The firing of creator Frank Darabont was the first sign of alarm on Season 2 of The Walking Dead.
In what world would you fire the director of The Shawshank Redemption off a TV drama about zombies? One that also happens to have triple the audience of any other show on its network, we should point out? Well, although there isn’t a single episode in the second season that equals the bleakness and majestic scope of Darabont’s 2010 pilot ‘Days Gone Bye’, The Walking Dead triumphs in spite of its uneven moments as a compelling genre drama that offers something genuinely unique in its portrayal of a zombie apocalypse.
At the start of this year, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the band of survivors seek a new hideout from the zombie swarms following the explosion of the CDC military bunker at the close of Season 1. A nasty encounter with a wave of walkers at a traffic gridlock leads to the disappearance of Sophia (Madison Lintz), the daughter of the energetically miserable Carol (Melissa McBride), who you may remember gave her abusive husband a brutal farewell last year. The group then arrives at the doors of Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson, channelling a conservative American countryman), who believes the legions of walkers out there to be sick rather than irretrievably infected monsters, which soon becomes a point of conflict between Hershel’s religious family and the more ruthless survivors.
The farm goes from idyllic haven to another zombie wasteland during the first half of the year, and the situation escalates even further when a rival group of human survivors threaten the status quo on Hershel’s farm. Worse still for Rick, his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal) suddenly adopts a ruthless and unpredictable mindset that puts the group in danger. It’s a lot to worry about, and that’s not even counting the millions of walkers wandering through America who naturally pick off various characters as these 13 episodes trundle along.
The search for Sophia swallows the first half of this year, and while too much time is spent looking for this girl, what at times appears to be a filler plot comes packed with a massive pay-off that justifies the long journey.
More convincing is Shane’s arc, which allows Bernthal to snatch the show from under Rick, with a gripping focus on making necessary human sacrifices in order to survive. Lincoln is a solid lead as Rick, too, but his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) is sabotaged with awful characterisation – she comes across as a deliberate psychological game-player, unwittingly tearing the group apart in a teenage-like, manipulative fashion. Likewise, outside of the Rick-Shane partnership only crossbow-wielding badass Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun) and love interest Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are really given the same level of screen time, with everyone else being pretty hard to get emotionally invested in.
We don’t hold that against the show too much, though, because there’s still more than enough to make The Walking Dead unmissable, and a certain disposability to some of the cast doesn’t feel out of place when the body count is so high.
The undead are exploited to maximum potential, serving as an all-purpose plot device that surprises with both the way they’re deployed by the writers and the brutality of the murders. It feels like there’s been a step up in budget over the first season, as the walkers meet their ends in increasingly outrageous and acrobatic ways, while the show’s incredibly talented FX team frequently find new ways to be even more visually disgusting (one zombie found wedged in a well is particularly appalling).
It’s kind of a bizarre combination of dramatic elements, really – The Walking Dead is definitely fraught with rough moments, yet it’s addictive and well-realised, a step above what the source material offers comic-book fans on a monthly basis, presenting a richer and more complete picture of the ravaged landscape.
It’s as high-end as a TV show about zombies could possibly be, and this 13-episode season re-affirms its status as an essential genre drama.