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!
Beside the Dying Fire
So this is it – after thirteen weeks, it’s the culmination of The Walking Dead’s ‘difficult second album’. This has been a patchy season after the compressed, high-octane drama of the first. With more than twice the number of episodes for apparently about half the budget, the first half of the season was frustratingly meandering and slow-paced, with a restrictive claustrophobic setting that worked to the detriment of the drama, and a little too much post-apocalypse soap opera.
The show’s return after its mid-season break found a massive increase in quality. Its settings opened up to take in the town near Hershel’s farm, and most importantly we got a return of the show’s proper USP – zombies. After their near absence for most of the season’s first half, recent episodes have sated the audience with horde after horde of stumbling revenants, reminding us that this is a post-apocalypse scenario far more hazardous than that of, say, Survivors. Not that the character drama has been neglected for zombie action, mind – the two episodes prior to this finale have had some heart in mouth moments of tension with no zombie involvement at all. They’ve also had, it’s fair to say, a number of whopping great plot contrivances that don’t hold up to close scrutiny.
This mostly excellent finale had its share of those too, though I’ll come to those later. But with original comics’ creator Robert Kirkman co-scripting with new showrunner Glen Mazzara, this was for the most part a thrilling, gripping piece of TV that might almost redeem the uneven pacing of the season as a whole.
After last week’s cliffhanger ending of a horde of walkers stumbling towards the farm, this week’s cold open cleverly didn’t pick up right from there. Instead, cleverly, it eked out the tension with an epic sequence of how this previously unanticipated horde came to be there. Starting out in a city (presumably nearby Atlanta), they’d taken to following that helicopter we’d all forgotten about from way back in the first season. As in the behaviour described in the comics, more joined them and they continued to stagger in the same direction, gaining numbers as they went, until long after the object of their initial interest had been forgotten. Until, now numbering in the impressively visualised hundreds, the gunshots from the farm caused them to turn in a new direction. Seeing the end of last week’s episode, this time from their point of view, was an excellent lead in to the credits and the action proper.
And action it certainly was. Taking the climax of most classic zombie movies as an inspiration, the episode showed our heroes’ refuge being overrun by a horde of ghouls so large it was quite simply unstoppable. Most of the episode’s first half was a frenetic melee of chaos as the farm was overrun, with the characters scattered hither and yon across the fields as they took to the cars in an attempt to shoot and then distract the herd.
Rick and Carl, for their part, were left hiding in the barn as they found themselves unable to make it through the hordes to the farmhouse. Everyone else being unaware of this, they had to fend for themselves by setting the barn – and the walkers Rick rather fearlessly let in – ablaze, in a set piece that surely consumed a fair chunk of the season budget.
With all the shooting, burning, and mad driving, the script took the opportunity to kill off those characters who’ve been a complete waste of space since the season began. Jimmy, the mostly mute teenage boy who was on the farm for some reason or other, perished after foolishly forgetting to lock the door of the RV, letting in some hungry corpses; catching light from the barn, the RV – so closely identified with the now-deceased Dale – is now toast. Back at the house, Otis’ wife Patricia, who’s uttered barely a word since her husband died, was dragged away from Beth for some chowing down.
These deaths provided some welcome gore – this is a horror story, after all – but served to underline how badly these characters have been served by all the scripts since the season began. Were they introduced solely with the intention of becoming zombie chow in the last episode? Even if they were, some kind of character description might have made us care, like we did about Dale and even Shane last week. As it was, I simply shrugged and considered the show well rid of them. It might have had more impact to have lost at least one of the main characters; but I suppose having killed off two in as many weeks, the writers didn’t want the action undercut by that kind of trauma.
This elongated sequence provided some memorable moments. Hershel, futilely blasting away at the unstoppable horde approaching the house; Lori, screaming for Carl and being dragged away to the pickup truck; Glenn blasting away out of the Hyundai’s window as Maggie drove like a lunatic. Some excellent direction from Ernest Dickerson gave the whole thing a real sense of urgency and tension; more than once, I found myself pointing at the screen and yelling, “behind you!”
Eventually though, everyone had the good sense to realise that this wasn’t a battle they were going to win, and to get the hell out of there. Along the way, Daryl rekindled the spark he has with Carol by sweeping heroically in on his bike to rescue her from pursuing walkers. Elsewhere, Rick, for a wonder, managed to convince the stubborn Hershel that the farm was lost, and there was no point dying for it. Even T-Dog finally got some actual lines, as he drove Lori and Beth away in that tatty old pickup that shows not all the vehicles in the show are product placements. Having all, independently, made the decision to flee the farm, these separate groups all, independently, decided to head back to the highway, and the place they’d left supplies for the missing Sophia way back in episode 2.
And this is the whopping great plot contrivance I had trouble with. Yes, it might have been annoying to spend the first few episodes of the next season with the group trying to find each other. But for all of them, independently, to have decided to meet up there having made no prior rendezvous arrangement? That, I’m afraid, is just not believable. I could have accepted it if some of them did that; hell, even if most of them did. But all of them? Er, no, I’m not buying that.
A similar thing happened way back in episode 8, when Rick guessed that the missing Hershel was in the town bar (and he was), then Lori, having no knowledge of this, correctly came to the same conclusion when she set out to find him. I appreciate that sometimes you just want to move the plot along to a certain point, but for heaven’s sake do it in a believable way that actually makes sense!
Having ranted about that, I’m bound also to say that the second half of the episode, with the action over, was much more slowly paced. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as our heroes have to pause to take stock, count their losses, apportion blame, and so on. Dramatically it makes sense. But perhaps less so in a season finale, when you’re wanting to stoke the thrills to fever pitch and leave your audience hanging in eager anticipation of the show’s return.
That said, there was some good character drama in this latter part of the episode, as the group’s morale plummeted and Rick began to seem increasingly unhinged in a way that might have made Shane seem preferable. Carol’s all for splitting up; T-Dog just wants to head ‘east’; and Lori, having been told that Rick killed Shane “just to get it over with” finds it hard to even touch her husband.
To add to that, we finally found out what Dr Jenner whispered into Rick’s ear at the CDC last season. As we suspected after the last few episodes, it was, “you’re all infected”. That Rick had known this all along and not told anyone did not go down well; but it looks like, for pragmatic reasons, they’re willing to sullenly accept him as leader. For now. It can’t have helped when he declared that, “this is no longer a democracy”. Having killed Shane, it seems like he’s rejected Dale’s way of thinking and adopted Shane’s anyway.
This is an unusual way of developing your ‘hero’, but it shows that The Walking Dead is not going to make compromises about how nasty even the best of people can be. The Rick in the comics developed along similar lines, his worldview hardening in light of the circumstances. He’s hardly recognisable now from the clean-cut cop at the story’s beginning. The development is unsurprising with comic creator Kirkman on scripting duties, and Andrew Lincoln rose to the challenge well, managing to make us angry with Rick while still sympathising with his viewpoint.
And speaking of the comics (which I’ll try not to spoiler too much), we finally got the much-anticipated arrival of one of their most popular characters. As the abandoned Andrea, finally having run out of bullets after fleeing the walkers all night, was pounced on by a huge ghoul, it looked like the end for her. Until, that is, its head was unexpectedly sliced off by a sword, wielded by a mysterious hooded figure accompanied by two chained, armless, jawless zombies. Without wanting to give too much away, comics readers will know exactly who this is, and may, like me, have punched the air at that point.
Back at the camp, the arguing over, the episode climaxed with an impressive crane shot. As the camera panned up, and across the river, we saw something else familiar from the comics – a massive, fenced prison complex in the near distance. Again, without wanting to give too much away, it’s not hard to guess where this is going, particularly after the group’s discussion about finding a ‘safe place’. And given the major comic villain we now know will feature next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was accompanied by the popular TV character of Merle Dixon too.
The show is back “in the fall”, though I’ve seen no firm date for its return yet. Apparently season 3 will have 16 episodes, giving more scope for storylines. We can only hope that AMC will be generous enough to give it a commensurately higher budget, to reflect its undoubted popularity; and that the showrunner manages to keep up a better balanced pace across the season, with rather less of the endless chit chat that characterised the first half of season 2. Still, uneven though the second season may have been, its second half more than made up for its first, and I’ll certainly be back to watch when it returns.