THE WALKING DEAD Recap: “Nebraska”

     February 12, 2012

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After going on a short break over the holidays, AMC’s The Walking Dead returned this evening to finish out the remainder of its (enormously popular) second season.  The first half of the season was dominated by the “Search For Sofia” storyline, but that storyline was brought to a close in a somewhat-shocking, gangbusters mid-season finale.  With that business all hemmed up, how’d things go tonight?  Did this mid-season premiere move the Survivors along to previously undiscovered, interesting new locales?  Inspire fresh, compelling discussions about surviving in a zombie-filled world?  Or did the show continue to spin its wheels?  Find out in this week’s Walking Dead recap, after the jump.

the-walking-dead-season-2-return-posterWhen AMC announced that they’d be taking The Walking Dead off the air for a month-and-a-half-long break in the middle of its second season, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing from fans:  for one thing, the show’s first season had already been abbreviated, and nobody wanted to see the show benched for another stretch of time;  for another, season two’s first half had been dominated by a plotline that left many viewers with the impression that the show’s writers  were—to some extent– “treading water”.   This seemed a very inopportune time to take another break.

In some dark corners of the internet, the relative merits of the “Search For Sofia” story-arch— specifically, the time it took to get itself from point A (“She’s gone!”) to point Z (“She’s been in the barn the whole time!  And now she’s all, uh, dead!”)—are still being heatedly discussed, but we won’t be furthering that debate here:  as of the show’s mid-season finale, the “Search for Sofia” has been put to bed.  And—for what it’s worth—that mid-season finale made up for a good deal of the water-treading took place over the season’s first half.   Not all of it, mind you, but a good deal.  Even the critics had to agree that it was exciting, somewhat unexpected, and handled with style.

I mean, come on:  that final showdown in the barn’s corral-area, with Shane shrieking to the Heavens and shooting pieces off of Hershel’s zombified buddies/pets?  Rick stepping up to gun down a pre-teen (and, for that matter, pre-living) Sofia?  The fear that one of our favorite characters (*coughShanecough*) might get capped right then and there?  Pretty satisfying stuff, and you know me:  I’m a nitpicker.

Which reminds me:  I have been determined to approach the second-half of season two with an all-new sense of optimism.  Like any other genre show on TV, The Walking Dead has developed a fanbase which includes a very vocal minority, one that doesn’t take kindly to anyone who might dare to say anything remotely negative about the series (while I consider myself a Walking Dead fan, this is the internet, where it’s all or nothing:  one either “hates” something or “loves” it—there is no middle ground).  I’ve been made aware of my perceived “pickiness”, and—in response– I decided to spend the holiday break recharging my give-a-shit batteries, taking a few deep breaths, and telling myself that the back-half of season two would be bigger, better, less confined and (most importantly) less redundant.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-3Maybe the writers had intended all along for the season’s first-half to drag a bit, just to make the mid-season punchline all the more effective.  Maybe I was being too hard on the show.  Maybe things would be different after the break.

So, how’d that newfound sense of positivity work out for me tonight?

Well, things started off well enough, picking up quite literally right where they left off.  Here were the Survivors standing in Hershel Greene’s barn-area, a bunch of recently slaughtered zombies at their feet.  Shane just finished having his meltdown, Rick’s just finished shooting Sofia in the face, and everyone else is standing around looking a little shocked.  So far, so good.

As you’ll recall, Hershel didn’t consider the zombies “dead people”, but “people waiting to be cured”, so—as far as he’s concerned—the people he let crash on his property over the past few weeks have just murdered a good portion of his extended family and friends.  Shocked by the savagery of this epic party-foul, Hershel retreats into his house, telling the Survivors to “get the hell off (his) property”.

The obvious thing would be to, y’know, honor Hershel’s wishes and GTFO, maybe head out to discover their own piece of property to settle down on (yes, they’re inclined to hang around Hershel’s farm because he’s a much-needed doctor, but it’s still not clear why they couldn’t just relocate to another farm– something a few miles up the road perhaps, or even all the way across “town”—and then make trips to Hershel’s as-needed), but of course that’s not what the Survivors do.  Some of them—specifically our man Shane—are all for this approach, but Rick seems determined to make Hershel see the light.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-9There also seemed to be some question as to whether or not Hershel knew if Sofia was in the barn all along.  Shane accuses Hershel of—basically—tricking the Survivors, allowing them to continue searching for Sofia even though he knew damn well that she was in the barn the whole time, but Hershel and Maggie deny this (the former claims that all the barn-zombies had been put there by Otis before his untimely demise).  We’ll never know for sure, but it doesn’t matter:  given the other differences in opinion between Team Hershel and Team Shane, this seems borderline irrelevant.

While some of the Survivors take on the dirty job of rounding up the slaughtered zombie-bodies (Dale bitching the whole time about Shane’s behavior), others are having their own problems:  Maggie and Glenn are trying to figure out whether or not they’re going to stay together once the Survivors move on;  Secondary Character—whoops, I mean “Beth”—falls into a shocked, catatonic state, prompting Rick and Glenn to go looking for Hershel (who’s in town on a bender);  and Dale confesses to Lori that he thinks Shane killed Otis.  Basically, we get a crash-course on where all these characters are, mid-season and post-barn-zombie-slaughter (hint:  they’re all pretty much where we left ‘em).

All of this stuff is handled well.  I was fine with the idea of catching up with all the characters, of being reminded where everyone’s arch left off before the break arrived and seeing how that may or may not have changed in the wake of Sofia’s death.  At this point, I was unamused that the Survivors weren’t packing their bags, but I wasn’t exasperated.

Rick, meanwhile, gets sidetracked on his way to gather up Hershel:  Lori pulls him aside and tells him that he needs to be making more of an effort to father Carl (the phrase “…instead of running off trying to solve everyone else’s problems” gets used).  This brief scene was one of the few times I’ve found myself actively rooting for Lori.  On this particular point, she’s absolutely right:  Rick’s way, way too concerned with everyone else’s happiness; his hyper-empathy is his character’s least-attractive (not to mention least- interesting) quality.  But Rick’s determined to get back in Hershel’s good graces—or, at the very least, to smooth things over a bit before he’s forced to leave—and so he brushes Lori off, grabs Glenn, and heads off into town.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-7“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Here it comes.”

Soon thereafter, Rick and Glenn arrive at the bar Hershel’s holed himself up in, and—sure enough—we were treated to yet another debate between Rick and Hershel.

Look, I was pretty much on-board with tonight’s episode all the way up to the moment that Rick and Hershel started yelling at one another again.   But as the scene rambled on, I felt that ol’ negativity seeping in again:  why does there always seem to be so much wheel-spinning on this show?  Why does it always feel like each theme or idea or problem needs to be discussed over and over again before it’s finally put to bed?  Yes, Hershel and Rick’s argument is slightly different in that Hershel has now come around to Rick’s way of thinking on a few issues, but let’s be frank:  it’s really just more “two people yelling their difference of opinion at one another”, and I simply feel that—as a viewer, and a fan—I’ve had about enough of that for the foreseeable future.

Come to think of it, this is a storytelling issue that the show shares with the comics:  “wordiness” being confused with “story”, and “making a strong point” being confused with “beating an idea into the ground”.

Recently, I picked up a random, new-ish issue of the comic series, flipped it open, and discovered that not all that much had changed since I’d stopped reading the series:  the Survivors were still holed up in a faux-community, they’re still struggling with trust issues, and—most importantly—the pages are still filled to the breaking point with one massive slab of text after another…punctuated by the occasional two-page spread of zombie-killing.  The overabundance of speechifying (and the repetitive plot devices) eventually drove me away from the comics, and I’m forced to wonder if the same thing might not eventually get in the way of me calling myself a fan of this series.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-1But, hey, at least the comics have the good sense to break up all those speeches with the occasional two-page action-spread.  So far, season two’s been unreasonably light on zombie action.  Yes, the opener was pretty cool (with the big, roaming gang of zombies on the highway), and so was the “well zombie” (though I’m still not clear on why they couldn’t have just sealed that well off), but I’m having trouble recalling much more substantial “zombie action” in season two beyond those two highlights.

I’m not suggesting that The Walking Dead become a balls-out, nothing-but-action zombie-thon;  It wouldn’t do for the show to be all sizzle and no steak.  I’m just saying that the endless debating (which often sounds a lot like whining) is growing a little thin for me, and that—should it continue, without being balanced out by a healthy dose of action/horror/zombie-stuff—it’s in danger of becoming a deal-breaker.

Too long, didn’t read?  The Walking Dead needs to get better at balancing the scares-and-action with the speechifying.

Anyway, back at the farm, Lori decides that she can’t wait for Rick and Hershel’s return any longer.   She sets out to bring them back herself (after making a brief –and wholly unsuccessful– attempt to get Daryl to do it), and is only a few minutes down the road when a zombie stumbles out onto the highway.  Of course, this causes her to swerve, crash, and flip her car up on its side.  While the episode wraps without resolving this little plot-thread– and while fans of the comics know that Lori’s not going to be with us forever—it seems unlikely that she’s out of the picture completely.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-2Meanwhile, back at the bar, Michael Raymond James (last seen on FX’s sadly-canceled Terriers) shows up with an ominous-looking travel companion, interrupting Rick and Hershel’s debate.  These two interlopers have wandered in off the street, are armed, and seem a bit too curious about where Rick, Glenn, and Hershel might be hanging their hats.  Things get off to a friendly start, sure, but soon enough these two reveal themselves to be…well, about as dangerous as we assumed them to be the moment they walked into the bar.  Post-apocalyptic strangers:  they pretty much never come in peace.

Rick ends up shooting the guys, ending any chance that Hershel’s farm might’ve been set upon by yet another handful of ungrateful, troublemaking Survivors.

So, what’d I think?  Well, as we’ve already discussed, I think the show needs more of the stuff that most people expect when they tune into a zombie-centric TV series:  zombie-action.  I appreciate that the show’s writers are pushing for substance, but I can’t help but feel like they’re struggling to balance things out.  Besides that, things feel redundant:  it often feels as though the same points are being made over and over again, which only makes the big, speech-y scenes all the more tedious to sit through.

I can’t tell if these problems originate with the writers (they’re reluctant to move on without having an issue examined from every conceivable angle), the source material (the books are guilty of some of the same narrative crimes…but, then again, the show has strayed from the source material before) or the network itself (there’s not enough “zombie action” because the budget cuts won’t allow for it), but—whatever the case may be—these problems do need to be addressed.

the-walking-dead-season-2-nebraska-image-8I want to love this show, I do.  I want the writing to kick my ass every week, for new and interesting characters (James’ drifter character was almost—but not quite—kinda what I have in mind) to stumble across the main crew every once in a while, for exciting new locations to pop up every few episodes.  The writers have an entire, zombie-filled country to play around in, and I want to see every nook and cranny of it.  I don’t need to see eighteen headshots every week, but I would like to be able to count on some amount of zombie-fueled action in each episode.  I want this show to be as good as we all know it can be.  Honestly.

But as long as The Walking Dead continues to spin its wheels and hold back on the good stuff, I’m going to continue struggling with it.  And eventually, I’m guessing that even the most die-hard superfans—the ones  that deign to say anything remotely negative about the show—will agree with me.   I’m going to consider tonight’s episode a table-setter of sorts:  the writers are setting up the rest of the season, and finishing off the Hershel/farm storyline.  But if we’re compelled to watch Rick and Hershel go ‘round and ‘round about “living in a zombie-world” for the umpteenth time next week, I may very well blow a gasket.  I’m hoping that next week’s episode takes the Survivors off the farm, into completely different discussions, and face-first into some kick-ass,totally- compelling zombie action.

But how ‘bout you guys?  Agree with the letter grade below, or was this yet another no-middle-ground, A+++/F- – episode?

My grade?  B-

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