It’s hard not to think about The Walking Dead in terms of expectations. Because it’s on AMC, because Mad Men and Breaking Bad exist, because of all the hype it’s a show that from the start has had to prove itself more than most; it’s the younger sibling born into a family of overachievers. If Walking Dead were on the CW network, I would not be as hard on it as I am prone to be. But also, I am an ardent fan of the zombie genre, and I have noticed that it is zombie lovers like me who are the most disappointed by the show. (Conversely, I have talked with people who have never given zombies any thought until this show, and they are the ones who accept it unconditionally.) I have yet to encounter anyone who loves zombies who doesn’t have a problem with Walking Dead's numerous plot holes. The more familiar you are with the world the show it inhabits, the easier it is to spot when something is off.
Watching this show about a gang of survivors searching for signs of hope in a ravaged world can sometimes feel like an act of hope in itself. In the same way that it is hard not to scream “Don’t go in there!” at the screen during a horror movie, I want to scream at the Dead writers, “Don’t make your characters say or do that! Fix this potentially great show before it is too late!” I find that I keep making excuses on their behalf, which can only go on for so long before it starts to feel like an abusive relationship. But for now, I still want to believe that not only will our survivors find their path to safety, but the writers will, too. So for anyone who might think I am not rooting for this show, let's knock that idea out with a rock to the decaying eye socket right now.
Episode two of the season starts with a flashback, which initially feels like a promising solution but ultimately ends up a missed opportunity. I understand the writers wanting to break up the zombie action by showing us a glimpse of these characters' lives before the world ended, but maybe they should have done that by showing us any other day than the one day we already pretty much know about, the day Grimes got shot. Lori is talking to a friend outside Carl’s school. She is complaining about how Rick argues or rather how he doesn’t. She wishes he would just once fly off the handle and she feels guilty for wanting that. The friend asks if she still loves him. Lori hesitates and then says she wants to answer yes, they met when they were so young, and then she is interrupted by Shane pulling up to deliver the bad news. She senses what it is before he even says anything and her immediate concern is Carl, who right at that moment is exiting the school in front of them. In what has become such a trademark of Walking Dead dialogue that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a stylistic choice, she states the situation to Shane, only in the form of a question: “How do I tell my son that his father’s been shot?” Cut to Shane’s innocent face. Cue the violins. No, seriously.
Then we are racing through a field, Grimes carrying Carl, Shane by his side, and a man with a gun struggling to keep up. This is Otis, the hunter who accidentally shot Shane, being played by Deadwood’s excellent Pruitt Taylor Vince. The addition of Vince buoys my spirits, as does the sight of a house on the horizon. As Grimes stumbles forward with a bleeding Carl in his arms, the house’s residents cautiously regard him. Their patriarch is clearly the white-haired, suspendered man Dr. Herschel Greene, played by character actor Scott Wilson. As soon as we meet him, the show takes on a decidedly more Tennessee Williams sort of tone. Even the cadence of the dialogue begins to change, but the overall effect is more soothing than not. The first question out of Doc’s mouth is, “Was he bit?” referring to Carl, and while his voice is kind, we know he’d turn them away in a second to protect his own family. The family is almost equally horrified, though, to learn that one of its own, Otis, is actually responsible for Carl’s condition. Carl is rushed to the bedroom where the doc sets to work.
Doc Greene is not exactly a doctor (he’s a vet erinarian), but he’s quick to diagnose Carl’s situation. The bullet shattered in Carl’s belly. He’ll have to remove the fragments one by one. Carl wakes up while he is doing this and he screams in agony at the pain. It’s a gut-wrenching scene in the most literal sense and probably the show’s most powerful non-zombie-related one to date.
There is plenty of crisis going on in that house, but Grimes decides that this is the time to cause a mini-drama of his own by insisting that he has to leave immediately in order to tell Lori about Carl. Which I am guessing is supposed to gesture to Lori’s flashback scene, flipping it to, "How can I tell my son’s mother that my son has been shot?" Grimes’s argument is made even more pointless considering the doctor keeps telling him that he has to stay in order to donate more blood to Carl, so that he won’t die, which I’m sure would be even harder to tell Lori about.
The idea of zombie logic has been brought up here before, and now I’d like to introduce the idea of Speed logic. As in the movie Speed, in which Sandra Bullock is driving a bus with a bomb in it and she has to make sure the bus goes at least 50 miles per hour or it will blow up her and everyone else on it. You’d think that would have been enough drama to sustain the movie, but on top of that the director makes the odd choice to have the other passengers on the bus fight almost nonstop throughout, often about completely unrelated issues. That’s what keeps happening with Walking Dead. Just when it feels like there are some actual stakes involved (for example, a little boy hovering between life and death), the focus for some reason gets pulled back onto some personal drama between the characters. Shane finally convinces Grimes to stay, which eats up several minutes of this week’s episode.
The rest of the action is divided between different groups this week. While one group continues searching for Sophia, Dale and T-Dog faux-fix the RV. T-Dog’s wound turns out to be as bad as it appeared to be when he first sustained it, although it’s less about the amount of blood he lost and more about the infection that he now has. This show has been intent on making some sort of statement about race, and it tries again in this scene. T-Dog verbalizes that he is the only black member of the team, therefore everyone regards him as the weakest. But if this is meant to underline how he’s the only black character on the show, it falls flat, since it was the writers' choice, not the gang’s, to leave another prominent black character, Jacqui, in the CDC to die. He points out that Dale is also seen as weak because of his age, and he throws out the idea of the two of them just driving away and leaving the others behind.
Dale feels his forehead and realizes that T-Dog is burning up with a fever, which implies that he is only saying those things because he is delirious. Just as the zombies' behavior is due to some sort of virus, the survivors are suffering from an affliction of their own. They’re angry and terrified and exhausted and panicked and that's making them act crazy, too. There’s also a nice parallel happening between Dale’s character and Doc Greene, both men of advancing years, although it’s clear that one is an actual patriarch while the other is just desperate to be one. Dale’s stance is that you keep the gang together, with no man (or little girl) left behind, no exceptions. But in the same way that he forever seems to be at work on that RV, his strategy isn’t getting him the results he wants: He saves Andrea, but then a little girl is lost. He doesn’t give up on that little girl, but then everyone gives up on him. He is the human embodiment of that hissing radiator, just barely holding itself and the caravan together.
Doc Greene, on the other hand, also believes in keeping his family close, but his outlook is more far reaching and serene: “This is nature’s way of correcting itself, of restoring balance. Then we’ll bounce back.” His take might be more clinical, but after all, he is a doct er, veterinarian, but it also appears more effective. He’s still the master of his own home, surrounded by family members who respect and love him instead of ones who just give him dirty looks.
The episode ends with Otis and Shane’s mission to find medical supplies. I am hoping that Otis lives, even though it’s not looking good. Either the show will have to kill off one of its main characters or one of its new ones, and I’m guessing it'll be the latter (unless we get an explanation for what happened to Sophia next week).
One final word about these zombies, though: The writers have my sympathy when it comes to figuring out new uses for them. It can’t be easy. But unlike vampires or werewolves, where a part of your loved one’s essence or personality remains, when your most cherished family members get bitten, you are forced to watch a brutalized and degenerating version of their physical form stomp around with no traces of their former self (at least until a cure is discovered). That is terrifying, and we should be feeling that terror every time we watch. While I did like the bored exasperation with which Daryl dispensed with the zombie out in the woods, the final scene with Shane and Otis cornered behind that gate should have made my heart stop. It should be making me feel like this. The show has done it before, especially in the pilot, and so I’m feeling optimistic that it can do it again. Or, in the words of another Frank Darabont character, “I hope. I hope.”
• So far the action this season has been moving in real time. I’m curious as to whether the show might switch over to the plight of Merle or Morgan (fingers crossed) soon or we’ll be meeting up with them at the same time our gang does.
• Still no word about Jenner’s whispered secret from the CDC, although I get the feeling that Doc Greene is the prime candidate for Grimes to finally tell it to. His medical expertise might actually be able to do something about whatever it is.