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!
After a strong start with last week’s season opener, the second episode of The Walking Dead’s second season felt a lot more low key. There was much less zombie action this week, as new showrunner Glen Mazzara’s script focussed more on the drama surrounding the characters – particularly Rick’s son Carl, who’d been accidentally shot by a hunter at the end of the last episode.
The episode opened with a flashback to pre-apocalypse days, as we saw how Shane informed Lori of her husband’s shooting, and how she then informed Carl. Obviously intended to provide a counterpoint or parallel to the situation now, as a dramatic device this felt a little obvious. Admittedly it paid off plenty as Rick and Lori agonised over their injured son, and we heard how they dealt with Rick’s comatose condition before the dead started rising; nonetheless, the flashback seemed unnecessary to highlight the similarities, as though the viewer needed to be cudgelled over the head to get the point.
Which was fortunate, because there wasn’t much other head-cudgelling going on this week. Perhaps because of the reduced budget (and admittedly, knowledge of this is going to have me scrutinising every episode for evidence of it), there was comparatively little zombie action this week. In fact, Andrea’s encounter with a lone walker was beginning to look like it as far as zombies were concerned; thankfully the showrunner knows that, however respectable the drama, a zombie show is going to need some zombies, so by the end we were back in the thick of them – briefly at least.
But to go back to the beginning – as in the comic, Carl’s shooting led our heroes to the farm of one Hershel Greene and his family. Hershel seemed almost awesomely prepared to deal with Carl’s injuries, leading the viewer to the obvious conclusion that he must be a doctor; but for readers of the comic, it was no surprise when Lori winkled out of him that he was, in fact, a veterinarian.
Actually this shouldn’t cause too much concern. There’s an episode of 70s BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors where a similar situation crops up, and the vet in question points out that, unlike doctors, vets are trained as applied scientists. This is because they might at any point be called on to treat an animal whose physiology they’re unfamiliar with, so they’re taught to adapt basic principles. As that vet pointed out (in the UK at least) it’s illegal for doctors to operate on animals, but perfectly all right for vets to work on humans.
Mind you, it does point out one little problem, if you’re a fan of the comic – that there’s a good chance you’ll know what’s going to happen next. The Walking Dead has generally treated the comic more as an inspiration than a direct storyboard, which is by far the best approach. Hence, some well-remembered set pieces from the comic are retained, but generally the show is its own animal. It’s just that when, as last week with Carl’s shooting, the show reproduces a moment from the comic very faithfully, you tend to know what’s coming next. It might be interesting if, at some point, a script lifts an incident directly from the comic and deliberately changes the result of it, to wrongfoot those of us who are familiar with the story in its original medium. However, the conversation between Rick and Hershel as to “God’s plan” with the plague, and its potential cure, hints that we’re quite likely to see the next part of that plotline in the near future as Rick investigates Hershel’s barn…
Most of the episode, though, was spent agonising over whether Hershel could dig out the six fragments of bullet that hunter Otis had left in Carl. I must say it seemed impressive/implausible that Hershel could tell how many fragments there were without the aid of an X ray, but we’ll ignore that for now. There was also much soul searching among the now fragmented group of heroes; Rick and Lori were beside themselves worrying about their son, while the search party for little Sophia discussed the advisability of asking God for help (Daryl, pragmatically, concluded that it was a waste of time) and back at the RV, Dale had to deal with T-Dog’s cut becoming dangerously infected.
All nice, character developing stuff, but it did feel as though the story moved very slowly while it was going on. As a character, Norman Reedus’ Daryl is already becoming far more likeable (if less exciting) than his more overtly redneck brother Merle; it’s a telling indication of the occasionally survivalist mentality of zombie stories that he’s coming across as one of the best equipped to deal with the situation. Not that the script ignored the other tendencies of rednecks in general, as T-Dog told the incredulous Dale that he felt a bit worried being the only black man with “two cracker sheriffs and a redneck”. It’s nice to see IronE Singleton as T-Dog getting a bit more to do this season, and in a way this speech felt like a critique of him having been almost the “token black” last year.
Nevertheless, the tension built up by his feverish infection and the apparent lack of antibiotics to treat it was immediately undercut when the returning Daryl nonchalantly produced a handy bag of pills from his motorbike. This had the effect of making the entire subplot feel very much like filler. And the decision of Dale, Andrea and Daryl to remain with the RV – in case Sophia comes back – while the others head back to Rick smacked of a certain limit in settings. I said last week how impressively expensive the corpse-strewn traffic jam looked; it seems now that this will have to be justified by some of the characters spending a lot of time there. Budgetary considerations again?
Elsewhere, the story did gain a bit of momentum again as Shane joined up with Otis to try and scavenge some much-needed medical supplies from a local FEMA emergency shelter. Pruitt Taylor Vince was somewhat typecast as Otis, though the revelation that he had medical knowledge from volunteering as an EMT expanded his role somewhat from the comic. The other new characters on Hershel’s farm, though, were far more paper thin. Otis’ wife got barely more than a few lines, while the unidentified teenage boy didn’t get to say anything at all. At least Hershel’s daughter Maggie got to be a bit hardass, as she rescued Andrea by cudgelling a zombie from horseback. Let’s hope that the others at least get a chance to talk in the upcoming weeks, but it actually felt like the show might be getting a little overmanned in terms of characters again.
It was looking like that lone zombie might be the only one we saw this week, and I was beginning to think that, for budgetary reasons, Shane and Otis’ mercy mission would take place entirely offscreen. But here was the first evidence that my eagle-eyed search for budget cuts wasn’t always right. As they turned up at the local high school converted into a FEMA shelter, it was swarming with zombies. This did revitalise the episode somewhat, as they had to figure out how to get past them and get at the medical supplies. This was neatly done in a tensely directed scene as Shane had the bright idea of distracting them with lit roadflares from the back of a handy police cruiser – though I couldn’t help being reminded of the fireworks used to distract zombies in Romero’s recent Land of the Dead. Perhaps a love of shiny things is part of official zombie lore now.
Unfortunately, Shane and Otis don’t seem to have worked out an escape plan, and the episode climaxed with them barricading themselves in the school, and their flimsy barricade about to give way. It was a pretty tense last few minutes that almost made up for the general slowness of the rest of the episode.
So, a much less exciting episode this week – though it remains to be seen how much this feeling was caused, for me, by familiarity with these events from the comic. Still, the characters and performances continue to engage, even if the structure of the story could have used a bit of work. With Shane and Otis in the thick of some real zombie action at the climax, let’s hope next week is rather more evenly paced.