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 last week’s intense, character driven episode of The Walking Dead, comes… another one. And that’s not a bad thing, as last week got me really interested in the characters again, to the extent that I wouldn’t have minded a comparative lack of zombie action. As it happened, last week didn’t stint on the zombies, but this week did, and I found myself not missing them… too much.
After the extreme darkness the characters were exhibiting last week, with their constant talk of death and ending it all, this week saw them lightening up somewhat. Which was not only a relief but quite plausible; if they’d remained in that kind of mood on an ongoing basis, I’m pretty sure that there would have been a few suicides.
Not that it didn’t start a bit dark, though. The pre-credits sequence showed us Otis’ funeral, a sad cairn in lieu of a body, and focussed very much on Shane’s obvious (to the viewer) guilt. As Hershel eulogised Otis and his wife cried, the camera kept lingering on Shane’s face, and credit to Jon Bernthal for an expression that screamed guilt to the viewer while giving nothing away to the characters onscreen. As if to make things worse, Shane was then called upon to recount Otis’ last ‘heroic’ moments as a memorial, and I found myself grimacing as he told a patently false tale of self-sacrifice cleverly intercut with flashbacks of what actually happened.
As I said last week, keeping Shane as a main character longer than the comics did is one of the best decisions in the TV show. Part of the appeal is that even though he’s a baddie, he’s clearly ended up there with the best of intentions. He really loved Lori, and started an affair with her when he believed her husband was dead; now that he’s back, Shane’s finding it hard to shut off those feelings, and that’s leading him down a very dark path. And I got the impression that he also genuinely loves little Carl, and that his cold-blooded use of Otis as zombie bait was purely to ensure that he managed to get back with the medical supplies needed to save the boy’s life. Not that that makes it any better, of course – you know what they say about the road to hell and its construction methods.
The gang also got back together again at Hershel’s farm this week, which was something of a relief; dramatically, it was all beginning to feel a bit scattershot with various parties heading off in various different directions. Now that they’re back together again, there’s time for some good old fashioned woolgathering as they contemplate the situation they find themselves in. Carl’s out of the woods, but there’s still no sign of little Sophia; and Daryl’s lonely search for her was a key to making his character even more sympathetic.
It would have been easy to portray Daryl, as Merle’s brother, as just another thoughtless, bigoted redneck. What the writers have done with him is far more interesting; he’s a man from a very poor background who may well be somewhat uncivilised, but comes across as genuinely decent. We saw that last week as he bolstered the depressed Andrea’s spirits, and saw it again this week when he comforted Carol as she busied herself tidying up the RV in the hope of her daughter’s return. Norman Reedus made Daryl’s tale of the Cherokee Rose (from which the episode drew its title) genuinely affecting, and you could see how touched Carol was not just by the flower he brought, but also by the hope. In a genre which so easily turns to survivalist wank fiction, it’s nice to see that the backwoodsman who’s so good with the crossbow is also a decent, caring human being.
Also building on the depth he was given last week was Steven Yeun as Glenn. He’s been perfect in the role, and the costume has made him look exactly how you imagined the comic character to be. But up till now,he’s been relatively little used. That’s changed these last couple of weeks as the show gets closer to his pairing up with Hershel’s daughter Maggie. The scene between them in the abandoned pharmacy was both touching and hilarious, as his attempts to disguise what he was really taking by picking up a pack of condoms led to them inevitably having sex. It was sweet, and in keeping with the Glenn the comic fans know, that even confronted with an outright verbal offer to have sex, he still couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth: “I’d never have sex with you… I mean, of course I would… but…” Later, Maggie tells him it’s a one time thing, but I think the showrunner would be wise to retain their rather charming relationship from the comics.
It wasn’t just free love that Glenn was getting up to this week, though; he was instrumental in dealing with the lone zombie the gang did encounter, a rotted, corpulent thing who’d stumbled down one of Hershel’s wells. Reasoning that shooting it in the head would contaminate the water, an ill-thought-out plan was created to extricate it with a rope by dangling Glenn down as bait. Of course, this all went pear-shaped as the rusty pump they were using as a pulley gave way, leading to a real heart in mouth sequence as Glenn dangled screaming just above the ravenous corpse and the others struggled to drag him out before it bit him.
Thankfully he was fine – I’d hate to lose Glenn, one of the comic’s mainstays, so early in the story, but I didn’t rule it out – and not only that, he had managed to snag the zombie in the rope. It was a big fat one, and quite rotten; you didn’t have to be a genius to predict the result of trying to drag a severely decomposed corpse out of a well with a rope tied tightly round its shoulders. With gruesome inevitability, it happened; the corpse split in half, the lower half tumbling back down the well trailing guts and all manner of organs with it. So much for not contaminating the water – it’s lucky Hershel’s got other wells.
The only zombie sequence in this week’s episode, this was well-directed, going from direct tension to gruesome gore pleasingly for zombie fanboys like me. It also felt a little like an unnecessary subplot tacked on solely to provide a bit of zombie action in an episode light on it. But I’ve got a feeling some of the stuff we saw here is going to pay off later on. Most noticeable was Maggie’s sickened face as T-Dog smashed the zombie’s head in; later, Glenn suggested that this must be the first time she’s seen one of them killed. But last week, she alluded to having lost several relatives to the plague, so there’s something not right there.
I don’t want to go into too much detail for those who haven’t read the comics, but if they’re doing what I think they’re doing, further hints were given by the revealing conversation between Rick and Hershel as they gazed out over the beautiful view from the farm and discussed God. It’s plain that Hershel’s a God-fearing man, but he’s also a vet and committed to relieving suffering. He’s no mad fundamentalist, but his quiet certainty about his faith in the face of recent events seems a little foolhardy. Playing Hershel, Scott Wilson has endowed the character with the same old-fashioned morals (not necessarily a bad thing) as the comic character. But his insistence that Rick and co surrender all their arms seemed odd when they could be surrounded by zombies at any minute, as Shane pointed out. And while he’s obviously considering letting the group stay on at his farm, he wouldn’t hear of them having to sleep in his barn. Good old hospitality? Perhaps…
Andrew Lincoln continued his convincing Georgia accent as Rick got some more bonding done with his family too. After confessing to Hershel that he didn’t have much truck with God any more (interesting to know that he presumably used to), he had to confess to his son that he’d lied earlier about little Sophia being OK. It was a sweet scene, and I’m impressed with young Chandler Riggs as Carl; he perhaps seems a little too sweet for a boy in this situation, but the loving relationship with his father is crucial to the narrative, and this scene really brought that home. Plus, he finally got to inherit Rick’s sheriff’s hat, his trademark in the comics (he’s rarely seen without it). And this version had the added verisimilitude that Rick was going to have to pad the hat out so it would fit!
Rick also symbolically discarded the rest of his police uniform this week, packing it away in a drawer at Hershel’s, presumably not to be seen again. As a piece of symbolism, it was a little heavy handed; the uniform obviously the last representative of a once-secure world now vanished forever. But the look on Rick’s face, and the way Lori sadly embraced him as he closed the drawer, gave it a real dramatic heft.
Lori too was troubled, after sending Glenn with a secret requirement from the pharmacy and insisting on his absolute discretion about it. So much discretion in fact that even he didn’t know what he was looking for; presumably Lori just used a brand name. But she told him to look in the feminine hygiene section, and even if you haven’t read the comics it was fairly obvious what she was after. Of course it was a pregnancy test, and of course it was positive. Even Glenn, who now knows what she wanted, doesn’t yet know that she really is pregnant; but Rick might. I’m still betting that’s what Dr Jenner whispered in his ear just before he left the CDC, based on the blood tests they all had.
Of course, if Lori is pregnant, the question is, who’s the father? She slept with Rick as soon as he found her near Atlanta, but she’d been sleeping with Shane up till then. And Rick may be wondering too. Why else, if Jenner has already told him, hasn’t he mentioned it to Lori himself? It’s another interesting dynamic to add to the tensions in the group, and I’m sure it won’t be the last one.
As I said, after finding its feet with the characters again, the show does this kind of drama well, leaving you wanting eagerly to know what happens next. It’s a mark of the drama’s priorities that this week’s cliffhanger was nothing to do with menacing zombies; rather, it ended with a shaken Lori squatting in the dark holding her positive pregnancy test. Tonally, the show is beginning more and more to remind me of BBC 70s post-apocalypse drama Survivors, with its focus on real, sympathetic characters dealing with the practicalities of life after the end of civilisation. The mainly rural setting is another similarity; it’s lucky for the budget that in a post-apocalypse scenario, cities would be best stayed away from. I’m not sure how many episodes could have been set in the deserted Atlanta without breaking the bank!
A similarity to Survivors is no bad thing (to my mind, it’s the most comprehensive exploration of a post-apocalypse scenario ever shown on TV). But the show’s still not forgetting it’s also a zombie horror, and even the brief encounter with the undead this week was satisfyingly gruesome. Although the ‘looking for Sophia’ plot is beginning to drag somewhat, these last couple of weeks feel like a show finding its feet again after an uncertain start to the season.