Last week, the redneck zombies opened up a whole can of whoop-ass on the humans, and the woods suddenly didn’t seem so safe. This week, the survivors carry on and we get the best episode since the premiere.
In the past few recaps, we’ve been pretty tough on this show for failing to deliver on an original (at least for television) premise and an exciting premiere. The setup has all sorts of potential, but over the last three episodes, the zombie plague was plagued by some less-than-enthralling storytelling: zombie dialogue and zombie story logic. The problem hasn’t been ambition or ideas; it’s been execution. So it was a relief to see the show’s strongest episode yet — a very solid rebound.
On a technical level, it’s just a huge leap forward. Is it because the show is finally finding its feet? (Making TV is hard even when you don’t have to create a zombie apocalypse.) It may be thanks to some new blood. The script, by Glenn Mazzara, TV vet of the gallows-grim The Shield and much else, is far more naturalistic than anything that’s come before — and his gruff, hard-bitten style is a solid fit for a show that’s been overwritten. The life-or-death arguments about the fate of zombie-bitten Jim are tough-minded and tight, and never too cute. Rick's speechifying is kept to a minimum and even Dale, that oracle in a fishing hat, doesn’t grate (too much) in this episode.
And how about that beautiful opening shot from the camp, overlooking the Atlanta skyline? Or those spooky, emptied-out pan-outs of the CDC center? Shot-by-shot, the show gets a huge visual upgrade by frequent Spike Lee collaborator and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (also a TV veteran, who shot some of the best episodes of The Wire, including “Hamsterdam”). It’s not just that Dickerson plays with lens flare and day/night color temperatures: The halting, herky-jerky transitions of the past episodes (including last week's underwhelming zombie attack, which, upon a second viewing, looks even worse) are smoothed over, too. Comparatively, Dickerson is just an artist and a pro, and his talent shows.
Plotwise, too, this episode delivers some of the series’ best moments yet: Ed’s wife, driving a pickax through his wife-battering skull, over and over again, is the most disturbing thing on the show since Morgan set sights on his zombified wife in the premiere. Rick’s panic outside the CDC; Amy’s weird wake; Shane’s face-off with Rick; the hilarious breakdown of the RV; the CDC explosion: These scenes added up to the most believable, original episode in the series yet. (Even if Jim’s psychic prophecies were cringe-worthy.)
Of course, it was impossible not to think of Lost during the CDC scenes at the end: A mysterious code-name flesh sample (“TS-19” is also the title of the season finale), the video journals, the lone man endlessly tending to an enormous scientific complex who meets a band of survivors, and that dramatic hatch-opening that blinds the screen with a white-out? Was it too much of a hat-tip? And how do you think the CDC scientist will change the direction of the show?
Hopefully, the show’s turning a corner: Two more Shield vets — writer-producer Adam Fierro and director Guy Ferland — take the reins for next week’s finale. We’re optimistic for the first time in a few episodes — well, at least as postapocalyptically optimistic as one can be, as the world ends.