Season One of “The Walking Dead” was a gripping, emotional, and occasionally terrifying affair. I loved the first season, though after re-watching I realized that the show certainly had room to improve. The characters weren’t always engaging and the writing definitely suffered from its share of stumbles. It’s also clear now that the original graphic novels by Robert Kirkman serve as a setting, a loose framework, but not a guide. The stories in those books are only loosely followed, instead focusing on creating a new narrative with some of the same characters, and some new ones. Frankly, I think it’s an excellent idea. It prevents bitching about story fidelity — either you suck it up and accept these episodes as an alternate version, or you simply move on. But the question that’s driven us in these long months since Season One ended (especially in light of the numerous changes and alarming news items that broke recently) was whether or not they would be able to build upon that universe, to develop those characters more, and to create a more engaging, intelligent show that retained the sense of despair, horror and dread, yet told a story that we could invest ourselves in.
After seeing “What Lies Ahead,” the early answer is, “hell yes.” The first episode of Season Two was pretty much everything I’d hoped for, with only a couple of missteps. Picking up right where we left off — after the explosion that destroys the Center for Disease Control — it dropped us right back into the nerve-wracking story without pause. The gang, still led by former Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), caravans away in search of greener, zombie-free pastures. The 90 minute season premiere opened with a commercial free 25 minutes that was contained some of the most riveting moments of the show so far. Stopping at a huge highway pileup of dead, abandoned cars, they scavenge for supplies, confident that they’re safe for the moment. And then, we encounter something new — a goddamn herd of zombies, hundreds of them staggering with unknown purpose, and one of the most tense, anxious moments I’ve ever seen on television presents itself.
“What Lies Ahead” built on that sense that they really don’t know or understand what the future holds, that there are all manner of dangers out there that they hadn’t anticipated before. In some ways, the episode showed how they’ve gotten much smarter at dealing with the menace — hiding instead of fighting, rooftop sentries, and focusing more on evading or killing silently. That said, I still wanted to knock the shrill, frantic Carol on her ass for her constant whining. I know that every group is going to have one of those, and perhaps it’s a testament to Melissa McBride for playing the part so perfectly, but she seems like the only one devoid of any rational sense of survival instinct. Though to be fair, there were still way too many moments when I wanted to yell at someone for doing something completely stupid — too much stumbling, too much babbling as they try to quietly walk through the woods, and really T-Dog? He deserves to die for that stupidity.
At the same time, the rest of the cast has grown tremendously. Laurie Holden’s Andrea developed into a jagged-edged, nihilistic woman who doesn’t even want to be alive, let alone continuing to go along with the group. This fracturing continues as John Bernthal’s Shane realizes that he can’t continue to live the lie to his friend’s face, and teeters precariously between coward and hero, bastard and savior. Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) was excellent in Season One and continued to impress, a surprisingly optimistic coot who doesn’t understand those who choose to give up — the confrontation between him and Andrea was one of the show’s highlights. My favorite character continues to be Norman Reedus’s Daryl, a pragmatic, no-bullshit character who seems to be slowly evolving into the group’s secondary leader.
The zombie effects are still phenomenal, with them still having that sense of purposeless despair as they shamble hopelessly in search of the flesh of their living brethren. It’s painful to watch them sometimes, as the showrunners have infused them with the barest hint of humanity — just enough to both revile and pity them. As their tattered, rotting bodies limp and drag (and sometimes run, oddly) themselves through that graveyard of cars, they were simultaneously fascinating and frightening. The gut-churning Jaws homage with Daryl and Rick was particularly effective, a revolting scene that, despite its gratuitous gore, made perfect sense. That’s one of the show’s strengths, though — using blood and gore and mayhem with purpose, instead of just to turn stomachs.
Once again, the real stars of the show are the characters and the writing, and in “What Lies Ahead,” both were shining brightly. That sense of grimness and the fear of loss was pervasive, and the understanding that the weak ones, their children, and the ties that bind them all together are weaknesses as much as they’re strengths. The entire mission is derailed because of a child, leading to them questioning themselves, each other, and God itself. Faith seems to be playing a larger role, which I believe should be a critical component of shows like this. How does one maintain their faith in God, in family, in love and friendship, when you’re surrounded by death and when Hell itself seems to have found its way to Earth?
Of course, it wouldn’t be “The Walking Dead” without a cliffhanger of an ending, and this one was a motherfucker. I didn’t see it coming, and the fact that it was right before one of the show’s few moments of tenderness and beauty made it all the more perfect — or perfectly awful, if you prefer. Once again, the world of “The Walking Dead” is back, and once again, it’s a harsh, terrible, brutal world without mercy or conscience. As it should be.