AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM
Written by Glen Mazzara
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
"Mankind's been fighting plagues from the start. We get our behinds kicked for a while, and then we bounce back. It's nature correcting itself, restoring some balance." —Hershel Green
The first episode of the new season of The Walking Dead was written by the guy who invented the premise, comic book writer Robert Kirkman. This one is written by new showrunner Glen Mazzara, who climbed into the captain's chair after creator Frank Darabont was fired last year. Under new management, this show now emerges as more convincing, more frightening, and more self-confident. Whereas the premiere for the second season was a sodden walk through stereotypes, the second episode takes off literally at a run, and maintains a breathtaking pace for an hour that seemed all too short. This is an exciting and hopeful development.
"What are we doing?" —T-Dog
We open minutes after young Carl Grimes is shot, with Sheriff Rick Grimes carrying his bleeding boy next to his chest as he runs through a field. He and Shane have located the hunter who inadvertently shot Carl while aiming for a deer, and Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mysterious Island) has told them how to find a doctor. From the moment we first see sweaty, frantic Rick until the moment when Shane and Otis grimly realize they are trapped by zombies, the pace never slows, the writing almost never falters. There are many opportunities to slide back into the clichés and stereotypes that have substituted for writing in previous episodes, but Mazzara expertly detours around these pitfalls to deliver a scary, engaging, thrilling story. Carl's shooting has changed the focus of the story dramatically: the disappearance of young Sophia has slipped onto the back burner, while the desultory machinations of Dale recede almost into invisibility.
"These people here, all we've got left is each other." —Hershel
We are riveted as Rick and Shane burst into an isolated farmhouse, where survivors Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson, Justified), his daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan, Chuck) and a few others are apparently living in peace and security, surrounded by golden fields and orchards. Greene reacts with brisk efficiency, working with experience and medical skill to save the boy. He is thwarted, however, by lack of equipment and drugs, and is only able to stabilize him temporarily with the help of blood transfusions from Rick. Maggie fetches Lori, Shane and Otis go for drugs, and meanwhile the search for Sophia lags and Dale and T-Dog get into a philosophical and political debate. It's a relatively simple setup, but it works wonderfully as it finally showcases some genuine, believable interaction among these people.
"If he slipped away while you were gone, you would never forgive yourself for that." —Shane
Best of all, far and away, is the re-bonding of Shane and Rick. These two were partners before the apocalypse, and even now they are like brothers, understanding one another on a deeper level than any other two characters—including the woman who stands between them, Rick's wife Lori. In a flashback at the beginning of the episode, we see Lori telling a friend that Rick’s reasonableness just "pushed all her buttons." As if we didn't already know that the very concept of rationality annoys this woman. Moments later in this flashback, Shane arrives to tell her that her husband has been shot. Shane is strong, supportive, a worthy friend in this hour of need. In present time, Lori learns that her son has been shot, and this time Rick gets to be her support, in a riveting moment that shows these two, who are often crossways with one another, solidly bonding in the face of this crisis. This single episode did more to complicate the relationships among these three than any previous story. Rick may not yet know that his wife (thinking he was dead) became lovers with Shane, or that Shane nearly attacked her in Atlanta, but we do. Watching Shane tell Rick how strong Lori was when Rick was shot, praising her for her courage, praising her for her love, not only elevates the story, but goes a long way toward redeeming Shane. We go even further when he takes off with Otis to find medical supplies.
"They're doing everything they can to make it right." —Rick
We meet some new characters, which are badly needed in this nearly claustrophobic situation. Green, of course, is the medico ex machina we need to save the only remaining child in this drama, so he's almost a given. But Otis is not, and we get a sorrowing man who painfully evokes a real dilemma: how do you "make right" a truly accidental, perhaps fatal, mistake? It's hard to see black and white in his situation, and Vince, in his usual subtle fashion, takes us beyond the bumbling redneck to see a compassionate and humane man inside. Young Maggie is the first female in this series I can root for whole-heartedly. Faced with a crisis, she mounts a horse and rides off to the rescue. Which she effects, literally, by saving Andrea from yet another walker (Andrea is becoming that cliché of every slasher movie: the Girl Stalked by Every Monster). Then she gathers up Lori and rides back to the farmhouse. Finally, someone is smart enough to use horses (rather than noisy cars and motorcycles) to maneuver through walker territory. She is also an efficient and skillful nurse-assistant to her father. This is a character we need to stick around. Best of all, we get the avuncular Hershel, who is not a doctor, but a veterinarian. I suppose, in a crisis, a mammal is a mammal is a mammal, and he is clearly a man of good will. Wilson brings a steady, soothing presence into a situation that sorely needs it, as well as some optimism we really needed after the last doctor Rick talked to (at the CDC) told him all was lost. Black despair may be all well and good in comic book format, but even the most jaded TV viewer will need an occasional injection of either humor or optimism into this dystopic vision. Greene provides the optimism, and Daryl, as usual, provides the humor. His casual "Shut up!" to a walker he then offhandedly shoots in the head qualifies as black humor on every level.
"I'm the one black guy. You realize how precarious that makes my situation?" —T-Dog
The only really weak spot in this episode would be the conversation between T-Dog and Dale. Left behind to wait for the searchers, ignorant of the developments with Lori, they search for antibiotics among the wrecked cars so they can stave off the infection threatening T-Dog's arm. T-Dog, who left Meryl behind in Atlanta to cut off his own hand, now is ironically threatened with the loss not only of his own arm, but possibly his life. He reacts not as the strong character he was in season one, but as a whiny street thug, blaming the others for "abandoning" him and Dale because they are the only black or elderly members of the group. He urges Dale to just "get out of here," which leads me to suspect that T-Dog's itchy feet have more to do with the zombie virus than any real desire to leave behind the only other humans they know of. This was a silly, pointless argument, a silly, pointless scene, unless it's there to warn us that T-Dog was exposed to the zombie virus and is going to die soon. Which I figured would be the case as soon as he got cut and had a zombie piled on top of him; this is not my first zombie rodeo.
"This has turned into a strange day." —Shane
The writing has improved, although there are still bumps. Dale, Andrea and the rest of the survivors really have nothing left to say, and say it frequently. If I hear one more argument between Andrea and Dale, I may bite someone. And why, in God's name, would a father be so desperate to leave his dying son's bedside? Yet Rick has to be talked down off the ceiling by both Shane and Lori. When Lori Grimes is the voice of reason in a scene, you’re doing something wrong. Nevertheless, this episode was a real step up, or two or three, from last week's shuffling mess. It looks as if two of the former "bad guys", Daryl and Shane, are getting a makeover, and that's all to the good. There are enough bad guys in this show to go around, and then some, without drafting the few living humans we can root for. I look forward to steady improvement in this weird, bloody, and oddly compelling show.
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