The Walking Dead Season 2 Part 1
Huge spoiler alert - do not read if you have not seen the mid-season conclusion
First off: This review contains heavy spoilers, so avoid this like the zombie plague if you haven’t seen the show through to its mid-season conclusion yet.
People have been ragging pretty hard on The Walking Dead recently. The first half of the sombre zombie epic’s second season has just finished airing, and it seems that every internet forum you come across is ablaze with impassioned diatribes about how the show has descended into a mess of overwrought melodrama and unlikeable characters. Admittedly, The Walking Dead’s second season has not been without its flaws, but in so many ways it has been every bit as intense and moving as the hugely promising first season.
The second season kicked off with an extended virtuoso set-piece, as what remains of the survivors encounter a graveyard of abandoned cars on a deserted interstate, and must hide underneath them as a horde (or “herd,” as one character wryly remarks) of zombies shuffles past. One of the strengths of The Walking Dead has always been its less-is-more attitude towards zombies, and this sequence was a bravura example of this approach – tense and urgent, preferring to slowly build tension instead of propelling us into gratuitous bouts of splattery mayhem. It sets the tone for the series perfectly.
The highway nail-biter ends with Sophia, one of the children in the group, going missing. As the group searches the surrounding woods for Sophia, Rick and Lori’s son is shot in a near-fatal hunting accident, and the survivors make it to the farm of Hershel Greene, who agrees to take the travellers in while he operates on the injured boy. Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callie’s performances as Rick and Lori as they deal with their son being injured are intensely affecting, and provide some of the best acting of the series.
The Walking Dead is as much a show about how society and humanity can function after a zombie apocalypse as it is about zombies itself, perhaps even more so. This is why the sporadic appearances of zombies throughout the second season have much more impact – they serve as an occasional reminder of the threat that exists to whatever embryonic society the survivors cobble together. It also makes the show’s focus on the relationships and dramas between the characters engaging rather than tiresome, and season two was filled with some truly gripping character arcs. Daryl’s transformation from boorish hick to compassionate hero was beautifully done, and Norman Reedus maintains enough grungy charm to keep the character interesting. Glen and Maggie’s fledgling romance was sweet and nicely written, even if it did tend to circle around itself for a couple of episodes.
The way Shane is being positioned as a potential antagonist for the second half of season two was not always subtle, but his descent into an insanity masquerading as bleak pragmatism is convincing. Shane’s brutally amoral survivalism is in stark and obvious contrast to the way Rick limply clings the social structures of the “time before,” and this tension is in many ways the central conflict of season two. It is complicated by the stern and insular patriarch Hershel Greene, who keeps a barn full of “walkers” (to use the show’s own lexicon) because he believes they are sick people who could one day be cured.
This revelation salvages the pacing of season two, which after the first two or three episodes starts to stall somewhat. For a good couple of episodes the stay at Hershel’s farm seems like a bit digressive, with the momentum of the plot resting solely on the increasingly-laboured search for Sophia. Coupled with this sense of narrative stasis is the fact that the show was often confused and muddled in outlining the motivations of its characters. It was frustratingly difficult to understand what the exact relationship between Andrea and Dale is, for example, and we often saw characters do things that made sense in terms of plot, but not in terms of character. Dale’s decision to hide the weapons from Shane makes works from a narrative perspective, but why Dale as a person would carry out such an action was poorly conveyed.
All these grievances are minor niggles, however, and all were forgotten by the time the shocking and heartbreaking conclusion came around. The fragile situation at the farm comes to a head when a clearly crazy Shane rounds up the group and begins gunning down the walkers in the barn. The twist that follows may not be the most unpredictable in TV history, but it is certainly a wonderful piece of character writing with Rick’s actions. This bold and emotionally-charged scene may well be one of the finest moments of The Walking Dead so far – moving, harrowing, and beautifully directed. Not only does it make sense of the dragged-out search for Sophia, it heartbreakingly pulls together some on the central conflicts of the season – whether a zombie is a monster or a “sick” person who retains some of their humanity, and whether there is room for compassion and decency in the way people must live in this post-apocalyptic landscape.
The Walking Dead now goes on hiatus until February, but the showrunners have certainly ended on an explosive high, and there will be many waiting with bated breath for the show to return.