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!
It was a slow burn for The Walking Dead this week, after the major character revelations of the last few weeks. Nonetheless, tensions are really starting to build, both within our original gang and between them and Hershel’s crew, and it feels like the show is ramping up the tension for the mid season break after episode 7.
With the seemingly neverending search for little Sophia forming a backdrop to explore how het up the characters are getting, it’s a little easier to forgive the fact that it seems to dragging on interminably. That was actually addressed this week in a revealing scene between Rick and Shane as they combed the woods near Hershel’s place. Starting out with blokey banter about their high school love lives, the scene gave you the impression that these really were two very close friends; but then it took a darker turn as Shane reflected that all that, the old world, was gone now, and harking back to it constantly was a nostalgia that bordered on dangerous in their current situation. Given that, Shane angrily told Rick that he wasn’t up to making the big decisions – the crucial one being that now would be the time to give up on Sophia.
I must confess, I found myself agreeing with him – both from a pragmatic perspective within the drama and also as a viewer who’d like the plot to move on a bit, thank you very much. I’ve not harped on about the alleged budget cuts for a couple of weeks, but with the setting now being largely restricted to Hershel’s farm as the search continues, it is beginning to look like both plot and setting are a cost-saving measure. Still, at least the writers are addressing it in the script, and the doubt-ridden Rick conceding that he wouldn’t give up the search if it were his son that was missing came across as believable enough.
I don’t mind my post-apocalypse drama being character-driven and thoughtful as well as spectacular – as I said previously, this was a positive strength of the BBC’s original Survivors in the 70s. But it’s worth noting that even that began to drag in its middle series, with the characters mostly settled in a farming commune and having minor disagreements about using manure as fuel. The Walking Dead hasn’t quite reached that level of static inaction – yet – but the limited setting and plot inertia is beginning to look tellingly cheap compared to season one.
Given the limitation – if it is a limitation – the writers are at least making the best of it, introducing more tension this week as Hershel begins to think Rick and his crew are basically freeloading. It doesn’t help that Glenn’s getting noticeably close to his daughter, his adoptive son’s heading off into the woods with Andrea and T-Dog, and Daryl’s nicked his horse.
Much of the focus this week was actually on Daryl, who’s fast becoming one of the best characters in the show. Apparently given the challenge of “making a racist likeable”, Norman Reedus has taken Daryl from strength to strength these last few weeks, and made us realise that a poor redneck can still be a decent guy.
The potential class turmoil of Daryl’s background was thrown into sharp relief this week with the surprise (and very welcome) reappearance of his no-good brother Merle. Memorably incarnated by Michael Rooker, Merle was one of the scene-stealing characters in season one, and many of us have been waiting to find out what happened to him after he sawed off his own hand to escape from Rick’s handcuffs then headed off into the Georgia wilderness.
But while it was nice to see Merle again, these answers weren’t forthcoming. For the Merle we saw was actually a hallucination of Daryl’s after falling down a hill and impaling himself on one of his own crossbow bolts. Rooker was as memorably monstrous as last year, but Merle’s function here was to act as an inner voice for Daryl’s fears and self-doubt; it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the real Merle as he had a full complement of hands.
So (imaginary) Merle taunted and insulted his little brother with his fears about how Rick and co looked down on him: “One day they’ll wipe you off their shoe like a piece of shit”. And for a while it looked like Daryl was convinced. The way his hallucination faded into what was actually a zombie trying to chomp through his boot was a nice touch, and it was Merle whose goading prompted Daryl to tear the bolt from his torso the hard way and use it to despatch the next zombie along. But when he cut off their ears and put them on a bootlace to wear as a necklace, it seemed that he was well on his way to losing the decency we’ve seen and becoming just like Merle.
It was a good depiction of Daryl’s long dark night of the soul. There was a genuinely tense sequence as he staggered, bedraggled, back to the camp and Andrea, assuming he was a walker, had a damn good go at shooting him in the head. Thankfully the bullet only grazed him, and later his doubts seemed to be assuaged when Carol thanked him for risking his life to look for her daughter: “You’ve done more for her than her daddy ever did in his whole rotten life.”
Nonetheless, I wonder if this issue has entirely gone away; I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this potential class conflict. And I’d like to see Merle come back properly to bring it to the boil. If they can get Michael Rooker back to play a hallucination of himself (and I wish they hadn’t given it away with his name as a guest star in the opening credits), then it would only be logical for Merle to come back in person in the near future. Watch this space…
Elsewhere, Lori was still troubled by her confirmed pregnancy, the more so since Glenn has figured it out and hasn’t – yet – sworn himself to secrecy. But Glenn has other things on his mind, as he and Maggie continue to act like smitten high school sweethearts. The none-too-well-concealed passing of notes at the dinner table didn’t go unnoticed by anyone; and Glenn has also let slip to Dale (with smirking teenage obnoxiousness) that he and Maggie have done the deed already.
Unfortunately Glenn’s choice of venue for their next sexual assignation turned out to be rather ill-advised – and we finally got the payoff to all those heavy hints about the contents of Hershel’s barn. It turns out that, as in the comics, it’s full (well, as full as the budget will allow) of locked in zombies. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” says Maggie, looking aghast.
So, some good character development this week, but the show is starting to feel as though it’s dragging a little again. It didn’t help that there wasn’t much in the way of zombie action this episode; after only seeing one of the buggers last week, it really is starting to seem like a budgetary consideration. There was a slightly spectacular pre-credits flashback to our heroes trying to reach the refugee camps in Atlanta, only to see the city napalmed. That looked like it cost a fair bit, but seemed oddly pointless; there was no payoff anywhere in the plot of the episode, and unless it relates to something in the coming weeks, I’d rather have seen the money spent elsewhere.
Still, with the reveal about Hershel’s barn full of zombies coming on top of the stress between the two groups, it does look as though things are set up for next week having rather more excitement than this week. I’d say this part of the plot – the search for Sophia, and being mired at Hershel’s farm – may well come to a head after the mid-season break, and the plot can move on more significantly. I certainly hope so; while there’s been some good drama in the season so far, it’s worth noting that it seems far more static than season one. After all, we’re at the fifth episode now, and compared to the first season’s entire run of six episodes, it’s felt overstretched and draggy from time to time. It’s still a good show, with some good drama, but it needs to pick up the pace a little.