha wannabe to show off, we got a montage showing some of the more memorable contestants from the previous five nights stewing in the Chamber. This was followed by a comedy bit wherein Ryan Seacrest was pretending to drive the three judges to the auditions. I’m not sure why Idol has made a big deal this season of shots of the trio together in an SUV; it’s not like any of us are going to buy that Jennifer Lopez is squeezing into backseats with anybody.

First up in Omaha was University of Nebraska senior Quaid Edwards, who is following in the family tradition. His mother, Jolie Edwards, once fronted a band that spent some time touring with Keith Urban (Keith sure seems to be attracting a lot of auditioners who casually know him all of a sudden). Quaid says one reason he’s doing this is to try to rekindle his mom’s dream of being a star, which is not really the best reason to go out for Idol, but whatever. His version of the by-now-way-overdone “A Change is Gonna Come” is pretty good, though it can’t help but sound familiar. The judges, even Keith, docked him for inconsistency and for throwing in runs because he thought they would be expected. Quaid seemed chastened by the tough love, and possibly because of that, the judges went all pussycat and unanimously put him through. Keith gets to reunite with Jolie, everybody cries, and Quaid gets cut the first day in Hollywood. (I’m just assuming.)

I’m not sure whether to be amused or saddened by the fact that the “Welcome to Nebraska” highway sign proclaims it the home of Arbor Day. Ryan tries to make small talk with a would-be contestant named Simon Hauck, who has maybe the worst teeth I’ve seen on this show since Elliott Yamin. He does some country novelty song that J-Lo dubs “entertaining,” but he’s there so Idol can poke a little fun at rural Nebraska, not because he’s a contender. Another girl seems to annoy the panel by demanding they sing “Happy Birthday” to her. It’s a rare-for-Season-13 Montage of Irrelevance! But thankfully, it’s brief.

Madisen Walker is a very pretty 15-year-old from Iowa who likes brownies (Harry asked; don’t ask why).She does an acceptable version of “Before He Cheats,” but I’m starting to wonder if it’s a little too easy to sound good on that. It’s just so familiar by now. Keith damns her with faint praise by noting that it was a good karaoke version of the song, and Harry wonders out loud if it’s a little too soon, despite her real talent. Jennifer and Keith put her through; after Madisen had left for the cheers of her family and supporters, Harry said he wouldn’t have voted yes, because she’s just going to be disappointed in the end. The others said dealing with heartbreak is part of the process too, and it’s hard to disagree.

15 minutes into the episode, we finally get a dose of guitar in the form of the bouncy Alyssa Siebken, who asked Ryan to pose in a selfie with her if she got the ticket to Hollywood. Her audition gimmick was one I usually find insufferable — an acoustic version of “No Hands” by Waka Flocka Flame. But it was sung well enough on the merits (not even counting her ability to rap) to get my attention, at least. Jennifer seemed to ding her for the gimmickry before saying she wanted to see more, and Keith agreed. Harry, on the other hand, visibly checked out once he figured out she was doing hip-hop. This is one occasion where his fuddy-duddyhood just looked peevish.

The way-intense Tyler Gurwicz is next. He looks a little like he could have played the Governor in a Walking Dead prequel, and had such a crazy look on his face as he sang “Set Fire to the Rain” that Keith commented on it as the major reason he would have qualms about putting him through. Still, he had a good enough range to dismiss completely. After Keith said no and Jennifer said yes, Harry turned him down too. Tyler asked for another chance, and Harry made him a deal: sing something that will show me another side of your voice. Tyler froze when asked to come up with another song, but after the commercial break, he picked one at last, “Grace” by Jeff Buckley. I thought this was actually a little weaker — not quite as on pitch, and just as many unpleasant faces — but Harry changed his mind and gave Tyler that crucial second vote. No sooner had the now much perkier contestant left the room than Harry immediately wondered if he had done the wrong thing.

Following a montage of judges’ comments — Harry telling people he hates to see beggars at auditions; Jennifer saying they’re having to get tough (not so much, in fact), we heard from Tyler Marshall, an Omaha club promoter, who delivered a shaky but impassioned version of “Proud Mary.” He was OK, but didn’t strike me as the sort of person who usually rates a segment in an audition show, or gets this much intense praise. I suspect him being featured was a function of the overall weakness of the hour. Right before Tyler, there was an unnamed auditioner who did impressions of president — now him I could have watched more of.

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I didn’t really understand the white jacket-over-black t-shirt thing that C.J. Jones had going on, but he provided one of the night’s better moments when he told the panel he would be singing “Stand By Me.” Harry made a joke about staying where he was, and C.J.  didn’t miss a beat, ordering him to come up next to him. Harry obliged and snapped his fingers next to the kid while he crooned. He had more of a baritone voice than I was expecting, but it was more than acceptable by the lenient standards of the evening. I’m not sure the judges weren’t responding more to the positive overall vibes from Harry’s cameo when they put him through to Hollywood.

Dajontae Lenear seemed overwhelmed to be in the presence of the great Lpez, and was almost struck dumb when Jennifer called him “the cutest thing I have ever seen.” He had a quasi-Sam Cooke tone that wasn’t necessarily contemporary, but was awfully pleasant. Dylan Becker was yet another in the long line of would-be John Mayers, a kid who might entertain at a local coffeehouse one of these years, but without anything special to recommend him. Both will be sticking up for Midwestern youth in Hollywood.

Paula Hunt, who said she was 20 but seems quite a few years older, is a signer for the Air Force Heartland of America Band, which I suppose is as good a prep for Idol as any. She also featured a bit of a lisp in her speaking voice, but this proved no impediment to her singing; her version of Etta James’s “All I Could Do Was Cry” was passionate without overdoing it on the tricks, which may be why Harry responded so well to her. Paula told a story about her mother having to abandon a potential career in gospel because multiple sclerosis took her singin g voice. This is one case where I hope someone’s vow to make it big in Hollywood in order to pay tribute to a family member’s lost dream does work out.

I was amused that the produced illustrated their visit to the hometown of Andrina Brogden with “Team” by Lorde (“We live in cities you never see on screen”), since she is from Fargo, which I think we did sort of see on screen in a well-known film. Yeah, I know it was mostly set in Minnesota, but work with me. She is very conscious of sticking up for a neglected part of America, but she’s going to have to do a lot better than her pallid cover of “Halo” to get much further. She took some liberites with the melody to disguise her lack of a lower register, but Jennifer seemed to think the problem was a lack of confidence. Harry essentially said she was pretty good but not good enough and ended up voting no, but Keith agreed with J-Lo that exposure to the wider stage can help Andrina get over her fears. Eh, she’ll get to see the big city for a day at least.

Square dance caller Christian Scholl proved that not everyone who is involved in music should try to actually sing. Casey McQuillen arrived in Omaha from Massachusetts and sang a decent version of Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.” She was good enough that I was a little surprised she didn’t get any more airtime in a mostly lackluster hour. At the very least, she could be another Katie Stevens. Am I the only one who remembers Katie Stevens?

The last auditioner of the night, and the last for Season 13 as a whole, was Tessa Kate, who I guess has some unpronounceable real last name she doesn’t want us to know. She’s a performer in Branson who also sells tickets for scenic riverboat cruises. The Branson thing isn’t really a positive when it comes to Idol potential, and I shuddered when I saw that this sweet-faced young woman was going to do “Folsom Prison Blues,” since I figured it almost had to be some kind of novelty. But she was surprisingly good, sounding more than  a little like Dolly Parton, of all people; her guitar playing was also strong. Jennifer compared her voice to that of a chipmunk, unlikely to be a compliment even if toy’re talking about Simon, Theodore, and Alvin, but all in all it was a unanimous rave, with the judges raving about her sweetness.

21 people got tickets in Omaha; 212 made it to Hollywood in toto. And despite the overall mediocrity of this outing, the previous audition episodes give indication that the cuts might be a little more painful than usual this time around.

Next up: Hollywood begins with some sort of massive surprise inside a hangar.

It’s Not Just The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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Reality talent shows have always been populated by young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints out of proportion to their numbers in the society at large. This tendency has particularly been noticeable on So You Think You Can Dance, but American Idol has had its Mormons too: David Archuleta, Brooke White, Carmen Rasmusen etc.

So it makes sense that Idol would head to Mormon Central, Salt Lake City, for an audition episode. This may have been the best stop yet for serious talent, in part because a surprising number of Southerners made their way west to audition. The three judges continued to work well together, though Jennifer Lopez is a little quick to say yes to anyone who isn’t terrible (I’m fairly certain she has never been the sole no vote on any auditioner in any of her three seasons on the show), and Harry Connick Jr. seemed a little moodier than usual.

Idol seems to be using the pre-credit sequence this season as a way of highlighting favored contestants (in the past, you usually waited to see who the show would feature last on an audition episode). Tonight, it’s Casey Thrasher of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who we see holding a baby girl inside a mobile home. This footage was filmed four full months before his audition, which raises the question of who knew that early that Idol would care who he was. Keith Urban is heard in voiceover talking about how American Idol can give a lifeline to talented kids trapped in small towns, and the quiet acoustic music that runs beneath the opening minutes of the two hours sets a mood that this is going to be an episode all about Rural America.

Keith is excited to just hear the name of Austin Wolfe, which he feels is a great showbiz name. What could make her a force on this show, though, is that she diesn’t seem that showbizzy. The pretty blonde did one of this year’s more popular audition choices, “Radioactive,” and made song surprisingly sweet-sounding. She was on pitch throughout, but also threw in a few individual touches at the end. Harry compared her to Hayley Williams, and I didn’t hear that at all, but she could definitely be, in Keith’s words, “a force to be reckoned with, baby” as we move forward.

Next up was an Idol novelty: an auditioning lumberjack, and a female one at that. “I really hope you can sing,” joked Jennifer, knowing that Kylee Adamson had a terrific hook otherwise. She has a B country voice and an A+ personality, so there was little doubt she was going to Hollywood. A montage featured Tessa Norman, who Harry cited for her “ridiculous” smile (that’s a good thing) and was praised by all for her sassy version of “Mamma Knows Best”; Michael Simeon, a clean-cut would-be John Mayer (that might be a contradiction in terms) without particular star quality; and Keith Sanders, who showed up with a metallic-blue acoustic guitar and delivered a funky version of “Use Me.” All three will be among those fighting it out in Hollywood.

A Montage of Suck, which featured among other things our first person this season bringing a keyboard to the audition, was punctuated by Keith and Harry giving their respective views on how to turn people down (Keith tries to take into account that even the bad singers have people who care about them, while Harry is more direct, at one point asking someone what language she was singing in).

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Alex Preston introduced himself to some fellow wait-ees as “the most obnoxious guitar player in the world” because he’s obsesses with playing. With a bizarre garden-shears-quality haircut and a face that seemed to be in a permanent sneer, he certainly set about looking obnoxious, at least. His parents were just fine with him taking a year off from college to “follow his heart,” though that might be contingent on coming home with one of them tickets. He plays an original song, which is only fair; but his guitar playing is fairly impressive, and there’s an overall vibe of earnestness that seems to impress the panelists a lot, especially the hard-to-please Harry, who is enamored of his jazz background. “I’d go see that guy!” exclaims Harry after Alex has gotten his ticket to Hollywood.

After a nervous wait in the Chamber, Samantha Calmes arrives with guitar, torn jeans, and a magical bottomless fannypack. She too has an original song which begins with a near-rap element. It’s hit-and-miss, and Harry asks her to sing a cover so they can get a better handle on her voice. She launches into a very New Orleans-influenced version of the theme song from The Jeffersons, and though it struck me as more than  a little affected, the judges were charmed. Harry liked her total package more than the actual voice, but all three judges ended up putting her through. WTF moment of the auditions so far: Keith comparing her to Macklemore. Hmmmm, I guess her jeans could have come from a thrift shop …

Ryan Seacrest talks a bit about the Idol bus tour, another way of bringing the show closer to the people and all that. Apparently all of the bus people were brought to Salt Lake City, which I don’t get since it looks like most of the bus stops were in the Southeast. A few of them pop up here, led by LeBryant Crew, whose aim is to be the first preacher to win American Idol. I’m not sure his Otis Redding-inspired stylings will do the trick, but he has charisma that the judges picked up on. Laurel Wright showed off a soft acoustic original that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Taylor Swift’s first album.

Both of those singers ended up heading to Hollywood, as did D.J. Bradley, whose tousled strawberry blond hair had the judges likening him to Ed Sheeran. I didn’t ge tthis one at all, to be honest: he’s not pleasant to look at, and his Adele cover was “pitchy,” to use a word I think has now been banished from the show’s glossary. His nervousness capped off the presentation. Jennifer liked his quirkiness and sensed a mysteriousness in him, while the guys were more ambivalent, thinking D.J. was a little blasé. But everyone came around and voted yes on sending him through.

Teenager Kenzie Hall referred to being nervous enough to throw up, since she already knows she wants to make a career in music and figures Idol is the ideal way to start. She may be about ready to make that start: she chooses John Mayer to cover –not often a girl will do that — and while her guitar work is rudimentary, she can do  a whole bunch with her voice, going from quiet to really big and then back again, without it all sounding like she was trying too hard. The judges barely considered her before putting her through, though I suspect they were responding to her All-American look in part.

Paisley Van Patten wisely showed up wearing a quasi-paisley print blouse. She has the sort of backstory we’ve seen before on The Voice: a Nashville record deal at age 15 that she squandered due to an alcohol problem. She downsized her life in Salt Lake City, but is now ready to make a comeback — though she will be doing it without her ex-fiance, who told her he’d be taking off if she decided to pursue Idol. Holy Cowell, Batman!  Her version of Faith Hill’s “When the Lights Go Down”carries a ton of emotion, but it’s not out of control. You could tell the judges were hoping she would be good, and that she was.

It’s about time for some people who aren’t that good, apparently. Teenager Haydn Olson was really mediocre, but for some reason Jennifer actually wanted to put her through (she was the only one, thankfully). Even worse was a dork named Chase Boyle, who looked like Weird Al on medical marijuana but didn’t sound nearly as good. Blue-haired Julia Flores, who went by “Missy Cyclops,” might have had more of a chance as an actual cyclops.

A couple of others had more success. Blake Branscom, who for some reason reminded me of a teenage Ron Swanson, told Seacrest he liked to “go fishin’ and play music.” His version of “I’ve Always Been Crazy” was way old-fashioned, but he was smart enough to deploy a stategic wink that charmed Jennifer. Jocelyn Baker proved me a liar by covering John Mayer after I said females hardly ever do that; she has a Colbie Caillat vibe that might go over well (ironically, Colbie was an unsuccessful auditioner for Idol back in the day).

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C.J. Harris, from rural Alabama, made a reference to some bad choices as a kid, and a picture of him hugging his mom while wearing a prison uniform says it all. His father died a year ago before even getting to age 50, and C.J. sings like someone who has been through a whole helluva lot. His occupation is listed as “guitar teacher,” but I thought his Allman Brothers cover was more noteworthy for the passion of the vocal than for any particular picking. Jennifer responded to the power of the voice more than its technical prowess, and I can understand that. He seemed legitimately touched to get the ticket to Hollywood. In a hilarious P.S., we learnd C.J. has a heavily-accessorized-with-crosses girlfriend named Britney Slappy. What is with all the slapping going on? Last week we had the girl from Slapout, Alabama.

The second day in SLC is called to disorder by Tiquila Wilson from Winston-Salem (one of my many former hometowns), a church singer who works in a funeral home. After saying “I sing for the dead,” Keith quipped “Harry does too,” which I believe did make me literally LOL. Tiquila is a large black woman, which on Idol means she’s either going to be really, really good or really bad. Well, let me take that back. She has power, but like a lot of singers that pop up on Idol, she’s pretty non-compelling on the parts that aren’t belty. In other words, she’s probably not experienced enough to win this, but the judges intend to give her the chance to try. Interestingly, Harry asked her if her church has a problem with her singing secular music, a concern I’ve never heard brought up on Idol before despite the number of overtly religious contestants it has had.

Chase Thornton threatens to give Idol its own Zoolander — he’s an extremely goofy model in cargo shorts who insists he has what it takes. (Side question: why do male models always refer to themselves as “male models?” If he was a dishwasher, would he say he was a “male dishwasher?” Somehow I think not. Anyway.) Keith thankfully halts his caterwauling a couple of lines into his Bruno Mars cover and tells him he needs to take lessons, which is more optimistic about his future than it needed to be. A Montage of Sorrow is punctuated by the group’s puzzling turndown of Jessica Bassett, who looked a little like a young Geena Davis in silly polka dot pants. She sounded perfectly in tune and looked confident to me, but only Jennifer wanted to keep her, which was just mystifying.

Next up: shots of our judges when they were on their way up! Keith, as a 16-year-old singing Air Supply on an Aussie talent show (and with hair disturbingly close to what it still looks like); Jennifer, joining the Fly Girls on In Living Color; Harry playing Big Easy-style piano at age 10. You too can make something of yourself!

Emily Rottler is the latest of what seems to be an endless supply of talented guitar-playing teen girls in Utah. I thought they were all going on So You Think You Can Dance? I liked her, but I question if there’s the distinctiveness in her to stand out (aside from the mustard tights she favors). She deserved her pass to Hollywood, but Harry telling her that it’s a special year for talent on Idol illustrates the tough path for her forward.

Dexter Roberts came to SLC from Alabama, and boy, that’s an accent the man has. He’s something of a jack-of-all-trades back home, including dog trainer. He can even make his own bird calls! He performs a song by Idol alum Casey James, and displays real charisma with the way he plays. His voice isn’t bad either; he’s not glamour boy, but aside from that you can see where he’d fit into the current country scene. During this segment, it comes out that Jennifer thinks it’s amazing that anyone can play an instrument and sing simultaneously. Dexter will have the chance to show her more miracles in Hollywood.

There’s another “Jen says yes, guys say no” disagreement regarding Ally Roundy, but this time I thought the men had the better argument: the teen needs to move beyond the Christina Aguilera impression she’s currently doing. There was better luck for Briston Maroney, a 15-year-old who showed up with the guitar once owned by his great-grandfather, a Nashville recording artist back when the industry was still in its infancy. Just standing and talking, he seemed very quiet, but his version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was way over-the-top to my ear, coming across as fake-angsty (not unlike the way the middle-class Mick Jagger imitated Southern black Americans, I suppose). Keith called him out for being “affected” but still saw signs of a unique style, while Harry was mostly worried about him losing his voice eventually. He’s heading to Hollywood, home of the affected.

A trio of intriguing folks is up next. A big Asian kid with a baseball cap, bowtie and purple shoes named Leia Lotulelei goes by the name Fish, and shows off a surprisingly delicate voice that veers into falsetto;  Sabrina Lentini is a dead ringer for a 15-year-old Paula Abdul; she is another who says she’s wanted this her entire life, but her strumming and crooning is pretty meh; Carson Henline is 16 but looks three years younger; the burly teen tries hard (his face is red with effort) but is ultimately judged to need a little more time. Fish is put through with no dissent, but the teary Sabrina got a no vote from Harry, who has a rep to uphold, after all.

After Jennifer tells a story about how sometimes you can tell a contestant is going to be good right away, and other times something starts out well but then goes very wrong, we’re introduced to another nice young man with a guitar, Johnny Newcomb. I’m thinking something about that story is bad news for Johnny, and I’m not wrong, at least at first: he does a version of “Last Kiss” (incorrectly identifying it as a Pearl Jam song; they just did the cover) which shows off a constipated voice, since he seemingly thinks that’s how Eddie Vedder sings. Keith and Harry both think he’s too derivative right now, but Jennifer agrees to his request to try something else … which ends up as a country number sung like Eddie Vedder. Jennifer argues that he’s “too good to say no to,” and ends up changing Keith’s mind. Jennifer gives him some good advice about loosening up and letting us see the real person inside before Johnny heads out to meet his exuberant parents. Dad could be a hoot in Hollywood, if he makes the trip.

Kimberly Tosti comes in saying she trained in opera, but what she learned there appears to be little more than screeching. The judges aren’t quite as dismissive of her as she deserved, but they dismissed her nonetheless. Up next was Carmen Delgina, who startled the panel by announcing that her father was “Wonder Mike” of the Sugarhill Gang — the man who literally introduced the world to the term hip-hop. That turned out to be the hook she needed, because strictly as a singer, she was pretty drab, her efforts to go all jazzy mostly falling flat. She ended up getting a unanimous Yes to Hollywood even though no one really had much good to say about her vocals, with Jennifer even suggesting she was going through for “practice.” Uh-huh. On the bright side, J-Lo seemed legitimately thrilled to meet Wonder Mike, and who wouldn’t be?

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Kassandra Castaneda began on an off note, giving her uncle’s phone number to a visibly weirded-out Jennifer. “Please call or text to say hi!” J-Lo read in a tone that basically shut the door on that ever, ever happening. Things got better once she began singing “Chasing Pavements;” it was a little derivative but certainly promising. Harry disagreed, saying that she’s not good enough right now to sing so many run (you just knew his run-o-phobia would start to assert itself  after a few days). But Jennifer thought her control was fine, and Keith made a bet on her raw talent by casting the deciding vote to send her through.

We;re finally about to see what became of Casey Thrasher! He waits in the Chamber, asking God to help pull him through. Before that, though, we need to get a verdict on Kenneth “Woodie” Gaddie, singing an actual gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Jennifer liked him, and it sure sounded like he got through to Hollywood, but all we could hear was a lot of happy noises through the walls of the Chamber while Casey waited for the green light.

Finally, it’s the turn for the young man from Alabama. He’s been living in his aunt’s double-wide with his two small children, so Idol means more to him than most. He’s been working odd jobs here and there while also playing music where he can. He says he picked his song because of an experience he had with Keith, which causes Harry to quip. “Should we leave?” Casey talks about bumping into Keith a year ago at the CMA Awards and telling him he would work to make sure they met again, to which Keith responded, “I believe in you!” Keith doesn’t show any sign of remembering this encounter, but he and the others seem touched by Casey’s earnest version of the very earnest Brooks & Dunn song “Believe.” His emotions caused him to lose pitch at least once, but that’s not necessarily bad if the viewers find it organic. The judges bought onto his story of struggle, and enthusiastically put him through. This guy will be hard to beat should he get to the live shows, as the country and religion buttons are the best ones you can push on Idol.

Next up: the auditions conclude in Omaha, which is probably the only way Jennifer could have been persuaded to go there.

Always Be A Good Boy, Don’t Ever Play With Guns

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Say what you will about the first half of Season 4 of The Walking Dead, and the decision to bring the Governor back and promptly go nuts again, but it did serve the purpose of getting everyone out of that prison. A settled, relatively happy community that only has to worry about keeping the fences shored up — one that even has time for agriculture and book learnin’ — isn’t dramatic enough to keep 10 million plus tuned in weekly.

And so those first eight episodes last fall took apart our survivors’ happy home: first, with an epidemic that turned its victims into post mortem predators; and then via the Governor and his fledgling army (plus tank) presenting the prison contingent with an offer they couldn’t refuse, only to destroy everything when they refused after all. Now, with the second half of the season under way, and those who made it through the last battle scattered about the Georgia countryside, we are seemingly going to spend a little time exploring one of this show’s perennial themes: Just how much can these people be expected to take before they go totally crazy?

The second half premiere, “After,” dealt with only three main characters (plus the bodies of the Governor and Hershel, seen in the pre-credits sequence). For Rick Grimes, who has already endured the loss of a wife, a best friend turned rival, and (presumably) a baby daughter, the toll has not been just psychological: his fight with the Governor seems to have nearly exhausted his remaining life force. Carl, probably the one thing keeping Rick going at this point, has lost the same family members as his father, and is now going through typical adolescent acting out in the most dangerous way. And for Michonne, with the relative repose that had brought back some of her pre-calamity personality now shattered, she is back to being the stoic, damaged lone warrior — but one that we learned quite a bit more about this week, a season and a half after her introduction,

The episode began with an aerial view of the aftermath of the battle for the prison, where the only winners were the walkers (what became of the Governors’ people who weren’t killed in the battle? I guess this might remain an unanswered question). A horse lies dead (Michonne’s?), as does the Governor. Amidst the zombies milling about everywhere outside the now even more useless prison gate, a sword-wielding arm appears. Michonne appears to ponder her next move, before heading in the general direction of the gate. A walker finally notices someone alive in the mass of stumbling dead flesh, and Michonne takes care of that little problem, and a few other walkers to boot.

She walks towards the wooden spikes that guard the gate, appearing to coax a couple of walkers into following her and thus impaling themselves. Once the two ex-humans are immobilized, she cuts a length of rope from the gate, and sets about turning the two walkers into her personal zombie repellent, like the men who accompanied her when she first came upon Andrea. As she starts to walk away from the prison, with the walkers in tow after having had their arms and lower jaws removed, she comes upon Hershel’s reanimated head — a reminder that no matter how wise and humane you were in life, once dead, you’re just another monster.  Seeming to fight back tears — she had begun to build a nice relationship with Hershel, and the two of them were together when the Governor precipitated this last crisis by kidnapping them — she puts the sword through his brain, and then she and the two leashed walkers leave the prison behind.

(One note here: my working theory after the midseason finale was that baby Judith was probably not dead, and had instead been absconded with by Michonne, who was absent in the final minutes of the episode. This first scene eliminated that as a possibility, which means that unless someone somehow got her on the escape bus, Judith is almost certainly dead. Maybe this was a case where the producers decided that in spite of everything awful we’ve seen this last three and a half years, showing a baby being killed by zombies would have simply been too much, and thus the bloody carrier would have to suffice. )

Cut to Carl and Rick, walking down a quiet country dirt road. Check that: Carl is walking quickly with a fixed frown, while his badly limping father, who just survived yet another near-death experience, stumbles along behind, finding it hard to keep up. Finally, he growls at Carl to slow down (Andrew Lincoln’s voice choices are a frequent source of humor, and his “Rick in extremis” drawl is one of the best yet. We’re not supposed to be laughing whenever he speaks, I’m pretty sure). He impresses upon Carl the importance of coming up with a new shelter, or at the very least, food and other supplies. He puts his hand on Carl’s shoulder and begins to reassure him: “Hey! We’re gonna be …” Carl shuts him down with a blank stare, and the two walk/stumble onward, to who knows where.

All this walking eventually brings the pair to a roadside restaurant, which might have some supplies assuming it has not yet been looted. Rick asks Carl to stand guard outside while he checks it out. The boy isn’t having it, telling Rick he ought to be the one to wait outside — that he’s in no shape to do such a job on his own. Carl assures Rick that he remembers the old lessons about how to clear a dwelling of walkers. He finishes with a curt “You should just let me do it myself.” Father and son enter and see no immediate issues, but the two then come across a barricade of tables and chairs erected in front of the restaurant’s counter. One sole walker is trapped behind it. Also back there: a row of hot sauce bottles, which Rick ruefully notes may be all that’s left to loot.

Carl offers to shoot the walker, but Rick says no — bullets are at a premium, and he claims that even in his weakened state, the walker is even weaker.  Carl spots a note lying in front of the barricade, reading “Please do what I couldn’t” — the owner of the establishment apparently knowing he was going to die, and what would happen to him afterwards. Rick takes apart the barriacde and the walker staggers towards him; he puts an axe into its forehead, but it’s not deep enough to kill, andRick isn’t strong enough to pull the axe back out. Carl cocks his gun, and ignores Rick’s command not to shoot. When Rick snaps at Carl for ignoring his order, Carl snaps back that the axe wasn’t working. “I had it! Every bullet counts,” snarls Rick, who hopes they won’t need the spent bullet later. They ransack, with Carl’s contempt for his dad not even remotely being disguised.

Michonne and her two comrades-with-no-arms stagger through the woods, and even up crossing the same dirt road where Rick and carl were at the start of the hour. She notes fresh footprints in the mud, but whether out of fear that they belong to walkers or out of a lack of desire for human companionship right now, she ignores them and proceeds across the road into the trees on the other side.

Carl and Rick are still on the road, with Carl again walking at a pace that puts him well ahead of his father. Rick finally gets his attention as the two pause in front of a house. He suggests this is as good a place as any to crash, and the two set about their breaking & entering routine yet again. Rick worries when Carl looks like he might get out of his sight, and he tells him to stop. Carl says there’s nothing to worry about, with nothing but open doors in front of him, and he then starts yelling at the zombies he is certain aren’t there to come out. He regards Rick’s caution as pathetic, since the sound of their entry would certainly have stirred up anything that was un-dead in there.

Rick enters the kitchen, where the fridge hangs open, and Carl heads upstairs,  eventually coming across what was once the bedroom of an upper middle-class teenage boy. He looks around in admiration before remembering that none of this means a whole lot anymore.  He takes the cord once used to plug in the television, and repurposes it to help tie the front door shut. Rick begins pushing the couch in front of the door, which Carl feels is unnecessary because his knot is strong enough. He says Shane taught him  how to make a 12-hitch knot, and then taunts, “Remember him?” Rick says yes, I think about him every day, and then asks Carl if he has anything else on his mind, in that “I’ve heard enough out of you, young man” tone of voice.

Carl then helps Rick put the couch into place, and Rick removes his holster, signaling that his day is about done, and what a long damn day it’s been. But there’s still time for one more pointless argument:  Rick urges Carl to eat some of the day’s haul, Carl says they ought to save it; Rick responds by ordering Carl to eat up. He then limps off to the bathroom, huffing and puffing after the exertion of moving the couch, and removes his shirt. There’s a mirror in the bathroom, and even though it’s pretty dark by now, he finally gets a  look at the toll inflicted on his body over the preceding few hours.

Back from a commercial break, it takes me a few seconds to collect my bearings regarding where we are and who we’re looking at. It’s a modern apartment, pre-apocalypse. A well-dressed Michonne is working in the kitchen, arguing with a couple of men about the merits (or not) of an art exhibit they have just seen. One of the men says with mock shock, “Mike! Will you please talk some sense into your lover!” The first hint that we’re not looking at a flashback, but instead inside someone’s dream, comes when Michonne begins cleaning the knife she’s using to chp vegetables, and the knife becomes the katana. She puts the sword in a knife block, a little boy runs into the kitchen an d into her arms, and she brings a tray of food out to the two men, as the soundtrack music darkens.

The next time we see the men, they are less well dressed, and are talking about whether or not it’s safer in a camp or on the road. “I’m not taking my son out there,” Mike says, as Michonne and the little boy look on, seeming oblivious to the conversation. Mike is openly wondering if there’s any reason to go on, if life still has a meaning. The other man tells Michonne, who is still in pre-zombie mode looking on as if this conversation is comical, that she’s become an expert with the sword, and that’s important nowadays. Mike just wants to know “Why?”

Michonne wants to know one other thing: “Who’s gonna open the wine?” She pushes a bottle towards the men, who now sit with their arms removed. The sight of them snaps her into reality: the apartment has gone dark, the boy is missing, Atlanta is in ruins outside, and she begins to scream … until she wakes up in the present day, where she has been sleeping in the front seat of a car, with the leah for her new walkers closed in the window. So in this sequence, we learn two things for sure that had only been suspected till now: her original zombie companions were in fact people she knew (and one had been her love interest); and that she indeed was a mother.

Back at the new Casa Grimes, Carl wakes up. Noting that  Rick is still asleep, he grabs his gun and the bag of cereal, and heads to the kitchen. He pours himself two bowls. He then chills in the teenagers’s bedroom for a little while and reads. He comes downstairs and seems surprised to see Rick still motionless on the couch. He calls out to him, then nudges his foot, then starts jostling him and calling on him to wake up in an increasingly loud voice. I don’t really believe Rick is dead here because the show is kinda about him, but this seems to be more than just a good night’s sleep. All this yelling does one thing though: attract zombie attention. Carl looks up and notices somebody, or something, is testing the knot he tied to the front door.

Sneaking out a side door, he walks around into the front yard and sees a male and female walker pounding on the door. Carl takes a look around and then calls out to the walkers: “Fresh meat! Come and get it.” The walkers stumble towards Carl, who walks backward, leading them away from the house and from Rick. It’s unclear where he’s leading them as they proceed down the road, though Carl is careful to turn around every few seconds to make sure nothing is creeping up on him.  However, his luck eventually runs out: a third walker comes out from behind a shed, and Carl doesn’t have time to pull his gun on it, or run in the other direction, since the original two walkers are in that direction.

Carl shoves the third walker away to buy time, then crawls backward, grabbing his gun just in time to shoot the first two walkers as they fall upon him. The third walker continues to approach, and Carl wings it with two non-head shots (trying to shoot with two zombies on top of him affects his aim a bit) before finally putting the former human down. Now all three are lying dead-dead on top of Carl, but he’s at least safe, albeit with the loss of five more bullets. He works his way out from under the pile of flesh and promptly vomits, but then his bravado is back. “I win,” he says as he retrieves his gun and puts that hat back on. As he stands alone in the road, he mutters “cool” to himself.

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Michonne and her two pets wander through the woods with another small walker group. What her plan is here, who can say. At one point, she looks to her side and sees a walker who was once someone like herself: a young black woman with braids. When she looks back, that walker isn’t there anymore. I couldn’t tell if this walker was a figment of Michonne’s imagination — a reminder of the fate that she has so often just barely avoided — or if it was really there.

Carl returns to his new home and tells the still unconscious Rick that he lured walkers away from the front door and killed them. “killed them. I saved you. I saved you! I didn’t forget while you had us playing farmer,” Carl says with increasing petulance. Now that he knows Rick won’t respond — it’s unclear if he even still believes Rick is alive — he lets him have it, saying he doesn’t need his protection anymore; that he’s fully capable of handling himself. “You probably cant’even protect me anyways. You couldn’t protect Judith! You couldn’t protect Hershel, or Glenn, or Maggie. Michonne. Daryl. Or Mom. You just wanted to plant vegetables. You just wanted to hide. He knew  where we were, and you didn’t care!” He blames Rick for the presumed death of all the old group (in fact, many of them are still alive). “You were their leader! But now, you’re nothing,” Carl says through tears. Then, as if to prove he’s a hardass to himself after coming close to crying, he dumps out the bag of food to leave for Rick, grumbles “I’d be fine if you died,” and walks away. Cold!

Carl assumes he has a plan here, the dope. He walks down the road and spots another house. As he heads toward the front door, he stops to pull a small light along the walkway out of the ground — more interested in the pointed end that was used to anchor it. He tries breaking down the door, but bounces off and hits the deck — his larger dad had a little more success at the other house (this was the first time I had laughed during a Walking Dead episode in a long while). Eventually, he pries the door open with the spiky end of the light, and heads inside.

The home is disheveled as if abandoned in a hurry, but Carl finds a few food items in the kitchen, and then spots the mother lode: a huge can of pudding left on an upper shelf. He works out a way to reach the pudding, and then heads upstairs cautiously, past half-packed boxes. He peeks into two bedrooms, and sees nothing but what appears to be a small dead pet on one of the floors. He then moves towards another room with a closed door. He cracks it open … and a walker immediately tries to push its way through. Carl isn’t quite strong enough to push the door shut against the force of the crazed zombie, and the creature eventually forces its way through. Carl collapses on the floor of the hall and fires a shot, missing. His next shot wings the walker in the skull, but it’s not the direct shot needed to kill. The next shot … oh dear, he seems to be out of bullets.

There’s nothing left for Carl to do now but use his legs to keep the walker at bay — how the thing never gets a bite out of him is a mystery. Finally Carl is able to scramble towards a bedroom, and while he’s not able to shut the door on the walker, the mess in the hall seems to be preventing it from standing up in a hurry. Carl scrambles toward the window, but isn’t quite able to force it open before the walker is on him again. He hits the zombie with a table lamp and then tries to crawl back toward the door, with the walker grabbing his leg and coming oh-so-close to sinking his teeth into adolescent ankle. Finally the walker pulls off one of Carl’s shoes, which enables the boy to get to the door. He kicks the books that have been spilled everywhere out of the way, and closes the door just in time. As the walker pounds on the door in vain, Carl uses chalk to write for the benefit of anyone who comes by in the future: “Walker Inside. Got My Shoe Didn’t Get Me.” The bravado is back, despite the close call. Carl smiles as he walks away; then sits on the roof eating from the huge can of pudding as the walker chatters through the half-open window.

Michonne continues walking with the walker cohort of about 20; they all leave her alone because the men she has on the rope mask her “alive” scent. She begins looking around in discomfort, as if thinking to herself, “Why am I with all these dead folk?” She spots the braided walker again, stares at it for a few seconds, and then removes its head with a swipe of the sword. By this time she’s dropped the rope and is exposed, but the pack is scattered enough that she is able to decapitate them all one by one as they stumble towards her. Though the effort clearly exhausts her, she kills in a frenzy, saving the two men on the rope for last. With all the walkers lying around her, she begins to cry, alone in the woods.

Michonne backtracks to that road in the woods, where she previously saw the footprints and blew past them. Now she looks again. Seeing something she recognizes, she follows the prints down the road, with resolve on her face.

Carl awakens with his back up against the couch where Rick still lies — I guess life on his own was harder than he thought it would be? It’s still daytime.  Carl stares at Rick for a bit, and then, the man’s hand suddenly twitches and he gasps. Carl, startled, backs away and grabs Rick’s gun (the only one left with bullets), preparing to possibly shoot the father he is no longer certain is alive. Rick rolls off the couch with a bang, then reaches out towards Carl, who is starting to cry. As Rick’s hand grabs Carl’s leg, Carl sobs and puts down the gun: “I can’t. I was wrong,” he says.  At last Rick is able to end the suspense over the “dead or alive?” question by  blurting out Carl’s name, telling him to stay safe before the effort causes him to collapse once again. Carl props up Rick’s head and holds it while he admits that he’s scared. Of course, once Rick is awake, he’ll probably deny it again.

Michonne cautiously enters the roadside BBQ restaurant Rick and Carl were in earlier; she sees the dead-dead walker lying where Carl had shot him. As she prepares to leave again, she sees the “Please do what I couldn’t” sign, and this seems to spark another epiphany related to her past, and what apparently became of her son.”Mike, I miss you,” she cries. “I missed you even when I was with you. Back at the camp, that wasn’t you who did it.” She continues with a steelier tone. “You were wrong, because I’m still here. And you could be too. And he could be…”

“I know the answer. I know why,” she says in conclusion, before walking out the door. She casually kills a walker waiting outside, and moves on her merry way. So what is that answer? And what became of Mike and the boy? It sounds like Mike killed himself and their son, or killed himself and then killed the boy (“It wasn’t you who did it”) after turning. But that answer, if not Michonne’s “answer,” awaits further episodes.

At Casa Grimes, Rick is admonishing Carl over the latter’s excursion, but not with a great deal of anger. Carl claims he was careful (suuuuure), and Rick thanks him for locating more food. Here, Carl admits to having eaten the huge can (112 ounces!) of pudding. Rick smiles at the admission, and then has an admission of his own: he knows the old world is gone-gone. He says he tried to keep things as normal as possible for his kids, but now Judith is gone, “and you — you’re a man, Carl. You’re a man. I’m sorry.” Carl responds, “You don’t need to be.” and it’s the nicst father-son moment on The Walking Dead in many a moon.

Michonne spots the empty can of pudding in the street, and even though she knows walkers don’t have that as part of their diet, she puts her hand on the hilt of the sword anyway. She edges onto the porch of the house, and peers through the window, spotting Carl eating and Rick sitting quietly. The tension in her body eases and she cries softly again. She seems to think it over, then nods, and knocks.

Carl and Rick are startled, even though walkers don’t knock. Both Carl and Rick grab their guns, and Rick edges up to look through the peephole. He takes one look and then starts to laugh. Carl asks what’s out there, and Rick simply says, “It’s for you.”

So this is the beginning of getting the band back together, I assume. Next week’s previews suggest that we’re going to reacquaint ourselves with most if not all of the other surviving cast members (except Carol, who we can assume is still out there somewhere), although it’s unclear how many different little groups there might be. We really haven’t seen most of them lately; with the detour into the Governor’s world in the first half-season and their absence from this hour, everyone but Carl, Rick, and Michonne has been completely absent from three of the last four episodes.

What we saw of Michonne this week illustrates the central human question that we have to ask about these characters — the viewers who watch the show for reasons other than gore: what keeps anyone going at this point, especially those like Michonne who apparently have no living family? She might know the answer, but I sure don’t, and  I’m just watching.