A zombie herd invades the barn, and not everyone gets out alive. Plus: A new arrival?
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
The walkers actually showed up at an opportune moment, since Rick was struggling to explain to his son just why, exactly, Papa stabbed Unkie Shane in the stomach. They fled into the barn. Meanwhile, back at the household, the rest of the Grimes Gang was watching the approaching herd with horror. Andrea came up with a plan: “Let’s kill as many as we can, then use the cars to lead the rest of them off the farm.”
Now, first off, we have to point out that this episode represented a clear missed opportunity. Last week, we saw the Grimes Gang making the house secure, with wood covering the windows. It seemed like we were being prepared for an old-fashioned defend-the-house zombie attack, with the characters locked inside of a barely-secure fortress, trying to hold off an apparently endless array of walkers. Instead, the characters drove in circles around the farm, shooting lots of zombies until they all independently said, “Gosh, we’re outnumbered!”
Nevertheless, the tactics-free defense of the Greene Family Farm had plenty of fun moments. Rick emptied a gas container all over the inside of the barn. Then he opened up the doors, raced to the second story, and told Carl to drop the lighter. Zombie inferno! At that point, Hershel’s wacky nephew/son/cousin/whatever drove the RV up to the farm, where he promptly got eaten by a horde of walkers. Poor Hershel’s Wacky Nephew/Son/Cousin/Whatever! We’ll miss you, whoever you were.
I tried to keep track of how many zombies Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon killed. At one point, he fired eight shots at the zombie horde. Since he’s Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon, we can safely assume every one of those shots killed a zombie, although it’s entirely possible that he managed to kill two or three with only a single bullet. Meanwhile, the decidedly-less-awesome Lori discovered that Carl was gone and screamed, “Carl! Carl! Where are you?” Lori really might be one of the world’s worst mothers. Like, she consistently loses track of her son, which is already suspicious, but it’s even more noticeable when she keeps losing track of him in a world filled with zombies. Like, no offense to Carl, but if I were Lori, I would tuck him into bed and then put a shackle on his foot. It’s for his own good.
Hershel looked like a man in the midst of a last stand. He was standing in front of his house; he was shooting one zombie after another with a shotgun; he seemed about two seconds from screaming, “I may just be a simple country doctor, but I know a thing or two about shooting monsters in their ugly face!!!” But Hershel didn’t die. A walker almost killed Ol’ Farmer Greene, but Rick shot him just in time. (In an episode filled with great visuals, one of the best images in the whole night was seeing how the blood from the dead Walker splattered all over Hershel’s bald spot. Kudos to episode director Ernest Dickerson, who also helmed “18 Miles Out” — the “Shane and Rick go on a road trip” episode. In hindsight, “18 Miles Out” was probably the most consistent episode of the season, even if it did feature The Tale of Suicide Girl.)
NEXT: In which we meet a tall dark stranger
But someone else had to die. And, in a development that will surprise no one, the other meatbag who’s been occasionally seen lurking in the background of the farm finally got killed off. I’m not entirely sure what her name was — I know she was Otis’ wife or girlfriend or sister or some combination thereof — but I think we can all agree that the sight of her being eaten alive while desperately holding onto Suicide Girl’s hand easily qualifies as the Human Kill of the Week. So long, no-name! We’ll miss you! Or anyhow, we’ll miss hoping you die! (ASIDE: I was disappointed that the creators of Walking Dead chose to not show us the presumably gruesome deaths of Hershel’s thirty-seven other family members, including Cousin Billy, Aunt Eunice, , Edward, Tracy-Anne, Cody, Dylan, Dermott, Jordan, Taylor, Wesley, Rumer, Scout, Noah, Q*bert, Lauren, Kyra, Big Jimbo, and Little Big Jimbo. END OF ASIDE.)
So the Grimes Gang ran away from Hershel’s farm in various directions. The boring barn burned down — hooray! The boring house was empty — hooray! The fifty head of cattle were presumably eaten by walkers in a decadent blood-orgy — hooray! At this point, though, the episode was only halfway finished. And, after the gun-happy first act, the episode’s second half pushed the advance planning into overdrive.
The scattered members of the Grimes Gang all had quick heart-to-hearts. Glenn told Maggie he loved her. T-Dog briefly succumbed to space madness, desperately driving for the coastline, but Lori talked him down. At the rendezvous point on the highway, Hershel told Rick: “Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.” (The Jesus reference almost seemed to be picking up a thread from way back in the season premiere, when Rick and Carol both gave heartfelt speeches to a crucifix.)
Rick was almost thinking of leaving…until suddenly everyone showed up together. (Here’s Daryl, explaining how he tracked down Glenn: “Saw this guy’s tail-lights zig-zagging all over the road, and figured it had to be an Asian guy driving.” Everyone had a good laugh. You just can’t stay mad at Daryl!)
Andrea was the only member of the Grimes Gang left behind — and when we caught up with her, she was running through the woods, picking off one walker at a time and just trying to stay alive. She ran out of ammo, though, and a walker tackled her to the ground, and it looked like curtains for good ol’ Andrea…until, out of nowhere, a freaking katana sword sliced off the walker’s dead. Andrea looked up and saw a mysterious figure, shrouded in a robe, with two pet zombies on a chain-leash. An interesting development, and this mysterious new arrival instantly earned themselves the Zombie Kill of the Week. (SPOILER NOTE: The next paragraph is addressed only to people who’ve read the Walking Dead comic books, and if you’re a spoiler-phobe, I’d advise skipping to the next page now.)
At long last, Michonne! Robert Kirkman has been promising the arrival of the sword-wielding fan-favorite character all year, and now he’s finally made good on that promise. Michonne’s face was shrouded since they probably haven’t cast the character yet, which means we can start filling the net-o-sphere with all kinds of kooky casting possibilities. Who would you like to see play Michonne? As written, the character is an African American woman who appears to be in her 30s. My personal pick for the character, keeping in mind that the creators of Walking Dead prefer to cast British people: Naomie Harris, an actress who got her big break as the badass zombie-apocalypse survivor in 28 Days Later. I know Harris might be too big, now that she’s playing a secret agent in the next James Bond movie, but this is my dream world here. (UPDATE: So much for rampant speculation: The show has cast Treme supporting player Danai Gurira as Michonne.)
NEXT: Rick comes clean
The rest of the episode mostly flowed out in long, quiet scenes that did a good job of establishing some messy new group dynamics for next season. Rick tried to give the Grimes Gang an inspirational speech. He told them about a promised land: “A place where we fortify. Hunker down. Pull ourselves together. Build a life for each other.” Unfortunately, he also had some less inspiring news to tell them: “We’re all infected.” Yes, we now finally have confirmation about the subject of that mysterious whisper Jenner shared with Rick at the end of season 1: The Zombie virus has infected everyone, so no matter how you die, you’re going to rise again.
Rick had some more rough news to share: He told Lori about the death of Shane. “I knew what he was doin’. And I kept going’. I didn’t stop. I could have, but…I just wanted it over. I wanted him dead. I killed him.” This sequence was strikingly shot in one long-take, with Rick talking while Lori looked on in horror in the background. (Lori’s facial reactions could form their own GIF — she managed to look steadily more horrified with every sentence Rick said.)
Lori reacted badly to the news. She wouldn’t even let Rick touch her. This may strike some people as strange, since a few episodes ago Lori was going all Laura-Linney-in-Mystic-River and basically begging Rick to shoot Shane in the face. (But ah, my fellow viewers, you’re making the mistake of attempting to ascribe any logic whatsoever to Lori Grimes.) Personally, I was struck by the fact that Rick gave the whole speech with a cold, dispassionate look in his eyes. He almost seemed to be channeling Shane.
The characters gathered by a fire. There was some intriguing indication that not everyone was onboard with Rick 2.0. Carol was pushing Daryl to stage a coup. In the process, she accurately summed up how the two characters have become sidelined this season: “You’re his henchman. And I’m a burden. We deserve better.” I have to say, I’m intrigued by this new conspiratorial Carol. I’d love it if, in the next season, the writers figure out a way to play up the weirdness of the Daryl/Carol relationship — at times it feels flirtatious, but at other times she seems like a maternal figure for him. Freud! Gross!
There was a strange sound in the forest. Everyone was complaining. That’s when Rick really let them have it, unloading his own version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He told everyone point-blank that he killed Shane, and even though he was probably in the right, he came off like a man trying to defend the indefensible. “You saw what he was like! How he pushed me! How it compromised us! How it threatened us!” He told them that they could leave if they wanted to. No one did. With the last lines of the season, he summed up the new normal for the Grimes Gang: “This isn’t a democracy anymore.”
NEXT: A vision of the future?
At that point, the camera tilted away from our merry band of apocalypse survivors. In the distance, we could see the lights of a massive complex. Could this be Rick’s place of refuge? Or is this a sign of new terror on the horizon?
(ASIDE FOR READERS OF THE COMIC BOOK, SPOILER WARNING FOR EVERYONE ELSE: I freeze-framed the image a few times, and I think that the building is The Prison, the site of the best sustained narrative cycle in the Walking Dead saga. That makes sense — the characters in the comic found The Prison after leaving Hershel’s farm, and the discovery of The Prison coincided with the arrival of The Governor, who we already know will be appearing in season 3. Frankly, I’m not sure what non-readers would have thought of that final shot — it seemed like such a clear fan-service nod to people who’ve already read the comic book. Here’s hoping that the TV writers can make The Prison more interesting than Hershel’s Farm. By the way, I’m following “The Lost Island Rule” of capitalizing the “The” in “The Prison” until someone tells me not to. END OF ASIDE AND SPOILERS.)
I’m intrigued to see what you think of the finale, fellow viewers. It featured plenty of zombie head-splosions, and a couple of long-awaited deaths. But there wasn’t a big Moment, like the Sophia-zombie in the midseason finale. And maybe that’s a good thing. The Walking Dead has become a runaway success in its second season, so it’s actually quite hopeful to see them spend the season finale laying the groundwork for season 3. There is the hint of genuine tension inside the ranks of the Grimes Gang. And our Fearless Leader is looking less-and-less like a hero — his white hat has been tarnished.
Viewers, did you enjoy the season 2 finale? Were you sad to see Hershel’s seventy-five step-children die? Did you miss Shane in the first episode since his death? Do you think the show should continue culling its supporting cast next season? What was your favorite episode of season 2? Are you beginning to suspect that T-Dog will outlive everybody?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
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