To me, season two of The Walking Dead presents a twisted Walden-like experiment gone awry. While citing B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel is certainly an atrocious stretch worthy of flesh-rotting infection, be sure to read on to see what I’m getting at here.
Last night’s emotionally “eviscerating” episode — “Judge, Jury, Executioner” (skillfully directed by Gregory Nicotero) — represents the culmination of that experiment for the directors and producers behind the series. While a number of films of the past 12 years helped pave the way for a more visceral and human take on the zombie apocalypse trope (most notably, 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle), nothing quite like The Walking Dead has ever existed (at least by season 2’s standards).
Here, AMC’s vision of the apocalypse uses the desolate backdrop of a bygone civilization and moral order to closely examine the enduring principles of human nature. Leave it to a force like an apocalypse to unearth said principles in their most primal forms.
As per the aforementioned 28 Days Later, season 2 stokes one timeless question: At what point do civilians (the “living”) become indistinguishable from the monsters that shamble, prowl and stalk them through the darkness, on the outskirts of their cities, neighborhoods, or camps?
We are now seeing Dead‘s ensemble cast do a fine job of devolving into their survival instincts. Perhaps taking a page or two out of the Lord of the Flies, the character archetypes are brimming with detail and coming to the surface in very primordial shows of brutality and restraint.
Drama is the keyword here, though. Dead, at this juncture, is so much more than a “zombie show.” Last night, it transcended it. If it at all resembled the clichés inherent to George Romero’s original parable (circa 1968) when it began, it’s now reversed the formula into a entrails-biting drama series set against the backdrop of an apocalypse. This is atypical of what Hollywood thinks is a good survival-horror zombie story, that’s for sure.
Curiously, a conspicuous ratio of season 2 subtracts much of the rabid packs of the undead chasing after the living (although such hair-raising scenes naturally help move the story along, and prove all-the-more stark and terrifying on behalf of their carefully placed sparseness in the season).
Season 2 is largely made up of the survivors themselves, developing relationships, bonds, searching for ways to live as a communal order. Searching for ways to avoid fighting; killing each other off; or attempting suicide as a final or prophylactic solution. Not only do these survivors fight to stay alive; they fight to hold on to their desire to go on living.
Yet, the thesis we are seeing unravel here is that, ultimately, crimes against your fellow man are inevitable, especially in a world where every hour of every day is a struggle for survival. When the gristle of civil order is boiled away from any given group, power struggles rear their ugly heads — particularly between the show’s natural leaders, namely Rick Grimes [Andrew Lincoln]; Shane Walsh [Jon Bernthal]; and Hershel Greene [Scott Wilson], whom all have demonstrated splintering methods of maintaining peace and order.
Kudos to AMC’s writers and producers, then. The show is a great deal more frightening because of their willingness to push dramatic boundaries.
At first, I didn’t know what to feel about our star cast of survivors being transformed into a commune on Hershel’s farm. The season started to feel like a “spin-off.” I feared I’d get bored of the cast being localized to one static locale, whereas season 1 had a busier and more frantic, harrowing sense of journey and purpose.
It was only after several episodes in that season 2 had a retroactively positive effect on my sensibilities for good drama, particularly when the gore hit the fan during the mid-season finale (“Pretty Much Dead Already“), where it was revealed that Sophia Peletier (Madison Lintz; Carol’s missing daughter) was one of the walkers in Hershel’s barn of zombie “relatives.” A man who takes the term “family man” to new, uncharted territory.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
“Judge, Jury, Executioner” finds Randall (Michael Zegen) being tortured by Daryl (Norman Reedus) for information on the survivor group that attacked Rick, Glenn (Steven Yeun), and Hershel. As fans may recall, Randall is the assailant that was mercifully rescued by Rick during a zombie raid that followed the bar shooting in town (E9, “Triggerfinger”). Broken down, Randall confesses that the group he ran with once raped two female survivors, forcing their father to watch. When Daryl relays this nasty piece of intel to the others, the group is convinced that Randall is a threat that needs to be eliminated, lest all the other survivors be put at risk.
Circumstances are, at this juncture, distinctly exacerbated by the two male leads in the pack, Rick and Shane, who are vying for power — the latter of which believes that ex-lover Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), Rick’s wife, is carrying his unborn child. As such, an even more pressing sense of measure (to ensure the safety of the group) is being relegated to Shane and Rick (respectively), who both demonstrate conflicting codes of ethics as the story progresses.
Meanwhile, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), is shocked and mortified by the group’s very openness to killing another human being (one of the “living”), especially for crimes that Randall (only a “boy”) will supposedly commit in the near future. From his purview, Randall’s execution would utterly destroy any semblance of the civilization they knew before the apocalypse. Dale, as it were, stands for the last caterwaul of humanity in a soulless, dog-eat-dog world of chaos and warring tribes. (Again, the brilliance of this show is that the zombies are oftentimes the survivor group’s least of concerns.)
Making matters worse is Carl (Chandler Riggs), Rick’s young son, who is beginning to show signs of mental deterioration. Who can blame him, given the world he’s being reared in? Carl, gradually becoming more obsessed with being able to fend for himself, steals a gun and (recklessly) wanders off into the woods. There, he encounters a walker, whose feet and ankles are buried in a patch of thick mud. When Carl fails to kill the walker, however, it breaks free of its muddy fetters and nearly has Carl for dinner.
Carl escapes, but only barely.
It’s enough to want to smack the kid over the back of the head: “What did you think would happen, dude? Have we already forgotten what happened to Sofia?”
At the farm, as the group palavers over the fate of their prisoner, Dale delivers a speech of I Have a Dream proportions to stop Randall’s execution, but to no avail. The overwhelming majority of the star coterie (including a spirit-crushed Hershel) would rather concede to Shane’s paradoxical code of peacekeeping (without death, there is no life) than cater to giving Randall a chance to prove himself as a future member of the pack, and thus put everyone’s life at risk.
Yes, Rick is leading the way. But let’s face it, Rick wouldn’t even be entertaining the thought of executing Randall if it weren’t for Shane’s toxic, Machiavellian vibes, right?
Shortly thereafter, Rick, Shane and Daryl take Randall to the barn to execute him. They tie him up, blindfold him, kneel him down, and grant him a moment for expressing any last words. Now, as unsurprising as it was for Rick not to go through with the shooting (it was explicitly contrived of the writers to have Carl show up and, surprise surprise, derail his father’s resolve), it was as diametrically shocking to see Dale get his guts torn out by the Mud Zombie during a walk into a dark field to investigate a strange sound. The very walker that Carl essentially led back to the group, no less. Nice touch. Unexpected, too.
I don’t know about you guys, but my zombie apocalypse handbook says if you’re going to investigate a strange sound, don’t go alone. Lest you’re left dealing with the Mud Zombie by yourself:
DALE’S DEATH & ITS SIGNIFICANCE
It was a heartbreaking, gut wrenching (pun intended) scene. Dale, the remnant symbol of moral conduct, virtue, and grace was, in no direct terms, sacrificed. While it’s something I could not predict, I applaud the writers for employing what may be a necessary evil.
In the coming episodes, I foresee puddles of ignitable fodder in each member of the surviving ensemble, as they contemplate who they were before the apocalypse hardened their souls. Dale was, essentially, a mirror to who they were becoming, and it was treading alarmingly close to what the undead have become. While gruesome, his death was quasi “Christ-like,” as it inevitably ushered in (at least in my estimation) a stronger will to honor his message by those in the group more inclined to step forward and live an incorruptible and principled life, even despite the relentless threat of dismemberment and infection all around them. And who might that individual be? My humble prediction: Rick. And Shane will be right there to meet him, going the opposite direction.
Of course, I could be proven wrong. As tired and worn as the zombie-apocalypse genre may be by 2012’s standards, The Walking Dead is a new breed of putrefaction that rots in defiance of its cadaverous cousins. I don’t know about you, but I’m sold on season 2.