At seven episodes, so far season 2 of The Walking Dead is already an episode longer than the entire first season of AMC’s hit zombie series. After a somewhat mixed reaction to the finale of last season, fans should be happy to note that season 2 still has six more episodes before making way for season 3. So, whatever is delivered with ‘Pretty Much Dead Already,’ the story is far from over.

As far as season 2 is concerned, that is certainly a good thing. At seven episodes in (including the 90-minute season premiere) The Walking Dead writers have taken advantage of the breathing room a 13-episode season has granted them. In fact, they have practically put on a clinic in terms of decompressed storytelling.

Thus far, the catalyst driving our band of survivors has been the disappearance of Sophia (Madison Lintz), who went missing in the woods of Georgia following a disturbingly large ‘walker’ migration. From that point on, the search for the missing girl has led to the introduction of Hershel’s farm (and what lurks in its barn), Carl’s near-fatal shooting and some fresh blood for the series to develop. With the addition of Hershel (Scott Wilson), his daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Patricia (Jane McNeil) and Jimmy (James Allen McCune), one would think season 2 would be a wall-to-wall zombie buffet – but no, in true zombie-story fashion, the most dangerous part of the end of the world is those who have to survive in such a place.

Right now, the spotlight is on Shane (Jon Bernthal), who after the most thrilling episode of the season to this point in ‘Save The Last One’, moved from being a jilted lover with questionable motives, to callous murderer who will sacrifice a stranger (Otis, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) to ensure his own survival, and the survival of the family he may or may not still wish to become patriarch of.

Through Shane’s conflicts, The Walking Dead has been able to explore (directly, and sometimes indirectly) the inner workings of nearly all of its key members. On one hand, given his apparent acts of heroism, and outwardly calm demeanor when dispatching the titular walking dead, Shane seems a logical replacement for Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who is more often than not, wracked with self-doubt and an overwhelming concern for his flock – hence the reason a near hopeless search for the missing Sophia continues.

On the other hand, however, the villainy that lurks beneath Shane’s tough-guy exterior not only has left the marriage of Rick and Lori (Sara Wayne Callies) on the ropes, but has also provided the basis from which all other characters may find themselves judged. Sure, certain characters like T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride) have been hovering in the periphery for much of the seven episodes, but Glenn (Steven Yuen), Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and, most importantly, Daryl (Norman Reedus), have all stepped to the forefront in one way or another.

As polar opposites slowly gravitating toward the other’s spectrum, the arcs of Daryl and Shane have been a great source of interest for season 2. While Shane loses a battle over his guilt for what happened to Otis, and the overwhelming indignation he feels toward Rick for, ironically, returning from the (supposed) dead, Daryl fights his own demons – which, in Daryl’s own way, come from a drug-induced hallucination of Merle (Michael Rooker), telling him to turn against the pack.

While Dale (who has become the unofficial council for the group) is met with Shane’s menace upon discussing his negative trajectory, Daryl, conversely, is shown by Carol that his transformation has not gone unnoticed when she tells him, “…you’re just as good as any of them.”

This quiet moment has not only helped Daryl become much more than a one-dimensional reminder that Merle is still lurking out there somewhere, but also puts into perspective the tragic depths to which Shane has sunk.

It is due to character arcs like this that The Walking Dead‘s second season has so far delivered a more compelling, thought-provoking program than the entirety of season 1.

Throughout ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’, it is clear that whatever fuse Shane had left is quickly running out. Episode writer Scott Gimple and director Michelle MacLaren present Shane’s inevitable outburst as a point of tension from beginning to end. The more Shane presents himself as ready to assume control of the group, the more he appears to lose control over his own emotions. Each scene, from the barn-watching conference he has with Rick – which grants Shane knowledge of Lori’s pregnancy – to the unwise “I’m better than Rick” sales pitch he delivers to Lori, makes the audience wonder if this will be ‘the moment’ fans have been waiting for.

Instead, following another tense confrontation with Dale, Gimple and MacLaren show us just how fragile this group really is. Without the presence of Rick, Shane easily coerces the group into staging a minor coup – which, despite illustrating to Hershel the difference between sick and undead, once again takes us back to that familiar zombie trope of mob-rule being swift and vicious – regardless if it is perpetrated by the living, or living-impaired.

And with the midseason finale, the show delivers not the massive cliffhanger Kirkman had promised was on the horizon, but rather a gut-wrenching denouement to the group’s most pressing concern. That, however, opens the rest of season 2 up to go pretty much anywhere. With the adventures on Hershel’s farm lasting far longer than most had thought they might, the conclusion will undoubtedly have repercussions felt into season 3.

Despite it feeling (at times) like a slow boat to China, the first half of season 2 of The Walking Dead has given us a clearer picture of who these characters are, and what, ultimately is driving them. Rick, Shane, Dale and the others have moved beyond being mere survivors, and instead feel more like characters we expect to see pull through – so that when they inevitably don’t, the loss is made all the more resonant. To this point, The Walking Dead second season has put a premium on character development – possibly to the extent it has overlooked its own plot progression. However, this first half of the season is likely the preamble for a larger conclusion we are all waiting for.

From this point forward, with the regime change surrounding Frank Darabont’s exit firmly behind the series, the next question for The Walking Dead will be how can fans’ expectations for the program to match the comic book it’s based on beat-by-beat be undone by a different style of storytelling? As the new Glenn Mazzara-era takes hold with the remainder of season 2, it will be interesting to see if the pace of The Walking Dead quickens to heed the supposed desires of its audience.

The Walking Dead season 2 continues February 12, 2012 on AMC.