So, tonight was, of course, the season premiere of The Walking Dead, the exceedingly popular AMC show based on Robert Kirkman's black-and-white comic of the same name. Least season ended with the ragtag group of zombie survivors escaping from downtown Atlanta and an exploding CDC building, which is where this premiere picked right up. What follows are Rorie's and Alex's thoughts on the episode; you should, of course, use the comments section below to let us know what you thought of it all, as well. EXPECT MAJOR SPOILERS IN THIS POST AND ITS COMMENTS!
I hate exposition, so the first couple of minutes of The Walking Dead’s season premiere was somewhat painful. So far as spoken backstory goes, the captain’s logs on Star Trek were at least permissable as records of someone’s thoughts: Rick’s walkie-talkie message here felt like an awkward way to get into his head, something that could’ve benefitted from being re-worked into a conversation or a simple voice-over. Or, hell, having it as a framing device and matching it up with the conversation with Jesus at the end, which at least felt somewhat believable, if overwrought.
Things quickly improved from there, though. To recap: the gang of survivors from season one have left Atlanta, intent on heading to Fort Benning, some two hours of brisk driving away. Shortly outside of Atlanta, though, the curiously clear highways become congested with overturned cars, slowing the convey and eventually forcing a stop when the RV’s radiator bursts. What seems like it might be an oasis of supplies and gasoline quickly turns into a deathpit, as a horde of zombies walking up the highway forces the group to hide underneath cars until they move past.
Of course, no zombie migration is complete without an attack or two, and the group manages to take down a few of the walkers without major losses on their end, through various quiet means that manage to avoid grabbing the attention of the rest of the horde. Constantly Worried Lady (that’s the name I always have for her in my head, for better or worse) has her daughter wander off into the woods during the confusion, though, resulting in a scattered manhunt that turns up nothing. Until, that is, Shane, Rick, and Rick’s son Carl stumble across a deer in the forest, leading to the episode’s twist ending, as both Carl and the deer are shot with the same bullet at the same time. An obvious misunderstanding by some confused hunter (or perhaps another member of their own group), but one that should lead to some interesting tensions between Rick’s gang and the group of civilians whom the teaser for episode two indicated that they’re going to meet shortly enough.
Some smaller beats of the show: Carl desires to get more involved in the men’s work that needs to be done in the group (how’s that working out for you, kid?), Andrea yearns for at least the option to commit suicide, but sees her gun confiscated by Dale, and Shane declares his intent to Lori to grab a new car and leave the group for good, with Andrea deciding that she wants to come along. Most tellingly, Constantly Worried Lady’s daughter’s disappearance is completely unexplained: no body is found, the only zombie in the area didn’t eat her, she’s not in any obvious hiding spot. It’s as if she simply vanished.
That, if anything, feels like the best thing about this episode. So many television series feel the need to resolve their plots within their running time, whereas the season premiere of The Walking Dead seemed like it was content not only to raise character issues that will likely play out over the course of the season, but also bring some serious realities into play for the survivors that can’t be resolved immediately. Not every episode can be ended on a cliffhanger, as this one was, but I did dig the way one major crisis for the group shuffled into an even major-er crisis as it ended. I kind of hope that the daughter never turns up, not out of any ill will towards her, but simply to reflect that fact that things sometimes happen that don’t have an easy explanation, or any explanation at all.
It wasn’t entirely positive, though, as the show did seem to rely on a few contrived moments to give itself some energy, like the massive horde of zombies appearing a couple hundred feet from the group before anyone saw or heard them, T-Dog taking an opportunity to awkwardly slice himself open at such a moment when it would be most inconvenient (and then somehow surviving), Andrea making a noise just when you knew she would to cause a zombie to turn around and attack her, a private conversation between Shane and Lori that just happens to be overheard, etc. All of this is intended to heighten the drama and tension of the moment, of course, but sometimes it just ramps up the manufactured sense of the show, an odd feeling that the universe these characters are living in is being plotted out by some mastermind who’s pulling strings to make sure interesting things happen at the most interesting time.
That is, of course, exactly the case: the show is written and edited by people who want to make sure that every moment is as tense as possible. But contrivances always happen to distract me a bit here, and I can’t tell if that’s because they’re more noticeable than on other shows, or whether I hold the zombie genre up to high standards, or because the Walking Dead comic series managed to establish its world as a much more random universe, where death could come at any moment for almost any character. The necessity of producing a TV show with contracted actors and crew, and all the complications that entail, seem to lead the creative team to keep things on a slightly more even keel. (I mean, T-Dog totally should’ve either bled out or gotten eaten there, right?)
But overall, a decent start to a new season of the show. If the “here’s what’s on next week” promo indicated anything (Rick runs with his son’s wounded body to a small house in the middle of the nowhere, where an old man treats him for his bullet hole), we’re likely to see a new group of characters appear, bringing with them new interpersonal tensions and incompatible desires. The series could stand a shot in the arm, which it seems destined to get next episode (I guess it already got a shot into a child.) What’ll be curious now is whether or not we’ll be able to see any large changes between the Darabont episodes and the Glen Mazzara episodes, whenever they happen to start rolling out.
Perhaps the best way to describe the general mood following the first truncated season of The Walking Dead would be "divergent." Rarely were opinions muted, nor were they often the same from person to person. Some loved the direction the show took away from the comic's core storyline and into uncharted territory, while others lamented the sometimes peculiar story beats and periodically bizarre excursions into realms that seemed slightly pointless, at least insofar as anyone could tell at that juncture. Thinking back, did we really need that encounter with the Vatos in the old folks home? Did the CDC sequence really give us anything more than a potentially suicidal character for later, a bit of whispery bait to hang on for god knows how long (referring to the thing the CDC doctor whispered into Frank's ear at the end of the finale) and a big, dumb, CG explosion to send the folks packing out of Atlanta?
I am of the camp that says "yes" to that question, mostly because I don't really watch The Walking Dead for either any presumed reverence to Robert Kirkman's original fiction, nor the dangling plot threads keeping the group together. I go for the zombies, and the tension derived from said zombies, as well as the group's conflicts among one another. Season one, while sometimes a strange trip, rarely failed to deliver on that tension. And now that we're into season two, it doesn't look like it's going to let up any time soon.
"What Lies Ahead" is a prophetic title. Opening as it does mere days after the CDC explosion, the episode finds the travelers already weary, and facing another hazardous roadblock. Literally. Cars piled high on the Interstate block their path, and a busted radiator hose on the RV forces them to scavenge. Within less than 15 minutes of the 90 minute episode, we've already got our first zombie threat, and it's a massive one. As it is later remarked, the "herd" of zombies come through in a humongous wave, forcing everyone to scurry underneath cars and hold their breaths until only a few stragglers are left behind, one of which goes after the young girl of the group. If you've ready Rorie's synopsis above (or, more likely, seen the episode), you know what came next.
First, the best parts of what came next. For all we've heard about AMC's budget cutting on this season of The Walking Dead, one aspect they haven't skimped on is the gore. The zombies we got closeup views of this week were disgusting, and they died with appropriate levels of brutality. The scene where Daryl and Rick go pawing through a zombie's intestines to find out what its last meal was...well, it was exactly the kind of grossness I was hoping for more of. I also especially appreciated the uber-creepy quality to the zombies in the church. The veiled lady, and hulking man in the suit were especially unnerving as they turned to meet the eyes of their eventual dispatchers.
I also have no qualms about the directions the story seems to be heading in. Yes, we are officially away from anywhere even near to the realm of the books now. Nothing happening here was in the comic, and it doesn't look like we're heading back to the beaten path any time soon. So perhaps there will be no prison sequence, no run-in with a crazy, murderous leader of a cultish society. Or maybe we will, and we just haven't gotten there yet. Considering the amount of personal drama the characters are currently sussing out--Shane and Lori still fighting, Shane looking to exit the group, Dale and Andrea's conflict over what happened at the CDC, and Rick's tenuous grasp on sanity and the role as the group leader--I feel like the writers ought to worry less about getting to some big, grand set piece section of the story, and resolve what it can from this current crop of stories first.
If there was any disappointment about last night's premiere, it was that the end result of the story was little more than a lengthy hunt for one of the least interesting characters on the show. Yes, Sophia is very cute, but we also know nothing about her, and frankly I give far less of a rip about whether or not she becomes a zombie's chicken dinner than pretty much anyone else in the group. The amount of effort spent searching for her felt slightly laborious, though at the very least, it does seem that search has brought us to the next chapter in our group's lives.
The preview for next week seems to set up the notion that Carl's gunshot won't be fatal, and that Rick and Shane will probably be away from the rest of the group for at least an episode, if not longer. We get a glimpse of a new group of survivors tucked away somewhere in the countryside, which might make for a nice change of pace from the usual group tension. I just hope this doesn't turn into a prolonged distraction, and that we don't find ourselves suddenly zombie-less for a few episodes. Zombie death is, after all, why I watch this show first and foremost.
Oh, and hey, how about a few less monologues next week? Eh?