The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 7

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

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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.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 6

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!

Secrets

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It’s a very straightforward, to the point episode title for The Walking Dead this week – Secrets. Our heroes may not be moving, but the character development – or soap opera, if you’re being more critical – aspect of the plot was very much to the fore, and the festering secrets held by so many of the characters started to come out, one by one. And some of these have been long overdue for an airing; this show has often been one of those cases where the drama is driven by secrets, to the extent that if the characters would only tell each other what they all knew, their lives would become infinitely simpler.

To start with, I was a little surprised when the episode opened at plainly the day after Glenn’s discovery of Hershel’s barn full of zombies. You’d have thought Glenn might rush to tell the others what he’d found that night, so immediately I started to wonder whether he’d been tied up somewhere. But no, he’d apparently been convinced by Maggie not to tell anything to the others. I have to say, I wasn’t totally convinced by this turn of events; budding romance or not, you’d think most people in Glenn’s shoes would think a secret barn full of zombies was something that shouldn’t be hushed up.

And of course it wasn’t, not for long. In an episode filled with people’s secrets, poor old guileless Glenn was stuck with not just that one, but the one about Lori’s pregnancy too. And you could tell he wasn’t very good at keeping secrets: “I can’t even play poker. It’s too much like lying.” So, inevitably, when Dale caught him out in a lie about helping to “clean spark plugs”, he just blurted it straight out: “Hershel’s got a barn full of zombies and Lori’s pregnant.”

Dale looked somewhat taken aback at this. It was a nice scene, very well played by Steven Yeun and Jeffrey DeMunn, both of whom got some meaty material this week. Glenn’s been very much to the fore the last few weeks, which I’ve enjoyed; this week, he was given cause to question his place in the group, much like Daryl last week. Having acted as Lori’s confidante, then placed both his and Maggie’s lives at risk to get Lori some morning after contraceptives, he heard some unpalatable opinions from Maggie. She sees him as taken for granted by the group as an errand boy; basically, as she put it, “walker bait”. Again like Daryl, he got some immediate reassurance, this time from Lori, who considers him a supportive friend. But in both cases, Daryl and Glenn, I can see the seeds of self-doubt will likely lead to plotlines to come.

Glenn may have had a lot of the limelight this season, but Dale’s hardly had much to do apart from uttering the occasional wise and gnomic remark. This week changed all that, and we saw how wily he really is – and occasionally, perhaps, a little foolish. Armed with the information about the barn, he quietly confronted Hershel about it, in a well-played scene which revealed Hershel’s motives in keeping the zombies captive. They’re his friends and family, and as far as he’s concerned they’re sick people. And you don’t kill someone when they’re sick, you wait for a cure. Meanwhile, he’s been feeding them live chickens to keep them docile, and we got to see an all too realistic depiction of the chickens having their legs broken so they couldn’t run away. For a vet, Hershel has interesting priorities about avoiding suffering; but then again, he’s also a farmer. And I’m sure the American Humane Association made sure the chickens weren’t really tortured like that!

Dale couldn’t convince him that what was in the barn was actually walking corpses, and there’s no coming back from that. So, rather than jeopardise their already shaky toehold on Hershel’s farm, he agreed to keep the zombies a secret himself – one more secret stored up. But he’s obviously better at keeping secrets than Glenn, and this episode revealed just how much he had known and kept secret for the good of the group. His chat to Lori not only revealed that he knew about her pregnancy, but also that he thought the baby might be Shane’s – so he’s known about Lori and Shane all this time.

Not only that, but he also remembers how, back in season one, he came across Shane sighting his rifle at Rick in the woods. This came up in an electric scene in which Dale confronted Shane with advice that now might be a good time for him to move on. This exchange positively crackled with tension, as Dale told Shane, “I know what kind of man you are.” And it turns out Dale even has his doubts about Shane’s story of how Otis died – something else that may well come out in the near future.

For his part, Shane was coldly furious and not a little scary. Yes, he’d done what he did to Otis to ensure Carl would be ok; but as he put it, if Dale was right about what kind of man he was, threatening to reveal that information might not be the smartest idea. Jeffrey DeMunn and Jon Bernthal were excellent in this scene; Dale full of anger and contempt, and Shane plainly heading deeper into darkness with his cold, quiet threats.

Elsewhere, Shane was coaching the gang in how to shoot, and just like in the comics, Andrea turned out to have a surprising aptitude for it. But Shane went too far in trying to motivate her to hit a moving target when he shouted that she should imagine it was the walker who killed her sister. This led to a mini-subplot about Andrea’s shooting ability, which was resolved when she accompanied Shane to a nearby housing development in the latest development of the seemingly interminable background plot of the search for Sophia.

It really is beginning to stretch the bounds of credibility that our heroes still hope to find Sophia alive, and as a plot, I’m very much hoping they drop it soon; either by finding her, alive or dead, or accepting that they won’t and giving up. Nonetheless, this week’s instalment of the search was a nice set piece that gave us some more good zombie action, together with a chilling depiction of the aftermath of the apocalypse. Shane and Andrea’s search took them through a suburban street where the houses were filled with corpses, including a quite gruesome pile of charred bodies in a burnt out garage. And then quite a horde of zombies turned up, allowing Andrea to perfect her shooting skills. It gets easier after the first one, apparently.

And obviously zombie killing is a pretty aphrodisiac pursuit, as in the car on the way back to the farm, Andrea couldn’t wait to grab Shane’s crotch, to which he responded by dragging her over to the driver’s seat and getting it on then and there. Cut to a long shot of the car with a (presumably unintentionally) hilarious sound effect of the horn going off as Andrea bounced off it (the car’s horn, not Shane’s. Well, both, presumably).

So that’s one more secret to be kept. But the really big one was about to come out – finally. After having changed her mind about the morning after pills, it was time for Lori to talk to Rick about the baby. Actually, it turned out Rick had already figured it out when he found the empty pill packets, and he was less than happy about it.

This was another cracking two-handed scene in an episode full of them. As a character, I’ve never found Lori all that interesting; it’s no reflection on actress Sarah Wayne Callies, it’s just that she’s not written particularly deeply either here or in the comics. But this scene allowed her to reveal some more depth, and reflect yet again on the fairness or otherwise of bringing a child into such a world. Kudos to Callies, and also to Andrew Lincoln as Rick, but the writing was the star here; Lori’s conceit of surviving via good memories of the world that’s gone was an incisive one. As she said, Carl has little enough of that to remember, and any new child wouldn’t remember it at all; he/she would only know the hell of the world they were born into.

Rick was understandably angry at having been kept in the dark, both about the pregnancy and Lori’s dilemma about ending it. If nothing else, that rules out the pregnancy as being the subject of what Dr Jenner whispered into Rick’s ear at the end of season one, leaving me with no clue about that now. But the pregnancy wasn’t all that came out. Rick had also figured out that Lori and Shane had slept together while they thought he was dead, a fact that she now guiltily confirmed. Rick seemed understanding, given the circumstances; but I can’t help thinking that this is far from forgotten.

So, an explosive episode for the characters, even if little else happened in the way of driving the overall plot forward. Some great performances on the parts of all the regular cast, though it must be said that most of the inhabitants of Hershel’s farm remain sketchy and ill-defined – for example, who’s the teenage boy that occasionally pops up? I don’t think we’ve even been told his name, or if we have, it was a fleeting reference and hasn’t been mentioned again.

And there was, thankfully, rather more zombie action than usual amongst all the character drama. Besides the shambling inhabitants of Hershel’s barn, we got not only the horde of walkers encountered by Shane and Andrea, but also a nicely gruesome bit of business with Glenn’s rather sloppy killing of a zombie in the town pharmacy. With recent zombie appearances seeming rather tokenistic, it was good to have more than two around this week.

With next week’s episode being the last before the mid-season break till February, it looks like the events of recent weeks will probably blow up in everyone’s faces, and this week has been as much about moving pieces into the right places as anything else. It’s well done, and seemed less like filler than some weeks. But I’m hoping we can get a bit more momentum back for the second half of the season; resolve the interminable search for Sophia, move the gang on from the rather static setting of Hershel’s farm, and get back to some epic zombie action. It might make the characters’ lives hellish, but it makes the viewers far more entertained.