The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 5

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!

Chupacabra

The Walking Dead (Season 2)

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.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 4

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!

Cherokee Rose

WalkingDeadGlennMaggie

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.