The Walking Dead: “What Lies Ahead”

It’s saying nothing new to recognize that the first season of The Walking Dead was massively flawed. The pilot was great, and I really enjoyed the season finale, “TS-19,” but most of what came in between was as one-dimensional and lifeless as a…well, I can’t really think of a good analogy here, but you see my point.

So my expectations weren’t high for season two, even after hearing some advance buzz that the first two episodes were strong. “What Lies Ahead” did well many of the things that season one did well, and it also evinced the same fundamental flaws. But it also had at least one scene (possibly two) which suggested that some of those problems can be fixed, at least in the short term.

First, the good: The opening highway sequence was very tense, mining a lot of ambience and dread out of a claustrophobic near-silence. It’s necessary to the form, but I respect how willing The Walking Dead is to present long stretches without dialogue*, and this was particularly effective as a herd** of zombies swarmed past our hiding heroes.

*And not just because the dialogue on this show is almost universally dull. Bazinga! 

**What is the collective noun for zombies anyway? Herd? Flock? I’m sure there’s a wealth of websites that could answer this but in no way am I interested enough to look them up, so I’m just gonna go with “festoon.” A festoon of zombies.

The Walking Dead: "What Lies Ahead" - Sarah Wayne Callies, Melissa Suzanne McBride

I also like that the zombies seem a bit cagier this year. Granted, there will likely never be any explanation for this, but I neither want nor need one. If they’re going to present a threat week-in week-out, they need to be more like real predators and less like slow, putrescent Pac-Mans trudging in a straight line and gobbling up whatever’s in their path. I’m just going to assume that during the intervening calendar year the “walkers” earned a few zombie continued learning credits at the local community college.

Now, the less-than-good: I still don’t care about anyone on this show. No one’s interesting, or funny, or stands out in any way. I remember Rick’s name, and Shane’s. “Dale” came back to me pretty quick. After that, who knows. And this speaks to the show’s central long-term problem: What do you do with a group of people who’s entire raison d’etre is, let’s face it, to be magnets and/or meals for the bad guys?

If your supporting cast is constantly in danger from an insatiable, omnipresent threat, but no one ever actually dies, then there are no stakes. On the other hand, if the supporting cast merely cycles through new survivors every few weeks, then they all become little more than cannon fodder—again, there are no stakes.

Which leads us to the has-been-bad-but-might-be-getting-kinda-better-maybe. For The Walking Dead to have any sort of sustainable depth, it has to be about the survivors and not the zombies. The choices people make—both as individuals and as the vestigal remains of a cohesive society—under dire circumstances is a necessary component of post-apocalyptic fiction. One reason I enjoyed “TS-19” is because it began to bring these issues to the forefront. A scene in “What Lies Ahead” does the same, by revisiting the events of the previous episode when Andrea (full disclosure: I had to IMDB her name) confronts Dale about his refusal to let her commit suicide-by-CDC-explosion.

At the time, his actions were portrayed as heroic, inspiring—not letting his companion lose the will to live. In reality, she resents it tremendously, and with very good reason. Whatever motivated Dale—optimism, resilience, misguided affection for Andrea—those things might not have any meaning any longer. Exploring the crumbling of value systems that have long been intrinsic to humanity is a more challenging, and ultimately much more unnerving, way of portraying a dead world than scene after scene of corpses tumbling out of cars.

Dale was also responsible for the other scene that left me wondering in which direction season two of The Walking Dead would choose to shamble. When he tells T-Dog (yup, had to look that one up on IMDB too) that “I want to hold off the ‘needs of the many versus the needs of the few’ arguments as long as I can,” he seemed to be articulating the show’s philosophy to this point. It’s put off discussing a lot of those big picture questions about self-government and morality and the like. But how much longer can it kick that can down the road? For one thing, will there be any repercussions for Dale unilaterally deciding, through deceit in this case, when it is or isn’t appropriate for the group to establish such an ethos? T-Dog’s easy assent suggests it doesn’t consider that problematic at all.

I wouldn’t want to see The Walking Dead become a weekly morality play (“This week: Utilitarianism—with Zombies! Next week: Kant’s Categorical Imperative—with Zombies!”). Since the season premiere’s seven million viewers eclipsed the average of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined (with room for, like, two Rubicons), I’m certain AMC doesn’t want that either. Still, if I’m going to keep watching (if not reviewing) the show week to week, it will have to give me something more to care about than state-of-the-art make-up and mocking Andrew Lincoln’s appalling Kentucky accent.

Other notes: 

  • Was anyone else troubled by how heavily this episode relied on child endangerment for tension? Sophia missing, Carl apparently at death’s door. I guess that’s the problem when you don’t much care about any of the adults living or dying, but it feels very cheap.
  • Rick and Daryl very drawn out dissection of the dead (twice-dead? Re-dead?) walker did have a purpose, technically, but it’s discouraging how much the writers still lean on gross-out factors as a narrative crutch. Unless they’re trying to spin off CSI: Zombie Apocalypse.
  • What the heck was up with an act break abruptly ending on a zombie taking an arrow through the face? That was one of the oddest, least consequential throws-to-commercial I’ve ever seen.
  •  “I’m not asking you to go steady, Shane. I’m asking for a ride.” This was literally the only line I found remotely fun.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Oct. 18, 2011.

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