Andrea says a tense goodbye to her sister, while Rick and Shane disagree over the fate of the camp
The Walking Dead aired the penultimate episode of its first season last night, entitled “Wildfire,” and recappers Dan Snierson and Jeff Jensen excitedly chased after it like soft rockin’ homesteaders chasing after a wilderness ghost chasing after a runaway magic horse. “They ran callin’ Wiiiiiiildfire/Callin’ Wiiiiiiiiiildfire/Callin’ Wiiiiii-iiiiiii-iiiiiild-fiii-iiii-ire!” (Ahem.) Here now is their report.
DAN: Jeff, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, we certainly won’t be having a calm discussion about this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, which proved to be a startling, emotionally rich, game-changing hour of TV. It was teeming with tension (Andrea! Step away from Amy NOW!), soaked in sad sacrifice (R.I.P. Slim Jim), goosed with gory (see: Ed’s head), and packed with possibility (so many questions for you, CDC Scientist!). That go-to-the-light cliffhanger was an intriguing capper to an episode that tickled our imaginations and showed that this is a series (wild)firing on all cylinders.
JEFF: This week, EW declared The Walking Dead the year’s best new drama; “Wildfire” convinced me of our rightness. We opened at sunrise, with Rick vainly trying to walkie-talkie his Good Samaritan pal Morgan like a supplicant lobbing prayers to a distant deity. “It’s not what they promised,” said Rick of the false-paradise Atlanta that Morgan had told him about. “It belongs to the dead now.” Later, when he changed his mind, he evoked a faith-shaken man giving God one last chance. “I hope you were right about this place,” Rick said. “I need you to be right.” “Wildfire” had the survivors seeking signs of life and hope in unlikely places–including the cataract eyes of zombified siblings.
DAN: Besides Rick’s Terror Tank visit to Atlanta, has there been a more stressful moment this season than Andrea holding vigil over Amy’s dead body? There she was, mourning in stunned silence, while the others tried to figure out a humane way to get her away from Amy so they could destroy Amy’s brain. (The gravitas was broken up with a darkly comedic moment; when Rick confidently said, “I’ll tell her how it is,” he wound up with Andrea’s gun in his face and an “I know how the safety works” warning.) The show effectively toyed with audience expectation, as we kept bracing for zombie awakening. Knees bounced anxiously as Andrea placed a necklace around Amy’s neck, explaining to Dale that it was Amy’s birthday—an event Andrea usually muffed. Nothing. And then slowly, we witnessed the birth of a zombie (gentler than you expected?), with Amy feeling her sister’s face (or sizing up her meal?), and opening her mouth like she was trying to speak (or to chomp?), while Andrea soothed, “I’m sorry for not being there… I’m here now…” With tension and danger redlining, she unloaded a bullet into Amy’s brain. Gasp. It was as if Andrea needed every second of that interaction with Amy to achieve her grieve.
JEFF: Initially, I thought Andrea was being cruelly sentimental, but I like your grieving take. She got to look death in the eye, got to get her hands dirty with Amy’s blood, with the dirt of the grave. What visceral catharsis.
DAN: Which is not to say that made it any easier for Andrea. Death sucks. No dodging that pain. Take the story Dale revealed about his late wife, Irma. Zombies didn’t get her—cancer did. Even though it took her away in bits over time, even though she was “ready to go” by the end, it was still so sudden, too soon for Dale. He felt “cheated.”
NEXT: Mercy delivered via pick-axe.
JEFF: “Wildfire” was all about how the living need to honor the departed to affirm their humanity. Leave it to Daryl to embody the position of extreme pitilessness. He wanted Amy brained and disposed, pronto. He saw zero difference between zombie corpse or survivor corpse. They were all sacks of disease, and he wanted them all burned. But Glenn–alarmed–insisted that their fallen friends be given a dignified burial. So did Lori. Beaten down by the survival grind, needing a more profound feeling of aliveness, she screwed on her matriarch and decreed: “We need time to mourn… That’s what people do.”
DAN: And we do it in our own way: Carol mustered the strength to destroy her soon-to-zombify husband Ed by pick-axing the hell out of his head, channeling her anger toward him for his years of abuse, finding closure in an act of violence that was, ironically, merciful. (Catch that look on Darrell’s face as she hacked the hell out of Ed? He was like, “Damn, this chick’s hard. I ain’t messin’ with her.”) Carol had no desire to see her nasty husband “alive” again to say farewell.
JEFF: Allow me to apologize for even appearing to be an Ed Apologist two weeks ago. The matter was never verbally clarified, but Carol’s Burning Bed anger as she tenderized Ed’s noxious noggin into shredded beef spoke volumes.
DAN: Feeling guilty, Jeff? Well, chill. Dale might suggest you focus on finding clear perspective while not beating up on yourself. “Things are bad enough without feeling guilty about it,” Dale told Andrea. And yet, the episode was full of guilt trips, self-imposed and otherwise, for better and possibly worse. Andrea felt guilty about “not being there” for Amy—but it motivated her toward a mercy. Shane made Rick feel bad for not being at camp when the zombies attacked, and Lori didn’t do much to make her husband feel better. She also told Rick she needed more “certainties” from him than decisions made from hunches and instinct. Rick’s self-confidence—and ego?—took a beating this episode.
JEFF: I agree. And I wondered if his need for affirmation fueled his insistence that the group trust his plan to seek haven at the Centers for Disease Control. Of course, he did have at least one good, rational, idealistic reason to head to CDC: A zombie bit Jim bad during last week’s attack. He tried to hide it, but Jacqui spotted the fresh blood and ratted him out. His pleading was wrenching: “I’m okay, I’m okay…” over and over to the point of delusional nonsense. Daryl wanted to put Jim down. Shane and Rick vetoed. “We don’t kill the living,” Rick said. “If we start down that road, where do we draw the line?”
DAN: Still, Shane didn’t immediately endorse Rick’s CDC solution. He argued that they were better off trekking to an army base 100+ miles away. (Once again, Rick and Shane were at odds about how to lead the group.) But then… guilt reared its head. While appealing to Lori—who was conflicted about supporting her husband—Shane accused her of supporting Rick to fix her marriage; this triggered shame about her (accidental) infidelity. Her response? To stand by her man. As for Shane, during his nature patrol with Rick, he suddenly found himself pointing his rifle at an oblivious Rick, about to pull the trigger. Horrified by his own darkness—he almost killed his friend, his partner, the man who’d just bled gratitude for taking care of his family while he was MIA—Shane now felt compelled to fall in line behind Rick.
NEXT: One friend gets left behind, while another potential ally emerges.
JEFF: These guilt-trippy decisions put the group on a road trip, set to a rousing score out of Gone With the Wind. (Rick left behind a note for Morgan—but do you suspect it’ll be Merle who finds it?) Yet it came to a screeching halt when Dale’s RV busted its makeshift hose. During the pitstop, Jim tossed in the towel. His condition was deteriorating; his guilt over being a burden was intensifying. He asked Rick to leave him behind. A believer of some sort, the tragic widower said he wanted to be with his zombie-slaughtered family again–meaning, he expected to experience a spiritual release akin to death once he became undead. Rick assumed Jim was feverishly muddled. “They’re all dead,” he said, possibly betraying a more agnostic view on afterlife possibilities. Jim insisted he was thinking straight—and that Rick needn’t feel guilty. “That’s on me. Okay? My decision. Not your failure.” After a debate that smacked of right-to-die metaphor, Jim’s right to self-determination was affirmed. Jim was brought to rest against a tree. Jacqui kissed him. Rick offered him a gun. For protection? Suicide? Regardless, Jim declined.) Dale, awkward and emotional: “Thank you for fighting for us!” Jim, equally awkward: “Okay.” Daryl offered him a long silent gaze full of so many emotions. Respect. Sorrow. Horror. More. All genuinely moving.
DAN: Seconded. (Though I guess we’ll never know whether Jim’s premonitory dream was a one-time thing.) For me, what sealed it were those final minutes: That peaceful, heartbreaking shot of Jim slumped against the tree, the caravan moving on without him, would’ve been a poignant way to close out the episode. Instead, we got something unexpected, jarring, and intriguing: A spotty video transmission from a fraying, sleep-deprived man named Jenner: “It’s been Day 194 since Wildfire was declared, and 63 days since the disease abruptly went global. There’s no clinical progress to report.” (Was the zombie virus a government experiment gone awry?) After the transmission, we watched Jenner, clad in a hazmat suit, enter a lab and prepare a sample, classical music filling our ears. (It seemed almost Kubrickian, or, as you noted, reminiscent of the first reveal of Desmond in The Hatch.) We felt Jenner’s desolation when the lab had to be decontaminated by fire after his chemical spill, his “freshest sample” gone. “I think tomorrow I’m going to blow my brains out—I haven’t decided,” he deadpanned darkly in his next transmission. “But tonight I’m getting drunk.” We wondered why he was so disturbed by the sign of other survivors: When Rick & Co. arrived outside the CDC, bodies strewn everywhere, Jenner watched on his computer monitor, pleading for them to go away; Rick shouted into the abyss of the security camera, begging whoever was on the other end for help. Finally—driven by guilt?—Jenner caved and opened the door, bathing our survivors in white light. (Ominous sign?) Clearly, this doesn’t end in happy rescue. Something’s wrong here—and I can’t wait to find out what.
JEFF: In an episode filled with Book of Job angst (“Are you there, God? It’s Me, Mankind!”), we ended with Rick raging at some distant, unseen Power (“Can’t you see you’re killing us!”)–and lo, his prayer was answered. But by whom? Angel or demon? We shall see. But enough with the theology. FUN FACT! The Michael Crichton novel The Andromeda Strain (which has received two different Hollywood adaptations) concerns a division of the CDC that works out of an underground bunker called “Wildfire.” The egghead heroes investigate a deadly, mutating virus of extraterrestrial origin. Surely The Walking Dead intended this as homage. But will the finale offer up a hard science diagnosis and solution for the zombie plague—or will it embrace a bleaker, more existential position for mankind’s undead condition?
DAN: A great question to ponder. And here’s another: Will Walking Dead also tip its cap to Outbreak, another movie involving the CDC, a devastating virus, and government secrets? Because the only thing that could possibly make this show even more kickass is… AN ADORABLE ZOMBIE MONKEY.
JEFF: A monkey in an epic apocalyptic plague drama? Actually, that’s already been done.
DAN: That’s right—BJ & The Bear.
JEFF: (Sigh.) I really need to take you comic-book shopping. Michael Martin Murphey, sing us out…
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