Well, it was only a matter of time before we got here, wasn’t it? Strange enough, the end of season 2 of The Walking Dead feels like it came upon us faster than the finale of the first season; in part, I attribute this to the fact that watching the second half of S2 wasn’t half as punishing as watching the whole of S1, though I admit that I’m being slightly unfair to the show’s first six episodes and perhaps being overly flattering to these last half dozen (that said, I’m not going to revert my opinion on them overall, because they’re still damn good). But like the herd of zombies that laid waste to the one-time haven known as the Greene farm, the second season’s climax has risen, fallen, devoured some tender human flesh, and passed on in a hail of gunfire and furious, melodramatic declarations– which leaves us to think about where showrunner Glen Mazzara and his team have left us.
By my estimation, we’re a hair’s breadth away from being back at square one. In a way, that’s actually a good thing; it means there’s potential to rebuild the show from the ground up, and start fresh while avoiding the pitfalls the writers stumbled into in the first half of the season. During the mid-season break, it seems like the writing staff learned a lot of valuable lessons about plotting and storytelling, and while that didn’t add up to pitch-perfect scripting, it did yield a massive improvement over the first seven episodes, which by and large lacked anything resembling forward momentum. With an abundance of action being pushed on viewers, the show’s now wound up in a place where the cast is back on the road again; that means opportunity to start anew with both character and story direction.
We’ll see where The Walking Dead’s third season takes us in the fall, though. What matters most is where we’re at right now. As per usual, that means spoilers, so avert your gaze if you want to avoid having anything given away (although if you haven’t seen Better Angels and Beside the Dying Fire yet, well, come on).
I’m inclined to see Better Angels as Beside the Dying Fire: Part 1, which suits the format of this series well enough since I always handle reviewing the show two episodes at a time. But it’s easy to look at Better Angels as one half of the finale– it directly leads into the last episode and directly informs its events in a really tangible way, and the bigger plot threads aren’t addressed until the final few minutes of Beside the Dying Fire anyhow. With all of that in mind it makes sense to start where Better Angels leaves us: with Shane’s zombified corpse. I’ll say it right now, killing Shane was a mistake. If he had to die in season 2, he should have died in the last episode. If he has to die at all, and let’s face it, he does, then I really think saving that until at least the midpoint of season 3 made the most sense.
There are a few reasons for this. I understand very much that Shane and Rick’s conflict had to end in one of their demises eventually– we’ve already seen them come to blows in 18 Miles Out, after all, and since that episode it’s been made clear that Shane hasn’t really changed much at all. And, I guess, if he hasn’t changed, lethal violence between them was only inevitable. But the climactic standoff they find themselves in at the end of Better Angels feels almost perfunctory, and certainly rushed. Rick’s going through some changes, no doubt, yet his solution to the Shane problem feels like jumping the shark a bit (though I admit that Rick does seem more likely to stab a person in the front than in the back, so at least he’s being consistent). It doesn’t come out of nowhere; the show’s established that the two former best buddies’ relationship might end in bloodshed, after all, but the pot hasn’t boiled for long enough to make Better Angels‘ big shocker ending totally palatable. But it does lead into the “whoa dude!” reveal sprung on us in the last moments of the finale, so maybe the writers felt there wasn’t any avoiding it.
So, everyone’s already infected? In other words, the living are really just the walking dead? (Rim shot!) There’s been a lot of talk on other blogs and on bigger, more visible publications about this detail being something of a clunker given that it plays into traditional rules of the zombie genre; strictly speaking, I agree, but if every character in every zombie story just referred back to every single one of those narratives to fashion their zombie apocalypse playbook, then things like The Walking Dead would be kind of boring. Maybe learning what Jenner told Rick isn’t a huge surprise to us, but that’s not to say it can’t be something of a chiller for the characters, even if it kinda speaks for itself.
The bigger problem with the burden of knowledge here is that, well, who the hell cares? I get being a little tetchy over Rick keeping information to himself, but frankly that little nugget of truth changes nothing about how the survivors live; it only necessitates extra precaution if they bite it, and one arrow to the head isn’t a huge inconvenience for Daryl. The group’s reaction to Rick’s lie by omission is an example of painful, forced dramatics. They have to be upset because they have to be upset. There has to be division. And lo, there is, only it’s been manufactured inorganically. I don’t think Rick needed the extra impetus to declare his Ricktatorship*– as of the finale’s events, he’s a man on edge who very clearly is no longer the type to let his law be challenged.
I think all of this can be very easily sidestepped when the show picks up again; there should be no trouble in establishing that fear of Rick stems from his newly adopted totalitarian philosophy and his fantastic confession of Shane’s murder. What concerns me more is the introduction of Michonne, the katan-wielding badass fan favorite of the comic book, who shows up in the last few moments of Beside the Dying Fire and saves Andrea’s bacon. I mentioned at times during my coverage of the first season that I liked how the show diverged from the comic; Michonne’s appearance really slams the brakes on that driving influence and could well put things right back in comic book territory. That wouldn’t be a bad thing except for the fact that The Walking Dead has mostly played things “realistic”, and injecting an anime-influenced sword-swinging badass into that dynamic might be a tad disruptive. I’m willing to see how Michonne is handled amidst the show’s milieu of realism, but I’m wary of her arrival at this point**.
Sound like I’m down on the final two installments of the season? I overall enjoyed them, but if I’m being honest a lot of that has to do with the progression of action sequences leading into a finale that’s basically just one extended orgy of zombie violence. That’s not faint praise, I think; the FX work here has, excepting the use of CGI blood, been really, really strong, and we get a ton of it in Beside the Dying Fire. On top of that, a little bit of casting fat has been trimmed, and while I really didn’t feel anything when Jimmy and Patricia met their fates as zombie chow, it’s nice to see extraneous characters getting the axe. (Though I’m surprised T-Dog has lived this long. He must be friends with someone who has sway, or maybe there are big plans for him in the next season. I’d honestly love to see the writers do for him what they did for Glen.) And there are some wonderful little character moments– Glen telling Maggie he loves her, for example, actually did move me, and I really do have to give it to Andrew Lincoln for how much he’s evolved his depiction of Rick per the demands of the script.
But all of that good stuff brings us back to the final images of the season, including that ominous, lingering shot of the prison off in the distance. (Which only means anything to people who, again, have read the comics.) There are a number of directions the show could take once it picks up again in seven months; while season two finishes up more or less right in a middling spot, I think what it best achieves is the possibility of completely reinvigorating the entire overarching narrative of the series. If the lessons of the second half of S2 translate to S3 and the show finds its legs at last, The Walking Dead could end up being genuinely, thoroughly excellent.
*In case anyone hasn’t come across that little gem yet, that’s not mine. I believe Kirkman coined the term himself. It’s probably his best contribution to the entire series.
**Though good on the casting directors for hiring Treme‘s Danai Gurira for the role.