Given the difficult circumstances The Walking Dead survivors found themselves in at the end of the midseason finale, the return episode -titled 'Nebraska' - really had no choice but to pick up immediately following Rick's decision to shoot Sophia. That being the case, the majority of the episode works as a direct extension of 'Pretty Much Dead Already' – which, as expected, works out to be an exercise in guilt, grief and for some, the realization that believing in hope is tantamount to standing idly by.
Although there are plenty of lingering plot points and character threads the episode could have chosen to cover, 'Nebraska' steers clear of hurrying along the storyline for the sake of getting things moving, but the episode feels dutiful and filled with a purpose, nonetheless.
Now that the search for Sophia (Madison Lintz) is over, so too is the sense that there is something to wait for. So now, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Shane (Jon Bernthal) and the rest of The Walking Dead's core survivors can busy themselves with the task at hand. Largely, that means cleaning up the walkers which had been stumbling around Hershel's barn. But perhaps more importantly, it means beginning a period of mourning for not only Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride), but also Hershel and his daughters, who had been holding out belief their loved ones weren't actually dead.
'Nebraska' balances the need to grieve with the call to action nicely – even though much of the action consists of digging graves and burning bodies. And while those tasks don't necessarily get one's heart pumping, they do fall into that bizarrely fascinating topic of unpleasant responsibilities the end of the world brings about. As Andrea (Laurie Holden), T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Shane busy themselves, there is the feeling of forward progression that was lacking in the first half of the season.
But really, given the undercurrent of distrust and hostility between Rick and Shane, and Dale's (Jeffrey DeMunn) increasing belief that Shane is a danger to everyone, the characters are likely grateful for the distraction. Moreover, since no time has passed between the events of the midseason finale and now, it's a decent enough excuse to keep all the characters from standing around wondering: What do we do now?
There are a few characters given the opportunity to ponder what the next move will be, though, namely (and perhaps obviously) Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who have something to lose with the very real prospect of Glenn's group leaving the farm. Maggie's straightforwardness concerning the issue of Glenn remaining with her, as well as her admitting she has feelings for him works well against Glenn's less assertive personality. Although the young couple's moment is interrupted by Beth (Emily Kinney) falling ill, it does lead to a rather nice moment between Glenn and Rick that gives the group's defacto leader yet another hat to wear – one suggesting Rick take the role of father figure for more than just Carl.
Showing how easily he slips into the role, Rick deals with Glenn's confession concerning knowledge of Lori's pregnancy and her attempt to terminate it by simply saying, "You did what you thought was right. It just so happens it wasn't."
With that, the episode slowly turns its attention to Rick, who has to deal with the burden of his inability to save Sophia and the a growing concern that his inefficacy as a leader has resulted in the unpleasant situation at hand. Perhaps Rick's feelings are rooted in his conflict with Shane, or the loss of Sophia, but most likely, Rick's doubt may come from the fact that whatever course of action he takes (alone or otherwise) is immediately followed up with someone telling him he's made the wrong decision.
Case in point: after learning that Hershel has left the farm to get plowed at the local bar, Rick's first instinct is to retrieve him. Unfortunately, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) sees this as another opportunity for Rick to die, and immediately calls his decision making skills into question – citing Carl's acceptance of Rick's judgment to shoot Sophia as evidence. Apparently, a young boy being realistic is cause for more concern than recovering the only person with medical experience, but that seems to be Lori's role, as of late; hopefully it will change now that she's found herself in a potentially deadly situation.
It seems like yet another unnecessary spousal spat, but it actually works to give more weight to Rick's split-second decision at the end of the episode; mainly providing evidence that, more often than not, Rick's instincts are right on the money.
Speaking of which, after Hershel finally turns his back on a nasty case of cirrhosis, he, Rick and Glenn are introduced to a couple of strangers. These men, Dave (Michael Raymond-James, Terriers, True Blood) and his associate Tony, bring with them the requisite sense of foreboding and menace often associated with strangers in such post-apocalyptic settings. Naturally, as Dave's seemingly casual talk shifts to requests that he and his publicly urinating friend join the trio at wherever it is they call home, the menace suddenly comes from both sides of the discussion, and begins to feel rather pressing.
Although they make no attempt at overt aggression, Rick sniffs them out immediately; he knows there is something off about these two. The scene plays out as one of the most tense to ever be shown by The Walking Dead, as the threat comes from a source other than the titular zombies, and because the writing in everyone's dialogue – especially that of Rick and Dave – comes with an implication of pending violence. Once it does erupt, the violence is quick and brutal, and shows that Rick (and the show as a whole) is ready to spring into action.
This encounter becomes a portent of conflict to come, and may finally put The Walking Dead where it needs to be: in a world that is rife with danger, which doesn't necessarily come from the threat of the undead.
Largely because of the ending, 'Nebraska' comes off as a positive sign for the remaining episodes of season 2. More importantly, the episode is certainly suggesting that the waiting game is over, and the time for action is now.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights @9pm on AMC.