The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 1

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

What Lies Ahead

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A much-anticipated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s ongoing comic book series, last year’s debut season of The Walking Dead was a huge success for cable channel AMC. Like many zombie fans, I love Kirkman’s comic series for its breadth; even long zombie movies like the original Dawn of the Dead don’t have the necessary running time for truly fleshed out characters and lengthy, complex plotting. A monthly comic (if written well, as Kirkman’s is) can do that, and so can a TV show.

With an impressive roster of talent – writer/director Frank Darabont, stars Andrew Lincoln, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, plus Bear McCreary on music duties – the TV version of The Walking Dead is an impressive piece of work that’s contributed greatly to the recent trend for genre television being taken seriously as drama. It also helps that cable television is free of the standard and practices imposed on its network equivalent, meaning that the show doesn’t have to stint on the outright gore and violence that’s so essential to the genre.

It’s easy to treat the zombie apocalypse genre less than seriously, and many exploitation movies (notably ones made in Italy) do just that. What Kirkman’s comic, and its TV adaptation, do very well is to create a believable, rounded group of characters within the situation, and make the story as much about them as it is about gory, ravenous walking corpses. In the process, you end up with a piece of work every bit as respectable as the giants of the genre – particularly Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead, the movie that really kick started all this.

With a tightly knit six episode first season, The Walking Dead was a great success both with viewers and critics, its validity as drama in no way stinting its real zombie action. A lot of people who normally wouldn’t go near a zombie story were hailing it as impressively watchable. Clearly then, this second season, and its opener in particular, have a lot to live up to.

It doesn’t help that there’ve been some fairly well-publicised ‘creative differences’ behind the scenes between seasons. Frank Darabont, the excellent writer/director who was the driving force behind getting the show on TV in the first place, departed as showrunner under circumstances that vary according to which reports you read. Some say he resigned, others that he was fired, but there’s general consensus that he was none too happy at AMC’s demand for a longer season on a smaller budget. Meanwhile, cast members have reportedly gone in fear that if they disagree with the producers in any way, they’ll be written out – easy enough in a series where violent death is a frequent occurrence.

While I’m sceptical about that last claim – other reports indicate cast members having contracts for multiple seasons – it rarely bodes well for a series to have such ructions in its production team. Thankfully, comic creator Robert Kirkman is still heavily involved with the show, so at least there’s a strong continuity there.

So, there’s a lot riding on this season opener. Penned by Kirkman himself along with Darabont (his final contribution to the show, credited under the pseudonym Ardeth Bey) it had to live up to the excellent first episode of season one, and reintroduce the zombie action that was rather lacking in the previous year’s season finale. It also had to pick up numerous character arcs, notably the one about hero Rick Grimes’ wife Lori having an affair with his best friend Shane, believing Rick to be dead. And a major unresolved point from last year’s finale – just what did CDC scientist Dr Jenner whisper into Rick’s ear shortly before blowing himself up along with his facility?

Thankfully, I can report that this opener acquits itself rather well. Handily opening with a recap of recent events as Rick reports them via walkie talkie to fellow survivor Morgan (yet to reappear after episode 1), it’s intercut with some impressive scenes of various zombies staggering around the deserted Atlanta. Significantly, one of the show’s best assets who’s not been affected by behind the scenes changes is veteran makeup guy Greg Nicotero. Nicotero, who cut his teeth working with Tom Savini on Romero classic Day of the Dead, serves as chief effects bod on the show, and after years of practice is producing some of the best zombies the genre’s ever seen. These are realistically ragged, rotting, mutilated things that look so convincing you can almost smell the rot off them!

The ep really gets going with a superb, lengthy set piece as our heroes get stuck by a broken radiator hose on Dale’s RV, amidst one of mankind’s final great traffic jams. I’ve always found post-apocalyptic drama rather patchy on this whole traffic thing; some show the roads eerily empty, others decide that they’d be clogged with people trying to escape from whatever’s ending the world. I’ve always contended that unless the apocalypse happens in an instant, the latter approach is more believable. Luckily for me, so do the producers of this show, and a sizeable portion of that reduced budget must have been spent on putting together this motley collection of stalled and crashed cars to block our heroes’ way.

And of course, a mammoth herd of zombies turned up to add to the problem. If you’re going to grab viewers with your zombie drama, it’s best to start big, and this episode did. It was a long but heart-poundingly suspenseful set piece as our heroes were forced to hide, mostly underneath the stalled cars. I’d have thought they might be better off inside them, but that was dealt with too as Andrea (Laurie Holden) cowered inside the RV, trying incompetently to reassemble the gun she’d taken apart for cleaning. Of course, if she’d managed, the shot would have brought more zombies running (or staggering, anyway), but she managed to dispose of one curious (and gruesomely made up) zombie that got in by means of a screwdriver handily given to her by Dale, who was hiding on the roof. And thus we got the first (but not the last) bit of real nasty gore in the episode as she rammed the screwdriver into the zombie’s eye socket. Really hard. And repeatedly. Ewww…

Elsewhere, T-Dog and Daryl took an alternative approach to hiding by dragging rotted corpses out of the cars and pulling them on top of themselves, in another nice grossout moment. Actors IronE Singleton and Norman Reedus gave convincing grimaces which conveyed quite how nasty this must have smelled. Indeed, this was a continual motif throughout the episode whenever anyone got near to a zombie, and it’s an aspect that I think has never really been dealt with before in zombie films, so it’s good to see it followed up on here – if you recall the first season, we were shown that zombies don’t chase each other because of the smell of rotting flesh, leading to a really icky sequence where Rick and Glenn had to cover themselves with zombie innards to walk among them undetected.

This whole set piece must have taken up near a third of the episode by itself, and was extremely well-directed. It’s fair to say that the pace slowed a lot after this wound down, as the story concentrated more on the characters. That’s no bad thing (though hardcore zombie fans who just want blood and guts might disagree), as the pared down group left at the end of last season is small enough for some interesting dynamics to be emerging.

Among these is Andrea’s antipathy towards Dale, who last season forced her to flee the impending destruction of the CDC by threatening to remain with her if she didn’t leave. Andrea, it turns out, really resents Dale for this, feeling that he undermined her choice to end her life by guilt tripping her into leaving. Dale, for his part, is worried that her desire to commit suicide is far from gone, and is reluctant to trust her with a gun. This came to a head in a nicely played scene between regular Darabont alumni Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, and is clearly far from resolved. What makes it interesting for the reader of the comics is the knowledge that there, Andrea and Dale end up as a couple. But the TV show is taking the wise course of cherry picking certain plot points and set pieces from the comic without being a slavish adaptation, so there’s no guarantee of that happening here.

The group actually splits up too, as Rick and various others head off as two parties to search for little Sophia, who ran off screaming as a zombie spotted her underneath a car. Meanwhile, Dale and T-Dog remained with the RV, with Dale revealing that he’d actually fixed the radiator some time ago, but kept it secret so the others wouldn’t move on without finding Sophia. With the heroes now effectively split into three groups, there’s a lot more scope for subplots about them not being able to find each other while getting into their own, separate jeopardies – a good plan for the season, in my opinion.

While this latter half of the episode is undoubtedly less intense than the traffic jam/zombie herd set piece, there’s still plenty of gore and nastiness to keep the hardcore zombie fans happy. As Rick kills the walkers who’d been chasing Sophia, the camera lingers quite a while as he very graphically bashes one’s head in with a rock. Later, he and Daryl kill another with a crossbow bolt, and in order to ensure that it hasn’t just eaten Sophia, open it up to check its stomach contents. Again, the looks on the actors’ faces conveyed just how gross this must smell, and even I couldn’t restrain myself from saying out loud, “Ewww.”

There’s also some gruesome zombie killing in a local church, as the search for Sophia leads our heroes to holy ground. This also gives some of the characters a chance to reveal themselves via the South’s fractious relationship with religion, as the camera frequently lingers on the crucifix at the altar. Sophia’s mother Carol (Melissa McBride) is, unsurprisingly, very religious, and takes the opportunity to pray fervently for her daughter to be found. Rick, however, is more ambivalent. Andrew Lincoln continues to give a good performance as, wracked by doubt, he prays to a God he’s not sure he even believes in for a sign that he’s doing the right thing. I’ve always liked Lincoln as an actor, so it’s no surprise that he’s good here, but I’m still impressed with his convincing Georgia accent (though if anyone from Georgia is reading this, they will probably know better than I how good it is).

The episode climaxes with another set piece lifted from the comic, and very nicely directed it is too. Seeing a majestic stag in the woods, Rick’s son Carl is entranced, and creeps towards it while Rick motions Shane not to shoot it. It’s a magical moment which, just as in the comic, is brutally interrupted when an unseen shooter blows a hole in both the stag and Carl’s stomach. For those who haven’t read the comic, I won’t speculate on what happens next as it looks to be identical – suffice to say, we’re about to meet some new characters.

A promising start, then, for a show that had a lot to live up to after its first year. Of course, this is also the last episode with any Darabont involvement, so it remains to be seen whether later instalments will be as good. I’d also say that, in its bid to impress from the outset, this opener has probably had a lot more money spent on it than others will have, so the budgetary restrictions that led to Darabont’s departure may become more noticeable too. Nonetheless, we’ve got some seeds here for a very promising season. I’m guessing we’ll see more memorable set pieces and characters from the comic making an appearance, but I’m also hopeful that we might see a return for Michael Rooker’s formidable redneck Merle, a  creation of the TV show whose fate remains unknown. And we still don’t know what Dr Jenner whispered to Rick, the script teasingly dancing around the issue as Rick brings Morgan up to speed on the walkie talkie at the start. Whatever happens, new showrunner Glen Mazzara has some big shoes to fill; let’s hope he does it well.