Last year, AMC’s runaway success story The Walking Dead hit the ground running with a promising first half that petered out and turned into something muddled and disappointing yet still brimming with potential. I admit that for a show like this, I’m an easy sell; I’m a zombie connoisseur, an aficionado of all things shambling, groaning, and decaying, and a big fan of most things Frank Darabont bothers himself to do. I normally would issue a word of caution and suggest that my words be taken well-salted in light of my inclination toward appreciation of zombie stories, but surprisingly I didn’t find myself raving about the first season as much as I thought I would.
Largely, this is because the series came to something of a standstill for me in the last half in terms of both character development and story progression; much of that last episode felt perfunctory and thoroughly useless, and to me spoke to issues of focus and the writers’ end-game and direction (or lack thereof). So for me, season 2’s biggest challenge lies in shifting gears and getting the plot back on track in the wake of the events within the CDC building; that means lots of forward momentum and a re-orientation on fleshing out the characters the show focuses on in its post-zombie apocalypse America. With two episodes (technically three; the opening episode is really two episodes) down, the question is– how well has the season succeeded thus far?
Short answer: it’s a mixed bag, but things are looking up.
What Lies Ahead fits this bill better than Sunday night’s Bloodletting; the former episode’s fairly slapdash, flip-flopping continuously between tense, series-high moments and agonizingly slow and unfathomably long periods where, frankly, nothing of interest happens. After a long nail-biter of an opening sequence, in which a herd of roaming dead happen upon our group of survivors as they struggle to make their way through a graveyard of automobiles, 2.1 just kind of hangs out, content to tread water whilst doing as little possible to advance the story any meaningful way. Largely the writing is weighed down by an enormous amount of completely obtuse exposition; characters detail their emotional states and expound on the events of season 1’s finale in the most heavy-handed way possible. The episode’s opening monologue makes the worst offense as Rick covers all of the bases from the group’s battle to adapt to a world dominated by zombies to racial politics. Maybe for someone who missed out on the first season, Rick’s just being helpful, but for fans his speech is enough to make a person’s head swim.
Things eventually pick up but only thanks to bad writing. Granted, before the first half of What Lies Ahead ends, we’re all in desperate need for raised stakes, but nothing’s worse than tension introduced into a story thanks to characters doing stupid things. In Sophia’s ordeal, in which a walker chases her into the forest and she gets lost, the child’s not really to blame– she’s only a little girl– but the behavior of the adults is a bit head-scratching. Who in their right mind checks to see that the coast is clear by allowing a child to duck their head out first instead of a police officer with a gun? It’s not the only idiotic decision made in the episode, but it’s among the worst and constitutes some genuinely and inexcusably sloppy writing. With only so many episodes in the series there’s an argument that the show may just need more time to smooth out its scripts; regardless this is lazy, plain and simple, and I expect better.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what the writing team gives in Bloodletting. Everything that plagues What Lies Ahead— numerous pacing problems, a dearth of strong character development, aimless plotting– is absent in the second aired episode, and the result is much, much more rewarding as a viewing experience. There’s no highway zombie horde moment, perhaps, but director Ernest Dickerson milks a lot of tension out of small horror beats and builds up to a truly hair-raising cliffhanger of an ending while scoring in the character department across the entirety of the episode.
With the events of What Lies Ahead behind us, Dickerson finally pushes the story forward as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal) race to get Rick’s wounded son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), to the residence of Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson); the rest of the survivors make their way back to the RV, while at the RV Dale basically does what Dale does and T-Dog’s real name is finally revealed. (I know we’ve all been holding our breath on that one.) Scattering the group of survivors actually makes for a tighter episode; now, at least, they have the common goal of reconnecting with one another and weathering injuries and setbacks before they regroup and make for a new destination. Part of me almost sees the physical division of the cast as something of a cheat; it’s like a reset button, forcing a new objective on the survivors and shunting the old one aside, but this is quibbling. If anything, separating everyone sets tangible stakes, especially with young Carl’s life on the line.
What I liked most of all about Bloodletting is how deftly it avoids all of the pitfalls of the previous episode; this could have just been another stagnant installment of the series, but it’s propulsive, and the story already looks more advanced in one forty minute chunk than it did after the hour and a half premiere. There’s an end-game for the group’s search for Sophia; more than that, there’s peril, not just for Carl but also Shane and Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who find themselves gang-pressed by a group of zombies in their heroic bid to obtain the medical supplies needed to save Carl’s life. Put simply, everyone has something to do at this point– Shane has to escape the zombies and make it back to Hershel’s house in one piece (and with said supplies and Otis), Rick and Lori have to be there for Carl as he clings to life, and everyone else has to find Sophia and, eventually, find the rest of the group at the farmhouse. Maybe that seems like a minor goal but it’s something real, and in a world where zombies materialize from behind tree trunks, the mere act of traveling down the road can present a potentially lethal challenge.
Bloodletting also handles character extremely well; T-Dog, who shall now be known as “Theo”, finally gets a really juicy moment for himself in his feverish haze, and Daryl continues to be the most entertaining character on the show. (Though he’s being brought closer and closer to being less of a real character and more of a cipher the more that the showrunners shape him into a zombie-killing redneck with a heart of gold.) Nothing comes close to Shane’s character beat with Rick as Hershel begins initial operations on Carl; it’s moments such as that that demonstrate The Walking Dead‘s potential. If the rest of the season can live up to that particular bit in terms of raw emotion, I’ll be amazed– it’s that strong.
So far I think The Walking Dead is in a good place. What Lies Ahead dragged, but Bloodletting evened out that episode’s sluggishness and put both the characters and the narrative in a position to really thrive if the writers can capitalize on the carry-over tension from episode 2 to 3. At the very least, the show isn’t slacking in the zombie department– the rotting walkers look more gruesomely real than ever and maintain all of their menace from last season, but The Walking Dead‘s weaker elements have never come back to zombie design. The show’s Achilles’ heel lies in consistency in plot and character development. Last episode introduced some inertia to get the ball rolling in both areas, and we’re all in for a nice ride assuming that momentum keeps up and increases. I, however, remain cautiously optimistic nonetheless.