The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 1 - "What Lies Ahead"

Spoilers. . .

The episode opens with Rick on the rooftop at dawn, talking on the radio to Morgan, offering a recap of Season One, a warning to stay away from Atlanta, and news that the RV Gang will be moving on to Fort Benning, a little over 100 miles south by the highway.  I like this Rick-on-the-radio device, as it might help avoid the usual "Previously on The Walking Dead. . ." setups that the most complicated serials require.  As a longtime Star Trek fan, I also like the similarity to the often-deployed "Captain's Log."  At any rate, we're hitting the road.

We don't get very far before there's a traffic jam of wrecked cars and desiccated corpses on Interstate-85, and even as the gang snakes its way through the mess, that pesky radiator hose on Dale's RV manages to blow.  I can't say I like the trope here, and it's going to get overused pretty quickly, but it does afford the group an opportunity to 1) get over their squeamishness about scavenging for supplies, and 2) introduce the concept of the Walker Herd.  In the comics, it took a while for Kirkman and Company to establish the idea of the herd, these large groups of zombies who cling together, but as an adaptive trait, it makes perfect sense.  One slow-moving, rather dim zombie -- no problem!  Hundreds of them -- you're dead.  With Robert Kirkman and Ardeth Bey splitting the writing of "What Lies Ahead," this further establishment of the rules of Walker World is effectively placed.

At this point, everyone pretty much hides from the herd, and three plot lines spin off from the arrival of zombies en masse.  T-Dog, who badly cuts his arm while attempting to hide is rescued from a certain devouring by the increasingly resourceful redneck Daryl Dixon (played by the increasingly awesome Norman Reedus).  Andrea, who gets trapped in the RV, manages to kill a zombie with a screwdriver, but she clearly is not going to let that happen to her again.  Most significantly, Carol's daughter Sophie, fleeing the highway from a couple of zombies, escapes into the woods, where Rick follows here, and in an unmitigated display of badassery, kills both zombies with a rock and his bare hands.  Sadly, Sophie slips away and gets lost.

Rick returns to the highway, brings Daryl back with him into the woods to search for Sophie, but any trail she's left simply disappears.  They manage to take down a walker in their afternoon's work, and, in one of the truly gruesome (and awesome) moments in the episode, Daryl cuts open the dead zombie to check its stomach for evidence of Sophie.  Nope, just a woodchuck.  Although Daryl was not an original character in the comics, his addition in the series here makes sense, as the heightened realism of television might require that at least one member of the group have serious survival skills.  With his crossbow, buck knife, and a complete lack of squeamishness, Daryl is an abrasive personality everyone must put up with if they want to stay alive.

Also welcome is the increasing assertiveness of Rick and Lori's son Carl, who finds a very useful cache of cutting weapons -- whose relative silence won't draw the attention of walkers in the way that guns do.  Carl also insists on coming along the next day to help search for Sophie.  Similarly contentious is Andrea, who isn't exactly happy with Dale for the emotional blackmail he pulled on her to get her out of the CDC fireball at the send of Season One.  Andrea wants her gun back, but none of the men want her to have it.  In both Carl and Andrea, you start to see a quickly dawning awareness of the basic requirement for survival: Be ready to kill a walker on your own at any time in any situation.  Other characters fade into the background in this episode, namely T-Dog and Glenn, with Dale lacking much to do save frown at Andrea and pretend he can't fix the damned radiator hose so the group will have another day to search for Sophia.

And search they do, for the remainder of the episode, which dawdles a little to let Shane and Lori grumble at each other, to establish Shane and Andrea as outsiders, and to bring everyone to a church in the woods for the exploration of some spiritual themes.  After clearing the pews of a few undead (crunch, splat, squish), there's time for Carol to ask God about the mixed messages he's sending, and, later, for Rick to apologize for his faithlessness and ask for a bit of good luck.  As Shane, Rick, and Carl head back to the highway, they encounter a big, beautiful buck -- and the men let Carl walk right up to the deer, much to the boy's delight.  Is it that sign that Rick was looking for?  Nope.  A gunshot rings out from somewhere unseen, killing the deer, passing through its body, and striking Carl, who falls to the ground, clearly wounded.  Cut to black.

We really couldn't ask for much more from The Walking Dead in a season premiere.  The RV Gang is clearly trying to move on, but the new developments (lack of reliable infrastructure and herds) makes this almost impossible.  Although we're treading water with the big players from last year, there are clearly strong developments coming for Daryl, Andrea, and Carl -- this last character being one of the most important and fascinating in the entire run of the comics.  The makeup throughout was outstanding as usual, as were the various "zombie kills," a particularly specific aesthetic of the genre.  AMC clearly has no hesitation in showing what for television is groundbreaking graphic gore.  The gross out factor aside, "What Lies Ahead" has two truly gripping moments:  the sheer size of the zombie herd as it shambles its way through the chaos of the highway, and Rick's one-on-two with some fairly fit walkers in the woods.  There's nothing like a good hunk of granite for crushing skulls.

Next week - Season 2, Episode 2 - "Bloodletting" (written by new show runner, Glen Mazzara)

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