The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 3

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!

Save the Last One

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It was (almost) straight back into the thick of the zombie action in this week’s Walking Dead, but for the first time this season, it felt like the characters had more dramatic heft than the events surrounding them. For the first time this season, this episode felt like a drama punctuated by zombie action, rather than zombie action interrupted by lulls in which characters stated the obvious.

It was dark territory indeed this week, no mean feat for a show that’s set in a post-apocalyptic hell roamed by flesh eating corpses. But it wasn’t the scenario in which our characters found themselves that made it so dark; rather, it was a series of cleverly intertwined musings on the desire for survival versus the choice to opt out and die.

That this seemed more interesting than the zombie shenanigans faced by Shane and Otis at the infested school medical centre was perhaps the first time this season that the characters have felt fully rounded enough to actually care about. The depth of the characters in the first season was one of the reasons the show was part of that group – including Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones – that propelled genre television into the ‘serious drama’ realm. I must confess that, until this week, I hadn’t really felt that season 2 had managed to recapture that; this episode, by show newcomer Scott Gimple, amply made up for it.

The theme of whether it was worth living in a world like this, or better just to give up, was what drove the episode, and was first brought up in a truly intense scene between Rick and Lori. With their son Carl still in critical condition, and Shane’s return with the necessary medical equipment very much in doubt, Lori had started to wonder whether it would be better if Carl didn’t make it after all. Why, she argued, would a child want to live in a world like this, eventually to become nothing more than a hunted animal himself?

This is a theme touched upon in the original comics on several occasions, but the performances of Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies gave it a lot more oomph than just reading it on the page. And as in the comics, you found yourself wondering whether giving up might be the more sensible thing to do. As Lori pointed out, their friend Jackie (who chose to die in the explosion of the CDC) hadn’t had to see any of the terrible things that had happened since. Rick, of course, was more optimistic – he’s the hero, he has to be. But even then, when it looked like Hershel was going to have to take the risk and operate on Carl without equipment, it was Lori he asked to make the choice.

In an episode where death seemed more significant than it has recently, Andrea and Daryl found themselves having a similar heart to heart as they went on a (somewhat inadvisable) trip to the woods by night to continue their search for little Sophia. Darabont regular Laurie Holden (best known to me as Marita Covarrubias in The X Files) has been varying anger and despair in her portrayal of Andrea since Dale persuaded her not to remain in the CDC as well, and this is obviously going to be a running character thread.

As I mentioned last week, of all the characters, Daryl seems best equipped psychologically to deal with the situation, and he countered Andrea’s hopelessness with similar optimism to Rick. He’d been lost in the woods as a child too, and after all, he’d made it ok. But he gave Andrea’s death wish short shrift as they encountered an all too gruesome reminder of the consequences; a man who’d hanged himself from a tree but neglected to shoot himself in the head, leaving his reanimated corpse dangling helpfully while others munched on the flesh from his legs.

This was a nicely gory way of ramming home the point of their argument, as Andrea confessed she wasn’t sure if she still had a death wish. But later, as Dale apologised for taking away her decision and gave her back her gun, you had to wonder. You also had to wonder whether Dale had a death wish of his own as he went on a ramble through the darkened traffic jam in search of cigarettes. I’m a hopelessly addicted smoker myself, but even I would probably rather endure nicotine withdrawal than wander around a dark area that might be full of zombies. Still, nice to see that Dale smokes Morleys; this fictional ‘almost-Marlboro’ brand may be most associated with The X Files, but it’s been a staple of TV shows since at least the early 60s.

In contrast to last week, pretty much all of the characters got a moment in the spotlight here, with none given a raw deal. We got to know Hershel’s daughter Maggie better this week, and I particularly enjoyed the growing intimacy between her and Glenn. Glenn as a character has sometimes got short shrift in the comic, but has sometimes seemed even more perfunctory in the TV version; it was nice to see Steven Yeun given some decent material at last, as he caught the character’s blend of smartassery and adolescent awkwardness. Lauren Cohan as Maggie seemed a lot more ballsy than she does in the comics, which is no bad thing, and it looks like she and Glenn might grow close…

Leaving earlier than he did in the comics, though, was Pruitt Taylor Vince as Otis. Otis in the comics always seemed a bit of a spare part, as though Robert Kirkman introduced him then had no idea what to do with him. Vince’s characterisation actually gave him more depth, but he certainly didn’t outstay his welcome. I may have been concentrating on the character drama this week, but the intervening zombie action was still pretty thrilling as Otis and Shane struggled to get away from the infested school.

There were some well-directed shock moments like when Shane was about to jump from a window and a zombie suddenly reared out and grabbed him; or when a horde of them, previously unseen, lurched into the chain link fence Shane and Otis were resting against. But nothing like the shock moment that was revealed in flashback after Shane returned, alone, to Hershel’s farm. For it transpired that, despite Shane’s tale of heroic sacrifice, Otis had actually been shot by Shane himself to decoy the zombies while he got away.

The moment this happened was a genuine shock, despite previous heavy signs that Shane was a wrong ‘un. Remember last season, when he sighted Rick with his hunting rifle before Dale turned up? Or when he practically tried to rape Lori in the CDC? Shane’s badness came to light fairly early on in the comics and he was duly despatched (though Rick had to dig him up again later to shoot him in the head properly). It’s one of the best decisions of the TV version to change this, as Jon Bernthal’s charismatic performance makes him believable and likeable even though you know what he’s capable of – in this case, not even leaving poor Otis the last bullet to shoot himself before the zombies tore him apart.

As Shane took the opportunity to shave his head back at the farm (to hide the marks Otis had made struggling with him), he looked like the very devil himself in the steamy bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, in one of the few missteps this week, we’d seen this in the pre-credit sequence. It works well as a device causing the viewer to wonder why this was significant, which was revealed at the very end of the episode. But while I can see the intention, I thought it also drastically undercut the tension of Shane and Otis’ deadly mission; after all, we always knew Shane would make it back, because he hadn’t shaved his head yet.

That criticism notwithstanding, this was far and away the best episode since the show’s return. The drama was compelling, the zombie action thrilling, and the dramatic balance between the two far better struck than in previous weeks. The characters too seem finally to be shining the way they did last year. Despite the fact that the overall plot has, technically, barely moved, I was gripped throughout, and hope we can have more episodes of this kind of quality.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 2

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!

Bloodletting

The Walking Dead (Season 2)

After a strong start with last week’s season opener, the second episode of The Walking Dead’s second season felt a lot more low key. There was much less zombie action this week, as new showrunner Glen Mazzara’s script focussed more on the drama surrounding the characters – particularly Rick’s son Carl, who’d been accidentally shot by a hunter at the end of the last episode.

The episode opened with a flashback to pre-apocalypse days, as we saw how Shane informed Lori of her husband’s shooting, and how she then informed Carl. Obviously intended to provide a counterpoint or parallel to the situation now, as a dramatic device this felt a little obvious. Admittedly it paid off plenty as Rick and Lori agonised over their injured son, and we heard how they dealt with Rick’s comatose condition before the dead started rising; nonetheless, the flashback seemed unnecessary to highlight the similarities, as though the viewer needed to be cudgelled over the head to get the point.

Which was fortunate, because there wasn’t much other head-cudgelling going on this week. Perhaps because of the reduced budget (and admittedly, knowledge of this is going to have me scrutinising every episode for evidence of it), there was comparatively little zombie action this week. In fact, Andrea’s encounter with a lone walker was beginning to look like it as far as zombies were concerned; thankfully the showrunner knows that, however respectable the drama, a zombie show is going to need some zombies, so by the end we were back in the thick of them – briefly at least.

But to go back to the beginning – as in the comic, Carl’s shooting led our heroes to the farm of one Hershel Greene and his family. Hershel seemed almost awesomely prepared to deal with Carl’s injuries, leading the viewer to the obvious conclusion that he must be a doctor; but for readers of the comic, it was no surprise when Lori winkled out of him that he was, in fact, a veterinarian.

Actually this shouldn’t cause too much concern. There’s an episode of 70s BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors where a similar situation crops up, and the vet in question points out that, unlike doctors, vets are trained as applied scientists. This is because they might at any point be called on to treat an animal whose physiology they’re unfamiliar with, so they’re taught to adapt basic principles. As that vet pointed out (in the UK at least) it’s illegal for doctors to operate on animals, but perfectly all right for vets to work on humans.

Mind you, it does point out one little problem, if you’re a fan of the comic – that there’s a good chance you’ll know what’s going to happen next. The Walking Dead has generally treated the comic more as an inspiration than a direct storyboard, which is by far the best approach. Hence, some well-remembered set pieces from the comic are retained, but generally the show is its own animal. It’s just that when, as last week with Carl’s shooting, the show reproduces a moment from the comic very faithfully, you tend to know what’s coming next. It might be interesting if, at some point, a script lifts an incident directly from the comic and deliberately changes the result of it, to wrongfoot those of us who are familiar with the story in its original medium. However, the conversation between Rick and Hershel as to “God’s plan” with the plague, and its potential cure, hints that we’re quite likely to see the next part of that plotline in the near future as Rick investigates Hershel’s barn…

Most of the episode, though, was spent agonising over whether Hershel could dig out the six fragments of bullet that hunter Otis had left in Carl. I must say it seemed impressive/implausible that Hershel could tell how many fragments there were without the aid of an X ray, but we’ll ignore that for now. There was also much soul searching among the now fragmented group of heroes; Rick and Lori were beside themselves worrying about their son, while the search party for little Sophia discussed the advisability of asking God for help (Daryl, pragmatically, concluded that it was a waste of time) and back at the RV, Dale had to deal with T-Dog’s cut becoming dangerously infected.

All nice, character developing stuff, but it did feel as though the story moved very slowly while it was going on. As a character, Norman Reedus’ Daryl is already becoming far more likeable (if less exciting) than his more overtly redneck brother Merle; it’s a telling indication of the occasionally survivalist mentality of zombie stories that he’s coming across as one of the best equipped to deal with the situation. Not that the script ignored the other tendencies of rednecks in general, as T-Dog told the incredulous Dale that he felt a bit worried being the only black man with “two cracker sheriffs and a redneck”. It’s nice to see IronE Singleton as T-Dog getting a bit more to do this season, and in a way this speech felt like a critique of him having been almost the “token black” last year.

Nevertheless, the tension built up by his feverish infection and the apparent lack of antibiotics to treat it was immediately undercut when the returning Daryl nonchalantly produced a handy bag of pills from his motorbike. This had the effect of making the entire subplot feel very much like filler. And the decision of Dale, Andrea and Daryl to remain with the RV – in case Sophia comes back – while the others head back to Rick smacked of a certain limit in settings. I said last week how impressively expensive the corpse-strewn traffic jam looked; it seems now that this will have to be justified by some of the characters spending a lot of time there. Budgetary considerations again?

Elsewhere, the story did gain a bit of momentum again as Shane joined up with Otis to try and scavenge some much-needed medical supplies from a local FEMA emergency shelter. Pruitt Taylor Vince was somewhat typecast as Otis, though the revelation that he had medical knowledge from volunteering as an EMT expanded his role somewhat from the comic. The other new characters on Hershel’s farm, though, were far more paper thin. Otis’ wife got barely more than a few lines, while the unidentified teenage boy didn’t get to say anything at all. At least Hershel’s daughter Maggie got to be a bit hardass, as she rescued Andrea by cudgelling a zombie from horseback. Let’s hope that the others at least get a chance to talk in the upcoming weeks, but it actually felt like the show might be getting a little overmanned in terms of characters again.

It was looking like that lone zombie might be the only one we saw this week, and I was beginning to think that, for budgetary reasons, Shane and Otis’ mercy mission would take place entirely offscreen. But here was the first evidence that my eagle-eyed search for budget cuts wasn’t always right. As they turned up at the local high school converted into a FEMA shelter, it was swarming with zombies. This did revitalise the episode somewhat, as they had to figure out how to get past them and get at the medical supplies. This was neatly done in a tensely directed scene as Shane had the bright idea of distracting them with lit roadflares from the back of a handy police cruiser – though I couldn’t help being reminded of the fireworks used to distract zombies in Romero’s recent Land of the Dead. Perhaps a love of shiny things is part of official zombie lore now.

Unfortunately, Shane and Otis don’t seem to have worked out an escape plan, and the episode climaxed with them barricading themselves in the school, and their flimsy barricade about to give way. It was a pretty tense last few minutes that almost made up for the general slowness of the rest of the episode.

So, a much less exciting episode this week – though it remains to be seen how much this feeling was caused, for me, by familiarity with these events from the comic. Still, the characters and performances continue to engage, even if the structure of the story could have used a bit of work. With Shane and Otis in the thick of some real zombie action at the climax, let’s hope next week is rather more evenly paced.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 1

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!

What Lies Ahead

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A much-anticipated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s ongoing comic book series, last year’s debut season of The Walking Dead was a huge success for cable channel AMC. Like many zombie fans, I love Kirkman’s comic series for its breadth; even long zombie movies like the original Dawn of the Dead don’t have the necessary running time for truly fleshed out characters and lengthy, complex plotting. A monthly comic (if written well, as Kirkman’s is) can do that, and so can a TV show.

With an impressive roster of talent – writer/director Frank Darabont, stars Andrew Lincoln, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, plus Bear McCreary on music duties – the TV version of The Walking Dead is an impressive piece of work that’s contributed greatly to the recent trend for genre television being taken seriously as drama. It also helps that cable television is free of the standard and practices imposed on its network equivalent, meaning that the show doesn’t have to stint on the outright gore and violence that’s so essential to the genre.

It’s easy to treat the zombie apocalypse genre less than seriously, and many exploitation movies (notably ones made in Italy) do just that. What Kirkman’s comic, and its TV adaptation, do very well is to create a believable, rounded group of characters within the situation, and make the story as much about them as it is about gory, ravenous walking corpses. In the process, you end up with a piece of work every bit as respectable as the giants of the genre – particularly Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead, the movie that really kick started all this.

With a tightly knit six episode first season, The Walking Dead was a great success both with viewers and critics, its validity as drama in no way stinting its real zombie action. A lot of people who normally wouldn’t go near a zombie story were hailing it as impressively watchable. Clearly then, this second season, and its opener in particular, have a lot to live up to.

It doesn’t help that there’ve been some fairly well-publicised ‘creative differences’ behind the scenes between seasons. Frank Darabont, the excellent writer/director who was the driving force behind getting the show on TV in the first place, departed as showrunner under circumstances that vary according to which reports you read. Some say he resigned, others that he was fired, but there’s general consensus that he was none too happy at AMC’s demand for a longer season on a smaller budget. Meanwhile, cast members have reportedly gone in fear that if they disagree with the producers in any way, they’ll be written out – easy enough in a series where violent death is a frequent occurrence.

While I’m sceptical about that last claim – other reports indicate cast members having contracts for multiple seasons – it rarely bodes well for a series to have such ructions in its production team. Thankfully, comic creator Robert Kirkman is still heavily involved with the show, so at least there’s a strong continuity there.

So, there’s a lot riding on this season opener. Penned by Kirkman himself along with Darabont (his final contribution to the show, credited under the pseudonym Ardeth Bey) it had to live up to the excellent first episode of season one, and reintroduce the zombie action that was rather lacking in the previous year’s season finale. It also had to pick up numerous character arcs, notably the one about hero Rick Grimes’ wife Lori having an affair with his best friend Shane, believing Rick to be dead. And a major unresolved point from last year’s finale – just what did CDC scientist Dr Jenner whisper into Rick’s ear shortly before blowing himself up along with his facility?

Thankfully, I can report that this opener acquits itself rather well. Handily opening with a recap of recent events as Rick reports them via walkie talkie to fellow survivor Morgan (yet to reappear after episode 1), it’s intercut with some impressive scenes of various zombies staggering around the deserted Atlanta. Significantly, one of the show’s best assets who’s not been affected by behind the scenes changes is veteran makeup guy Greg Nicotero. Nicotero, who cut his teeth working with Tom Savini on Romero classic Day of the Dead, serves as chief effects bod on the show, and after years of practice is producing some of the best zombies the genre’s ever seen. These are realistically ragged, rotting, mutilated things that look so convincing you can almost smell the rot off them!

The ep really gets going with a superb, lengthy set piece as our heroes get stuck by a broken radiator hose on Dale’s RV, amidst one of mankind’s final great traffic jams. I’ve always found post-apocalyptic drama rather patchy on this whole traffic thing; some show the roads eerily empty, others decide that they’d be clogged with people trying to escape from whatever’s ending the world. I’ve always contended that unless the apocalypse happens in an instant, the latter approach is more believable. Luckily for me, so do the producers of this show, and a sizeable portion of that reduced budget must have been spent on putting together this motley collection of stalled and crashed cars to block our heroes’ way.

And of course, a mammoth herd of zombies turned up to add to the problem. If you’re going to grab viewers with your zombie drama, it’s best to start big, and this episode did. It was a long but heart-poundingly suspenseful set piece as our heroes were forced to hide, mostly underneath the stalled cars. I’d have thought they might be better off inside them, but that was dealt with too as Andrea (Laurie Holden) cowered inside the RV, trying incompetently to reassemble the gun she’d taken apart for cleaning. Of course, if she’d managed, the shot would have brought more zombies running (or staggering, anyway), but she managed to dispose of one curious (and gruesomely made up) zombie that got in by means of a screwdriver handily given to her by Dale, who was hiding on the roof. And thus we got the first (but not the last) bit of real nasty gore in the episode as she rammed the screwdriver into the zombie’s eye socket. Really hard. And repeatedly. Ewww…

Elsewhere, T-Dog and Daryl took an alternative approach to hiding by dragging rotted corpses out of the cars and pulling them on top of themselves, in another nice grossout moment. Actors IronE Singleton and Norman Reedus gave convincing grimaces which conveyed quite how nasty this must have smelled. Indeed, this was a continual motif throughout the episode whenever anyone got near to a zombie, and it’s an aspect that I think has never really been dealt with before in zombie films, so it’s good to see it followed up on here – if you recall the first season, we were shown that zombies don’t chase each other because of the smell of rotting flesh, leading to a really icky sequence where Rick and Glenn had to cover themselves with zombie innards to walk among them undetected.

This whole set piece must have taken up near a third of the episode by itself, and was extremely well-directed. It’s fair to say that the pace slowed a lot after this wound down, as the story concentrated more on the characters. That’s no bad thing (though hardcore zombie fans who just want blood and guts might disagree), as the pared down group left at the end of last season is small enough for some interesting dynamics to be emerging.

Among these is Andrea’s antipathy towards Dale, who last season forced her to flee the impending destruction of the CDC by threatening to remain with her if she didn’t leave. Andrea, it turns out, really resents Dale for this, feeling that he undermined her choice to end her life by guilt tripping her into leaving. Dale, for his part, is worried that her desire to commit suicide is far from gone, and is reluctant to trust her with a gun. This came to a head in a nicely played scene between regular Darabont alumni Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, and is clearly far from resolved. What makes it interesting for the reader of the comics is the knowledge that there, Andrea and Dale end up as a couple. But the TV show is taking the wise course of cherry picking certain plot points and set pieces from the comic without being a slavish adaptation, so there’s no guarantee of that happening here.

The group actually splits up too, as Rick and various others head off as two parties to search for little Sophia, who ran off screaming as a zombie spotted her underneath a car. Meanwhile, Dale and T-Dog remained with the RV, with Dale revealing that he’d actually fixed the radiator some time ago, but kept it secret so the others wouldn’t move on without finding Sophia. With the heroes now effectively split into three groups, there’s a lot more scope for subplots about them not being able to find each other while getting into their own, separate jeopardies – a good plan for the season, in my opinion.

While this latter half of the episode is undoubtedly less intense than the traffic jam/zombie herd set piece, there’s still plenty of gore and nastiness to keep the hardcore zombie fans happy. As Rick kills the walkers who’d been chasing Sophia, the camera lingers quite a while as he very graphically bashes one’s head in with a rock. Later, he and Daryl kill another with a crossbow bolt, and in order to ensure that it hasn’t just eaten Sophia, open it up to check its stomach contents. Again, the looks on the actors’ faces conveyed just how gross this must smell, and even I couldn’t restrain myself from saying out loud, “Ewww.”

There’s also some gruesome zombie killing in a local church, as the search for Sophia leads our heroes to holy ground. This also gives some of the characters a chance to reveal themselves via the South’s fractious relationship with religion, as the camera frequently lingers on the crucifix at the altar. Sophia’s mother Carol (Melissa McBride) is, unsurprisingly, very religious, and takes the opportunity to pray fervently for her daughter to be found. Rick, however, is more ambivalent. Andrew Lincoln continues to give a good performance as, wracked by doubt, he prays to a God he’s not sure he even believes in for a sign that he’s doing the right thing. I’ve always liked Lincoln as an actor, so it’s no surprise that he’s good here, but I’m still impressed with his convincing Georgia accent (though if anyone from Georgia is reading this, they will probably know better than I how good it is).

The episode climaxes with another set piece lifted from the comic, and very nicely directed it is too. Seeing a majestic stag in the woods, Rick’s son Carl is entranced, and creeps towards it while Rick motions Shane not to shoot it. It’s a magical moment which, just as in the comic, is brutally interrupted when an unseen shooter blows a hole in both the stag and Carl’s stomach. For those who haven’t read the comic, I won’t speculate on what happens next as it looks to be identical – suffice to say, we’re about to meet some new characters.

A promising start, then, for a show that had a lot to live up to after its first year. Of course, this is also the last episode with any Darabont involvement, so it remains to be seen whether later instalments will be as good. I’d also say that, in its bid to impress from the outset, this opener has probably had a lot more money spent on it than others will have, so the budgetary restrictions that led to Darabont’s departure may become more noticeable too. Nonetheless, we’ve got some seeds here for a very promising season. I’m guessing we’ll see more memorable set pieces and characters from the comic making an appearance, but I’m also hopeful that we might see a return for Michael Rooker’s formidable redneck Merle, a  creation of the TV show whose fate remains unknown. And we still don’t know what Dr Jenner whispered to Rick, the script teasingly dancing around the issue as Rick brings Morgan up to speed on the walkie talkie at the start. Whatever happens, new showrunner Glen Mazzara has some big shoes to fill; let’s hope he does it well.