The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 7 - "Pretty Much Dead Already"

Spoilers. . .

Many professional and amateur viewers of this season of The Walking Dead have pointed out the primary problem with the development of the series -- that is, in a world where zombies could attack and kill you at any moment, the rest of life's dramatics (illicit affairs, pregnancies, and the like) become more inconsequential.  Much has been written about the uneven nature of TWD's second season -- particularly the clunky nature of the Shane-Lori-Rick love triangle and Lori's pregnancy -- and how the human drama hasn't quite measured up to the zombie drama.  I've written here about the need for the show's creators to expand and deepen the cast of characters and to complicate their relationships, and for the most part, I think they've done that well enough.  There have been some dull moments in episodes 2 through 5, but what has mattered most -- Shane's ruthless pragmatism, Hershel's iron-willed faith, and Daryl's hillbilly genius -- is rolling right along.

After the airing of truths in last week's "Secrets," matters come to a head, driven mostly as Shane and Rick try to position themselves as leaders, not just of the RV Gang, but of Hershel' farm as well.  The tribal nature of survival in the post-apocalyptic world is a prominent theme in the comics and was clearly demonstrated in Season 1's "Vatos."  The truth is, if Hershel really wants to survive on his own moral terms (zombies are just sick people, not killers, and therefore properly kept in the barn), he is perfectly correct in demanding that Rick and the RV Gang leave as soon as possible.  But when Glenn lets it drop to the RC Gang about the zombies in the barn, Shane has one plan in mind, although Rick thinks he can work out an arrangement with Hershel.

Hershel calls Rick away on a zombie-wrangling mission.  A couple of walkers have gotten stuck in the swamp, and, apparently, the usual routine on the Greene farm is to round them up and stick them in the barn with the rest of the herd.  While Rick is stumbling around in the mud trying to capture zombie, Shane has to track down Dale -- who's attempting to hide the RV Gang's guns -- and get the weapons back.  Dale makes a nice principled speech about keeping his nice principles, but Shane simply is the more aggressive man.  The momentum of the episode carries quickly to the final ten minutes, with Shane headed for the barn locked and loaded and Rick going the same way with two rescued walkers on snare poles.  The entire cast converges on the barn for the final scene in which Shane -- not Rick -- take charge of the situation.  Hershel is too idealistic even to see the walkers as a threat, and Rick is too concerned with protecting the group to take decisive action, but Shane knows exactly what he wants to do.  He gives out guns to the RV Gang and opens up the barn.

What follows is a clear demonstration of just how ready the group is to defend itself.  A score of walkers emerge from the barn and are dispatched with ease and not a little gore.  Shane kills efficiently, Andrea shows her new cool, and the rest of the group -- even Glenn -- mow down the undead in a matter of a few minutes.  Daryl blasts away at the zombie that used to be Hershel's wife.  While the killfest probably won't satisfy the hardcore action fans, it does make up for the lack of zombies seen in the middle episodes of the first half of the season.  One wonders if there are budgetary or time constraints in terms of the presentation of zombies on TWD.  The most powerful moment of all -- and one that was indeed spoiled over the weekend for those who cared to look for it online -- came when Sophia, now a walker, emerges as the last of the barn-zombies.   Her mother, Carol, runs toward her, only to be restrained by Daryl.  Of all people, Rick steps up and, with his own pistol, puts a bullet into walker-Sofia's skull.  End of episode.

What has the gang learned?  If you get separated from the group, you're as good as dead; for Rick, this means that you don't run off so easily on errands of mercy.  Walkers are not people; for Hershel, this still may not be something he can accept, whereas for Carol, it may be.  The best walker is a dead walker; for Shane, this is the argument he's been making all along, and Rick, it seems, comes to agree with him.

While the time on Hershel's farm has been useful in giving the writers time and space to develop the characters, it hasn't been without risks in terms of holding audience attention.  Although TWD isn't quite up to the epic scale of a big-budget, serialized show like Lost, it's worth remembering that Lost did a little wandering in Seasons Two or Three (Mr. Eko? Ana Lucia Cortez? Nikki and Paulo?), but found its way back once an end point to the story was reached (no more than six seasons).  It seems to me that, based on "Pretty Much Dead Already," TWD writers have a general sense of how to get to these big payoffs, but that the details of the more mundane human drama are tricky.  One hopes that the second half of the season will show more improvement in the scene-to-scene situations and dialogue.

To take a few cues from the comics, TWD might work more effectively if the following were kept in mind:

1. Anyone can die at any moment. Many of the most shocking moments in the Kirkman's comics are simply the deaths -- accidental or intentional -- or major characters.  Although it certainly shouldn't be overused, and it would probably be a nightmare to keep secret until airtime, the death of a featured cast member in the middle of the season would strongly establish the danger of the world of walkers.

2. The problem is people.  A clear theme in the comics lies in the exploration of how humans, as social animals, reconfigure their relationships, morals, and behaviors to suit new circumstances.  While Hershel's farm is a good starting point for exploring this theme, there are far more effective settings and social arrangements that can be borrowed from the comics -- and who knows what the show's writers might come up with.

3. Carl is potentially the most interesting character.  In the comics, Carl is seven, whereas on the TV show, I believe  he's 12.  It's a widely held opinion that Carl is one of the strongest and most compelling character in the comics.  Now, maybe it's me, but most 7th graders I know are relatively sophisticated and capable pretty much of taking care of themselves.  As played by Chandler Riggs, Carl rings most true to me when he's demanding to be treated like an adult -- wanting to learn to shoot, for instance -- and sneaking around a bit as he tries to be a grown up.  A fertile ground for the writers might be a short arc where Carl is separated from the group and has to fend for himself -- like those very strong moments from Daryl Dixon this season.  As a kid in a world where death lurks around every corner, you've got to learn to kill walkers, and kill them well.  It might be shocking to see at first, but what an opportunity for some real innovative television.

Zombie Quotient - 1 (none) to 10 (major herd) - 7
Zombie Kill of the Week - Shane, a pistol, point blank against the skull of a snare-poled walker.


The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 6 - "Secrets"

The snowclone for today's blog entry is "When X learns that Y."  All set?  Here we go. Spoilers. . .

1. When Andrea learns that Daryl has no hard feelings about her shooting him, it's another sign that Daryl is more complicated and principled than we give him credit for.  That's about it in this episode for Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl.  Both the character and the actor probably need a rest.

2. When Dale learns that Hershel has been keeping zombies in the barn, kindly Dale attempts to reason with the increasingly cranky Hershel, only to be rebuffed.  We're not murderers, says Hershel, and those are people in the barn.  Yeah, right.

3. Glenn learns that Maggie thinks he's totally awesome -- courageous leadership material, dammit! -- after he risks his life again on yet another supply run.  Glenn has a fine zombie-kill, using a drugstore shelf to take out a particularly nasty walker that attacks Maggie.

4.  When Carl learns that his parents will let him learn to shoot, he shoots the shit out of a bunch of stuff.

5. When Andrea learns that she can shoot a gun pretty well, Shane decides to increase the difficulty of her training, and when she starts to lose her composure in trying to hit a moving target, Shane yells at her.  Not cool.

6. When Lori learns that Hershel expects the RV Gang to hit the road once Carl and Daryl are fully healed, she's not happy that Rick's been keeping that little logistical detail from her.

7. When Shane learns that Andrea wants to have sex, they have sex.  In the car.  Parked in the middle of the road.  Very cool.

8.  When Rick learns Lori that is pregnant, he's worried that she's going to get rid of the baby.

9. When Lori learns that Rick has known about her affair with Shane, she's more confused than apologetic.

10. When Dale learns that Andrea likes hanging around Shane, he confronts Shane about it, only to have Shane threaten to kill old man Dale if he presses the matter.

While "Secrets" is not the kind of mid-season cliffhanger we might expect from a series with zombies, the plot threads that have been playing out from the start of the season are nicely tangled halfway along here.  Shane, who's role in the comics had been extinguished by this point in the Hershel's farm storyline, now becomes as essential to the plot as Rick.  Shane loves Rick's family, and would do anything to help the people he cares about, and how he's developed a meaningful bond with Andrea.  Dale, whose passive-aggressive, cards-close-to-the-chest approach has worked until now, is quickly being pushed aside by the younger, more aggressive characters.  Andrea has made a play to become a survivor.  Lori's general avoidance of hard choices has caught up with her.  Glenn and Maggie are clearly going to be asserting themselves more in the general mix of things, as Maggie' confidence will bolster Glenn's developing skills as a leader.  Rick's got plenty to deal with in terms of Lori, and Shane -- and there's a looming conflict with Hershel's folks that still has to begin playing out in the second half of the season.

So, while there wasn't much zombie-killing this week, there was a real sense of movement in the characters, particularly internally.  If characters best reveal themselves by the decisions they made when faced with challenging situations, "Secrets" laid bare the thinking of most of the RV Gang.  As others have said, for the show to succeed in the long term, The Walking Dead needs to be about more than Rick.  And, in a way that avoids gimmicks like "Last Week on The Walking Dead" and, for the most part, Lost-style flashbacks, the creative team have found a way to move the show from being about one character to being about a dozen -- in the space of six episodes.

With a closing shot of Lori and Rick standing in the middle of the road, at an impasse in their conversation, it seems that TWD is primed for a great many reactions from the cast of characters, probably in the additional context of Hershel's barn causing more and more problems.  Next week, we'll reach a stopping point of sorts with the episode "Pretty Much Dead Already," as the series goes on a two month hiatus.  Hold on to your hats and pass the ammo.  After that, no new episodes until February 12 of next year.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Glenn, with shelving.
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (major herd): 4


The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 5 - "Chupacabra"

For those who aren't familiar with the Chupacabra, it's one of those mythical creatures -- like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster -- whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and often regarded as highly unlikely. Dropped into a conversation towards the start of this episode, it becomes a theme for this installment of The Walking Dead, which has had its work cut out for it this season in maintaining its nervy tone while fleshing out its characters and introducing the world of Hershel's farm.  The reality or unreality of the Chupacabra depends largely on what you choose to believe, your sense of priorities, and your values. In a world where walkers exist, where the vicious goat-sucker of legend is real, how do you proceed?

After a much-needed flashback that resets Shane's attachment to Lori and Carl, as well as reminding us of what an incredible asshole Carol's husband Ed was before his welcome demise, the men of the RV gang set off on their search for little lost Sophie, even as Carol suggests to the RV ladies that they should prepare a nice meal for  everyone at Hershel's farm.  Andrea, who's had more than enough of doing laundry and the like, takes up a sentry post atop the RV, a scoped rifle at her side.  There's a quaint attachment to the old habits of domesticity that completely lacks appeal for Andrea; she's got survival in mind.

In a fine scene between Shane and Rick, what starts out as a light conversation about old girlfriends moves quickly to Shane's questioning of Rick's leadership -- another stretch of dialogue that gets to the point and, frankly, probably doesn't need to proceed much further.  Are Rick's priorities in the right place, as he insists on continuing to look for Sophie?  As Shane says, Sophie's survival only "matters to the degree to which she don't drag the rest of us down."  Rick still holds out hope that Sophie might be alive still, out there in the forest, like the Chupacabra.  Later on, Hershel and Rick have some tense words, as Hershel clearly suggests that the RV Gang and the folks on the farm shouldn't be mixing their business.  "I'll control mine, you control yours."  The most serious example of people mixing it up, of course, are Maggie Greene and Glenn, who, having done the deed in the last episode, are stumbling their way towards another tryst, although Glenn is a little bit clueless as to how to go about it.  Everyone's working from a different set of priorities.

Easily, the best scenes in the episode happen, as they often do, with Daryl Dixon, off on his own -- this time on horseback -- searching for Sophie.  But his horse, spooked by a snake, throws Daryl into a ravine.  In the tumble down the deep slope, one of his crossbow bolts is driven through his side -- a bloody mess, but not fatal.  After some moments, Daryl is able to rouse himself, fetch his crossbow, but doesn't have the nerve to pull the bolt out of his side.  He finds Sophie's doll -- a sign!  He attempts to climb out of the ravine, but on the point of making it, falls back down and badly hits his head.  As with some of the most effective moments in film, much of this excruciating business is done with no dialogue, and is all the more watchable.

In a vision, Daryl's big brother Merle (Michael Rooker) appears, a strange sort of guardian angel, taunting his brother for getting himself in a situation while looking a a little girl on behalf of people who don't care about him at all.  He's become nothing but an errand boy for "pansy-asses, niggers, and Democrats," says Merle.  "Ain't nobody ever going to care about you like me, little brother."  And, as Merle's taunting gets more physical, Daryl comes to just in time to kill the walker that's started to gnaw on his boot.  In order to kill another walker that's been drawn by the commotion, Daryl has to pull the crossbow bolt from his side and load up.  Those are your two zombie kills for the week right there.  In the end, Daryl managed to bind up his side, drag himself out of the ravine, and back to the farm.

Daryl's scenes in this episode are so primitive -- even the imagined bits of conversation with Merle are blunt and brutal -- that the contrast with the relative silliness back on the farm is stark.  Daryl might not be sure why he's looking for Sophie or why he fights so damn hard to survive, but he will not give up and he will not be killed.  He's not a wild-man, exactly, but he's not a pastoral dictator like Hershel or a gritty lawman like Rick.  Daryl simply does what he needs to, without flinching.  Hell, he'll eat a raw squirrel if necessary.  (He does, by the way.)  When Daryl finally stumbles out of the treeline, he's spotted at a distance by Andrea, who thinks he's a walker.  And, while all the men take up their blunt instruments, puff out their chests, and tell her to stand out, "Better let us handle this!" -- Andrea, who's fed up with being held back, still pops off a round.  She's a good shot, but not quite good enough, and grazes Daryl's temple.  The prodigal son returns, and this is what he gets.  Daryl's fine -- just a flesh wound -- but he'll have to miss dinner.

So let's just say that the big dinner that night, with the RV Gang and Hershel's Flock all sitting down together, is a tense affair, made all the more tense by Glenn and Maggie passing notes back and forth as they attempt to find a time and place to knock boots.  Glenn's note, which Maggie doesn't open until after dinner, suggests a roll in the hay -- the hayloft of the barn, he means, and Maggie just catches Glenn in time as he discovers that Hershel has a little secret.  Nope, he doesn't kill walkers.  He keeps them locked in the barn.  Ah, the secrets we keep from each other.

What works in this episode is the convergence of plotlines -- finally -- and the reliance more on visual storytelling.  As much as the writers have had to spin off most of the characters into their pairs and trios to develop this or that, that tense "family dinner" tells us everything.  There's some major shit going down very soon, and everyone's just being too polite about it.  Leave it to Glenn -- reckless, goofy, gossipy Glenn -- to stumble onto that barnful of walkers, which should pull everything together in the next episode.  And the visual dimension of the series -- the really pretty greens and earth tones of the forest and the farm -- are of course illusory.  There's darkness and dirt and rotting flesh, you just have to know where to look for it.  Down a well, in the woods, penned up in the barn.  And, of course, if you don't go looking for the undead, they are sure to come looking for you sooner or later.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Daryl, with a stick, Zombie #1 in the Ravine
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (major horde): 3.5


The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 4 - "Cherokee Rose"

Getting caught up today!  Spoilers ahead. . .

While I can imagine the gore-and-gunpowder purists objecting to the interpersonal developments in "Cherokee Rose," I would note that those protesting must have be tone deaf to character.  With Carl recovering from his shooting, there's not much for Rick and Hershel to do in this episode but enter into a quiet sort of negotiations about whether or not the RV Gang will be staying at the farm.  And we find out about Lori what we'd been suspecting all along -- that she's pregnant, although nobody can say if the baby is going to be Rick's or Shane's.  Now that is an interesting development, and a fine peg on which to hang the plot for many episodes to come.

Shane isn't doing so well with his I-Killed-Otis-and-Left-Him-To-Die secret, but in and around his limping sulkiness, he makes time to talk guns with Andrea, who's eager to learn.  For me, Andrea's development can't be moved along quickly enough, as it seems a waste of a fine actor in Laurie Holden.

Everyone's favorite redneck-with-a-crossbow, Daryl Dixon, becomes even more engaging in this episode, dragging his grimy self back into the woods again in search of Sophie, returning only with the flower that gives this episode its name -- Cherokee Rose -- and a lyrical speech to Sophie's suffering mother that offers comfort where none could be found.  If, as the show's producers have been hinting of late, Daryl's super-jerk of a brother Merle does make his return, there's sure to be a grand falling out.  I can't quite put my finger on how Norman Reedus manages to make Daryl into such a compelling character -- something about his ease with solitude and the dogged way he keeps searching for Sophia, I reckon.  There's much there that will be unpacked, I'm sure.

What made the headlines, of course, was the most disgusting zombie of the series yet, another "stranded" sort, this one trapped in the well that's used to water the animals on Hershel's farm.  The RV Gang decides they need to get it out -- all the better to preserve the water quality.  None other that Glenn volunteers to drop down the well and loop a rope around the walker -- call him a wader in this case -- although, as usual, Glenn nearly gets eaten.  And no sooner is the zombie pulled out of the well than --well, you'll just have to see for yourself.  Let's just say that nobody's drinking from that well ever again.  At least Dale and T-Dog had something to do in this episode.

And, just as Glenn has thrilled the crowd yet again with his devil-may-care attitude, he's sent into town to get supplies, along with everybody's favorite farmer's daughter, Maggie Greene.  They ride in on horseback to the drugstore, and, in a moment of misunderstanding (Glenn's getting a pregnancy test for Lori), Maggie all but propositions him.  From this point forward, Glenn will certainly be happy to work on Maggie's farm, although I don't suspect he'll be volunteering to go exploring down any wells again. There's something fresh and hopeful about even this awkward romance in the midst of all the bleakness.

"Cherokee Rose" is another episode of building characters and their relationships, with one great zombie appearance and demise.  There's a great deal of humor and pathos to be found throughout.  For some, this won't be a memorable episode, but it's a necessary one nevertheless.

Zombie Kill of the Week: The RV Gang, with a rope, by the well.
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (a major herd): 2

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 3 - "Save The Last One"

As always, spoilers ahead. . .

Well, the most excellent Pruitt Taylor Vince had it good on The Walking Dead for about two-and-a-half episodes as the hefty, slightly bumbling but goodhearted Otis.  As you might remember, it's Otis who has shot Carl Grimes in a hunting accident, requiring Rick to make a mad dash for Hershel's Farm, and Hershel, a veterinarian, is able to stabilize Carl long enough for Shane and Otis to volunteer for a medical supplies run to the clinic at the local high school.  The previous episode hung on the cliff of Shane and Otis, having gotten the supplies to possibly save Carl's life, only to get trapped in the high school by a stirred-up-and-hungry hoard of ghouls.

"Save the Last One" opens with Shane returned (whew), and paying close attention to his personal hygiene.  In fact, he's decided to take the clippers to his manly mane and reduce his handsome head to a meager crop of scalp-stubble.  But why, Shane, why?  Turns out that Otis didn't make it back, as he and Shane had to shoot their way out, but Shane's at a loss for words.  There's not much time, as Hershel has to operate on Carl and two dramatic questions linger over this episode:  What really happened to Otis? and Will Carl make it?

Other questions linger from before -- Will the RV Gang ever find Sophia, whose disappearance set all this in motion in the first place?  Will Andrea continue to put up with the patronizing attitudes of the other alpha males -- especially Dale?  Will Daryl Dixon continue to be awesomely crossbow-riffic?  Is Rick going to figure out that Lori and Shane had an affair when they thought he was dead?  Is Hershel really this nice?  Will T-Dog and Glenn find something useful to do?

Glenn (Steven Yeun) appears to be a little more than dumbstruck in the presence of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) , Hershel's daughter, who rode in last episode and saved Glenn from a walker.  During one of the more compelling quiet scenes, Glenn and Maggie talk about faith, and he is more impressed with her than she with him.  Glenn's still carrying a great deal of self-doubt and hesitation, whereas Maggie seems to know much more clearly what she wants and how to act.

Another fine moment happens between Daryl and Andrea, off in the woods looking for Sophia, as they happen upon a rather pathetic zombie, a biting-victim who has hanged himself and then come back, only to be trapped in the noose long enough to have his lower limbs gnawed off.  The creators of the show are certainly finding interesting ways to "strand" zombies of late, and are finding a degree of humor with the walkers, who are, at times, almost a nuisance to be dealt with.  It seems clear that Daryl -- the ultimate pragmatist -- and Andrea -- who wants to be an independent survivor -- fit together well.

But as to the main dramatic questions, let's get to it.  Carl does indeed pull through.  And Shane, it turns out, has a dark survivor's streak -- driven perhaps out of his twisted love for Rick's family -- and, indeed, the reason Otis didn't make it back from the high school is revealed.  Shane shot him and left him behind as walker-bait while he hightailed it home.  Shane's shaving his head to cover up the tuft of hair Otis ripped from Shane's scalp in the struggle to get away.  Ugly business, but a decision that had to be made, and Shane's clearly the character to watch in upcoming episodes.  Not having lasted this long in the comic books means that Shane can be almost anything the producers need him to be.

While some viewers have complained about the slow pace of the series, I can't say that I agree.  Granted, there's got to be some degree of development between and among the characters, as most of them don't really know each other.  Drama is as much driven by internal conflicts based of love and loyalty as much as they are on external factors, so I don't see how later episodes are going to have much emotional payoff unless some investment is made in creating new relationship dynamics.  It might be worth some time and thought to devote a bit of attention to a flashback here and there -- I'm thinking a little borrowing from the narrative structure of Lost -- should one character or another need depth.  Dale is a bit of a mystery, as is Daryl.  But payoffs are coming, certainly -- between Andrea and the rest of the group, in the Rick-Lori-Shane triangle, between Hershel and Rick, between Maggie and Glenn, and between Daryl, T-Dog, and the others when old one-hand Merle makes his return.  Give me a couple of good zombie appearances a week and I'll stay with it.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Shane, with a shotgun -- take your pick.
Zombie Quotient - on a scale of 1 (none) to 10 (major herd): 6.5