TV Talk: THE WALKING DEAD 2.1 - “What Lies Ahead”

THE WALKING DEAD is back for season two. Did the 90 minute premiere improve on what went wrong in the first season?

The premiere of The Walking Dead's second season was preceded by a marathon of the first season. I had a chance to rewatch much of the last episode, where the gang finds themselves in a Lost episode/the CDC and everything ends in a big, terrible, red clock countdown explosion. It was the nadir of the season, which had - for me, anyway - spiraled out of control into crap after a great debut.

The hope was that season two would correct that course, that with the world and the characters established we could now move on to interesting stories or more examinations of intriguing moral dilemmas. If that's going to happen, it'll have to start next week, because episode one of season two, What Lies Ahead, is a 90 minute block of almost nothing at all, something that feels more like a pause than the launch of a new set of stories. By the end of the episode we're finally in a place where something might happen, but otherwise this was a fairly tedious 90 minutes.

Things start on the wrong foot; after I don't know how many days/weeks/months of a zombie apocalypse our little gang of ragtag survivors still has zero discipline or sense. They're traveling out of Atlanta on the interstate, which is already a patently terrible idea, when they come across a huge jam of abandoned cars. Instead of being careful, everybody gets out of their vehicles and starts sauntering around, scavenging supplies.

Yes, supplies are needed, but why are the two children allowed to just run around on a highway crowded with corpses? This stupidity is in service of suspense - everybody is caught out in the open when a horde of zombies arrives - but I need my characters to be smart enough that I can root for them. Every one of these people deserves to be eaten.

By the way, a question to you: didn't we establish that zombies go by sense of smell? Isn't that why Glenn and Rick had to cover themselves with zombie guts at one point last season? This episode everybody hides from the marauding horde by... staying underneath cars. I do like the idea of zombie herds roaming the countryside, but the show needs to not throw out rules it already established to save our heroes from such a herd.

After this extended hiding sequence the little girl with the group runs out into the woods, chased by a couple of zombies. Rick saves her but she gets lost, and so the whole gang begins a search for her that will take the entire episode. Along the way we'll see Rick and Daryl gut a zombie to check out his feeding habits (a la Jaws), meet a guy who opted to kill himself rather than face the nightmare of zombies, and visit a church with some undead congregants, including one shawled lady zombie who was quite simply terrifying looking. But nothing much happens, right up until the last moments when the show finally, suddenly gets awesome.

It's worth noting that the zombie make-up and the gore FX remain incredible. The designs on the walkers are great, and the lady in the church really got under my skin. The show continues to look excellent, and every dime of the (now diminished) budget is being well spent. At least when it comes to what we see on screen.

As for whether it's being well-spent on the writers: I don't think so. This episode featured an endless amount of wheelspinning about previous character plot points. Shane (still my favorite character on the show. He is a man of action, and he is incredibly torn about what to do in his situation, but he is completely choosing the most righteous path) is still fighting with Lori and wants to get away from Rick. Andrea still wants to kill herself. Dale is still being all wise and Dale-ish. Rick is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Carol is still the short haired lady who is upset all the time. After an hour and a half none of these character's stories felt in any real way advanced, and since the whole episode featured people just walking around the woods, occasionally killing zombies, neither did the larger story.

In the final seconds of the episode shit finally gets real; after asking God for a sign, Rick gets one - a beautiful buck walking serenely through the woods... that is shot by an unseen hunter moments later. Shot by a bullet that travels through the doe's neck and hits his son right in the chest. Something happened! Which means it's time to end the show.

The biggest character moment in the show is that Daryl, the racist bowhunter played by Norman Reedus, saves T-Dog (UGH AT THAT NAME)'s life. He does that despite the fact that T-Dog is largely responsible for whatever it is that happened to Daryl's brother, and that it would have been easy to let T-Dog be killed. This is an interesting moment, and I like the idea of Daryl finding himself as a strong team player, but I also fear that the show is merely turning him into the group's domesticated wolf, out there tracking people and knowing what berries to eat.

I really want to like The Walking Dead. I think the pieces are in place for a good show - the actors are fine, the production value is strong, the concept is rich. I just don't understand how, with 90 minutes at their disposal, the writers - Robert Kirkman and "Ardeth Bay" (aka Frank Darabont's fake name) - couldn't rev the character stories up. The first episode of season 2 felt a lot like the bad episodes of season 1, with lots of wheel spinning, lots of pointlessness and lots of characters making bad or stupid decisions.

What Lies Ahead marks the end of Frank Darabont's association with The Walking Dead. While it's fucked up how AMC maneuvered him out of the show, I hope that now the program can find a rhythm that works dramatically. I hope that it can begin to feel less like a lot of nothing surrounding really cool zombie FX.

And now I turn it over to Meredith...