The second season premiere of The Walking Dead begins with Sheriff Rick Grimes on a rooftop, delivering an exposition-heavy monologue into a walkie-talkie. He is hoping that Morgan, the dad we met in episode one, is listening on the other end, and it occurs to me that Morgan has become Grimes’s Wilson. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball as a way to cope with his new surroundings, and Grimes is trying to do that too. Of course, Grimes is surrounded by living people, including his actual best friend, but I don’t blame him for preferring the company of a one-way walkie-talkie over any of them.
In the crack between season ones and two, the entire writing staff was fired by showrunner Frank Darabont. This development felt promising. Then there was talk of there being no writing staff at all and I went back to my original skepticism. Then Frank Darabont was fired and The Shield’s Glen Mazzara was brought in, and I allowed myself to feel little pinpricks of hope. I was optimistic that at the very least we’d notice a noticeable uptick in character development and that we’d feel like some sort of plan was in place. Instead, the start of season two feels like when a friend ends a relationship that wasn’t working, swears they’re over it, and then shows up to a party with a new date who looks exactly like their ex.
The gang has decided to leave Atlanta and head to a military fort they heard about that’s 125 miles away. They pack up their vehicles — the RV, a wagon. and a motorcycle for Daryl (signaling that zombie logic has set in already by the two-minute mark) — and hit the road. Grimes and his family are in the car, along with Carol and her daughter, Sophia (it’s not a great sign that I had to look up every one of these characters’ name except for Grimes's). He reminisces about a trip he took to the Grand Canyon when Carl was little; the story is told only as a way for Grimes to tell Sophia they’re not going anywhere without her and her mom. In the back of the RV, Andrea and Shane sit at the kitchenette cleaning and disassembling their guns, while the ghost of Chekhov sits squeezed between them, looking a little bored. The RV makes it just long enough for Shane to tell Andrea that her gun only has seven shots before the RV’s radiator explodes in a steamy, super-hissing, Universal Studios–soundstage-tour kind of way.
Everyone piles out and surveys the line of broken down cars that stretch out before them. A few of the cars are flipped over entirely, which confuses me, since why? Zombies aren’t Transformers, at least not yet. The gang decides to forage for supplies while Dale fixes the radiator with a wrench exactly like the one that the little Lego
repairmen use. In most survivor stories like this, the supply-foraging moment is a deeply satisfying scene. It scratches some sort of itch in us, touches on our need for order. Leave it to The Walking Dead to drain all the fun out somehow, mainly by trying too hard. Take the moment when Shane finds a truck full of bottles of water, “Did we say we were running low?” He pops the cap off a bottle and allows the water they are in dire need of to just rain down upon his head. The camera cuts away but you still see Shane in the background for an awkwardly long amount of time, dancing around as though he’s an animated GIF left open on the desktop.
So by the time the zombies show up, it’s a relief. As stressful as they can be, they are still less exhausting than watching the dire, forced familiarity of the gang. And the Walking Dead writers clearly feel most comfortable in the zombie-approach department. They know how to milk the suspense, and even though I had a feeling we weren’t going to be seeing anyone die tonight (the main characters’ numbers have gotten too low for that to happen; they need to replenish first), I still enjoyed the tension. The oddest thing is happening, though: The zombies are evolving. They’re quicker, smarter, funkier; a couple of them are even borderline good-looking (there was one hipster zombie that shuffled past whom I may have a crush on). They also seem to be getting along with each other better than our main characters, forming a tight0knit “herd” that moves as one.
I don’t know how intentional this is, but it does coincide with the main characters getting less and less complicated. They seem to keep forgetting that the world has ended and that there are zombies threatening to attack them, even in the moments directly after a zombie has attacked. Lori recklessly sends her son to go off into the woods with the men because she “can’t always be the bad guy.” Andrea tells Shane she wants to leave with him so she “has a chance to start over somewhere else.” Um, where would that be? Sophia’s mom, Carol, is reduced to just making statements about what is happening. When she is told her daughter is still lost in the woods, she looks at Grimes angrily and says, “My little girl got left in the woods.”
The only one who seems to be growing is Daryl, who was originally one of the show’s most full-blown clichés. Last season the only thing that stopped me wishing he would get killed was the knowledge that he could then come back as a zombie who would never die. In this episode, though, he emerges as the least annoying and most empathetic of the lot. He’s crafty during the highway invasion, and he’s the only character who seems genuinely worried about the missing Sophia for reasons that aren’t about him. (Unlike, say, Lori and Shane, who immediately use her disappearance as another platform to absolve themselves of guilt about their affair. “I’m sure it was the only choice you could make,” Lori tells Grimes, followed by Shane’s “I’m sure no one doubts that.”) My favorite scene of the whole episode was the one where Daryl and Grimes engage in a sort of gross-off with the zombie corpse. I didn’t find it as funny as I could tell the show wanted me to, but I liked that they were trying to make a connection to how things were before with how things were now. It also helped that it was a scene that was almost entirely devoid of dialogue, because we all know nothing trips this show up like talking. (Now, to be fair, the first couple of episodes of this season were still written under Darabont's supervision, so I still hold out hope that things could get more three-dimensional once Mazarra's episodes begin airing.)
I know that the gang’s visit to the CDC has invited Lost comparisons before, but I couldn’t help noticing more of them in this episode: the way that Grimes and Daryl trekked around for hours and yet didn’t manage to locate that nearby tent until the next day; the church with its steeple bell on a timer; and especially the shooting of Carl by what will probably be revealed next week as this show’s version of the Others. Young Ben went down in exactly the same way. I actually have no problem with this. If anything, I wouldn’t mind if the show embraced the Lost model even more. It’s interesting to me that zombie material is always so strict about keeping the rest of the world it inhabits so normal. You would think that the undead roaming the Earth would be enough of a reality pothole to loosen up the restrictions a bit, but that rarely happens, since the role of zombies has traditionally been to serve as metaphors for the society they’ve overtaken. The Walking Dead hasn’t been able to figure out their metaphor yet (I’m hoping it does soon), but it also insists on being firmly tethered to the ground, which leaves less little wiggle room in either direction. Let’s hope whoever shot Carl has a way with words.
• Did anyone else find it weird that Carol held up what looked like a plain T-shirt over her embroidered, much more fancy looking blouse while delivering the line, “Ed never let me have nice things”?
• I was distracted for most of the church scene because I was sure that that small, girl zombie Daryl killed was Sophia, either as a real zombie herself now or disguised as one. It seemed like there was a moment before she was killed where she was trying to say something.
• Andrea has to either knock it off with that gun talk or get in Shane’s car immediately. It got to the point where I was just saying “gun” out loud every time it cut to her.
• I know it’s never going to happen, but how I want a zombie Gus Fring to make a cameo appearance this season.