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!
Pretty Much Dead Already
And so, finally it’s the big mid season climax. The part where, traditionally, the viewers are whipped up into a frenzy of excitement and then left, hanging on a cliff and breathless for more. So did The Walking Dead manage to achieve that? Well… not really. At least not in this viewer’s opinion.
There was plenty of drama at least, as many of the character conflicts that have been simmering away over the last few weeks finally boiled over. As Glenn said, “secrets are killing us.” So after last week’s orgy of revelation, this week people started to confront each other over what had been revealed. Rick told Shane about Lori’s pregnancy – though, significantly, he didn’t let on that he knew about Lori and Shane too. Shane immediately went to quiz Lori over whether the bay was his, only to receive the terse reply, “even if it’s yours, it won’t be yours”, leading to a pissing contest in which Shane tries to prove that he’s saved Lori’s life more often than Rick.. Dale, worried after last week’s confrontation with Shane, went off to hide the guns. Because Dale and Glenn were about to reveal the one important secret remaining – Hershel’s barn full of zombies.
All the threads were fairly neatly drawn together. Shane is finally at snapping point with the discovery that Hershel’s been keeping a barn full of walkers next to where they sleep. Maggie’s furious at Glenn for divulging the secret, but as we discovered in a conversation with her father, she’s less convinced than before that the zombies can be cured. Daryl’s intent on searching for Sophia, even though her mother Carol is on the point of finally giving up; meanwhile Shane’s insulting him because of his poor background. And Rick’s trying his best to be understanding about Hershel’s view of the walkers, because it’s Hershel’s place and Rick’s a reasonable man – even though being reasonable may not be a factor in favour of survival in the new world.
There was much pontificating on that this week, as character after character seemed forced to concede that, while Rick was the better man, it might actually be that Shane is the better equipped to survive. This point was rammed home by Rick’s insistence on continuing the search for Sophia when, even in the old world, the police would surely have given up by this point.
But the ethical question remained of whether Shane’s pragmatism was worth giving up civilisation for. There was another electric confrontation between him and Dale, as Shane went to retrieve the guns that Dale was hiding, so that he could exterminate Hershel’s barn full of "sick people”. This was a tense scene with the threat of actual violence emphasised by Jon Bernthal’s tightly wound physicality; for a while, I actually thought he might kill Dale to get the guns. Then, as Dale pointed his rifle unwaveringly at Shane, I wondered if Shane would be the one to go out this time – after all, he’s long dead by this point in the comics.
But Shane’s shaping up to be the real antagonist of the series. Every zombie story needs one, from Cooper in Night of the Living Dead to Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead. Zombies are a mindless menace; for true evil, you need a human. Dale summed it up with his opinion of Shane: “at least when the world went to shit, I didn’t get dragged down with it.”
Rick, meanwhile, was continuing to be reasonable, and trying to persuade Hershel that his group should stay, on the grounds that his wife is pregnant. He’s so desperate, he’s even prepared to help Hershel rope in a pair of zombies that have got stuck in the swamp for storage in the barn.
Which led, inexorably, to the ‘big climax’. Shane, already wound up by Lori’s dismissal and Dale’s contempt, saw the procession bringing the new undead arrivals and lost it completely. Fed up of Rick’s reasonable approach, he demonstrated the true nature of the zombies to a devastated Hershel by riddling one with bullets to show that it still wouldn’t die – until he blasted it in the head. Of course, for a medical man, Hershel was a bit blinkered in not noticing the creatures had decomposed so much as to be incurable, but that was another factor for comparison with Shane. Hershel had been so shut away from the chaotic apocalypse that he’d had no real inkling of what these creatures really were.
And of course, Shane then finished what he’d started by opening the doors of the barn to let loose “more than a dozen” zombies. It was here that I started doubting that this would be a particularly ‘big’ climax; there’d been more zombies than that in almost every episode of season one. Nonetheless, the scene had some dramatic impact as we saw our gang , left with no choice, pick up their guns and blast away at these people who had been Hershel’s friends and family as the man himself looked on in shock.
You could say Hershel was being naive. But then the script pulled out a bit of a surprise, that actually put the gang – and by extension, the viewer – in his shoes. For the last zombie to stagger out into the sunlight was none other than little Sophia, another in a long line of horrifying little girl zombies that started all the way back in Night of the Living Dead.
I must say, this took me by surprise, though with hindsight it seems an obvious dramatic denouement; I suspect I was wrongfooted once again by expecting the scenario to end as it did in the comics, which of course don’t feature this subplot. But it did pack a real punch as Carol shrieked hysterically, and even Shane had the anger stunned from him. In the end, it fell to Rick to put Sophia down, and the first half of the season ended with him standing over her body. Perhaps he is well enough equipped to survive this new world after all. The question posed by this episode being, at what price?
As a cliffhanger, intended to leave the viewers breathless for more, this didn’t seem particularly effective; the zombies in the barn have been put down, all the gang’s secrets are out, the search for Sophia is (finally!) over, and they can all take a breather and deal with the fallout. At no point was anyone in serious jeopardy from any of the zombies, and with them all put down, nobody was left in danger either. It felt, more than anything, like the kind of semi-conclusion often used on a season break when the writers aren’t sure if the show’s coming back.
But coming back it is, not just for the second half of this season but reportedly for a third too. Whatever happens, I think they’re going to have to up their game quite a bit. After the really effective first season, this one has overall felt very draggy, with its limited locations and endless infighting. Sure, there’s been some very effective character drama so far, but at the expense of the zombie apocalypse scenario. At times, it’s felt as though the writers have just chucked in the occasional shambling ghoul to remind us we’re not watching another soap opera.
Even this supposed cliffhanger break episode spent more time on the talking than the action, and when the zombies did show up, it still wasn’t what you’d call exciting; certainly not in the same way as the thrilling set pieces in season one in Atlanta. I’m certainly not saying that depth should be sacrificed for thrills – but some thrills to go along with the depth would be nice. It’s a balance the first season struck well, and one that, so far, this season is finding hard to replicate. I’m more and more convinced that this is due to AMC’s insistence on having a longer season on a smaller budget. I’ll be back to watch the rest of the season in February, but with the fervent hope that enough money’s been held back to make it pacier and more expansive than the first half.