The Grimes Gang learns about the zombies in the barn. Horrific shenanigans ensue.

By Darren Franich
February 27, 2015 at 07:57 PM EST
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Roll with me on this for a second, because I promise everything will connect back to last night’s slam-bang-holy-geez-boom-boom-KAPOW episode of Walking Dead. In the last decade, we lucky TV viewers have witnessed the evolution of two distinctive strains of great television drama. On one hand, you have the Realistics. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men take place in a world that is recognizably similar to our own. The characters’ problems are pointedly banal; people worry about money constantly. Even though all of these shows are set in sensational environments — even though they feature gangsters or politicians or demonic cartel assassins or existential Jet Age super-salesmen — they all share a basic propensity for shrinking the sensational down to the everyday. (Just compare the treatment of the Mafia in The Godfather with its portrayal in The Sopranos: In Godfather, organized crime is a godlike/satanic ritual; in Sopranos, it’s just another upper-middle class occupation.) These shows tend to build their pace leisurely over the course of a season, or several seasons. Characters almost never experience an epiphany at the end of the episode. There are no slow-mo music montages, unless they are ironic.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Fantastics, and it’s in this much larger group that you find serialized thrillers like Lost and 24 and Fringe and (when it was good) Heroes; soapy melodramas like Gossip Girl and Grey’s Anatomy and (assuming it stays good) Revenge; and any detective show that manages to create a couple of good seasons before settling into procedural bloat. These shows don’t bother attempting to conjure up a world that resembles our own. Instead, they create their own distinctive TV universes, all of them operating according to their own rules. And the most important rule is speed: These shows might tell long-form stories, but each episode is fundamentally a complete story: Inciting incident, building action, climax, denouement. (On thrillers and soaps, the denouement usually segues into a cliff-hanger.)

Because speed is a necessity, there are basic logical leaps that you have to accept. On Grey’s Anatomy, we have to accept that all of the doctors and their various family members inevitably wind up becoming patients at their own hospital. On Lost, we have to accept that every male character was utterly dominated by their daddy issues. On every cop show, we have to accept that the main characters can solve complicated mysteries in a couple days, and also accept that they’ve probably killed dozens of bad guys. (The simplest way to understand the difference between a Realistic and a Fantastic is to ask yourself one question: Do the characters ever go to the bathroom?)

The biggest difference, though, is in character. People on Realistic shows tend to be confusingly difficult to pin down. (Consider Tony Soprano, who spent six and a half seasons in a shrink’s office trying to figure out just what kind of person he was.) People on Fantastic shows are easier to define; they have a few key personality traits, and if the show is good, those traits become iconic. Jack Bauer wasn’t as complicated as Jimmy McNulty, but the two characters share a basic personality trait: a willingness to do absolutely anything to beat the bad guy, no matter what the consequences. On The Wire, that trait made Jimmy McNulty a fascinating character; on 24, that trait made Jack Bauer a kind of morally ambiguous patron saint for post-9/11 America.

(Aside: There is nothing fundamentally better or worse about either of these modes of dramatic storytelling. There are horrible Realistics: Think of The Killing, which copped the slow pace of the latter seasons of Sopranos without any of that show’s energy. And there are plenty of great shows that mix the two tones: I’m thinking especially of Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, and Deadwood, which each used a confined setting — a small Texas town, a cramped spaceship, and a frontier village — to create an environment that was simultaneously brutally realistic and symbolically fantastical. Funnily enough, most of the best reality shows — like Survivor or Top Chef or the earlier iterations of The Real Housewives or I swear to god Jersey Shore — also fit into the Fantastic category, since the entire reality TV genre is predicated on reducing actual three-dimensional human beings down to their most interesting traits. End of Aside.)

The most defining Fantastic show of recent years — indeed, maybe the best non-cable serialized show ever — was Lost. You would never say that the characters on Lost were “realistic,” but they weren’t supposed to be: The interesting thing about them was watching them play off of each other. At the center of the show was the great Jack/Locke debate: Man of Science vs. Man of Faith. But the other characters in the series complicated that binary equation, and at its best, the show suggested a universe where everyone was a specific type in direct opposition to each other. Hurley represented an all-encompassing liberal humanism. Sawyer was agnostic about everything. In Juliet’s first incarnation, she just wanted to leave the damn island, mysteries be damned. Ana Lucia was a more militant Jack, and Mr. Eko was a more suspicious Locke. Ben Linus was a kind of narcissistic zealot: A man who supports a higher power, but only because he secretly believes that higher power is himself. (Following this logic, I think a big reason why a lot of people never liked Kate is that her basic personality DNA regularly shifted season to season: She was a savvy criminal, a plucky adventurer, a fragile abused patricidal daughter, a vengeful mother, Jack’s lover, Sawyer’s lover…)

I bring all this up because The Walking Dead is a show that could be an incredible Realistic drama or an incredible Fantastic drama. It could be a show about vividly drawn characters struggling to stay alive in a primordial, chaotic world. In that version of the show, tiny problems would occupy several episodes, and every subplot would somehow be related to food or shelter. (Actually, that’s pretty much what the original The Walking Dead feels like. Much like a season of Breaking Bad, the comic book Dead is constructed in long narratives that slowly build up small problems into huge flourish-y showdowns) You could say that the seven-episode Search for Sophia is The Walking Dead at its most Realistic.

NEXT: A culture of victimhood.Conversely, the show could also be a symbol-laden dramatization of the post-apocalyptic human condition: A series which uses its characters as fascinating mouthpieces in an ongoing existential debate. It’s in this corner that we find Rick and Shane doing their two-sides-of-the-same-coin debates: Rick represents optimism/faith/diplomacy, Shane is pessimism/skepticism/preventive militarism. It’s also in this corner that we find Daryl Dixon, an awesome character who belongs more to ’80s action movies than the gritty Walking Dead comic book.

To me, last night’s episode was the show’s finest hour since its series premiere, and I think it’s because the show has finally decided to stop going for realism and embrace its inner melodrama. You could feel an extra energy right from the episode’s opening shots, which steadily reintroduced us to every member of the Grimes Gang while they ate breakfast. Andrea was sharpening her knife; Rick was sharing a moment with Lori; T-Dog was being T-Dog. Glenn looked over at the Greene House, and Maggie tersely shook her head; he looked over at Dale, who gently nodded. Glenn inhaled and made a group announcement: “The barn’s full of walkers.”

And just like that, something that had been a slow-moving season-long subplot suddenly became a single-episode thriller. Everyone had their own opinion: What do we do about the walkers in the barn? Shane wanted to kill them right away. Rick pointed out their situation was precarious: “We’re guests here. This isn’t our land.” Fine, Shane said, then we should leave — go on to Fort Benning, and leave this horrible farm behind them. “But Sophia!” Daryl exclaimed, reminding Shane that he’d recently discovered a doll. Shane cackled at that. A doll in a forest, big deal! “What would she think if she saw you, all meth-ed out with your buck knife and your geek ears around your neck?” In short, hurtful things were being said all around.

The central Shane/Rick debate manifested itself all across the episode. Dale tried to offer some fatherly advice to Andrea about Shane — he’s too violent, he’s mysterious, he’s callous — but Andrea pointed out Shane’s most positive trait: “He’s not a victim.” In the miserable world they live in, Shane is the one person who seems most willing to build a genuine new life…even if that means making horrible moral decisions to force you to abandon every aspect of your old life.

At the opposite geographic end of the spectrum, you find Hershel Greene, who is simply unwilling to accept that his old life is over. Rick tried to discuss the walkers in the farm with his host, but Hershel wouldn’t listen to any arguments: “I need you and your group gone by the end of the week.” Rick tried to persuade him. He noted that Hershel was only defending the zombies because he thought they were alive, but the Grimes Gang was definitively alive. More intriguingly, he explained that Hershel only experienced the apocalypse on the television: He never saw a half-person crawling through a park, or a herd of undead walking forever into oblivion.

They negotiated to a stalemate. Afterward, Shane got on Rick about the need to run away, and Rick told him one secret: Lori is pregnant.

NEXT: My best friend’s wife is my baby mama. What should I do, Maury?

That shifted the entire equation for Shane. Now, he wasn’t just helping his friends stay alive. He had to defend Lori, and the unborn baby that Shane is beyond certain belongs to him. Now, Hershel’s decision to keep the walkers in the barn was an explicit attack on the safety of the Grimes Gang.

Shane meandered over to Lori and had a fascinating conversation where he explicitly separated himself from Rick. He noted that Rick wasn’t “built for this world”; he reminded Lori that he’d saved her life on four different occasions. Lori hilariously tried to argue that Rick had saved her life, too, that one time, but Shane laughed: “See, no, that was me too. He showed up late because he went on a suicide mission over nothing.”

(Now, that’s not entirely fair: Rick was going back into Atlanta to save Merle, but also to grab his bag of guns. Those guns were important — Shane would soon be on his own mission to retrieve them. That’s another interesting difference between Shane and Rick, though: Rick is fundamentally a long-term thinker, whereas Shane operates entirely in the moment.)

Shane walked away from Lori and happened to run right into Carl. I like how, by this point, Carl looks like a perfect miniature mash-up of Shane and Rick: He’s got his father’s hat, but he tucks his pants into his boots just like Shane. Carl told Shane that he wanted to stay at Hershel’s Farm, no matter what the cost. Shane agreed, but noted they would have to do something to make that happen. “Like help out with the chores?” asked Carl.” “Yes,” Shane said darkly, “like help out with the chores.” EW is proud to present some exciting exclusive footage of Shane’s facial expression in that moment:

(Aside: This quiet scene was a visual wonder, bringing together a couple different planes of action. While Shane was talking to Carl, you could see Lori looking on anxiously by a tree in the background. And the zombie barn was lurking far behind, too. This whole episode felt so sharp, from the quiet opening to the incredible last shot. Give credit to director Michelle MacLaren, who has also directed some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad. Michelle MacLaren is totally the Tim Van Patten of AMC, and if you understand that reference, then you’re a total nerd and also marry me. End of Aside.)

Coincidentally, at that moment, Hershel was asking Rick to help out with a very specific chore: zombie-catching. A pair of deadites had sprung their traps. Hershel actually recognized one of them: “That’s Lou Bush.” “You knew him?” said Rick. “‘Lou’ as in ‘Louise,'” Hershel corrected, “I don’t know the man.” Hershel chided Rick for all the zombies he’d put down. For penance, he told Rick to collar the man and guide him back to the farm. “If you and your people are going to stay here, that’s how you’re going to have to treat them.”

NEXT: Love in a Time of Metaphorical CholeraThere was a brief romantic interlude where we checked up on a couple of couples. Daryl and Carol were having a nice conversation about Sophia. “Hey look,” Daryl said, “Some more pretty flowers! That’s a good sign, right?” And Carol said, “Right.” And they nodded back and forth to each other, and laughed, and plucked a few roses and smelled them. Meanwhile, Glenn told Maggie that he only broke the news about the Walker Barn to save her. Maggie called him a funny name, and then totally made out with him. It was awesome.

Meanwhile, Dale was attempting to hide the guns in the swamp. In the process, Dale confirmed his status as a kind of ideological third path, separate from Rick’s diplomacy and Shane’s war hawk-ery. Dale would prefer to work behind the scenes as a kind of benevolent lawmaker — recall how, back in the season premiere, he pretended his RV’s engine wasn’t working to force the Grimes Gang to go looking for Sophia. This was the same thing writ large: He was getting rid of their prime mode of defense just to ensure that the guns wouldn’t be used to destroy themselves.

But Shane found him, and the two men put all their chips on the table. Dale accused Shane of killing Otis. Shane didn’t confirm that, but he just smiled. Dale loaded a bullet into his rifle’s chamber. Shane walked straight up to him and told him to shoot. Dale refused, but assumed the moral high ground: “At least I can say, when the world goes to s—, I didn’t let it take me down with it.” Shane responded with the confidence of a man who knows he’s going to live a long, long time: “Fair enough.”

And here we reached it: The coming together of all the various plot strands. Back at the farm, Daryl was annoyed. Why was no one searching for Sophia? “We gotta stay on trail.” Then Shane arrived and handed Daryl a gun: “You with me, man?” (I love how Shane is enough of a canny politician to tell Daryl exactly what he needed to hear: “We need to find Sophia, am I right?”) They were on their way over to the farm…and at that precise horrible moment, Hershel and Rick and Random Hershel Family Member #34 suddenly emerged from the forest with two new deadites in tow. Shane began to deliver his closing arguments: “All they do is they kill. They killed Amy! They killed Otis!” He took out a gun and fired a few bullets straight into Lou-Short-For-Louise: “Could a living, breathing person walk away from this?” Then he shot her in the head.

Shane was out to prove something: “It ain’t like it was before. You gotta fight for it.” Then he opened the door. His shooting-school students lined up behind him, just like a firing squad. One by one, the zombies walked out; one by one, the Grimes Gang took them down. Each of the executioners were firing for their own reasons: Daryl, to make sure they could stay at the farm and search for Sophia; Glenn, to defend Maggie; Andrea, to avenge her sister, and maybe because she just likes killing walkers; and T-Dog, because he’s T-Dog. This was grotesque violent poetry. It was also gloriously off-putting — it was the first time we’ve ever seen these characters kill zombies not in self-defense. The walkers just looked pitiful. The way this scene was shot — again, way to go MacLaren! — the Grimes Gang looked a lot like the show’s villains.

NEXT: Sophia, at lastAnd then it happened: The moment that redefined The Walking Dead, if only because it proved that the show is defiantly willing to go there when it has to. One last walker emerged from the barn. It was a small walker. A child. A girl. Motherf—ing Sophia. Just like that, the entire main plot line of this half-season was proven to be pointless. Just like that, all of the various hopeful conversations about Sophia — Daryl’s angelic soliloquies about pretty flowers, Carl’s constant assertions that Sophia will love life on the farm, Rick’s insistence that Sophia was alive — suddenly looked bleakly hilarious in hindsight. They were never going to find Sophia. Daryl almost died for nothing. The moment she left the highway back in the season premiere, she signed her death warrant. Shane was right all along.

I know some people have been theorizing in the comment boards that Sophia would come back as a zombie. For me, it was a huge surprise. Frankly, I didn’t think Walking Dead had the narrative jones to actually pull that off. I’d like to say that this reveal justified the dawdling Search for Sophia plot line, but I think this is closer in spirit to Lost‘s Libby-Ana Lucia double murder, or the decision to kill off Marissa Cooper at the end of The O.C.‘s third season: It’s a great moment because it ends a boring character arc in the most gleefully outrageous way possible. You almost get the sense that the writers were as bored with the Search for Sophia as we were, and they decided to kill the girl just for a laugh. Or maybe they had planned this ending all along, and they just couldn’t figure out how to make the pointless search not seem boringly pointless.

Whatever, I don’t want to quibble. This was a great reveal, because it hoist the Grimes Gang up on their own petard. When she came stumbling out, the camera cut to Hershel, whose face suddenly became stoic. He almost looked a little amused, as if he was thinking, “Oh, okay, guys. So you think zombies aren’t people? So you don’t mind killing them in cold blood? Okay, well try killing somebody who used to be one of your friends, instead of just butchering all my old neighbors. Also, thanks for killing my wife, you guys are great guests!” There was a long, silent moment where it almost seemed like the Grimes Gang was going to relent. To Rick’s credit, he knew exactly what had to be done. He took out his gun, and looked down the barrel at a little dead girl — a striking recreation of the very first scene in Walking Dead‘s pilot. Then he pulled the trigger.

Fellow viewers, this episode was all kinds of incredible, and it left me feeling incredibly excited for the back half of the season (which starts up in February.) Of course, we don’t really have any way of knowing what kind of show Dead will be when it returns. Will they stay at Hershel’s farm, or set off for Fort Benning? Will the show continue to follow the (very) rough outline of the comics, or will it definitively strike out on its own? Will the departure of Frank Darabont radically alter the show’s DNA? Will the characters become more iconic, in the Lost sense? Or will we actually learn something about T-Dog besides the fact that his name is T-Dog?

Those are questions without answers. Here’s what we do know: The Search for Sophia ended in pretty much the worst way possible. Fantastic.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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