Please note: these reviews will contain spoilers for both the show and the comic, so be forewarned.
As expected the six-episode season has flown by, and now we’re stuck in a holding pattern until season two premiers next year. Thankfully, the next season is going to be over twice as long (thirteen episodes). As you may have heard, Frank Darabont (the show runner) just fired the show’s writing staff, and plans to handle the next season by himself with occasional help from freelancers. With any luck, this will improve some of the issues the show has. The second season will also benefit from ample time to develop, so we should expect The Walking Dead to take a slower pace, like AMC’s other dramas.
But enough of where the show is heading, let’s talk about what happened last night.
In a tense cold open, we flash back to Rick in a coma as the hospital is being evacuated. As I expected/hoped, Shane is there trying to get his partner to safety. Unfortunately, the place is in chaos. Soldiers are executing people, zombies are crawling out of the woodwork, and the sounds from outside indicate a full blown battle against the undead. Getting Rick out doesn’t seem possible. He’s hooked to machines that are keeping him alive and Shane doesn’t have the slightest clue what he can unhook to get his partner to safety. When the power is suddenly knocked out, Rick appears dead. With nothing else to do, Shane leaves.
I really, really liked the opening here. As I had hoped, it showed what Shane went through to try to save his partner, and justified him telling Lori that Rick had died. Far from being a self-serving lout, Shane risked life and limb to save Rick from being either shot or eaten alive. Working by himself in the anarchy of the hospital, Shane probably never had much of a chance, but he went anyway. And when he failed, he did the next best thing: got Rick’s family to safety.
Now I may be going a little overboard praising Shane here, but I think his character was a legitimately good man put into a very bad situation. When Rick showed back up in camp weeks later, Shane’s world was shattered. He was overjoyed to see his partner’s safe return, but he also knew that would be the end of his budding relationship with Lori. The man Shane tried so desperately to save was now destroying whatever semblance of happiness Shane managed to carve out of the world.
I love how this plays out later in the episode. More on that in a bit.
Back in the present, the survivors enter the Centers for Disease Control, and are greeted by Dr. Jenner, who is pointing an M4 at them. The brief standoff ends and Dr. Jenner invites them inside provided they submit to a blood test. The survivors enter the underground facility and find it to be beyond their wildest dreams: electricity, climate control, hot and cold running water, food, and lots and lots of wine. Could it all be too good to be true? Well it wouldn’t be a terribly dramatic if Dr. Jenner and the CDC facility didn’t have some sort of dark secret, now would it?
After their blood tests, during which Andrea almost faints from lack of food, everyone is treated to dinner and drinks. Everyone is laughing and having a good time when Shane decides to kill the mood and start asking questions. Shane puts a clearly uncomfortable Dr. Jenner on the spot, but seems to be primarily concerned with making Rick’s plan look bad. Soon enough the information starts trickling in: Jenner is here alone, with all the other doctors having either fled or offed themselves. The outside world is shutting down, and there is no reason to hope the cavalry is ever going to show up. Whatever hopes the survivors may had had about this being an isolated incident are soundly dashed.
The group then splits off to explore the facility and continue drinking. Thoroughly inebriated, Rick hangs out with Dr. Jenner, allowing himself to get good and hopeless now that temporary salvation is apparently at hand. It’s nice to see Rick take off the leader guy hat, however briefly, and act like a human being.
Andrea is in her room, vomiting. Dale hears and attempts to comfort her. They have a brief conversation about the world, with Andrea being completely hopeless, and Dale maintaining that this is a chance to start over. Much like last week’s scene between the two discussing accepting death, we’re started to see a real relationship develop between Dale and Andrea. Beside herself in grief, Andrea needs Dale as an emotional crutch right now. Where the relationship goes from there should be interesting.
Elsewhere in the compound, Lori is browsing the books in the rec room, when Shane creepily approaches. Lori wants nothing to do with the man, especially when he’s so intoxicated, but Shane blocks all paths of escape so he can speak his mind. For a moment, Shane comes off as tragic, if a bit overly aggressive as he tells Lori what happened at the hospital, but then he goes off the rails. He insists that she loves him, and begins forcing himself on her. Desperate, Lori claws at his neck and then flees. Suddenly, all the good will and sympathy Shane had built up over the course of the season disappeared. He remains a tragic character, but not one we’ll ever root for again.
The next morning when everyone is recovering from their hangovers, Dr. Jenner reveals what he knows about the zombie plague. We are shown the brain of Test Subject 19, a person who was bitten by a zombie. We zoom into their brian to watch their synapses fire for a bit, before jumping ahead to watch the disease strike. The brain goes dark briefly, and then begins to come back (now in red, because that’s how zombie brains roll). As Jenner explains, only the brain-stem is reactivated; everything else stays dead. Jenner also confirms what we’ve already started to gather: reanimation can happen within minutes or take hours, and there doesn’t seem to be any real way to predict.
I understand that this scene is there to show both the characters and the audience how zombies work, but the whole thing comes off as completely unnecessary. It’s overly showy, especially the animation of how the brain works, and doesn’t really give us much in the way of useful information. Again, for a season with only six episodes to burn, a lengthy discussion on the zombification process seems like a waste of time, especially given all the other pressing matters.
The Walking Dead is primarily about characters dealing with (or sometimes failing to deal with) a horrific situation. The zombies are just a catalyst. So why bother spending this time to wrap up the problem in pseudo-scientific trappings? I would have been much more interested in hearing more about Jenner, what he saw during the beginning of the crisis, and what he knew of the rest of the world. Things like this, and the silly gangster/nursing home subplot in Vatos are the most frustrating part of this show. Sure, they add a bit more backdrop to the story, but that backdrop is neither compelling nor interesting.
When Jenner finishes his explanation, Dale asks about the clock that is ticking down in the background with only an hour left. Jenner reveals that it displays the amount of time the facility has left before the fuel for the generators is exhausted. The survivors leap into action, with Rick, Shane, Glenn, and T Dogg (I seriously hate that name) running down to verify that the generators are on the verge of shutdown. They find the fuel stores exactly as Jenner describes. While they’re down there the facility’s primary lighting goes down, switching over the emergency lighting.
In a panic, everyone gathers in the control room where Jenner reveals the horrible secret: once the power runs out the facility will be annihilated with a massive explosion. It’s a safety measure, he explains, to prevent all the nasty stuff inside (smallpox, ebola, etc.) from escaping. With less than thirty minutes remaining, everyone scatters to grab their supplies and get the hell out, only to find themselves suddenly sealed in.
With the world dying, Jenner is giving them the only bit of mercy he can: a quick, painless death. Of course, the survivors aren’t too keen on that. They would rather try their luck outside, no matter how hopeless things seem. Getting the doctor to see things their way takes a bit of doing, however. Daryl and Shane favor threats of violence, while Rick reasons with the man. Eventually (and after Shane freaks out and blows a console to hell with a shotgun) Jenner relents, and opens the massive blast door. The outside entrance is still sealed, but at least everyone will have a chance to try. On their way out, Jenner whispers something mysterious in Rick’s ear that isn’t revealed. This will likely be important next season.
Everyone, that is, except for Jacqui and Andrea, who would rather face death on their own terms. Unable to leave Andrea, Dale stays behind to talk some sense into her. They go back and forth for a while before Dale calls her bluff, saying that if she’s stay, so is he.
Upstairs Shane and Daryl hack at the windows of the facility fruitlessly. Even a shotgun blast has no effect on the heavy glass. Then, just as all seems to be lost, Carol pulls out the grenade that Rick found way back in the second episode. She says she found it when she was doing his laundry. It seems odd that a man would completely forget about having a grenade, and that the person who found it would just carry it around in her purse, but there you have it. Chekov’s grenade finally got used, blowing out a window and allowing everyone to escape.
With only seconds to spare, everyone darts back toward the safety of their cars, blasting zombies along the way. They make it, and prepare to roll out when someone sees Andrea and Dale following. They make it behind a sandbag barrier just as the building erupts in an incredible fireball. Dale and Andrea pile into the RV and everyone rolls away.
The season finale was a pretty mixed bag for me. The trip to the CDC seemed to exists simply to give us a bit more information about the nature of the outbreak, allow Shane to lose it a little more, and thin out the cast. Speaking of which, with the exception of Daryl and the unfortunately named T Dogg, the only cast members left are those from the comic. It seems odd that they would introduce so many new characters only to have almost all of them gone by the end of the season.
In its first season, The Walking Dead didn’t seem like it knew quite where it wanted to go. We got some great scenes and some incredible character development, but it was saddled with boring clichés, pat character archetypes, and go-nowhere subplots. Hopefully the next season is a little tighter and more even. Despite the negatives, The Walking Dead did prove that, with some good writing and acting, you can do zombies on TV, and that’s no small accomplishment.