There was really only one way for Season Two of “The Walking Dead” to conclude if it wanted to salvage a painfully inconsistent season, and that’s to go out with a bang. Anything less would drive away viewers in droves, viewers who have grown tired of a season that failed to live up to the potential of its predecessor and of the concept itself. This second season has been a season of highs and lows, where some of the highs were breathtaking and exciting and saddening and engaging… and where the lows were brutally dull, slow-witted, poorly written and mired in foolishness.
Fortunately, “Beside The Dying Fire” was easily one of the finest episodes of the season, rivaling the premiere as well as great episodes like “Triggerfinger” and “18 Miles Out.” Folks have been clamoring for the group to leave the farm, and leave they did — in a burning, chaos-laden bloodbath full of terror and tragedy. The decision was made for them, via a nifty bit exposition that explained where this onslaught of zombies came from, as well as raised new questions about other survivors (a helicopter? intriguing). It cleverly shed light on an issue that baffled, if not frustrated many at the end of last week’s episode, and led to one of the most harrowing scenes in the series to date — the group fracturing as panic divides them up like frightened gazelles, each resorting to their greatest strength or their basest weakness. Hershell’s farm has been a sanctuary ever since Carl took that bullet so long ago, and even though it at times served as a source of frustration, if not a symbol of the show’s weakness at times, it was still heartbreaking to see how it died, burning and overrun, everything that they’d worked for destroyed.
The escape was a wild, desperate affair, dispersing the group to all directions. It served as an interesting little glimpse into each character, as they all fought different battles. Rick, Carl and Hershel, fighting over whether to take Carl and run, or to risk everything to search for Lori. T-Dog, showing a glimpse of cravenness (which annoyed me to no end — you give the man nothing to work with, and then decide he’s going to be a coward?), battled by Lori’s determination. Daryl and Carol, once again the unlikely hero and the damsel in distress. Glenn and Maggie, together and distraught, but their feelings solidified. And Andrea, left to fend for herself — with Shane and Dale gone, Andrea is suddenly adrift both literally and metaphorically, and her angry, scared escape was one of the show’s more clever ways of showing without telling (as was the final destruction of Dale’s RV, in a way).
Each of those stories was a fast, frenetic bit of storytelling mixed with a sense of despair and fearfulness — fear of the walkers, fear of dying, fear of losing the others. It was slickly told and smartly rendered, giving an added weight to the breathless pace of the episode’s first half. Yet it bogged down somewhat in the middle, after Rick at last confessed the secret that Dr. Jenner confided — that they’re all infected. The disease doesn’t affect the dead, it affects the living, causing them to rise once they die. It’s a horrifying idea that also, in retrospect, makes sense. When we think back to the early episodes, and remember some of the desiccated long-dead that we saw, there was no way for them to have reached that state so soon. It makes sense (though I’m not confident that the idea has been consistently applied without going back and checking), and it creates an fascinating new dynamic.
That confession was a solid point, and peoples’ reactions equally so. However, the major stumbling point was Lori’s inexplicable sense of horror towards Rick after he told the story of Shane’s demise. Shane, the man she hasn’t trusted for weeks, the man who almost raped her back in Jenner’s lab, the man she told Rick not to trust. And yet now, simply because she had a single moment of honesty with him in last week’s episode, she’s filled with revulsion after he tried to kill her husband? Once again, the writers prove that they really don’t know what to do about Rick’s family, resulting in both Lori and Carl (Lori especially) becoming wildly inconsistent, frustrating, and often unlikable characters. The upside is it forced Rick into action, to harden and shore up and become less of a reluctant hero and more of a harsh general. It’s a move that has interesting potential repercussions, and it’s equally interesting to see if he’ll be able to maintain that strictness and contained fury.
Yet of course, the final moments were the ones that captured my heart. The promise of new, darker and more bizarre things are literally on the horizon. A new, ominous place, devoid of the farm’s sense of quiet sanctity, and a new, gruesome player has come into their lives. Hooded, sword-wielding, and with zombies on a leash, this shadowy figure throws the mother of all wrenches into the story. “The Walking Dead,” god damn it, has once again shown what makes it great, even in the wake of some of its weakest episodes. The question will be whether or not it can sustain its newfound momentum into Season Three, or if they’ll descend into more unevenness. If it can maintain that greatness and intelligence, we might have something truly impressive on our hands.