There's a scene at the end of Sunday's season premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead that's completely mesmerizing. The characters take a moment to appreciate a fleeting instance of natural beauty, framed perfectly so we see the characters watching both the view and each other. At first they're tentative, and then they're blissful, daring to grant themselves, and the audience, even a brief reprieve from the relentless zombie slaughtering. All we hear is TWD's signature ambient noise of chirping cicadas and the gentle rustle of humidity-heavy leaves, and we know this peaceful moment won't last, and the characters know this peaceful moment won't last, and of course it doesn't. But that little vignette — more than any of the wildly revolting (wonderful) zombie deaths, or the panting closeups, or the sweaty, filthy foreheads — highlights exactly what The Walking Dead is capable of. But last year, the show didn't seem to realize what that was; does this scene mean it will in Season 2?
This season picks up pretty close to where we left off, with our ragtag group of survivors miserably making their way from abandoned highway to abandoned highway, making sure to whisper-bicker when they get a chance and to scowl at one another as often as possible. Oh, yeah: They also kill a lot of walkers, each ax or bat to the head boosted by juicier sound effects than the last. What's tricky about pulling off this show is that its signature is its handicap when it comes to being a TV series: Yes, of course we want to see zombies get righteously stabbed and then gurgle themselves to death. (Re-death?) Of course we want the ecstatic suspense of seeing our heroes narrowly escape another onslaught. Of course we want the constant threat of the menacing undead to be a major presence on the show. We know from the George A. Romero oeuvre and its filmed offspring that these scenes and gorefests are fun in a two-hour movie. But for an open-ended TV series, it's not enough.
The broader issue is that The Walking Dead confuses its setting with its premise. It's set in a zombie apocalypse, but it can't just be about a zombie apocalypse, any more than Mad Men is about the sixties, or Battlestar Galactica was about space, or Bones is about a lab. So much of the show's energy is devoted to escaping from the zombies, trying other tactics to escape from the zombies, and explaining the current plan about how everyone's going to escape the zombies that we don't see real character development. Because the stakes are always so high — do this, or we all get killed — it can feel monotonous. TWD gets incredibly close to asking a central question, although then it gets distracted by all the fleeing and chopping. Last season, the show dabbled in Lord of the Flies–style theories on the degradation of society, but with its familiar, archetypal characters (wife-beating redneck, saintly old man, heroic sheriff) it felt like rote bickering and posturing. However, by the end of the first season it did slowly tiptoe toward another idea, and this season continues in that same positive direction, asking, What makes me me? How do I know who I am? And what would have to happen either around me or within me to alter or nullify that knowledge? It's a topic The Walking Dead is uniquely qualified to delve into.
In that closing scene from the season premiere, we get to see some of the characters have a moment of clarity. Oh, I am still me, because before all the carnage and the loss of everything I knew to be true, I experienced joy just like I'm experiencing it now. It'll be interesting to see how the show develops in the next few months, not just because of showrunner Frank Darabont's departure but also because there were only six episodes of TWD in its first season. There's a really brilliant show buried in there somewhere, but so far, The Walking Dead's been stumbling around at half-intelligence, just searching for some delicious, delicious brains.