This isn't going to end well.
More than any other iconic monster (vampires, werewolves and ghosts, oh my), zombies don't lead to happy endings. It's in their nature. Vampires shrivel in the sunlight (or barring that, well, who doesn't want to be immortal and pale for eternity?); werewolves can be excised from society with a proper application of silver; and ghosts, well, ghosts just remind us that Death Is Not The End. These are creatures who represent a breakdown in the system, a supernatural flaw in the normally natural ointment. They can threaten your friends, your loved ones, you, and they can leave a wake of bodies and broken minds behind them, but they are frightening because they are anomalies. They are things that should not happen, yet do, and as soon as someone can make them stop happening, the world moves on.
With zombies, though... Ever notice how you never see a single zombie? At least, not for very long. A zombie attack represents a full collapse of the social structure, a shattered society in which the fundamental rules no longer apply. It changes from story to story, but most of the time, individual zombies are easy to kill. They're slow, they're stupid, and they're basically ambulatory meat sacks with low-grade nervous systems. A strong enough blow to the head, and down they go. But there are so many of them. And even if you kill enough to survive today, there will be more tomorrow, and even if you get through tomorrow, there will always be more. Zombies are our mortality made flesh and hungry, and sooner or later, no matter what your intentions, they will find you, like a shadow with teeth.
This is a perfectly fine model for a movie; plenty of horror movies end in despair, and (depending on quality) nobody feels too jilted when characters they've come to care about over the course of an hour-and-a-half all get blown up or devoured or shot. (Sidebar: Are there any zombie movies with happy endings? And I don't mean the sort of "this is the best we can hope for" endings of the original Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Unless you count something like 28 Days Later as a zombie film, I can't think of any in which the hordes of shambling corpses are permanently defeated and the status quo returned.) But for a television series or an ongoing comic book, the relentlessly downbeat nature of the genre is more difficult to negotiate. If The Walking Dead plays its cards right, it's going to be with us for years, and that means it needs to find ways to keep us from losing all hope, even if we know deep down that most of the people we see up on the screen are going to wind up as lunch. There are a few different methods the show can take. It can tease us with the hope of some kind of change or bigger mystery, like it did (fairly successfully) at the end of last season. It can offer its characters moments of grace and joy in between all the carnage. And it can make sure the scenes when the zombies attack are so intense and terrifying that we're too busy reminding ourselves to breathe to get worried about where all of this is headed.
The first season of The Walking Dead had its moments, but it also had substantial problems, most specifically in the middle of its six episode run. After a strong pilot, the show lost itself in circular plotting and some frustratingly tepid character work, with cliches and hackneyed dialog turning what should be a thrilling ride into an exercise in managed expectations. Thankfully, signs of life developed in the last two episodes of season, as the show's protagonists made their way to the CDC in Atlanta, where they got a firsthand look at just how screwed they really were. The show doesn't necessarily need a complex mythology, but it does need a way to find variations on its main themes, and the CDC was a big step in the right direction. That left The Walking Dead with two big questions going into its second season: Can it keep that level of ingenuity going on a regular basis? And can it transform its ensemble from a gaggle of stock types into a group of individuals whose conversations are actually worth listening to?
"What Lies Ahead" has Sheriff Rick and the others leaving Atlanta and heading toward Fort Benning. They don't get very far. That's turning into one of the series' main forms of plotting: Our heroes will come up with a plan, move to implement that plan, and then almost immediately run into a series of increasingly complicated obstacles that delay their best efforts. Technically that's a description that fits a lot of drama (especially serialized drama), but where most shows with this degree of continuity between episodes would have some over-arcing story behind all the day-to-day impediments, Walking Dead is basically just a lot of one step forward, two steps back. I'll be honest, last season that got on my nerves; the decision to go back into the city to rescue Ranger Redneck seemed like the worst kind of narrative cul-de-sac, the work of writers stalling for time because they had no real idea of where they were going. So much of the drama of the first season felt half-assed and semi-random, people throwing ideas at the wall and not looking to see if they stuck. While I'm not going to say that all of that first season's problems are gone in the light of this new episode (they really, really aren't), I am starting to wonder if the constant "Almost there! Oh, crap" style is more conscious than I realized. It still doesn't completely work. "Ahead" hinges largely on Sophia running off into the woods and (presumably) getting lost and/or dead, and her disappearance feels more than a little contrived right now. But at least it makes thematic sense: The zombies don't win because they're faster or smarter than us. They win because it's impossible to score a perfect game every day, every moment of your life.
That said, the character drama still remains Walking Dead's weakest link. We don't meet anyone new in "Ahead," which means that at least there's some foundation laid in for the squabbling and discussions, but that doesn't make the squabbling between Shane and Lori isn't any easier to take. This is pure soap opera stuff, and it looks even more trite in the face of the epic catastrophe around them. I realize that Lori wouldn't want to let her husband know she took up with another man while she thought he was dead, but Shane's attempt to rape her back at the CDC should have been a line crossing moment. Instead, she's angry at him for not being nicer to her son, then she's angry at him for the assault, then she's angry at him for leaving. She seems to mostly just be feeding Shane whatever reaction creates the most potential for argument in the moment, and that doesn't give her much focus as a character. Her best scene in the episode has her defending her husband to the other members of the group. Her biggest flaw so far is that she's too often used as a negative force on Rick and Shane, and to have her taking action, especially positive action, is smart. The others are as hit and miss as ever. While I understand why Andrea would want to leave the group and how Shane represents a possibility for escape, I'm not convinced either of them are going to go off on their own, and that makes it hard to care. On the plus side, Andrea confronting Dale about his actions back at the CDC was a good, meaty scene for both of them. Andrea still wishes she'd been allowed to die, and Dale (who is probably the show's best character at this point) refuses to let anyone die if he can help it. It's an argument that doesn't tell us which side to pick, and it gives Andrea some strong arguments, arguments that are going to continue to be issues for every character in the show: Is it really worth it to stay alive in this kind of Hell? And wouldn't you rather pick your exit, than be torn apart and eaten alive?
What works here, and works so well that I'm almost willing to overlook the dull bits, are the straight out horror sequences. The Walking Dead had its budget cut after the first season (among other behind-the-scenes woes), but that doesn't seem to be a problem here. At the very least, the show does a fine job working within its restrictions. There are a handful of absolutely top-notch setpieces in "Ahead," starting with an attack on the highway that seems to go on forever. I mean that as a compliment; building from that first shot of Dale and Rick seeing the Walkers approaching at a distance, right up to Sophia's panicked run into the forest, Dead escalates a potential catastrophe into a minor disaster with patience and intelligence. No one makes any blatantly stupid moves, and no one actually dies, but minor incident stacks upon minor incident to create an almost unbearable sensation of perpetual dread. It's scenes like this that make the show worth watching to me, even when it fumbles the non-zombie parts. Then there are scenes like Daryl (who's sort of a minor MVP this week) and Rick performing an impromptu, autopsy on a zombie they find in the woods to make sure it wasn't recently munching on Sophia. It had as much gore as I can remember seeing on TV in a while, but what really made it unsettling was the knowledge that they were hunting for the chewed remains of a child. And then there's the last scene of the episode, which has Rick, Shane, and Carl coming across a deer in the woods. It's a hushed, beautiful moment, right up until someone shoots the deer and the bullet goes through Carl's side. Cut to Rick's reaction. Then cut to black. Cliffhangers aren't the most difficult trick to pull, especially on a show like this, but I'll be damned if this one wasn't effective.
"Ahead" has plenty of food for Walking Dead fans and doubters. The show is still capable of living up to its premise, but it's also still struggling with making its living people as important as its dead ones. There are signs of improvement. The reveal that Dale's been faking work on the RV to make sure no one thinks about abandoning Sophia is great, because it's a twist that fits well with his character, and also makes him more likable. We need to like these people more overall, I think. Not necessarily all of them, but enough so that, when the show inevitably has to relax a bit on the zombie attacks (this isn't even a question of budget; you keep bringing the zombies out, eventually they'll become too predictable and less threatening), we have something else to watch. Dead has a well-built world, and it's proved itself capable of delivering the goods when it comes time to bring the hammer down. Now it just has to deal with that happy ending problem. It's not the ending itself that's worrisome right now. The trick is to make these characters so fascinating and well-drawn that even if we know bad things will happen to them, awful things, agonizing things, disgusting and painful and terrifying things, we care in spite of ourselves.
- On the comic: I've read the first compendium, which ran up to issue #48. I'm not a huge fan. I appreciate Robert Kirkman's willingness to go to extremely dark places, but every character talks in the same flat, "I'm summing up exactly what I'm thinking right now" dialogue. Thankfully, the TV show has gone far enough away from the original comics that I don't think it's necessary to compare the two.
- And on that note, re: comic spoilers, please put spoiler warnings if you're going to talk about anything that happens down the line in the Kirkman series. Even if the show and the books have split off, that doesn't mean the show won't grab a twist here and there. Besides, it's just being polite, y'know?
- We still don't know what the doc at the CDC whispered to Rick. The Sheriff sends another message to Morgan via walkie-talkie, and he's about to share what the doc told him, then he doesn't.
- Crazy Random Theory Time: Maybe Michael Rooker came back and grabbed Sophia. (On the one hand, man did that character suck. On the other, Michael Rooker!)
- Daryl and Rick going through the zombie's stomach was so much like the scene in Jaws when Brody and Hooper cut open the tiger shark's belly, I almost expected a license plate to fall out.
- Rick: "Any sign'll do." God: "Okay, here-[Carl gets shot]. Now maybe you won't take your kid when you go hunting zombies in the woods, huh?"