The second season finale of The Walking Dead shows that the people behind the scenes have been listening to the complaints from fans, especially when it comes to Rick’s interminable wishy washiness. They’ve also begun to set up a storyline that will keep fans of the comic happy, as well briefly introduced a character who comic readers love. But do these things solve the problem that continues to fester at the very heart of The Walking Dead?
Beside the Dying Fire begins with a quick origin story for the Arbitrary Zombie Horde that showed up at the end of last episode. There’s some cutesiness there - I believe that the horde begins their journey following the helicopter that Rick saw taking off from Atlanta lo those many episodes ago, and I bet that helicopter comes back at some point next season - but generally they’re still an Arbitrary Zombie Horde. I guess they function as a Metaphorically Rich Arbitrary Zombie Horde, as the violence done to Shane is what draws them down upon the farm. If only Adam and Eve had been cast out of Eden because Cain killed Abel there would have been some heavy religious symbology to the whole thing.
The first half of the episode acts as the action climax of the season, in which the zombies kill both That One Guy as well as Some Lady. The big takeaway here is that the survivors have become truly astonishing marksmen and that Hershel’s shotgun appears to have unlimited ammo. I was sort of hoping the season would end with the characters all split up, but the show just uses their brief scattering as a way to fill some air time; after a commercial break everybody but Andrea is back together.
There’s a big shift in the status quo at the end. Rick asserts his dominance and tells everybody that he snuffed Shane, and that the group is no longer a democracy, it’s a Rickocracy. It’s not clear why anybody would acquiesce to this turn of events, or why Rick thinks he has the strength to stand up to a T-Dog (who I cannot believe has now survived two seasons without being given a single defining characteristic) or a Daryl.
Rick’s other big reveal to the group is that they’re all infected with the T-virus or whatever, and that when they die - no matter how they die - they’ll become walkers. As a guy who has spent almost 40 years watching zombie movies this is a no duh thing to me, but I’ve seen people debating it online as if they’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The opening scene of Romero’s classic sequel lays this shit out for you: “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!”
But this is some sort of major shock to the survivors. Beyond that I’m not entirely sure why they care about this; this feels more like a maintenance issue than a major issue. Now you gotta put a spike in everybody’s head when they die, oh well.
The big moment of the episode for hardcore fans will be the brief introduction of Michonne, a katana-wielding badass who leads two zombies around in chains. But as soon as Michonne appeared on screen I heard a cracking sound, and I knew what it was - that was the sound of The Walking Dead breaking. There’s something so comic booky about this character, who seems to have wandered in right from Mad Max’s wasteland, that doesn’t belong in this TV show. The Walking Dead has worked hard to remain non-fantastical, but Michonne threatens that with her semi-manga quality. I have to withhold any real judgment until I see how the show handles her next season, but her brief intro was far more stylized and unreal than anything seen on the show thus far.
So back to the question in the first paragraph. The second half of the second season has felt like a lot of course correction, an attempt to move pieces into places and steer away from previous bad choices. I think some of the corrections have successful, while others - such as introducing the prison in the final shot* - feel like pandering fan service. But in the end they don’t get to the heart of my problem with this show: I don’t like any of the characters.
I sort of like Daryl, even though he has been ruthlessly sidelined since that episode where he fell off his horse. But everybody else is a drag or a bore or a nothing at this point. Killing Shane was a bummer for me because he was the only complex character on the show and because Jon Bernthal was one of the few really inspired casting choices. This episode didn’t really give anyone enough space to step into that complexity void, and the new Rick is less of a badass and more of a shrill jerk.
To me season two ends up kind of a wash. I think that the season got out of control in the first half and now we’re back at a square one type position. Season three will be the make or break year for me. I’m not excited about the show moving into another single location where we'll see all the same old conflicts, and the inclusion of Michonne makes me nervous, but I’m willing to go in with a clean slate. If Glenn Mazzara and his team can flesh out some of these characters - or kill off people like T-Dog and introduce new, complex people - I can get back onboard. The show has such high production values - how about spreading some of that money to the writing staff?
* “What’s that?” my girlfriend (who coined Rickocracy) asked. It was a weird final moment, because only the handful of people who have read the comic will have any clue what the hell they’re looking at. The six and a half million other viewers will be left baffled not only about the identity of that location, but why they should even give a shit.
EDITED TO ADD: OK, I liked Rickocracy, but Reddit just outdid it with this: