Episode Premiere: Few could argue that “Walking Dead’s” first season was inconsistent; when it was good it was great, and when it was off you might start wondering why you even watched the show in the first place. And with the behind the scenes drama surrounding the show as of late, there was some fear that the show might run itself into the ground faster than you can say “Heroes”. Well, if the season premiere of Season 2 is any indication, we don’t need to worry about a damn thing – if anything, it’s better than ever.
As much as I loved the pilot, there was a minor thing holding it back – it was running a bit close to the comic. The beats taken from the source, while well executed, didn’t feel organic with the new stuff, as if they weren’t sure how far they should stray before returning to familiar ground. But it seems they’ve finally nailed the balance, as the season opener does recreate elements from the comic (I won’t spoil which) but truly makes them its own – when a certain character is wounded, it’s not because it happened in issue whatever of the book and that’s where they should be in the show’s timeline, it’s because it perfectly follows the increasingly dire situation that the episode revolves around.
The premiere picks up more or less where the 1st season finale left off, with everyone driving out of the city, hoping to find a safer refuge. It’s not long before there’s a hiccup – the highway is blocked with cars that were either abandoned or stalled out when their owners died (the logic of this scenario never makes sense to me, but as it is a part of every post-apocalyptic tale ever, I just have to deal with it). Everyone unloads out of the RV or car they are traveling in and gets to work clearing the road and finding supplies – it’s merely an inconvenience at first. But then (spoilers!) zombies show up.
What follows is one of the most intense sequences in the show’s history, possibly THE most. Our group is scattered up and down the highway, and not everyone is aware of the looming danger (zombies may be slow, but they’re not deaf – shouting “WALKERS!” isn’t an option). Also, not all of our characters have made it into the main title credits yet (welcome, Norman Reedus!), which ramps up the tension when two such characters are put in extreme danger. The script wisely gets Rick out of danger early on (he’s the first to see them) and instead focuses on “not so safe” folks like T-Bone and Sophia, plus an attack on one main caster that is no less intense thanks to the close quarter location (the RV’s bathroom) and their complete lack of defensive weapons. It’s a terrific sequence, and while it might seem a bit like they’re blowing their wad putting the big zombie setpiece in the first act, it’s actually a masterstroke when you think about it.
Because as a result of this swarm, one character is separated from the group, and then it becomes a zombie-lite but still intense search and rescue mission, allowing those who tune in for zombie carnage to be consistently engaged (particularly during an impromptu “autopsy” sequence) while also strengthening the characters. Rather than present a fun but ultimately pointless bit where our heroes silently kill anonymous zombies in a sequence made entirely in the editing room, nearly all of the characters get to engage in a little personal drama, all centered around this event. One wants to leave the group, another feels they are responsible, another feels it might be a waste of time, etc. It took 7 episodes, but they have seemingly finally found a way to blend the dramatic beats with zombie action in a way that can satisfy fans of both areas at once.
The dialogue has also improved. I cringed at a few lines here and there (Laurie Holden’s Andrea actually bemoans the “madness of the world” or some melodramatic nonsense along those lines), but most of it sounds natural, particularly a mini-speech that Lori delivers to most of the group, defending Rick’s un-asked for position as leader. Dale also gets a nice bit with T-Bone, explaining how he’s sick of the “needs of the many vs the needs of the few” argument. Darryl (Reedus) still feels a bit one-note (does he even remember his brother?), but I assume now that he has been added to the main cast that they will be giving him more to do as the season progresses. And pay close attention to Rick’s opening lines for a slightly meta joke about Dr. Jenner – good to know they’re listening to us.
Obviously this is just one episode, and while it is a great one, that doesn’t mean next week’s will follow suit – this show has been defined by its uncanny ability to lose its own momentum. But I think the time off and fan responses haven’t been in vain; even if next week’s isn’t AS good, it’s obvious that they’ve found their footing and gained some confidence with their storytelling, and even if they never make another episode as good as this again, I am willing to bet that the worst is behind them.
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