Fans are undoubtedly excited for the start of The Walking Dead season 2, but there also many questions handing over this season, in light of showrunner Frank Darabont being fired from the series. Darabont was the driving force behind the show, and a major reason why season one of The Walking Dead was a hit. While it remains to be seen how the show will fare without Darabont influencing future episodes, fans of the acclaimed director can rest comfortably in the knowledge that he crafted the first part of season 2.
So, is The Walking Dead season 2 premiere episode, "What Lies Ahead" a satisfying return to the bleak world of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comic book?
Short answer: This episode showed Darabont and the cast at their best.
When last we left the survivors of The Walking Dead, they had fled the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, after a discouraged scientist and a few dispirited survivors chose to end their lives, rather than face the zombie apocalypse. As season 2 opens, the survivors are still on the run and hoping to find salvation. But where does salvation reside in hell - and how does a world of savagery, brutality and death change a person? These are the hard questions that face Rick Grimes and his companions in season 2.
"What Lies Ahead" is easily the best episode of The Walking Dead since the pilot episode (which was also crafted by Darabont), and it demonstrated the incredible potential this show has. In one episode we got terror, suspense, mystery, gore, drama, shock, and even some elation. Best of all, every minute of the premiere qualified as genuinely compelling TV.
Darabont's experience as a director elevates this show to a level most TV programs can't hope to match. The "zombie herd" sequence on the highway - which was shot on a real Atlanta highway with 150 zombie extras over 4 days - is something that not only reaches the upper echelons of quality TV programming - it's also in the upper echelons of quality movie moments. (I'm certain that I wasn't the only one who felt like they were watching a movie during that highway scene.)
After such a fantastic beginning you would think there would be nowhere to go but down - but Darabont and the cast definitely retain a good amount of the energy they initially muster for the remainder of the episode. The search for the missing girl, Sophia, was not as cinematic as the highway sequence (and definitely adhered to a more episodic TV structure), but that's OK, since it was still pretty good TV. That feeling of dread and despair was always present, and made you tense at the thought that Sophia could indeed meet an unhappy end - leaving her mother and the rest of survivors' fragile morale shattered by the tragedy.
In the midst of that high tension, there were some great dramatic moments between the various characters, which sowed promising seeds for the arcs the survivors will be on this season. Some characters (Andrea, Shane) are more interesting than others (T-Dog, Dale), but the great thing about a show like this is that characters can (and will) die at any moment, so it's easy to keep the cast trimmed and still give the audience a shock or two when someone bites it (no pun).
Virtually every scene in the premiere was relevant, and expanded both the characters and the themes of season 2, so it's hard to pick a favorite. Some of the more undercooked characters from season 1 had great moments to shine - Daryl (Norman Reedus) in that nauseating dissection scene, or Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) finally showing spunk by defending Rick's honor - and on the whole the episode balanced the time spent with each character well, so that no one felt left out or irrelevant. A drastic improvement on one of the major issues with season 1.
Admittedly, the scene with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in the church was a little bit over-dramatic (the whole church scene was, really), but it still laid out an interesting arc for Rick this season, as he struggles to keep it together and lead his people, even though this horrible existence eats away at his morale - and morality - the same as it does any other man. Now that Rick and the survivors are over their initial confusion and panic about the world they're living in, it'll be interesting to see what kind of person each of them becomes, as they're forced to make hard choices (how long do you search for a missing child in zombie land?) and face hard realities (death, loss, etc...).
Last but not least - what an ending! Just when you thought there might be a glimmer of hope (Rick, Shane and Carl encountering that gorgeous buck and having a happy bonding moment) - hope turns into horror in the span of a gunshot. There are not many shows that will go so far as to depict a child getting shot - but hey, this is The Walking Dead we're talking about. Expect the unexpected.
Whatever budget Frank Darabont was asking for - whatever creative decisions he was making - it's clear from this episode that AMC should've catered to the man. Mad Men may be the critical darling (which gets it the biggest investment from the network) - but TV like this Walking Dead season 2 premiere has the potential to attract the masses, and ergo, the advertisers. Hopefully the ratings will tell that same tale.
You can catch The Walking Dead season 2 Sundays @ 9/8c on AMC
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