And so the first half of The Walking Dead‘s second season ends with a bang, and not some pathetic whimper. (Note: If you haven’t seen this episode, don’t bother reading past this point; the episode’s climax is central to this article.)
If the writing staff puts their heads together and does nothing but produce episodes of this caliber from here on out, I’m not going to complain. Pretty Much Dead Already does what a great episode of The Walking Dead should do, and even acknowledging its warts the installment makes for a great hour of riveting, captivating television. I’ve had many qualms with S2, notably involving its sluggish sense of pacing and its apparent lack of direction, but the midpoint finale goes a long way toward making amends for this season’s bad spots.
But it also introduces a dichotomy of viewer’s catharsis and irksome frustration. My biggest complaint across the season has been the handling of Sophia’s disappearance, a plot thread which I viewed (and at the time rightly so, in my opinion) as something of a distraction after two episodes dedicated screen time to tracking her whereabouts. Where’s Sophia? Is she alive? Is she dead? Is she a walker? My answer to these boiled down to “who cares” in shorthand, and “why do we need to halt plot movement to find a little girl” on a more expansive note. So with the revelation that Sophia has been shambling around in the barn with Hershel’s zombified family is something of a relief; she’s been found, and while the circumstances of the discovery are less than pleasant, we can put that barking dog to rest. At the very least we can say with certainty that the second half of the season won’t waste any time looking for her.
At the same time, she’s been in the barn the whole time. That feels like a huge flip of the bird from the writing staff, directed right at their audience. If the search for Sophia has to end with her being undead, why does she have to be in the barn? On the one hand that does feel consistent with Hershel’s wrong-headed philosophy regarding containing the zombies rather than killing them, but after a few seconds thought and the subsequent realization that Sophia’s been in the barn with the Greene family probably since the second episode, consistency doesn’t matter. Sophia’s location feels something like a cheat.
There’s one other way to look at the reveal: as a huge macabre joke being played on the survivors at the writers’ behest. If nothing else The Walking Dead is a show that’s directly concerned with the psychological states of its characters. Everywhere they go, they experience death; for them, hope has been all but siphoned out of their world. Though Sophia’s disappearance began as something of a frightening tragedy, the search to find her eventually came to symbolize a bid to maintain a degree of optimism in post-apocalypse America…and then the other survivors find that she’s been dead in the barn the whole time, meaning that their efforts to find her have been for naught all along. If it’s a writer’s prank at the expense of the cast, it’s a damn effective one.
What that moment does signify, though, is that Rick’s in control and finding his backbone again– something that I hope the show continues to develop in February. For a good amount of time leadership and decision-making has been placed on Rick’s shoulders and yet contested constantly by the minor characters and, most of all, by Shane, with whom Rick appears to be struggling for dominance in both his familial affairs and his leadership over the group. Most recently, Rick has really become something of a weak leader, a bit of a milquetoast incapable of maintaining control and keeping his people firmly in his corner. With Pretty Much Dead Already, Rick seems like he’s back in the figurative saddle, and not a moment too soon as my predictions about Shane seem to be coming true.
Shane remains the best realized character on the show overall, but I’ve said for a while that he’s going to reach a breaking point and experience something of a meltdown. Well, time’s proven me right. Shane’s behavior in the last ten minutes of the episode is jaw-dropping; as Dale seems to fear, he’s lost his last vestiges of humanity and fully succumbed to the world he and the others inhabit. Strictly speaking, nothing that he expresses in his rant is wrong; the walkers are dangerous, they aren’t just sick people, they do represent a threat to the Greenes and the others. Put bluntly, they need to be eliminated, but he exhibits a frightening lack of compassion and decency as he raves about the circumstances he and the other survivors face. Giving him some credit, he’s at least professional in his unraveling– nobody gets hurt, and nothing disastrous befalls the group when he tears down the barn doors. But nothing needs to happen for Shane’s actions to ostracize him from his more civilized fellows.
Pretty Much Dead Already really brings it in the climax– you may have figured that out based on how much time I’ve dedicated to covering its events. In fairness, the rest of the episode works well too, with some great character stuff for Maggie, Hershel, and Glen, but it’s the way that 2.7 ends that really makes it worth talking about. (Arguably that doesn’t speak well for the writers, but I really think they’re doing a great job at making Glen and Hershel into the real characters they must be; they’d just better be careful about having too many extraneous background figures clogging things up.) With any luck, the mid-season cliffhanger will influence the shape of the rest of the season for the better; all of the elements are in place for Pretty Much Dead Already to possess that sort of impact. We’ll see come February.