THE WALKING DEAD Recap: “Pretty Much Dead Already”

     November 27, 2011

Here we are, folks:  the midway point for The Walking Dead’s second season.  Over the past month-and-a-half, we’ve had highs (last week’s “Secrets”, which was beloved in my household but complained about in other, darker corners of the internet) and we’ve had lows (the part where the survivors decided—seemingly without much provocation—to dangle one of their own down a zombie-occupied well), but for the most part, we’ve enjoyed the second season of AMC’s only zombie-centric series.  This week, we’ll be offering up a diagnosis of the season-thus-far in addition to the standard recap, so you should probably prepare yourself for a lengthy bit of reading material.  Once you’ve steeled yourself, meet me on the other side of the jump for this year’s final Walking Dead recap.

“Pretty Much Dead Already” marks the halfway point for The Walking Dead’s second season, a bit of information that’s as surprising as it is depressing:  surprising because, wow, time flies;  depressing because, well, no more boom-headshots until February.  That’s a bummer, but there’s no use bitching about it:  this is the way that TV works, and we are at its mercy.  Anyone who’s really bent out of shape about The Walking Dead’s mid-season hiatus should think back to the mid 00’s, when David Chase and HBO would routinely make fans of The Sopranos wait for years in between seasons (OK, maybe that only happened once or twice, but still).  That was painful.  Waiting until February?  Cakewalk.

Before we get to the mid-season diagnosis, let’s talk about what happened tonight.

Last week, things wrapped with a whole bunch of secrets coming to light:  Lori revealed the truth about her and Shane—as well as her pregnancy—to Rick;  Dale learned about the pregnancy, as well;  Shane learned that Dale’s onto him about the whole “banging his best friend’s wife” thing, and possibly about the death of Otis;  and all of us learned that Herschel’s daughter, Maggie, is a bit of an emotionally unstable sex-fiend (joking, kind of).  As it turned out, tonight’s episode began with the survivors all learning one more secret at the same time:  Herschel’s barn is full of zombies.  Glenn was all too happy to spill his guts, and once he did, the survivors sprang into action.

And—as you know— for this group of survivors, “springing into action” means standing around yelling at one another about what to do next.  Upon checking out Glenn’s story and finding the barn to be, yep, definitely filled with zombies, the group immediately went into argue-mode, trying to determine the best course of action for dealing with them:  on the one hand, those walkers have to die.  On the other hand, this isn’t their land, and Herschel will straight-up boot ‘em from the property if they start killing off the dude’s (undead) former associates.  Decisions, decisions.

This, of course, led to the long-awaited showdown between Rick and Herschel.  I was really hoping that the show’s writers would use this confrontation as a way to show Rick acting like the damn-good leader we’re meant to believe he is.  I wanted them to show us a decisive, strong, resilient dude who’s got every right to be in charge of this motley crew of survivors.  Instead, we got two back-to-back scenes where Rick whined, begged, and played the “pregnancy card”.  As an added non-bonus, one of these scenes featured Shane demonstrating—for the hundredth time– the sort of decisiveness and reasoning that the group really needs.  This opening segment represented Rick at his worst, and was flat-out depressing to see unfold.  Little did I know, the writers were building up to a moment.

These scenes—and the characters in them—deserve specific attention, so let’s delve a bit deeper.  First, Rick goes to Herschel and tells him that he and the rest of his group know about the walkers in the barn.  When Herschel tells him that he “doesn’t want to debate” the issue, Rick gets whiny, asking for a “discussion” and trying to convince Herschel to let him and his pals stick around on the farm.  He also tells Herschel that the barn-zombies are his to do with as he sees fit, that he wouldn’t do anything to or with them without Herschel’s permission.  The entire time this scene’s unfolding, I’m thinking, “First of all, if you’re not going to kill those walkers, why would you want your pregnant wife and her kid—not to mention the rest of the survivors—to hang around the farm?  It’s unsafe.  Secondly, why this farm?  Aren’t there, like, a million other farms in the countryside you could take over?”  Rick does everything but get on his knees during this scene, but Herschel remains firm, even when Rick (pathetically) tosses out the pregnancy card in sheer desperation.

Next, Rick heads across the yard for a chat with Shane, who says…well, precisely what I was thinking during the previous scene:  if he doesn’t want to kill the zombies in the barn, then the farm will be unsafe.  And if that’s the case, why does he want to hang around?  Secondly, why not just move on to another, nearby farm?  Surely the countryside’s full of ‘em.  Through all of this, Rick whines, and then—in a last ditch effort to plead his case—he tosses down that good ol’ pregnancy card again.

For those keeping score at home, these scenes gave us multiple reasons to question Rick’s leadership.  We were also given more reasons to stay right where we are, on “Team Shane”.  After these scenes, the people I was watching the show with discussed the following question during the commercial break:  “Are the show’s writers actively trying to make us dislike Rick?  Because this seems even more weak-willed than normal.”  If so, we decided, they were doing a bang-up job.  Little did we know…

From there, Shane had it out with Lori again—and, yes, she again told him to screw off—while Rick went on a zombie-trappin’ adventure with Herschel.  Dale, meanwhile, was manipulating Andrea again (telling her to stay away from Shane and claiming it’s because he doesn’t trust him, but really it’s because he’s mad that Shane and Andrea were hittin’ that during last week’s episode), and after getting into a brief argument with her, he marches off into the woods with all the guns (all three of these situations are important, but in the interest of saving time, I’ve glanced through ‘em here; besides, it’s where these three situations led that’s of primary concern).

Shane confronts Dale in the woods, snatching the guns away from him in order to wipe out the barn-zombies.  As for Rick on the zombie-trappin’ adventure, well, the entire sequence was miserable to watch—here’s our hero, basically broken by the demands of an out-of-touch farmer—and only furthered the anti-Rick sentiments in my household as it unfolded.  People yelled, “How can he do that?!” and “What is he thinking?!” during this scene, and I couldn’t help but agree.  By the time that Herschel, Rick, and Herschel’s son emerged from the woods with a bunch of zombies on leashes (headed, of course, for the barn), I was ready to declare the show’s writers insane.  How much are we supposed to take?  How could anyone still consider Rick a leader after this, particularly after Shane’s meltdown in the frontyard (where he demands action from the survivors and passes out guns to everybody)?  Sure, it’s rash, but at least Shane’s bottom line makes sense.

As it turns out, all of this—the argument between Herschel and Rick, the fight between Rick and Shane, the interminable sequence wherein Rick played zombie-catcher in the woods…hell, even the “Where is Sofia?” storyline—was building up to something.  It was, in fact, building up to this episode’s dramatic reveal, and I’d be lying if I said that I saw it coming completely.  In this moment, The Walking Dead’s writers managed to tie up a lot of loose ends:  they resolved the “Where is Sofia?” storyline, they redeemed Rick—not completely, but a good bit—and they made Shane’s hotheadedness genuinely frightening for the first time.  Up until the final five minutes of tonight’s episode, I was furious with the way the show’s writers handled the end of the “Greene Farm” storyline, but once the credits rolled, I was more than satisfied, as were my viewing-buddies.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this bait-and-switch “masterful”, but it was certainly well-done, effective, and beautifully executed.

I’ve been vague in the details thus far, but from here on out, spoilers abound.

After passing out guns to the survivors and demanding that they sweep the barn, Shane looks up to see Rick emerging from the woods with Herschel and his son.  Each is holding a zombie-catcher (one of those loops-on-rods that dog-catchers use), each with a zombie attached.  In this moment, Rick looks weaker than ever.  Shane runs directly at Herschel and Rick, screaming for the others to follow, and when he meets up with them he goes into full-on rage mode:  the world is different now, he tells them (well, shouts at them, but whatever), and the idea that zombies should be kept “safe” is absurd.  They must protect themselves, and this means wiping out the zombies.  If it pisses off Herschel, well, so be it.

And so, Shane begins unloading on the zombies.  He kills the one that Herschel’s dragging, and then he opens up the barn and mows his way through the rest of the barn-zombies.  Shane’s joined by Andrea, T-Dog, and Daryl, and the implication—for the time being, anyway—was that the group was splitting up the middle, with those willing to defy Herschel on one side…and those willing to kotow to Herschel’s bizarre, ill-informed demands on the other (with Rick).  The entire scene was presented as a slaughter, with dramatic, operatic music playing over the mass-kill and those firing guns shot to look like madmen.  For a minute there, I really thought that the writers were implying that the people firing upon the zombies were the “bad guys”, and in that moment I thought all was lost.

And then…oh, and then.  It was glorious:  Sofia—the little girl lost, the season-two MacGuffin that would not end, the source for so much misery and tedium over the past six weeks—emerged from the barn, zombified.  Yes, it turned out that Sofia was right under the survivors’ noses all along…and that she had long-since become one of the undead.  The look on the survivors’ faces said it all, really, but in my living room, there was a whole bunch of consternation as to how this scene was going to play out:  would the writers bungle this, and have Shane kill her, presenting him as a “bad guy”?  Would Dale shoot Shane, stopping him from killing Sofia and ending Shane’s run on the show?  Would the episode end before we’d find out how the situation would resolve itself?  A lot was on our minds during this scene.

Then, the Walking Dead did something I found to be enormously satisfying:  they had Rick shoot Sofia, right in the face.

Finally, here was Rick stepping up and doing something effective, logical, and meaningful as the leader of the group.  Finally, here was Rick showing some balls.  He didn’t get all rowdy about it—as Shane had—and he didn’t apologize to Sofia’s mother (which would’ve undercut the moment).  He just stepped up, hoisted the gun, and fired.  In that moment, much of the ill-will I’ve felt towards Rick receded, and I finally started thinking that I might be brought around on considering him a “leader”.  That a TV show was able to provoke this response by having its hero shoot a little girl in the face is something worth examining, but we’ll save that for my next psyche eval.

This was a brilliant, satisfying, perfect ending to the “Where is Sofia?” storyline, as well as an enormously satisfying way to end the show’s mid-season finale.  Bravo, really.  I’m impressed.

Look, I’ve been critical of The Walking Dead’s second season, and though I’ve repeatedly gone out of my way to explain how it’s possible to be critical of a TV series (and, from time to time, to flat-out dislike an episode of said series) while also considering yourself a fan of that series, the angry emails I’ve received over the past six weeks tell me that this explanation hasn’t satisfied everyone.  Eh, whatcanyado?

In case you’re wondering, here’s what I think about the show following tonight’s finale:  The Walking Dead is still not as great as it should be– they’ve got the ingredients for something amazing here, not the least of which is a truly talented cast—but the show’s made some notable improvements over the course of the past half-season, and tonight’s episode contained a biggie.  Overall, the writing’s been sharper, some of the characters’ rougher edges seem sanded down (Lori, for instance, who’s gone from “mega-bitch” to “sometimes-bitchy” over the course of the past six episodes), and the makeup effects only seem to be getting more impressive.  For the first time in a long time, I’m feeling confident that the show’s going to overcome the quibbles I’ve had sooner rather than later.

Tonight’s episode gave us the Rick that “Team Shane” members have been asking for for a long time now, and while that doesn’t solve the whole “Jon Bernthal’s a more compelling actor than Andrew Lincoln” problem, it does help set things right on a narrative level.  My prediction is this:  Shane will be out of the picture by the end of season two, and season three will introduce a character named Michonne.  This character—a badass, samurai-sword-wielding chick in a leopard-print miniskirt—will be the show’s way of filling in the “charisma gap” that will show up the moment Bernthal’s off the series.  That’s my best guess, and I think it’d help.

I don’t like slapping letter-grades on things, but I’m going to make an exception for tonight’s ep.  I’ll just be doing it in a ridiculous fashion:

For the first 40 minutes of tonight’s episode:  C-, for being so frustrating.

For the last 10 minutes of tonight’s episode:  A+, for resolution and for making Rick awesome.

For the season thus far:  B+, verging on A-

And that, my friends, is that for The Walking Dead, season two, part one.  We’ll be back in February when the show hits the airwaves again.  As always, you—the readers—can feel free to sound off with your predictions for the rest of season two in the comments section below, along with your thoughts on how tonight’s ep played out:  Happy to see Rick step up and take charge?  Not so much?  Still on “Team Shane”?  We wanna hear about it, so hit the comments section and let us know.  By the way:  thanks to everyone who’s been keeping up with these recaps, as well as everyone involved with the show:  I might not always agree with the way you guys do business, but I wouldn’t ever miss an episode, and that’s really the yardstick you’ve gotta judge success by.