It’s October, and you know what that means? AMC’s Fearfest! And what does that mean besides endless reruns of Micheal Meyers and George Romero’s mug during every commercial break? Oh, you’re damn right, “The Walking Dead” is back. After a first season that raised many questions and concerns while also delivering a wholesome zombie experience on a weekend basis, the show suffered a rough offseason. I’ve been awaiting the Season 2 premier because of fear, mostly. Not fear of the undead or the apocalypse, but fear of AMC’s blatant cash-in attempt. Yes, so much could go wrong with the events that unfolded. First, the writing staff was cleaned out after backlash of lackluster dialogue and gaping plot holes plagued Season 1. Positive or negative? Could swing either way. But then, show frontrunner Frank Darabont suddenly left during production (or was abruptly fired, whatever you believe) and producer Glen Mazzara stepped in to replace the famed director. Producer, and only producer Glen Mazzara. The fact is, Darabont wrote and directed the best episode of the opening season (Episode 1: the entire series premier), an entirely new creative staff was in place, and AMC ordered double the episodes of the opening season for an estimated half the budget. Talk about being handcuffed? I can’t help but have a sinking feeling that “The Walking Dead” is on an extremely short leash, despite being one of the best performing shows in a long, long time. I mean, sure, the audience is in place, so cutting the budget was bound to show tremendous turn around…if it doesn’t drive audiences away that is. Season 2 was going to have to step its horror game up to silence the nay sayers while keeping the consistent audience happy…something I’m itching to see. Enough filler though, lets dig right into the gory details…
We last left Rick and the remaining survivors as they narrowly escaped from the explosive conclusion at the CDC. Well, they’re on the road again, this time setting their sights on Fort Benning. Rick starts us off with a nice little recap monologue while trying to radio Morgan, and just like that we’re back. The convoy sets out down the highway, and we see the vehicles leave Atlanta in the dust. But not long into the road trip the group encounters its first new obstacle: a street full of abandon cars limiting maneuverability for the RV. Our cast sees an opportunity to re-stock on supplies, looting the many cars littering the road, and find an assortment of supplies. Meanwhile, Dale and Glen work on getting the RV running after it breaks down yet again: a problem that persisted in Season 1 as well. But just as the characters let their guard down, disaster strikes. Rick sees one walker lumbering down the road at them, then two, then five….and then the motherload. Later deemed a “herd” by Andrea, a massive wandering cluster of zombies are aimlessly meandering down the highway directly at Rick and the others. Jumping into action, the characters dive under their closest car and hid from their assailants. T-Dog cuts himself and almost gives away the group, Andrea has a one on one encounter with a walker, but the zombies eventually pass by the group and all are accounted for. But again, just as guards are let down, the situation turns hazardous. Sophia is emerging from her hiding place when two dead heads are alerted of her presence and chase her into the woods. Rick reacts immediately, stalking the walkers chasing Sophia. He hides her under some brush, lures the zombies away, and strikes each down one by one. Everything according to plan, except Sophia ran off into the woods while trying to find her way back to the road. Despite Daryl and Rick’s search efforts, Sophia is still missing as the sun sets and the two return empty-handed to Sophia’s mother’s dismay. End Act 1.
As soon as the sun rises, Sophia’s search party is assembled. Everyone but Dale and T-Dog set into the woods; even the young Carl lends his help. Before leaving, Andrea has it out with Dale for refusing to give up her gun which leads to an argument about his over-protective nature. Awk-warddd…. While searching, church bells can be heard ringing loud enough to attract anyone in the surrounding 50 miles. With hope mounting, the group charge towards the sound only to find a PA system hooked to a timer: no physical person to ring. Moods dampen as daylight is lost and our characters are put on edge. We also learn Shane has plans to leave as soon as possible, leaving his mistakes in the past. But, nothing is to be done before Sophia is found. Rick, Shane, and Carl all press farther while the rest head back to the RV camp. No zombies are found by our searchers, but they do witness the beauty of nature as a deer poses innocently for our team to see. Carl, showing his boyhood wonderment, slowly creeps up on the deer trying to get an up close view. This is when Carl takes a bullet to what appears to be the stomach, as a shot passes through the deer from an unseen shooter. Rick and Shane rush to the child’s side, and of course we’re left to find out his status until next week.
Well, where to begin. Did it build? Did it improve? Did it get better? It’s only episode 1 for this young crew so I won’t jump down their throats just yet. The choice to stay closer to the comic is a smart first step though, as the survivors will inevitably push towards Herchel’s farm. Carl taking a bullet was also an important step because to this point there have been some detail tweaks for television. The writers could have easily had any character get shot and need assistance from Hershel’s clan. But as to not divulge any revealing information, I’ll for now stick to what I did saw.
Character development was important for “What Lies Ahead” as the tone was set for episodes to come. Rick’s struggle with his leadership role only deepens as time moves on, reflected in the reactions from particular group members. Carol (Sophia’s mother) blames Rick for not doing more towards her missing daughter even though Rick was the only one to not hesitate, and we see it eat away at Rick as he desperately tries to make her believe everything possible was done. More importantly though, Lori defends her husband and calls out group members for their accusations. I love seeing emotions flare right from the start because this dynamic is one of the strongest elements of the comic. As I said, Rick is constantly in question because he’s the only one willing to make the tough calls. This not only ramps up the drama, but splits the group from time to time as characters corrupt others with their selfish thoughts. We see it already, and can only assume it worsens as time rolls on. The key though will be an evolution in Rick’s leadership mentality, not just repetition of the same whiney “this is so hard” crybaby thoughts.
“What Lies Ahead” also wastes no time throwing the group into a tense situation, as our TV audience is introduced to a herd. Again, one of the main dangers in the comic is running into this roaming horde of death, and the slightest sound alerts the entire congregation. I had a little trouble getting past the fact that Rick had to cover himself with zombie guts to traverse a zombie minefield in an earlier episode yet here the entire group could just hide under cars and become invisible. Mix that with T-Dog basically becoming walking chum as he slices his arm wide open, covering himself in fresh blood, and Andrea throwing around a zombie which just had to make noise, and I was a skeptic. But, as convinced by a friend, there were three things to remember: 1) Dead bodies were strewn about the road so all that lively flesh stench would be masked 2) The zombies are starving and becoming weaker 3) The zombies couldn’t physically see them. Stretch? Yes. Could I buy it? This time…to a degree. As in Season 1 where I just couldn’t look the other way at parts, I was strangely OK with this explanation. Could this be the jump-start we needed?
I’m not totally riding the victory train yet as this was only 1 episode out of a 13 episode season. There is time to work, but also plenty of time to go south. A big selling point for me is what they’re going to do with Shane, as his path is very different in the comics than the one he’s traveling down now. I stand by the fact that the big event with Shane completely sets the tone for the comic, and that kind of jolt is what the show needs. Still left with some pretty sub par dialogue between characters, I’m also not fully invested in these new writers. A drastic change or stand out difference would have scored well to show us these writers are trying to do something different, but I felt some of the blandness from Season 1 creep back in. With 12 more episodes left, I’m not letting any early impression cloud my further judgement. Episode 1 was a jump off point; the next two or three will form a much more solid opinion. For now, I’m just happy to be enjoying some zombie drama again. Don’t f*ck it up AMC.