The 'Walking Dead' Season-Finale Report Card

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.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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