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.
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.