Most of the chatter on The Walking Dead‘s second season has focused on two main subjects: The turmoil behind the scenes, and the utter lack of turmoil in front of the scenes. It’s easy to overlook the most important aspect of the season: The massive, massive ratings success. Dead‘s midseason return earned 8.1 million viewers, 5.4 of them in the all-important 18-49 demographic — a record for a basic cable drama. I find that fascinating, because — and there’s no kind way to say this — the show has become ridiculously successful without being particularly good. Some of the biggest cable audiences in history have been tuning in every week to watch a group of barely-sketched characters talk about their emotions like depressive kids being held prisoner at the world’s thinnest fat camp. Sometimes, Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon walks onscreen and accurately points out that everyone else is stupid. At least once an episode, someone shoots a zombie in the face.
And this is why The Walking Dead is — to me, at least — one of the most interesting shows on television right now. We live in an era when TV fandom is defined by a virulent strain of proud masochism, resulting from the fact that some of the best shows on television seem to be perpetually setting new records for low ratings. (The motto for the modern TV fan is best summed up by the hashtag crusade #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, a rallying cry so obviously doomed that Ed Zwick should make a movie out of it.) But The Walking Dead has been so successful with so little that it now faces an intriguing existential question: Does it really need to be any better?
Success can be great or terrible for a TV show’s creative evolution. Some shows use high ratings as a license to innovate, getting more expansive or more intricate or just weirder — think of Lost, or The Sopranos, or the silver age of The Simpsons, or the bloodthirsty middle period of 24. All of those shows constantly challenged their audience — 24 killed off half its cast at the start of season 5, The Simpsons became less of a show about a family and more of a show about an entire town, The Sopranos got slower and more inquisitive, and Lost made a game out of changing everything all of the time. On the other hand, some shows become stifled by success, with the creative teams anxiously maintaining the status quo. Look at Heroes, which kept reheating season-1 concepts (premonitions, power drains, amnesia, time travel) to diminishing returns. Or Dexter, which keeps trying to make a season-long serial killer arc that can match up to Lithgow. Heck, look at pretty much every procedural drama of the post-CSI era, when giving an attractive investigator a few quirks can let you print money for years.
There was a sense after last week’s Walking Dead that the season finale could feasibly change anything. The last two weeks had brought two game-changing fatalities to the show’s main cast, and with a horde of zombies bearing down on Hershel’s farm, stage seemed set for a Grimes Gang bloodbath. (If nothing else, T-Dog has seemed perpetually two seconds from being zombie-bit all season.) That didn’t quite happen. In fact, last night’s episode didn’t even feel quite like a season finale at all. Instead, it seemed more like an extended prologue for season 3 — which also means it could be the most clear roadmap yet for how the Mazzara era will play out.
The episode started in the zombie-infested streets of Atlanta. We saw walkers in the streets, gnawing on an unfortunate deer. Then, the sound of a helicopter filled the sky. It seems likely that this is the same helicopter Rick heard way back in the series premiere. It’s even possible that this sighting of the helicopter happened concurrently with the series premiere, although it seems more likely to me that the helicopter has a home base in Atlanta. (Since it’s not military, I’m betting the copter is a scouting vehicle for some yet-unseen force of people.)
The sound of the helicopter led a zombie-mob to form, aimlessly walking away from the city. The herd had no real purpose. In one of the most striking images in the finale, the walkers ran into a fence, and the sheer force of their collective shambling managed to break the fence down. I thought, for a moment, that we were being set up to think that this was the same herd that started the season, but I think that the timeline doesn’t make sense. In any event, the herd was walking through the forest when they heard a gunshot — leading them straight to Hershel’s farm.
NEXT: Drive, she said