(This review contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the episode ‘Beside the Dying Fire’ and season 2 as a whole. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the entire season.)
What a difference a death makes. As occasionally entertaining as it was to have Shane (Jon Bernthal) around, watching him devolve into an ever-bigger threat toward Rick (Andrew Lincoln), his character was a lot like the walker Carl (Chandler Riggs) found at the edge of a creek: stuck. That metaphor of being stuck in the mud, and desperately trying to move on, pretty much sums up a great deal of The Walking Dead season 2.
Arguably, season 2 will be looked at as the swan song for Shane, whose downward spiral began with the killing of Otis, and perpetuated throughout the season with increasingly obsessive feelings toward Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl, as well as a need to best Rick at every turn.
But at a certain point the season will be scrutinized for how well it lived up to the expectations set forth by the first season, the continued success of creator Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, and the knowledge that Frank Darabont, the primary creative force behind the series, would be gone half-way through. More than the issue of expectation and Darabont’s shocking dismissal, however, The Walking Dead has it’s own internal concerns wherein the writers seemed to be struggling to find the essence and personalities of the characters experiencing the ongoing zombie apocalypse.
It was with the last half of season 2 – arguably the last four episodes – where the writers succeeded in unshackling themselves from the intermittent monotony brought about by the serial nature of the show. Case in point: the issue of Randall, wherein the show allowed time to pass that wasn’t necessarily accounted for. This was a major success for what has been described fairly often as a slow, drawn out season. By telling some compelling, full stories in the confines of a single episode, while also hinting at the future of the season and series, these “season 2.5” episodes have breathed new life into this undead series.
By in large, the events of the season’s finale, ‘Beside the Dying Fire,’ play into the idea of having a complete story arc contained within the runtime of a single episode. That’s not to say the episode didn’t leave plenty to speculate on, it certainly did, but those were glimpses of things to question and hold on to during the wait for season 3.
‘Beside the Dying Fire’ works primarily because it keeps the most unattractive part of the program, and its characters, on hold until after it has done the work needed to keep the audience enthralled and excited. To put it bluntly, a massive horde of walkers effectively keeps the survivors so busy they can’t spend an hour displaying how horrible or inconsistent (here’s looking at you Lori) their personalities can be. While the essence of any good story is conflict, a group of people actively working to irritate one another is not enough of a conflict to sustain a series that isn’t called Seinfeld. After taking the long way around, The Walking Dead seems to have realigned its priorities accordingly.
This is evidenced by the fact that Carl didn’t see his father kill Shane, and by Rick not feeling entirely compelled to come clean to his son. By not immediately addressing Shane’s death, and instead getting straight into the walker killing, it acts as a turning point for the series, one where there is a time and place for bickering and discussion, and one where there is not. By having the walkers storm Hershel’s farm, the series is forced to progress and, hopefully, begin to better understand the motivations and reactions of its characters.
The calamity of the situation is as compelling as anything The Walking Dead has so far put on screen, and with the back-to-back deaths of Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Shane, it’s nice to see the show hadn’t lost its stomach for further thinning of the proverbial herd. Jimmy (James Allen McCune) and Patricia (Jane McNeill) arguably had to depart, as their roles in the series were never really established, and the passing of any recurring character quickly translates into the possibility of T-Dog (IronE Singleton) having something more to do than stand idly by in the background.
With their numbers depleted, ammunition scarce and the safety and security of Hershel’s farm completely jeopardized, the group separates and flees. Rick, Hershel (Scott Green) and Carl are the first to arrive back where this storyline began: the crowded highway on which the group lost Sophia. There is a moment where Rick seriously considers making a run for it with just Carl by his side, and had we not been shown the survival of the others, the scene may have worked out to be more substantial than it really was, But in the end we settle for Glenn (Steven Yuen) taking charge of his relationship with Maggie (Lauren Cohan), which welcomes a stronger presence from Glenn in future.
For someone so willing to punch her own ticket at the end of last season, Andrea fights tooth-and-nail to survive, and although she is overwhelmed with exhaustion and nearly consumed by a single walker, she is saved during the heavily speculated appearance of Michonne. Though we don’t see her face, or hear her speak, Michonne’s cameo will likely serve to be the highlight of the episode.
Meanwhile, Rick’s revelation that the zombie infection is universal – you die, you become a zombie, regardless of being bit or scratched by the undead – quickly returns the group to normal and his leadership is once more called into question. Granted, with this group, Rick could have revealed that he was in possession of the Colonel’s Secret Recipe and they likely would have reacted the same way.
Just to kick him while he’s down, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) responds negatively to Rick’s account of Shane’s death – despite a statement to the contrary that Lori made in ‘Triggerfinger.’ It’s hard to tell if Lori’s wildly inconsistent behavior is a result of miscommunication amongst the writers, or if the urging for her husband to kill Shane was secretly intended to end with Rick’s death instead. For now, we’ll have to assume the latter.
The season finale ends as it began, with a solid tease. The helicopter seen in the beginning of the episode was as intriguing (if not more so) than the glimpse of the prison standing a short distance from where the group had stopped for the night. And with that tease comes a clearer indication of what can be expected from season 3 (and beyond), which certainly works to end season 2 on a positive note.
In many ways, The Walking Dead season 2 worked as two separate seasons, the latter half being remarkably faster paced than the first. As Glen Mazzara is now firmly entrenched as the series’ showrunner, it seems reasonable to assume that the last four episodes will serve as a template for Mazzara’s run – however long that may be.
Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.