The 'Walking Dead' Season-Finale Report Card

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Was the second part of the zombie show's second season able to make up for its lousy first half?

AMC

It's been an up-and-down year for The Walking Dead, which set ratings records even as it dealt with widely-publicized problems behind the camera. Showrunner Frank Darabont left (or, depending on reports, was fired from) the series amid reports of budget cuts, leaving producer Glen Mazzara to take over the job for the second season's final six episodes. It was a tall order. The off-camera tension was apparent in the slow, disappointing first half of The Walking Dead's second season, which drew widespread, justified criticism for poor dialogue and a meandering, wheel-spinning plot.

But it wasn't too late for the zombie series to be resurrected. After The Walking Dead's midseason finale aired last November, I wrote an article titled "5 Ways to Fix The Walking Dead," outlining the series' most irritating flaws and describing potential solutions. Now that The Walking Dead's season finale, "Beside the Dying Fire," has aired, it's time to give the second season of AMC's most popular series its final report card. Did the final six episodes of The Walking Dead's second season make up for the disappointing sophomore slump of its first seven?

1. Stop repeating scenes

Verdict: Improved

The Walking Dead ran seven episodes before its midseason hiatus last November, but in retrospect there was really only enough story for two or three. The show was mired in a seemingly-endless search for Sophia, which required the plot to inch forward at a snail's pace to preserve its big reveal for the final moments of the midseason finale. To fill the dead time, each of the show's characters had a single, repetitive talking point, and major conflicts—Rick vs. Hershel, or Shane vs. Lori or Andrea vs. Dale—would be tabled and revisited each episode, without ever achieving any actual resolution.

The Walking Dead still isn't perfect on this front—certain repetitive storylines (like Lori's apparent inability to keep track of Carl for more than eight consecutive seconds) continue to grate. But there are promising signs that The Walking Dead's status quo is actually changing. Dale, whose whiny moralizing made him one of the show's more irritating characters, was killed off in the series' most intriguing deviation from its comic-book roots. And Lori's horror at Rick's brutal confession in last night's finale, which ended with Rick conceding that he "wanted [Shane] dead," indicates a moral gulf growing between the couple that's far more interesting than another debate about raising a child in a zombie apocalypse.

2. Embrace the genre

Verdict: Much improved

The creative team behind The Walking Dead loves to wax rhapsodic about how the series' prime focus is its characters. But let's acknowledge the real reason The Walking Dead is the top-rated cable drama for adults aged 18-49: zombies. After a tepid start to the season, the back half offered several impressive zombie attacks, from Shane's standoff in a school bus in "Secrets" to last night's barn-burning assault by a massive zombie herd. It doesn't hurt that Greg Nicotero's special effects work continues to improve—seriously, compare the pilot's so-so zombie makeup to the rotting, shambling grotesqueries of recent episodes—and now that the group has lost its safe haven, the potential for exciting, horrific zombie attacks has grown exponentially higher.

But the most promising development by far is the appearance of Michonne, who rescued Andrea from death-by-zombie in last night's finale. The mysterious character, a fan-favorite of the comics, earned an appropriately Grand Guignol entrance: shrouded in a hood and wielding a katana, trailed by two "pet" zombies that she's disarmed in the most literal sense of the word. Michonne (who will be played by Treme's Danai Gurira in The Walking Dead's third season) is way, way crazier than anything we've seen on The Walking Dead so far—and that's a good thing. The Walking Dead shouldn't be all comic-book gore all the time, but it's nice to see the series balancing its soapier, more turgid side with the pulpier aspects of its source material.

3. Develop characters through flashbacks

Verdict: Needs improvement

Last night's finale technically opened with a flashback - showing the zombie herd's path from Atlanta to Hershel's farm—but that didn't exactly offer any more insight into the characters. Showrunner Glen Mazzara has repeatedly indicated in interviews that he's not interested in using flashbacks on The Walking Dead—even reiterating in a post-mortem about last night's finale that his sole plan for the series is "to propel the story forward."

But in the end, the problem isn't merely the lack of flashbacks; it's the feeling that none of these characters had lives before the zombie apocalypse. If Mazzara is determined not to use flashbacks, he can accomplish the same thing through dialogue. Dropping little details about the characters' pre-zombie pasts—like Dale's reference to the fact that Andrea was once a civil rights attorney—would make these two-dimensional characters feel at least 2.5-dimensional, and give us some reason to invest in barely fleshed-out characters like T-Dog.

4. Keep things moving

Verdict: Much improved

Back in November, I wrote that it was "time to get off the farm and hit the road again." It took another six episodes (and another four months), but The Walking Dead finally said goodbye to the Greene farm in the most definitive way imaginable: overrunning it with zombies and burning it to the ground. After a full season, we're finally back on the road—and, from the looks of things, headed to the much more dynamic location of the prison next season.

But outside of the static location, the back half of The Walking Dead's second season deserves credit for zipping the plot along. As the series' body count has risen, so have the emotional stakes, and the loss of two major cast members—as well as several familiar but minor ones—have given the back half of the season a dramatic heft that the first half lacked. Now that the series has definitively resolved the "Rick vs. Shane" conflict that defined most of its storyline up to this point, it can introduce new allies and antagonists—including the series' most notorious villain, the Governor (who will be played by David Morrissey in the third season).

5. Punish morality or force moral compromises

Verdict: Much improved

Last November, I wrote that Rick was poised to follow either the path of moral honor (like Game of Thrones' Ned Stark) or the path of moral corruption (like Breaking Bad's Walter White). It's clear from "Beside the Dying Fire" that Rick has chosen the latter; his grim speech to the remaining survivors—which concludes with him snarling that the group "isn't a democracy anymore"—would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the season. (Andrew Lincoln deserves ample credit for convincingly portraying the total shift in Rick's character over the 13-episode arc.)

The greatest success of the last six episodes has been cementing the change in Rick's character, which was heralded by his killing of the zombified Sophia in the final moments of "Pretty Much Dead Already." Rick has clearly abandoned his once-staunch philosophy "we don't kill the living," and he resembles the best friend he was forced to kill more and more with each passing scene. Rick claims, unconvincingly, that his "hands are clean" in the final moments of last night's episode—but they're bound to get a lot dirtier before the series ends.

The Walking Dead isn't a perfect series, but it's headed in the right direction. If these early signs are any indication, its third season—which premieres with a 16-episode order next October—could be its strongest yet.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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