“I always want the show to play like a horror movie every week.” That’s Walking Dead executive producer Glen Mazzara in a pumped-up Q&A posted to The Hollywood Reporter just moments after the show’s second season finale. And while last night’s episode may have gotten his goal exactly in reverse — most horror movies start slow and talky and end quick and deadly, not the other way around — I found it mostly a relief to learn someone at the top has a vision for the series that extends beyond reinvigorating the post-agricultural economy of rural Georgia and the post-Weiner economy of AMC. Far too much of this meandering, face-slapping second season of The Walking Dead has seemed like an uncomfortable mash-up of other shows. At times, its slavish devotion to Lost was evident, with the insistence on factionalism, disquisitions on the burden of leadership rarely seen outside the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin, and spending numerous episodes locked in a supremely dull but no doubt budget-saving location. But mostly it reminded me of a rural spin-off of The McLaughlin Group, in which a gaggle of unpleasant alphas shout at one another incoherently, lazily circling an argument without ever landing on one, like backed-up 747s in a holding pattern at JFK. Mazzara’s quote suggests that there is a plan in place for the future and, as The Walking Dead so pointedly keeps reminding us, a strong voice at the top is crucial for survival.
But if things are looking up — or at least looking clearer — for the future of The Walking Dead, what to make of what just passed? To its credit, “Beside the Dying Fire” continued Mazzara’s greatest accomplishment since taking the reins: restoring a sense of danger to the post-zombie world. A cresting herd of walkers, as implacably destructive as a tsunami wave, tearing through Hershel’s farm was thrilling and nauseating in equal measure, though even that highlighted a disconnect between the enthusiasm of those making the show and those of us enduring it. As Alan Sepinwall wisely noted, the long, lingering shots of the barn engulfed in flames were clearly meant to carry emotional significance, the destruction of The Last Safe Place (until next season). But there couldn’t have been a viewer alive who wasn’t reaching for the marshmallows and humming some Rock Master Scott at the sight of the conflagration. It may have appeared that Hershel’s farm finally succumbed to a slow, brainless death last night. I would argue fatal boredom was the farm’s cash crop.
The problem, as ever, for The Walking Dead is that when these well-choreographed ballets of blood and adrenaline finally arrive, they feel less earned and more like an attempt to distract from the RV-sized plot holes that preceded them. Last night’s teaser asked us to accept that the rampaging herd could be traced back to the still-incongruous helicopter flying over Atlanta in the pilot, the proverbial flap of a butterfly wing that eventually transformed into a tornado. Well, OK. Sure. But it took them all this time — and one measly bang from Carl’s big-boy Super Soaker — to reach our gang? And what’s with the noise-attracts-zombies things anyway? Are we committed to that? Because, if so, it puts Sheriff Shane’s Camp for Unlimited Target Practice and Occasional Ladygropes in a different, markedly less intelligent light. (And it also suggests that maybe Daryl ought to consider a quieter conveyance, one that doesn’t announce his arrival 10 minutes before he actually arrives. Sure, a low-rider looks cooler than, say, a Nissan Leaf, but the Nissan Leaf also has doors.) Though I suppose all that wasting of ammo did have some purpose, as literally every survivor, including the elderly, the infirm, and the double-x-chromosome-having, is now capable of scoring direct-hit kill shots on moving targets, even when leaning out of speeding vehicles. It’s a useful skill, sure, but no more important than the other unshakeable truism on display: In a firefight, it’s best to surround yourselves at all times with uninteresting background players with as little backstory as possible. Jimmy and Mrs. Otis were such obvious goners they may as well have been wearing red shirts and “best if enjoyed by” freshness stickers. These weren’t characters, they were mystery meat.
But it wasn’t all bad. I thoroughly enjoyed Andrea’s desperate, all-night steeplechase through the misty woods. The scariest thing about zombies isn’t always their intractable love for intestinal tracts; it’s the fact that they keep coming. Andrea may have traded the writ of habeas corpus for the wrath of wrecking corpses, but she’s still human and she’ll tire eventually. Her solitary panic was scarier than the sight of a dozen undead hands beating on a Hyundai window, and I was glad to see her both survive and finally break free from the crushing monotony of the main cast. Still, I’ve got mixed emotions about her mysterious savior. All season long, diehards have been rebutting my criticisms with promises of “just wait until you meet the Governor,” or “things will improve once they get to the prison,” as if the success of a comic book could forgive 13 lousy hours of television. This surprise appearance of hooded fan favorite Michonne and the final glimpse of what certainly appeared to be an ominous penitentiary struck me as fanboy trolling of the worst order, a coded promise that future episodes will be more interested in re-creating blood-spattered shocks from the flat source material instead of attempting three-dimensional scenarios for the non-ink-stained audience. A wicked chick with a katana and two armless zombies on a chain may be cool, but at this point I’d settle for a mousy librarian with a personality.
All told, the best thing you could say about the finale was also the worst. The slate has been demonstrably wiped clean: Every single storyline deemed important in Season 2 (Sophia, Shane, Randall, the Greene family’s famous cucumber salad) is gone and we’re down to a core group with a limited lifespan but unlimited possibilities. But, as we’ve seen a hundred times before, the underlying problem with this group isn’t their context. It’s the group itself. Miraculously reunited in the one place they all agreed to reunite (was it that hard to guess that they’d all go back to the Sophia car?), their hollowness was on full display. T-Dog has a fancy pair of gloves but nothing to say. Daryl vacillates between kick-ass loner and sullen lapdog. Maggie cries until Glenn tells her he loves her, because while civilization may be dead, retrograde chivalry is alive and well. And inexplicable survivor Herschel is a shotgun-wielding greeting card, dropping unintentional laugh lines about the Rapture before fading obediently into the background.
And then there’s the Grimes family. Outside of the Kardashians, has there ever been a show built around a more noxious trio? About insufferable hat model Carl, little more needs be said. How many times can he be left unsupervised and still have it come across as accidental? It’s starting to remind me of the time I “forgot” to water an ugly plant for an entire summer. As for Lori, it appears the depth of her awfulness, like Bicycle Girl from the pilot, has no bottom. After Lady Macbething Rick into handling the Shane situation, she recoils from his confession as if he were trying to sneak The Human Centipede 2 into their Netflix queue, not defend his life. And no character embodies The Walking Dead’s emotional deficiencies more than Rick, whose leadership style continues to remind me of American tourists in Europe. To wit:
Rick: Have you seen Lori?
Rick: HAVE. YOU. SEEN. LORI?!?
Just raising your voice and repeating yourself doesn't make you George Washington, let alone Jack Shephard. And judging by Rick’s stellar track record as head man I wouldn’t be surprised if, after his announcement that the group is no longer a democracy, Season 3 opens with T-Dog in a full tunic extolling the virtues of the Athenian parliament.
But what’s done is done. The farm has been put out to pasture. After 19 episodes, one thing that The Walking Dead has taught us is that zombies only move in one direction: forward. Any nicks, cuts, or sucking chest wounds they acquire along the way are barely noted. And so, too, does the show stagger on, high on ratings but low on logic. My only wish is that when The Walking Dead returns in the fall, it manages to locate what a zombie so desperately craves and what the show itself so desperately needs: brains.