THE WALKING DEAD Season Finale Recap: “Beside the Dying Fire”

     March 18, 2012

Well, folks, here we are:  another season of The Walking Dead (this time a full 13 episodes, even if it was divided up over the holidays) has come to an end.  After a season that ran the gamut from “infuriatingly tedious” and “holy crap that was so awesome”, things came to an explosive close tonight in a season finale that might’ve been on par with this year’s mid-season finale…and one that was certainly better than last season’s final episode.  What happened tonight, who lived, and who died?  Find out in our Walking Dead recap, after the jump.

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So, before we get into this double-shot of recapping goodness, let’s get something out of the way:  two weeks ago, I hammered out my normal Walking Dead recap, sent it along to Collider HQ, and was informed shortly thereafter that the fake-out opening I’d attached to the piece (wherein I claimed that Shane, who may very well be the most popular character on AMC’s series) wasn’t exactly going over well with the masses.  Upon going back and reading what I’d written, it was immediately clear that the irreverent tone and “Gotcha!” punchline I’d been going for didn’t work.  Like, at all.  It was the very definition of ill-advised, and I couldn’t help but agree with the reaction this piece generated–  it sucked.

And so, while I’ve got your ear, allow me to apologize for the lame-ass gag that opened our previous recap.  Sometimes—and I know this is going to be hard to believe—but even I make really stupid decisions.  You should go ahead and assume that all Walking Dead recaps will (by their very nature) be spoiler-fueled, but you can also rest assured that we’d never spoil something serious in the opening paragraph…nor will I ever work a faux-spoiler into said paragraph.

Now!  With that out of the way, let’s first address what happened on last week’s Walking Dead.

I was shoulder-deep in the SXSW Film Festival when last week’s episode aired, and—perhaps in a bit of karmic irony—I had the episode’s “big moment” spoiled for me by some of my loose-lipped Twitter friends long before I had a chance to sit down and watch the episode myself (in fact, I caught up with last week’s episode in the hour before tonight’s season finale aired):  Shane was killed, turned into a zombie, and was then promptly shot by Rick’s son, Carl.

Even though most of us assumed that Jon Bernthal’s character wouldn’t live to see season three, I think it’d be fair to say that most people expected Shane to get killed off in an explosive season finale, not in the season’s next-to-last episode.  We’d been given any number of clues that this was coming (from the storyline as it originally appeared in the comics to the fact that Bernthal has signed on for a new acting gig over on TNT, in Frank Darabont’s L.A. Noir), but still, the moment was shocking when it finally happened.

the-walking-dead-season-two-finale-2Shane’s death inspired an interesting discussion amongst my Walking Dead-watching friends, specifically the moment where Carl shot zombie-Shane.  This was similar to what happens in the Kirkman comic series, yes, but not quite the same, and it’ll be interesting to see why the show’s writers decided to factor Carl into this sequence.  As readers of the comics will be happy to tell you, Carl killing Shane is just the first step down a very dark path for the Carl character, and I’ve been wondering since the very beginning of AMC’s series if the show’s writers were planning on doing the same thing with the show.  Having Carl shoot a human Shane would’ve set him on that same path very clearly, but having him shoot zombie Shane seems to mean something else entirely.  Some of my viewing-buddies believed that this was Carl’s retribution for having failed to kill the zombie that ended up killing Dale, while others pointed out that the show’s writers could’ve done that with virtually any zombie-kill.  I remain undecided on the significance (if any) of this sequence, but—for what it’s worth—I’m hoping that the show’s writers take Carl on the same twisted journey that the comics-version of the character has taken (more on this later, specifically my concerns about Chandler Riggs’ ability to handle such material).

The rest of last week’s episode, by the way, was excellent.  For me, the episode perfectly captured what The Walking Dead should be on a week-to-week basis:  very little sermonizing, high drama, a few great zombie kills, a bunch of blood, and a few genuine-feeling character beats (I loved the scene with Andrea and Glenn, while the latter’s fixing Dale’s RV).  It’s funny:  before tonight, the best episodes of season two were the premiere, the mid-season finale, and last week’s next-to-last episode.  The same sort of thing happened in season one, if I’m not mistaken, with the writers really rising to the challenge for the premiere and the finale, but the stuff in-between falling a little shorter than I would’ve liked (narratively, anyway).  And so, headed into tonight’s season finale, I had my fingers crossed for a truly kick-ass episode, something that would build upon the goodwill that the show’s writers earned last week and that would honor the show’s own tradition of delivering great endings and beginnings.

the-walking-dead-season-two-finale-3So, did it live up to that expectation?

In a word, yes.  The episode’s opening showed us how the zombies that we all knew would descend upon Hershel’s farm got there, traveling from the city, through the countryside, into the forest, and—finally—ending up right near the farm just about the time that Rick and Shane got into their little Mexican standoff.   A friend who was watching the episode with me said, “Did we really need the backstory of the zombies here?”, but I think we probably did:  had we not seen how that particular group of walkers ended up near the farm, we would all very likely have called BS on the show:  “Oh, what, now the woods is packed to the rafters with the undead, the week after characters were traipsing around the forest without encountering…well, pretty much anything?”  I liked this opening, and like what followed even more.

From there, the episode turned into a full-blown siege of Hershel’s property.  Rick and Carl set the infamous barn on fire after luring a number of zombies inside, while most of the women (Carol, Lori, Hershel’s family) holed up inside the farm house.  T-Dawg and Darryl set to work slaughtering as many of the undead as possible, with Darryl making motorcycle-based zombie killing look like a helluva lot of fun.  Beth’s boyfriend also gets killed here, but he wasn’t the only one:  while Hershel entered the “Unlimited Ammo” code before opening up on a group of walkers, Patricia (Otis’ wife, and not one of Hershel’s daughters as was previously reported) ended up chewed to bits while making a run for it outside the house.  Through all of this, it should be noted, no one realized that Rick had killed Shane.  To my eyes, this added an extra layer of suspense on top of an already-suspenseful scene:  how were characters like Andrea, Lori, and Darryl going to react upon hearing that Rick had killed off one of the group’s best badasses?

the-walking-dead-season-two-finale-4Eventually, everyone managed to climb into one of the half-dozen-or-so vehicles scattered around the farm, put the zombies at their back, and hightail it the eff out of there.  The farm gets destroyed during their escape (the shots of the collapsing barn, engulfed in flames, were pretty damn impressive), and a few of the show’s lesser characters (though none of the original survivors) perished during the exodus, but for the most part the Survivors got outta there unscathed.  In the moment, I was shocked that Hershel made it out of there—he seemed destined to die with the farm—but it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the character going forward.

After driving for a long, long time (it’s apparently late at night when they escape the farm, morning—at the very least—when they finally get outta the car), Hershel, Carl, and Rick stop to try and regroup with the others.  Here’s as good a point as any to bring up something else that’s been bugging me across these past few episodes:  Chandler Riggs (who plays Carl) really needs to step up his game between this season and the next.  On both tonight’s finale and last week’s penultimate episode, Riggs set off some truly cringe-inducing line readings, and one can’t help but wonder how bad things really are if these are the takes that the show’s editors decided to use.  Riggs isn’t a complete disaster in the role, but if this show is going to take Carl to some of the places that The Walking Dead has taken Carl in the comics, he’s going to have to shoulder some pretty heavy material.  I simply don’t see Riggs—in his current state—being able to pull that off.  Am I crazy, or are you guys feeling the same way?

Hershel, Rick, and Carl fall back to the same stretch of highway where Sofia was lost in the season premiere (apparently, this was established, but also apparently, I managed to miss this bit of dialogue while hammering out the recap:  sorry, folks, and thanks for helping with the adjustments).  While the “search for Sofia” storyline is still a point of debate for many Walking Dead fans—which is to say, people are still bitching about the fact that the first half of the season spent so much time on this plot point—I liked that we returned to this spot.  It felt like things coming full circle in a way, and I liked seeing that one, lonely car with that (somewhat depressing, given all that’s happened) message to Sofia scrawled on the windshield.

the-walking-dead-season-two-finale-1During this sequence, the characters took stock of who survived and who didn’t (Shane was conspicuously absent, for instance), and—for the most part—everyone handles things pretty well.  Well, at first they do.  Soon enough, though, they realize that they’re missing Andrea, but the decision’s made to get away from the road and into safer environs before anything else might occur.  As it turns out, Andrea’s out in the woods with a pocketful of bullets and a pack of zombies nipping at her heels.  Though the odds are stacked against her, we got a few great zombie kills here that proved Andrea’s more than capable of handling things on her own (while we’re talking zombie kills, by the way, let’s take a moment to give this series’ special effects and makeup work a much-deserved shout-out:  you guys kick serious ass).

Still, though, she can only run for so long, and sooner or later those bullets are going to run out.  The Survivors end up running out of gas alongside a stretch of highway, decide they’re going to have to put off looking for Andrea for the time being, and a conversation ensues that might have a whole lotta bearing on the direction these characters are going to head in season three:  the point’s made that the farm—however safe it might’ve seemed—wasn’t really the haven it seemed to be at the end of the day, and anywhere these Survivors go is likely to be safe only for a limited time.  Does this point to the likelihood that the comics’ prison setting will make an appearance next season?  The episode’s final shot indicates that, yes, that’s where they’re headed.

the-walking-dead-season-two-finale-5More importantly, though, this conversation leads to Rick telling the rest of the Survivors what he learned at the end of last season:  everyone’s infected.   While it usually seems to take hours for a person to make the transformation from “dead human” to “thriving zombie”, Shane turned almost instantly.  Maybe that’s a bit of shortcutting on the part of the show’s writers, or maybe it’s just there to indicate how singular each case of zombie-ism is:  I remain unsure (note:  apparently, Jenner revealed in the season one finale that the “turning” process can take as little as a few minutes or as long as a dozen hours;  this plot point was forgotten by me and everyone else watching the show over at my place last night, but we thank the helpful commenter below for reminding us of this).  But in any event, Rick’s spooked enough to tell everyone else what he knows, and—as you might expect—the rest of the Survivors aren’t thrilled to learn this information.  Me, I don’t see what difference it makes (it’s kind of like worrying about whether or not you’re going to end up buried or cremated after death:  I guess it’s fair to have a preference, but—at the end of the day—does it really matter?), but to each his own, I suppose.

A lot has been made of Rick’s reversal here, the point where—as the people over on Reddit put it several hours later (in a bit of verbiage I’ve heard was lifted from Kirkman himself)—things go from a “democracy” to a “Ricktocracy”.  Some have pointed out that this is basically Rick “becoming Shane”, and it’s true that this is a major turn for Rick’s character to take.  I agree that this moment’s worth singling out, and the moment probably did deserve a mention in our recap last night.  The truth is, I think we’ve been building to this moment for some time, and I suppose I didn’t find this development as shocking as some other viewers did.  If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see where Mazzarra and company take this in season three.

In the episode’s final moments, we got a truly massive surprise, one that left my viewing party applauding and cheering the screen:  while running through the woods, Andrea is suddenly overwhelmed by an undead menace, and then—just as she’s about to get all chewed up—a samurai sword whipped through the air, saving her life.  The sight of that sword was a huge deal to anyone watching that’s also read the comics, because it means that Michonne has finally entered the picture.

walking-dead-comic-michonneAnd, sure enough, we got an amazingly kick-ass money-shot of Michonne standing there with her two zombie-pets.  For those of you who haven’t read the comics, I’ll say no more about this character, but know this:  we may have lost Shane this season—and that’s worth mourning—but Michonne is going to add some much-needed badassery to this show, and I can’t wait to see who they’ve got playing her, how she’s going to handle the role, and what adventures lay in store for the Survivors now that she’s entered the picture.

All in all, The Walking Dead’s second season seemed pretty strong, but I’m also probably saying that because the last few episodes were so strong.  If we were to go back and watch the entire thing all the way through—which I plan on doing as soon as the season arrives on Blu-ray—I wonder how it’d play?  That first batch of episodes started strong, ended stronger, but there seemed to be a helluva lot of water-treading there in the middle.  The second-half of the season, on the other hand, seemed far more intense, more interesting, better written.  It really does seem like the show’s writers are fine-tuning their craft as they go along, and if the rumors I’ve heard about season three turn out to be correct, I think we might have something really special in store for us when the show picks up again….what, later this year?  Next year?  Stay tuned to find out, folks, and—after checking my entirely useless grade below (this is an episode grade, not a grade for the season)—feel free to sound off with your thoughts, predictions, and feelings about tonight’s episode in the comments section.

My grade?  A-

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