The Walking Dead season 2, the mid-season finale, and that ending

More thoughts on the season so far, including the mid-season break finale.

Jesus Henry Christ, what an ending!

With annoying regularity, Walking Dead episodes have one particular moment that’s so good you forget all its other problems.  The final scene before the show’s mid-season break applied this tactic to all of season two, having a scene so brilliant that I instantly forgot all the problems I’d been having with the show.

The scene was one of those rare TV moments that is both visually great and narratively important.  And what a way to leave your loose ends to the last possible moment, then tie them up and explode them.  Or something.  Episode seven took all the issues that have hindered the characters (and the show) and put a bullet to them.  What can we do about the zombies in the barn?  Bang.  Do we keep looking for Sophia?  Pow.  Can we convince Hershel to let us live here peacefully?  Kaboom.

Andy Greenwald on Grantland wrote that “Watching Shane mow down a barn full of walkers may have been cathartic for him, but it was tedious for us”.  To me he’s missing the point, or at least most of it.  Shane’s acts, while incredibly reckless, reminded the survivors how dangerous the walkers are (echoing Glenn’s sentiments earlier in the episode) and of what they’ll have to do survive.  It showed them how well Shane is suited to leading them in this violent world, and how Rick was endangering them by trying to get on Hershel’s good side.

I also liked that, as Hershel watched the walkers getting mowed down, he let out an inaudible F-bomb.  It was subtly handled.  Many shows would’ve focused in on it, with Hershel letting out a roaring ‘Fuuuuuuu’ like Vader’s awful ‘Noooo’ in Revenge of The Sith.  A mostly forgotten point is that his wife and stepson were in the barn.  I couldn’t tell who they were from his reaction.

I never suspected that Sophia would be in the barn, though I feel like I should have.  I was probably too busy picking my jaw up from the floor.  As the camera panned up over narrow ankles, I thought A ha, it’s Hershel’s stepson.  I was smart.  Then I realised it was a girl.  I didn’t know who it was.  I was stupid.  Only when Carol shouted “Sophia” did I realise.  And of course it had to be Rick who finished her off.  Another awesome and powerful moment.

Shane riddling the female zombie with bullets to show how inhuman she was seemed like the way Shane would illustrate any point: with pain.  That’s why he’s not a teacher.

The scene seems even greater when you consider how it could’ve failed.  Hershel and Rick’s arrival could’ve easily looked preposterous, turning up with zombies on leads.  The technical expertise involved in the show instead made it a brilliant moment.  The camera circling the group creating a sense of urgency, the cuts back and forth between the slaying and Hershel’s reaction to it, the looming shadows cast by the survivors.  Almost everything about the scene was visually perfect.

At the start of the scene Shane said something I’d been waiting weeks to hear: if they want to stay on the farm, they can, regardless of what Hershel thinks.  In a world this dangerous, would the group really leave the relative safety of the farm because an old man tells them to?  We’re post-apocalyptic, people.  Here, force rules over courtesy, weapons over manners.  The group that’ll rule the farm is the one most willing to step on the other.  Rick’s group are better equipped to take over than Hershel’s are to maintain the status quo.  Rick seems not to have realised or accepted this, but Shane has.

So what will further episodes bring?  I see the group staying on the farm and debating whether Rick or Shane should be leader.  Before they can decide, the farm is overrun by zombies and destroyed.  I expect the deaths of Hershel, some member of his group who isn’t Maggie, T-Dog, Carol (who, still grieving, won’t put up much of a fight) and maybe even Dale (who’ll die saving Andrea).  The rest, including whoever is left of Hershel’s group, will flee but manage to stay together.

The Walking Dead is about people trying to escape zombies.  They should always be on the move.  When they find salvation, the show should end.  Season two lost energy when the survivors settled on the farm.  They need a goal, a destination, and the show should be about the journey to it.  If they get to one and it’s not the safe haven they thought it was, then quickly rip it apart and move them on again until they find somewhere right.  Then fade to black, show’s over.  Road trip + zombies, that’s where The Walking Dead works, not people standing guard on top of a camper van.  Supposedly the reason for keeping the group stationary is AMC trying to keep costs down.  The show will get good ratings regardless, but will soon lose its edge without a journey.

The group ended the first half of season two in much the same predicament as season one, but with a slightly different supporting cast.  And a pregnant Lori.  And a gun-crazed Andrea.  And a sex-crazed Glenn.  While the idea of Shane replacing Rick as leader has already run too long, and never seemed as likely as now, I still don’t expect it to happen.  Though I have no idea what other role Shane can have, besides ‘spurned lover, wannabee leader’ that he already inhabits.  Surely his jealousy will become overwhelming if Lori gives birth, and he watches from afar as what may be his baby is added to Rick’s family unit.  The only reasonable and entertaining route for Shane to take is an evil one, but he’s done too much good for the group to make a convincing villain.

Merle still hasn’t turned up.  Not really.  I’ll respect the boldness of the writers if they hold him out much longer.  Although I’m generally not a fan of hallucinations in drama, seeing Michael Rooker was a nice reminder of season one and what Darryl leaves mostly unspoken.  I expect Merle to make an appearance before the mid-point of season three, his own gang in tow, threatening Rick and T-Dog and making Darryl choose sides.  Sadly, the unavoidable problem here, as with Rooker’s recent cameo, is the surprise will probably be ruined by seeing his name in the credits.

Lori having a baby troubles me because it seems like the kind of thing that would happen in a show that runs for too long.  I hate the idea of Lori and Rick raising a kid in season seven, them being the only two left of the original cast, the programme still getting ratings because, hey, zombies, and ruining the good memories of the early episodes.

In episode six, Maggie and Glenn went to a pharmacy to get pills for Lori.  As soon as they entered, unarmed and unprepared, it was obvious they’d get zombed.  Why, in this world, would you ever enter a building unarmed?  You might not be willing to do a slow sweep of the place every time, but surely it wouldn’t take too long to go in barrel-first and have at least a peek about.  If there had been one zombie found in all of Britain I’d be opening every door wielding a hammer with a Stanley Knife attached.

The show is incredibly, gratuitously violent.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the showrunners tried to justify the brutality by saying they only want to show how perilous and violent that world is.  But the violence comes off as over-the-top and hilarious.  I thoroughly enjoy it, and it’s laughable to think that it’s in any way making the show more realistic.

Lori and Andrea both talked about how hopeless the world had become and how maybe death was the best option.  One of my favourite things about the Buffy TV show was when she was resurrected (again).  She didn’t want to be back, amidst the danger and the stress, the possibility of friends dying or being turned into vampires, having to patrol the town actively looking for danger.  From what I remember the show kept the afterlife description to a minimum, but Buffy said she’d been happy there, and was angry at her friends for bringing her back.  Characters in both shows understand there’s danger around every corner, the deaths of friends and families are never far from their thoughts.  The idea that someone can be in so dark a place that they’d prefer death is a powerful idea, one rarely explored in TV drama.  Some may say that a show in which a zombies face gets mushed in with a shelf isn’t the best place to pose this idea, but The Walking Dead’s world is desperate, it’s the right place for thoughts such as these.

Over episodes five and six, Shane somehow went from one of my least liked characters to my favourite.  John Bernthal’s portrayal of Shane as overly intense never gelled with me.  His wide-eyed overacting invoked memories of Chad Coleman’s portrayal of Cutty in The Wire.  Cutty softened as the series continued and became much more likable, but Coleman’s attempts at intensity made the character unrealistic.  Bernthal has been trying too hard, and no one, even Shane, can be always on like that.  I have a  hard time taking some of these ‘American badasses’ seriously.  I loved Sawyer in Lost when he was banging chicks and cracking wise.  But he was never intimidating or dangerous.    I don’t know what has changed, Bernthal is still playing the character in the same way.  Maybe it’s realising what the character’s going through: his jealousy of Rick being with Lori now increased by her pregnancy, his evaluation of Rick as an unfit leader, his guilt over these feelings as well as Otis’ death.

The Walking Dead could be a victim of its own success.  It is pulling in viewers by the millions, regardless of how good it’s been.  People will hate on it, much like they now do on the massively-successful Modern Warfare games.  But for all the shows faults, it’s shown how to do great action scenes.  If it ended right now, that should be the first thing it’s remembered for.
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