Note: Do not read on if you have not watched the Season 2 finale of AMC's "The Walking Dead," entitled "Beside the Dying Fire."
The first two acts of "The Walking Dead" Season 2 finale were full of excitement, honest to God suspense and characters who came up with pretty decent plans on the fly. When the braaaains finally hit the fan at Hershel Greene's farm, my pulse quickened and I found myself wondering and even caring about the survival of characters who'd done little more than irritate me for weeks. Hell, I even gave a crap about Hershel himself. As he pumped that rifle and mowed down walkers on his front lawn, he finally became a resolute character worth investing in.
Where has this show been for the past half year?
I mean, for more than a third of the season finale, nobody had a philosophical conversation or stood around debating what to do next. People killed freakin' zombies. They killed a lot of zombies.
Not that I'm saying that the show should have always stuck to a regime of all action and no philosophizing, but if you had told me that the spare, lean, almost wordless saga we saw in "The Walking Dead" pilot would morph into the talkiest talkfest this side of "Dr. Phil," I would have assumed that a horrible mutated virus had invaded your brain. The tense pilot was so judicious in its use of everything -- visuals, dialogue, music, zombie ultraviolence -- that an overstuffed, sludgy version of "The Walking Dead" didn't seem possible then.
At its best, as it was at times in its first season, "The Walking Dead" has used potent visuals, effective music and tense situations to reveal character through action. At its worst -- as it was for much of the first half of the second season -- it showcased a bunch of bland, uninteresting people repeatedly making dumb decisions and yammering until you wanted somebody to munch their limbs, just to shut them up.
Granted, the second half of Season 2 made me want to throw things less than the first half, but it was a long, slow climb from the morass of "Pretty Much Dead Already" to what we finally witnessed in Sunday's well-constructed season finale. Too often in its second season, "The Walking Dead" revisited the same old topics again and again and drained scenes and storylines of subtlety by being obvious and contrived. We often talk about whether we like TV characters enough to follow their exploits, but "The Walking Dead" made me realize how important respect is when it comes to my ongoing interest in a drama. If I can't respect a character's decision-making and/or motives, it's all but impossible for me to get behind them and root for them to achieve their individual or group goals. Like the man said, "You can't fix stupid."
Despite some improvements and despite the happy dance I did when Shane, at long last, died (Oh happy day! The least subtle, most irritating character on the show was finally gone), I still wondered if "The Walking Dead" was fixable.
Having now watched the Season 2 finale, which did a lot right and not much wrong, I'm not as worried as I had been.
You can't say anymore that Rick is a spineless leader. In fact, the second half of the episode was a rather masterful exploration of the following idea: Be careful what you wish for. Despite Andrew Lincoln's committed, earnest performance, it's been rather easy to mock Rick's contradictory impulses and his often stunning naivety. For instance, "Nebraska" featured the great scene of Rick coolly facing down two strangers in a bar, but that was followed by Rick's decision to try to reason with the dead Dave's unfriendly pals. Everybody on "The Walking Dead" did dumb things now and then, but Rick's status as putative leader made me roll my eyes even more at his sillier notions.
But at the end of "Beside the Dying Fire," Rick finally told everyone they were welcome to check out of his merry band of travelers if they so desired. "Send me a postcard!" he snorted. Finally, I thought, Rick is becoming the leader he should have been from the start, and he's being clear and upfront about his goals and leadership style. Yet this moment of clarity brought with it hints of complicated ramifications. The looks on the faces of his fellow survivors belied their fears about what his new resolve meant: Does survival mean giving up your freedom and autonomy? And that's something that may well provide some fruitful Season 3 storylines.
Lincoln was also quite good in the monologue in which he revealed the truth about Shane's death to Lori. Goodness knows, I've criticized the talkiness of the show, but this was a speech that gave us important character moments and didn't just take up space. But the scene was almost ruined for me by Lori's reaction to it. Could someone, somewhere, please figure out who Lori is supposed to be? She's the most contradictory character on the show, and that's saying something. This isn't a show that has used its female characters well (especially Andrea, who I had such hopes for) and there's something really problematic in how often they're reduced to cooks and maids as opposed to fighters. Lori's creeping shrillness is, at this point, just underlining the serious gender issues on display in this zombie-fied post-apocalypse.
What does Lori want, anyway? It's hard to tell, at this point. A couple of weeks ago, she was trying to Lady Macbeth her husband into killing Shane, and now she's ticked that he actually did it? Was she mad about her son's involvement in Shane's death? Where did she think her son was -- on a field trip to Mayberry? Given how often Carl wanders off by himself, didn't she realize it was only a matter of time before something like this happened? Honestly, the only consistent trait Lori displays is passive-aggressive self-righteousness, and I could not agree more with ace bloggers Tom and Lorenzo, who recently wrote that they'd be deeply annoyed if Rick and Lori's tiresome bullshit is the centerpiece of Season 3. Too right.
But let's focus on the good things, right? The gang is finally done with that claustrophobic farm and the show has finally gotten rid of a bunch of characters, some of whom were annoying, some of whom were merely unmemorable. So long, Jimmy! So long, Patricia! No idea who you were, but, er, happy trails in the afterlife! Carol, I hope you find a purpose other than standing around and being useless next season!
In addition to wrapping up the farm story, we got some tantalizing clues about where things are headed. Some major casting news broke a few weeks ago, and AMC announced some additional news about Season 3 Sunday night (read on for that information below). Two important characters from the comics will be arriving next season, and it's not giving too much away to say that it should be interesting to see how Rick deals with other leaders whose methods and beliefs aren't necessarily aligned with his.
There were many elements of the finale that worked really well: the way director Ernest Dickerson silhouetted the shuffling walkers against the burning barn; the tension and driving momentum of the first half of the finale; Bear McCreary's hauntingly lyrical score in the action scenes; the crisp, satisfying pace of the scenes at the farm and on the highway; and Rick's effective speeches. I've got to say, aside from the first episodes of the first and second seasons, this may have been my favorite "Walking Dead" hour yet.
But my favorite scene in the entire Season 2 finale was of Andrea's apparent rescue by a hooded figure. Talk about a "Holy shit!" moment. It was very smart to build the finale not just around the group's exodus from the farm, but around Andrea's desperate flight as well; the group's struggle was echoed even more intensely in her increasingly exhausted run through the woods.
She'd fought so hard to live that I wanted Andrea to fend off that final batch of walkers successfully. When it appeared she might not live, I was, quite rightly, on the edge of my seat. And the appearance of the caped figure -- towing two armless walkers, no less -- was as dramatic as could be. (For more on who the hooded figure was, as I said, read on.)
I'll be perfectly honest, even though the second half of this season showed signs of improvement, unless the finale was really satisfying, I was ready to write "The Walking Dead" off. The finale did a good job of reeling me back in -- I'm pleased to say how much I enjoyed it -- but we're not out of the woods yet, so to speak. I must admit, I still wonder if the writers are deeply interested in these characters as people.
Too often, the characters have been stick figures -- little more than talking walkers -- put through various experiences for plot purposes. They don't consistently show any kind of convincing inner life and their relationships are often sketched in a cursory manner. I'm not expecting "The Walking Dead" to morph into "Breaking Bad," but it'd be easier to be care about the characters if I knew the people making the show did. It'd be easier to be scared on the characters' behalf and to care about what they wanted if the writers did a more consistent job of making these people surprising and believably complicated.
I'm going to take Rick's advice, though, and have a little faith. Read on if you want to know more about Season 3. Spoilers ahoy.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan