I was baffled at the praise that The Walking Dead received during its first season. Despite high production values and superb undead effects and makeup, it was slow, boring, cliched, hammy and I’d seen better dialogue and acting on Jersey Shore.
The behind-the-scenes friction between Darabont and the writers was clear in the finished product and the six episodes felt like a wasted opportunity. It was so bad, I can scarcely think of a memorable moment beyond the pilot.
But I stuck with it, because… I like zombies. And I’m glad I did, because Season 2 (despite also having its flaws, and losing Darabont halfway through) was good enough to redeem the show. Here’s why:
Shit will be spoiled, needless to say:
Despite mostly being set in one location, Season 2 had roughly a dozen more memorable moments than the first season. Granted, it had double the amount of episodes, but it’s hard to think of any single moment in the first season that could compare to these (to name but a few):
– Walkers on the Highway
– Rick and Shane’s Fight
– The Execution
– Zombie in the Well
– The Finale’s Farm Attack
– Dale Loses His Stomach
– The Bar-Room Standoff
– Rick and Shane in the Field
– Sofia in the Barn
A common complaint of the first season was that after the first episode, there was barely a zombie in sight. Just a lot of boring characters faffing about in tents. Season 2 turned things around, with almost every episode having at least one good zombie moment and the finale having enough zombie action to make up for the whole of Season 1.
I can’t even remember the characters who died in the first season and I pretty much hated them all, even the live ones. Season 2 did more with its extended run time and we saw some interesting character development, particularly with Rick, Shane, Hershel and Glen. There are exceptions – Lori’s personality and actions are wildly inconsistent, but consistently annoying; T-Hawk went from pointless to even more pointless and there are two characters from the farm that died in the last episode who didn’t get to do a single thing of interest. I can’t even remember their names. But I gave a shit about Shane and Rick, I cared when Dale died and the Sofia moment was unexpectedly heartbreaking.
Season 1 had little driving force to the plot beyond “let’s go camping” and “we need to go back into the ridiculously dangerous city to save the dangerous racist that we locked on a roof”. Not only did the hunt for Sofia give the group purpose, but it also served as an interesting point of friction between Shane and Rick on whether or not to keep searching. The search felt like it went on for so long and dropped so many clues to her survival that I noticed I was holding out hope as much as the characters were – which made the barn reveal that much more impactful.
Season 2’s conflicts were more interesting than 1’s, because for the most part, they were quite grey. It was hard to see what was the right answer and no choice was easy – do you kill one man to protect the group against a potential threat? Do you keep searching for a little girl who is probably dead? Should you keep zombies in a barn in the hope that they’ll get well soon? Ok, maybe the last one has an easy answer.
One of the great things about the comic series as it went on was how the walkers became less and less of a primary threat and more of a constant danger that moved into the background. What became the primary threat was people – and the desperate, evil things other humans were willing to do to survive. Season 2 finally picked up on this and some of the show’s greater moments came from the threat of other humans – the tense bar-room standoff and the dilemma of what to do with Randall. This served as a great setup for Season 3’s introduction of The Governor.
I still don’t buy the weird Batman voice that Andrew Lincoln feels the need to constantly do, and his accent is still a bit “KFC Colonel”, but the second season saw Rick go from a simpering sap to a badass killer and it was fascinating to watch his morals erode away from the nightmare circumstances of this new world and his best friend’s constant attacks. From the amazing bar-room scene that showed that Rick wouldn’t hesitate to kill when pushed to it, to the tragic and unexpected final moment with Shane in the field, Rick Grimes is a different man at the end of Season 2.
From the moment Shane killed Otis, it was clear that his character arc was going to be the standout of the series – and it did not disappoint. Watching Shane grow more and more murderously pragmatic and obsessive was a joy to watch. He was the perfect antagonist to Rick, because most of the time, his point of view was completely reasonable, if not more sensible. But his descent into darkness was the perfect representation of what happens when you let go of ethics and morals in the name of survival. Shane was such a good villain because he wasn’t really a villain, you could kind of see where he was coming from. He was the standout character of the show and it was a smart move of the writers to keep him alive longer than Kirkman did in the books. He’ll be sorely missed in the next season.