In the wake of a zombie massacre, Rick and Hershel meet some new people. It doesn't turn out well
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead is entering a strange, dangerous, and potentially awesome new era. After spending seven episodes on a go-nowhere search for an angelically boring little girl, the midseason finale back in November ended with Rick Grimes cathartically putting a big old bullet in Sophia’s pretty little head. That’s reason enough to be excited. But there’s a big change behind the scenes of Walking Dead, too. We’ve finally caught up to the moment that made headlines last summer: the departure of Walking Dead developer, showrunner, and chief creative force Frank Darabont. Pause to imagine the executives at AMC firing a metaphorical bullet into Frank Darabont’s metaphorical zombie head.

To be fair, it’s unclear why Darabont left. It’s equally unclear if this season’s brutally slow pace was due an artistic miscalculation by the showrunner or a stingy budget from cost-conscious AMC. (Support for theory #1: Darabont directed the overlong The Green Mile and The Majestic. Support for theory #2: Darabont apparently wanted to make one episode into a total-warfare depiction of the zombie apocalypse, and instead the characters spent seven episodes at Hershel Greene’s Cut-Rate Prefabricated Farm Set.)

But we’re officially in the post-Darabont era now. Walking Dead‘s new showrunner is Glen Mazzara, who worked on The Shield and Life (yay!), but also Crash and Hawthorne (meh!) And in a fascinating interview with Vulture, Mazzara addresses all the major criticisms of The Walking Dead, and seems focused on fixing the show. He wants to make the show feel “less safe, more dangerous, more in your face.” He’s worried that the show was becoming “a little insular…a very small cast of characters on just a farm,” and he pointedly wants to use the back half of season 2 to widen the show’s world. He’s also set on making the show feel more cinematic, and he talks about bringing a “seventies style of filmmaking” into the show’s aesthetic. Perhaps most pointedly, Mazzara gently notes that Darabont had a sensibility better suited to features than long-form television: “Just wait for it, just wait for it, then you’ll be satisfied.”

Of course, there was a time not so long ago when a showrunner named Tim Kring was giving lots of erudite interviews explaining his totally logical master plan for fixing Heroes. But to paraphrase an old John McCain quote, the fundamentals of Walking Dead are strong. The status quo could feasibly change at any time. (If Mazzara wanted to, he could bring in a herd of zombies to kill off all the lame characters.) The show is based on an incredible series of graphic novels — comics that are positively filled with characters and story arcs that are vastly more interesting than anything the TV show has ever done. Walking Dead has proven that it can do all sorts of different tones: Tense horror, gory action, dark comedy, neo-western American myth.

So I’m optimistic about the show, even though last night’s episode of Walking Dead seemed to represent a major step back from the thrilling midseason finale. The hour kicked off exactly where we left off in November. Rick lowered his gun and looked down at Sophia’s zombie-corpse. One of Hershel’s random children ran over and cried for her zombie mother, who promptly staged a Carrie and turned out to not be properly dead. Fortunately, T-Dog was around to kick the zombie-mama in the face, which is I believe the most T-Dog has contributed to the show all season. (Andrea found a creative use for a scythe, earning herself this week’s Zombie Kill of the Week by default.)

It was an interesting and unexpected way to kick off the episode. Unfortunately, starting immediately after the zombie massacre meant that this was yet another episode in which everybody constantly talked about Sophia.

NEXT: Lori tries to be useful, and is greeted by sad trombones.Shane angrily asked Hershel if he knew that Sophia was in the barn. He said no — Otis was the zombie wrangler, so he must have grabbed her before getting sacrificed to the zombie herd. Carl told Lori that he was sad Sophia was dead, but he would have gladly shot her himself. (Props to Chandler Riggs for making Carl simultaneously adorable and semi-sociopathic.) In the night’s least convincing dialogue, Glenn tried to convince Maggie/the audience that the death of Sophia was incredibly meaningful: “We’ve lost others. This is Sophia! This one was different.” If you were playing the Sophia Drinking Game — that is, drink once every time they say her name and twice every time you don’t care — then this would have been a fun week in your frat house/lonely basement.

Surprisingly, the most interesting response to Sophia’s death came from her mother, Carol — a character who has spent the second season in a state of perpetual pursed-lips grief. She didn’t want to go to her daughter’s funeral, explaining, “That’s not my little girl. It’s some other thing.” She explained, further, why her knowledge of Sophia’s ultimate fate was oddly comforting: “She didn’t cry herself to sleep. She didn’t go hungry. Sophia died a long time ago.” It was a complicated, emotionally complex response to a horrific tragedy. (Unfortunately, the show hedged its bets a little, and a later scene showed Carol angrily grabbing a bed of Cherokee Roses. “Stupid flowers!” she exclaimed. “Stupid! Stupid!”)

Elsewhere in the Pass-Aggro Farm Community, Dale was angrily staring at Shane, and Shane threw Dale’s moral righteousness back in his face. “What do you do for the safety of this camp?” Shane asked. “Fix an RV?” I’ve said before that the decision to keep Shane alive in the Walking Dead TV series has radically altered Rick’s character arc — so far, TV-Shane seems to be making all the ethically indefensible decisions that were originally left to Comic-Rick. But the presence of Shane has had another unintended effect on the show’s moral calculus: It’s made Dale irrelevant.

In the comics, Dale was usually the voice of reason, pleading with his fellow survivors to stay civilized and diplomatic. On the TV show, that’s basically Rick’s job, and the show’s best episodes have usually focused on Shane and Rick as a yin-yang Jack-Locke duo. (They both slept with the same woman; they’re both cops; they both have incredibly over-the-top gravelly southern accents.) That’s a cool dynamic. But it also means that Dale has been relegated to impotent-old-kook status. The show seems to understand this, too. He spent the episode grousing about Shane to everyone who would listen, and everybody just rolled their eyes. He even told Lori that Shane probably killed Otis, and Lori seemed to dismiss the idea without a second thought.

Shane, to his credit, still seems to feel remorse for his actions, despite all his talk about living in a Rousseauian state of nature. When he saw Carol’s torn-up hands — stupid flowers! — he took time to personally wash the blood off her fingers. He tried to explain his actions: “I was just trying to keep everybody safe.” The lapsed Catholic in me wants to say that the washing-of-the-hands scene was some sort of weird Gospel reference. As a recapper, I’ll just note that an intriguing scene like that is worth a hundred inexplicable comas.

Speaking of inexplicable comas! One of Hershel’s twelve wacky children suffered a panic attack and went into shock and also maybe had amnesia or something. You know, it was one of those TV diseases. Unfortunately, Doctor Hershel had set off for the local watering hole. Rick and Glenn announced that they’d go bring him back. Right before they left, Maggie told Glenn that she loved him, but he didn’t say that he loved her back. (Aside: After Glenn explained the situation to Rick, I was really hoping that the episode would end with Glenn slow-mo running into the house right before midnight and kissing Maggie while “Dice” by Finley Quaye and William Orbit was playing on the soundtrack. Man, The OC was cool. End of Aside.)

NEXT: Michael Raymond-James and the best scene of the season

Lori didn’t think that Rick and Glenn would be safe in town by themselves. So she went to ask Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon to help out. Daryl was not receptive to that idea. “Listen to me, Olive Oyl!” he said, “I was out there looking for that girl every single day. I’m done looking for people.” So Lori decided to take matters into her own hands. Lori Grimes, Woman of Action! Lori Grimes, Setting Goals and Achieving Them! Lori Grimes, Being Useful! Then she drove her car into a zombie and crashed. Uselessness accomplished!

I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on the show, because I truly think that Walking Dead is perpetually two steps away from greatness. That theory was proven in an eye-popping sequence that rounded out the episode — a scene which seems to announce the arrival of the Mazzara Era of Walking Dead. Rick and Glenn found Hershel in the bar. Hershel delivered a long speech that was pretty interesting, since Scott Wilson is the kind of actor who’s never not interesting, but it was also disappointingly bland. After the last episode, you would have thought that Hershel would have been angry with the Grimes Gang, since — zombies or no — they gunned down his family and friends right in front of him. But no. Hershel hadn’t had a drink in decades, so he overshared like crazy after a few drams of bourbon. He told Rick that he knew Rick was right. Zombie-ism isn’t curable. Hershel had been wrong all along. Any simmering tension was instantly deflated, and the scene instead became about Rick trying to convince Hershel that the world still needed heroes. (Since every character seemed to be suffering from an extended existential crisis, and since every conversation was being whispered in the shadows, this episode started to feel a little bit like Baby’s First Bergman Movie.)

Then Michael Raymond-James walked in — the timecode on my screener marked his entrance at 33:56 — and everything changed. Raymond-James is probably best known as the stealth psychopath on the first season of True Blood, but he should be best known for his role on FX’s one-season wonder Terriers, where he played an incredibly charming cat burglar-turned-detective. Raymond-James has one of those Jeremy Renner faces — he’s handsome, but he looks like he was more handsome before a truck ran over him — and he has the ability to play live-wire characters who can go from convivial to sad to menacing in just a few minutes. It’s obvious that the guy should be a TV star. (He also on the cast of David Milch’s Last of the Ninth, an incredible-in-theory HBO cop show that never made it to air.)

So when he walked into the bar, it’s fair to say that I was incredibly excited. A new character! Played by an awesome character actor! And he seems combative, which could add a much-needed note of tension into the show! Raymond-James’ character was named Dave, and he was joined by an overweight assistant named Tony. They sat down and genially started talking to Rick and Hershel. Dave casually showed Rick his gun, real friendly like.

Dave and Tony had been traveling for awhile, and they’d heard a lot of rumors. The Coast Guard is down south, sending ferries to the islands. There are trains running to safety zones in the middle of the country, straight to Nebraska. “Low population,” said Tony, “Lots of guns.” This was all very casual. Just a bunch of dudes in a bar, sharing a drink. Then Dave got to the point: They were thinking of setting up around these parts. He noticed that Rick’s car didn’t look lived in. “Do you guys have a safe house? A farm? Old McDonald had a farm! You got a farm?” It was at this point that Tony pissed in the corner.

NEXT: Always make sure you shoot the bartender first.The slow-burn of tension here was incredible — the show didn’t cut away from this scene for almost eight minutes, until timecode 41:20. It also, I think, is the first time that the show has really nailed the apocalyptic Peckinpah tone since the series premiere — the sense that laughter and smiles are just a cover for impending bloodshed. Dave mentioned that they had buddies back in camp who could use a safe place. But Rick stood firm. There were too many people on the farm already. They weren’t welcome.

At this point, Dave hopped behind the bar. “Nobody’s killing anybody,” Dave said killingly. He grabbed a drink. The camera cut to Hershel, to Glenn. (Props to Clark Johnson, a veteran TV director who also worked on The Wire.) Dave asked Rick where they should go, if the farm wasn’t available. “I hear Nebraska’s nice,” said Rick. Dave smiled and made for his gun. Then Rick shot him in the head, and put a few bullets in Tony.

I’m not gonna lie: I was sad to see Raymond-James go so quickly. In just a few minutes of screentime, his character already felt more vibrant and interesting than half the nobodies on the Grimes Gang. At the same time, I wonder if Dave and Tony represent bigger changes on the horizon. The implication that there’s a gang of hardened hoods just a few miles from farm adds considerable tension to the show. Zombies are scary, but in all the great zombie films, humans are much scarier.

(Aside: Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the most unexpectedly charming moment of the night: Andrea was riding on a truck full of dead walkers, and one of the zombies’ arms suddenly fell off. So she peppily hopped of the truck and picked up the arm. This show could be really funny. Maybe the characters need to drink more. End of Aside.)

Fellow viewers, what did you think of the return of Walking Dead? Are you interested to see where the new creative direction takes the show? Do you think maybe it’s time for Judge Snyder to come onscreen and announce that no one will be allowed to mention the name “Sophia” again, under penalty of torture?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

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

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