Beware! Spoilers Ahead!
When the first season was released on DVD last year, some of you may remember that I waxed lyrical about The Walking Dead here on this very site. A year later, AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series remains one of the finest shows on US television and, in spite of some languid pacing, its return in October last year rightfully reconfirmed it as a firm favourite among viewers.
Picking up from where we left off last time, season two opened with our band of survivors, led by erstwhile deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), making their escape from the recently destroyed CDC. Having been unable to find a place of refuge, the group are forced to stay on the road until Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) is accidentally shot by a survivor from another group. The survivors soon find themselves taking refuge on an idyllic farm belonging to Herschel Greene (Scott Wilson), who uses his veterinary experience to save Carl’s life before reluctantly allowing the group to remain on the farm until he has recovered.
Herschel’s farm marks something of a tonal shift for a show that, up until now, had largely centred itself around an apparently fruitless journey for survival. For the time being at least, the group had found sanctuary, and while the first half of the season dealt primarily with the search for Sophia (Madison Lintz), who disappears in the season opener after being chased by a walker, this change of pace allowed for a greater emphasis on character development and contemplative storytelling.
Herschel’s farm marks something of a tonal shift for a show that, up until now, had largely centred itself around an apparently fruitless journey for survival.
Maintaining the show’s track record for inventively departing from its source material, Shane (Jon Bernthal), whose comic book counterpart was culled relatively early on in Kirkman’s novel, remains a threat towards Rick and the rest of the survivors with his erratic and increasingly violent behaviour, going so far as to incapacitate another survivor in order to save himself. Bernthal’s performance remained one of the show’s most striking elements throughout the season and the time taken to develop his character from a morally ambiguous deuteragonist to an outright threat proved to be one of the most effective developments of the show thus far.
Further touches, including the introduction of a love interest for Glenn (Steven Yeun) in the form of Herschel’s daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and further screen time for fan favourite Daryl (Norman Reedus), more than justified the slower pace, as did the pregnancy of Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), who remains uncertain the father’s identity following a fleeting romance with Shane. But in spite of the show’s careful balance between dramatic exposition and its sparing use of action set pieces, by December there was a nagging sense that the show was treading water.
The mid-season finale, ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’, closed with the dramatic revelation of Sophia’s disturbing fate, providing fans with plenty to speculate on throughout the winter hiatus, but there was nevertheless an underlying concern that, for all the new pipe that had been laid, there was little indication of where the group would move forward from here. After all, the first season’s punchy six episodes were all about physical progression, spurred on by a clear goal. Tied down by the search for Sophia up to this point, season two had offered little indication that the group were going anywhere other than Herschel’s farm.
Tied down by the search for Sophia up to this point, season two had offered little indication that the group were going anywhere other than Herschel’s farm.
It was, of course, at this point that the effects of the show’s major production upheaval came in to play. Fans were shocked last July when news emerged that Frank Darabont was stepping down from his position as showrunner, only for it to later emerge that he had in fact been sacked by AMC executives for failing to adhere to the show’s budgetary constraints. Having remained on board for the first half of the season, Darabont’s mantle was passed over to Glen Mazzara, known for his work on The Shield, and the show was suddenly bolstered with a much-needed injection of pace.
Mazzara’s debut as showrunner came with the mid-season opener ‘Nebraska’, which, rather promisingly ploughed straight in to the action once more, with Rick, Glenn and Herschel finding themselves holed up in a nearby bar, facing off against another band of survivors who made for less than amicable company. It marked the first time since the season debut where the show had provided a venture outside the farm that went beyond merely gathering supplies for the group while the introduction of other survivors whose interests are clearly at odds with Rick’s camp set an ominous, if not entirely original, precedent that there’s something out there considerably more dangerous than the threat of walkers to contend with.
As the second half went on, any criticisms levelled at the show’s flagging pace increasingly lost weight as Rick’s decision to take Randall (Michael Zegen), a younger member of the opposing group, captive began to cause consternation among the other survivors. Shane grows particularly vocal in his desire to have Randall killed, culminating in a brutal fight in which Rick explicitly states his authority over the group.
The Walking Dead has never made any apologies for its readiness to kill off core characters, but if the first season’s finale felt as though there was never really enough at stake, the eleventh (and arguably most reflective) episode of the second season, ‘Judge, Jury, Executioner’, concluded with the shocking death of Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), the group’s last bastion of moral integrity. Having strongly opposed the survivors’ decision to execute Randall, Dale is attacked by a walker in the episode’s closing moments and is later euthanized by Daryl as the group watches on helplessly.
From this point onwards, The Walking Dead established itself as an entirely different beast. The loss of Sophia earlier in the season may have come as a shock, but Dale’s death took the show in an entirely different direction - his death the first of any of the top-billed cast members thus far. It wasn’t to be the last of the season either when the penultimate episode concluded with Shane’s death at the hands of Rick following a botched attempt by the former to execute the latter. The game had changed. No one, no matter how large their role may be, is safe.
From this point onwards, The Walking Dead established itself as an entirely different beast.
Shane’s death also marked a major turning point in the show’s ambiguous nature, with the revelation that the ‘infection’, which all the survivors are apparently carrying, causes the dead to reanimate irrespective of whether they were bitten or not. It’s hardly a radical approach to the genre - George A. Romero’s Dead series deals with it in much the same manner – but it’s nevertheless an intriguing development as the group move forward and the risk of death grows ever more likely.
But while the first season finale took the ballsy approach of taking place primarily inside the CDC bunker with very few appearances by the titular antagonists, the second season didn’t exercise quite the same level of restraint. Unfolding in to a bloody affair that saw the survivors having to abruptly abandon Herschel’s farm when it becomes overrun with walkers, ‘Beside the Dying Fire’ was a veritable bloodbath that drew the series to a unsettlingly ominous conclusion, with Rick angrily asserting his authority over the group as a sinister-looking prison complex looms nearby.
It’s a clear indication of darker things to come, particularly for fans of the graphic novel aware of what David Morrissey’s recent casting as the Governor is likely to entail. But, whatever Mazzara, Kirkman and co. have in store, their decision to save the big guns until last has paid dividends. Closing with a bold, game-changing finale, it’s a welcome reminder of what made the show great in the first place - while horror and violence may play second fiddle to The Walking Dead’s intricate brand of storytelling, it can still offer up the shocks and surprises in spades when it needs to.
Roll on October.