[20 October 2011]
When AMC’s The Walking Dead was first announced, it seemed like the perfect series to replace that gaping hole left in our hearts by the end of the long-running, seemingly ever-expanding Lost. But when the show premiered last fall with a short six-episode season, viewers looking for such a replacement were quickly forced to hang up the idea.
The Walking Dead’s zombie apocalypse, with its cable-network approved graphic violence and graphic novel origins, was a seemingly untouchable geek-pleasing premise sure to offer up thrills and chills. The first season, for the most part, hit the expected marks of a sci-fi thriller populated with disparate personalities banding together to face a supernatural menace. But it fell short of other expectations, a bar that was set awfully high. While it has earned praise from fans and critics alike, in many ways it is not the show we expected, with this viewer too often disappointed by the sprawling cast of shrill archetypes, hysterics, and redshirts.
Egregiously lousy writing didn’t help, as The Walking Dead frequently lapsed into a mode of storytelling as lifeless and shambling as its much-hyped monsters. Our cast of survivors grappled more with superficial personality clashes among their own number than with bitey attacks from the undead. After the excellent series premiere, situations and characters were too often implausible, as the series fell back on backwoods racism, misogyny, and power struggles among the alpha males for storylines. And when The Walking Dead approached the kind of resonant themes you might want from a show set at the end of the world as we know it—self-reflections on human nature, governance, and the ever reliable meaning of life, say—the results were usually scattershot.
However, the second season premiere on Sunday night was good, lively and tense like last year’s pilot. In many ways, it was where the series ought to have begun.
Now that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has accepted his leadership role, the next step is to make good on that role and lead the survivors to some kind of safety. As this second season began, Rick’s band of survivors was whittled down to a manageable core group, and they took to the road with a new destination in mind: Fort Benning.
Last season, the series barely began to consider the perils of surviving in a collapsed world, initially reducing the humans’ new environment to a camp-out, sapping the middle episodes of momentum in the process. Now the real struggles for food, water, weapons, transport, and shelter have started, as the humans must scrounge for those important luxuries we take for granted, like medicines and doctors. When T-Dog (IronE Singleton) was injured early in the premiere, the absence of medical facilities and practitioners hung over the situation. Without access to even a quick trip to the ER and a tetanus shot, even simple injuries become threatening.
Other threats loomed even larger. In the opening minutes of Sunday’s premiere, the caravan encountered a highway graveyard of vehicles and long since expired drivers blocking their path. With the RV needing repair, the group began raiding the cars and trucks for resources and siphoning much-needed gasoline from the tanks. Soon, with a herd of the undead stumbling in their direction, the survivors were diving under cars, creating a terrifically terrifying sequence that only accelerated when a few zombie stragglers took notice of the hiding humans. As one of the children was chased into the forest and went missing under mysterious new circumstances, the survivors’ anxious need to get moving was stalled even further, culminating in the accidental shooting of Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs).
I sat throughout the premiere wondering just how the series planned to deal with the “Walt Situation”—named for Lost‘s Walt (Malcolm David Kelley), who was written out of the show when Kelley hit puberty at an inconvenient time. Riggs is at a risky age, teetering toward adolescence, so it may be that the series decided to deal with that problem. However, for a show like The Walking Dead, already so filled with desperation, misery, and hopelessness, the loss of the two remaining children seems dire. So I’m tempted to believe the shooting is merely a dramatic fake-out. Still ... it’s a good one.
Showrunner and creator Frank Darabont’s fate is already known, of course, having been fired this summer. He co-wrote this episode (credits list his pseudonym, “Ardeth Bey”) and was still in place as showrunner during production. Considering his writing work on the series so far, it’s unclear where the show might go once Darabont is actually out of the picture entirely. Was he indeed a problem, or will upcoming episodes spiral downward as they did last season, no matter his participation? It would be a shame to waste such a promising return.