It dawned on me this week that, despite the widespread chaos and devastation depicted in the first few episodes of “The Walking Dead,” we’d yet to actually see anyone die. That all changed in “Vatos,” and that trend was carried on in this week’s episode, “Wildfire.” At this point, readers of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series have accepted that they’re essentially abandoning chunks of whole cloth from the storyline, and frankly I’m perfectly OK with that, provided that this new direction promises new and interesting ideas. “Wildfire” definitely showed some promise, but was also a bit of a puzzler.
We pick up shortly after the rampage that closed out “Vatos,” with the group mourning their losses and at odds about what to do next. Andrea is near catatonic, holding vigil over the body of her sister Amy, while various other group members try to both console her and get her away from the body so that they can follow up on what needs to be done — namely, destroy the brain and get rid of the body. As has been the trend, “Wildfire” had its own unique themes, this time focusing on saying goodbye and transitioning to a new path. After the slaughter from the night before, it becomes clear that trying to hold their ground at the campsite is an doomed endeavor, so the discussion is split between heading to the Center For Disease Control headquarters (supported by Rick), while Shane wants to head to Fort Benning.
But the farewells were the key component to the episode’s success. “Vatos” featured a beautifully shot opening with Andrea and Amy, but the scene was bogged down by rather clunky dialogue and somewhat forced exposition. Truth be told, Laurie Holden as Andrea appears to be the more skilled actor of the sisterly pair, and that’s demonstrated aptly in the opening moments of “Wildfire,” as she slowly comes to grips with the loss of her sister. I felt as if I could forgive the writers for that stumble in the prior episode after seeing the artful and tragic way they handled Andrea’s mourning — going from shell-shocked mess to regretful remorse, to ultimately (thanks in part to a philosophical pitch-in from Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dale) steeling herself to finishing Amy off before she can fully become a walker. That final farewell, featuring a tearful confession and apologies, Amy’s slow rising, and an unflinchingly brutal coup de grâce, was one of the more poignant moments of the series.
That theme of saying goodbye was also a deft maneuver on the part of the writers, as they made the smart decision to splinter the group. Morales (Juan Pareja) and his family (who we never got to know anyway) decide to set out on their own, and not-quite prophetic Jim ends up bitten by one of the walkers from the night’s attack, forcing him and the group to make a new type of hard decision, one which made Andrea’s actions pale by comparison. It’s a smart decision — once the group goes on the move together, it becomes too large to drill down to the type of character development that the show’s creators seem dedicated to. The fracturing of this family of apocalyptic orphans enables them to create more drama by the departures (not to mention the deaths from the prior evening), as well as to begin focusing on a core group of characters.
Of that core group, the single most complicated dynamic is the slow-burning conflict forming between Shane and Rick. Rick continues to play the de facto leader of the group, a role he bears mainly because it enables him to do what he feels is safest for his family. Shane has become a far more complex figure, alternating from solemn counselor (his working to help Jim in “Vatos”) to scorned lover (the revelations about his lies to Lori), and now, to possibly unhinged x-factor. The scene of him and Rick patrolling the forest, arguing about what the plan is and ending with Shane steadily taking aim at an unknowing Rick through his rifle scope, throws wrench into their relationship — and into Shane’s mental state in general. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, after seeing that scene (and Dale’s superb moment of reaction), that Shane… might be going bananas.
With each passing episode, I continue to believe that Jon Bernthal’s Shane and Norman Reedus’s Darryl may well be the best actors on the show, although Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn are moving up in the ranks as well. Daryl continues to be a harsh, pragmatic voice of reason, a fact that more and more of the group are beginning to see. He’s built for survival, and compromises only when left with no other options. Once again, what appeared to be obvious stereotypes on the surface reveal much more intriguing forces at play once that veneer is scratched away. Dale’s poetic waxings sometimes come off as a bit overwrought, but he does it with such gravitas and solemnity that it works in the larger context.
Finally, we come to the show’s — and perhaps the season’s — climax: the CDC, and the last man alive there, Dr. Jenner (Noah Emmerich). Not much can be gleaned from Jenner’s half-drunk, half-crazed ramblings other than what is either sinister government involvement in the zombie epidemic (isn’t there always sinister government involvement?) or their futile curing efforts, and the future of the series seems to be heading in an unusual direction. One of the things people appreciated about the comics (and I know I already said I liked the change in direction, but bear with me) was that the apocalypse was never really explained — it just happened, and it became the backdrop for a small-scale story about a group of tragedy-stricken travelers. Adding this new wrinkle risks making the story too big, removing that intimate, familial feel from the story. But then again, I’ve had my doubts and trepidations in the past, and the show has proven me wrong on more than one occasion.
In the end, we’re left with a great unknown, symbolized perfectly by the flash of light as those doors slowly creep open. What will come next remains, as always, to be seen. The herd is being thinned, and the choices are becoming more desperate. People are dying, and that’s something that viewers are going to have to start getting used to. It started with a lesser-known like Amy, but it’s only a matter of time before the ones we’ve grown to like start stumbling into the meatgrinder as well. The world of “The Walking Dead” is growing more complex, and with only one episode left in the season, the fate of that small group is still up in the air. While we’re fortunate to have another, lengthier season down the road, it will likely be months before we see it. In the meantime, how the group survives, whether or not they’ll be capable of continuing to stand together, or whether the twisted subterfuges of players like Shane will devour them from the inside, all keep us guessing and hoping for their good fortune.
I wouldn’t hold on to much hope, were I you.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.