02/09/2012 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'The Walking Dead': Is It Finally Returning To Life?

Just as a motley group of survivors want to believe former sheriff Rick Grimes can be a credible leader, I want to believe that "The Walking Dead" (Sunday, 9 p.m. EST on AMC) can pull it together and recover from its Season 2 lethargy. There's hope on that front, but I need to see more before I can begin truly rooting for the humans instead of the zombies, who may be lacking in the braaiins department, but at least don't spend a lot of time sitting around and ruminating about their problems.

As I said in this review of the zombie show's November mid-season finale, it's not that things didn't happen in the first seven episodes of the show's frustrating second season. The problem was that those events would have been reasonably interesting had they transpired over the course of two or three hours. But "The Walking Dead" did the one thing that shows that rely on suspense shouldn't do -- it stretched its slender story well past its breaking point, and that ended up sapping the overall narrative of most of its tension.

And that would have been more or less OK had the stakes in the characters' relationships been raised, or if Rick and his friends and frenemies had become more interesting in the weeks they spent on Herschel Greene's weirdly placid farm. But the characters didn't become more nuanced or compelling, and despite a strong beginning and a smattering of effective scenes here and there, "The Walking Dead's" second season too frequently lacked tension and consistent reasons to root for the humans.

Having said all that, I'm tentatively hopeful that the second half of Season 2 -- which is now entirely under the creative command of "Shield" veteran Glen Mazzara -- will be different. There are signs that "The Walking Dead" has realized where it went wrong and is actively trying to right those mistakes.

A couple of scenes that occur about midway through Sunday's episode provide the kind of psychological suspense and intriguing ambiguity that has been missing from "The Walking Dead" for a while now. In one scene, a familiar dynamic begins: A character who has lost hope begins to yammer to Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) about the futility of carving out a life in the post-zombie apocalypse. It's the usual "What's the point? We're all going to die" speech, which most of the show's fans could probably give at this point, having heard it on the drama any number of times. (For a show that's supposed to be about life and death stakes in a post-apocalyptic world, these characters sure spend a lot of time standing around and speechifying. And don't get me wrong, I love great dialogue scenes, but these conversations can be extremely repetitive).

As Rick -- whose half-hearted "leadership" has almost gotten everyone killed a few times --began to respond the mopey character, I braced myself for another one of his patented "Why We Should Have Hope" orations. (Poor Rick. Not only has the character been designated the leader of his particular band of hapless survivors -- a thankless job if there ever was one -- the actor playing him has been forced to give a lot of these semi-corny speeches about how it's all worth it, etc. It's a credit to Lincoln's steadfast performance that I don't loathe the guy at this point, but then most of my loathing is diverted to Shane, who remains at the top of my "People I Most Want to Be Eaten by Zombies" list.)

I won't give away what Rick said to the despairing survivor, but -- surprise, surprise -- his response made quite a bit of sense and it was delivered with a welcome mixture of anger and finality. That bracing speech, as well as more of Rick's actions in Sunday's episode, began the process of restoring the legitimacy of his leadership. That effort has a ways to go, considering how conciliatory Rick can be as a leader; but at least he ends the episode with his spine somewhat restored.

Having said all that, I cannot wait for the survivors to quit Herschel Greene's farm, where the survivors recently killed the "walkers" that were hidden in a barn. It's indicative of the failings of the first half of the season that I had almost no memory of a female character who was bereft about a loved one who was among the zombies put to pasture. At least now the barn problem is solved and the survivors can start figuring out what their next steps should be.

It's about time. Even Mazzara said in an interview with Vulture that he thought "The Walking Dead" had become too insular and the survivors' lives too safe. Thank goodness he and the writers who remained after executive producer Frank Darabont left are beginning to open up "The Walking Dead's" world again and turning away from the boring claustrophobia of the farm.

The other terrific scene in Sunday's episode features two new characters with a mysterious agenda. It worked really well in part thanks to a great performance from guest star Michael Raymond James, but it was also pleasing thanks to the tantalizing mysteries that were embedded in the scene. Who were the strangers? What did they want? What were their intentions? What were they lying about, if anything?

"The Walking Dead" is a show in which the characters have discussed their various dilemmas almost ad nauseum, but here was a situation with unknown parameters, where the tension came from the live humans in the scenes, not the undead who might be lurking just outside. I had no idea how that story line would turn out, and that's as it should be.

The way forward for this show is not to focus on the dead walkers, but to make the living people less predictable and safe. I hope Sunday's episode, which begins the six-episode second half of the season, is a sign of things to come.