'The Walking Dead' Lurches On, Unevenly

In season two's second episode, 'Bloodletting,' the the AMC series's action sequences continue to thrill even as the writing continues to frustrate

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AMCtv.com photo by Bob Mahoney / TWD productions

You just can't keep zombies down. Despite a frustratingly uneven second-season premiere, The Walking Dead's ratings have never been better. Fortunately, "Bloodletting," the second episode of season 2, is a step up from the first episode, and it introduces new characters and plot points that open up a lot of promising opportunities for the episodes to come. But The Walking Dead isn't firing on all cylinders quite yet.

"Bloodletting" opens with a flashback—a good idea, but in this case a wasted one. Since The Walking Dead's main characters spend so much of their time in peril, pre-outbreak flashbacks seemingly provide a convenient way to reveal aspects of their personalities that go beyond fright or fatigue. The Walking Dead employed a flashback once before; last year's finale showed Shane frantically (but ultimately unsuccessfully) trying to save the comatose Rick from the hospital during the initial zombie outbreak. That scene provided important context for Shane, who had recently aimed a gun at Rick, by revealing that not so long ago he had truly done everything he could to save Rick's life. By contrast, last night's flashback was a rote exercise in parallel plotting—instead of Carl crying over Rick's gunshot wound, Rick is crying over Carl's. But the actual scene offered no new insight into characters or events. Lori and Rick's marriage was in trouble. Shane was supportive. We've heard these stories before.

Back in the present, we meet the Greenes, who are living on a large farm that's almost utopian compared to the chaos of the rest of the world. The family's patriarch, Hershel Greene, is a smart addition to The Walking Dead cast. He's the flipside to last season's doomed Dr. Jenner, who died averring that the zombie outbreak would be humankind's "extinction event." Greene, by contrast, is an optimist, likening the zombie epidemic to AIDS and the plague before it: "We get our behinds kicked for a while, and then we bounce back." Of course, it's too early to tell whether Jenner or Greene is right about the fate of humankind. Jenner worked with the disease firsthand, which seems to make him a more credible source than a country veterinarian; then again, Greene is alive, and Jenner is dead.

We've spent a decent amount of screen time with three of the Greenes—Hershel, Otis, and Maggie—and so far each of them appears trustworthy. It would be nice to see a villain emerge from within or without the survivor group soon; with Jenner dead, Merle Dixon missing, and Daryl turning antihero, the series could use someone who stirs things up amid all the zombie attacks. But it's also smart to give our heroes a safe haven for the short run. Some of the first season's most compelling scenes (and certainly the one that developed its characters best) took place when the characters had a little breathing room: the banter over food and wine at the CDC, or the women laughing as they admitted to each other that they missed their vibrators. Here's hoping there will be an opportunity for some actual conversation with the Greenes if the wounded Carl is stabilized.

Unsurprisingly, most of the scenes that don't work in "Bloodletting" feature our regular band of survivors, who generally remain as one-note as ever (of the main cast, Daryl—whose backwoods pragmatism continues to come in handy—is the most interesting). For whatever reason, the writing staff on The Walking Dead has a tendency to have the series' characters reiterate the same talking points over and over until any actual nuance they once possessed is lost. In last week's premiere, it was the irritating, repetitive confrontation between Andrea and Dale over Dale's refusal to let Andrea commit suicide. The two characters argued and argued, saying the same things—"I saved your life" versus "it was my choice to make"—in four or five different ways.

This week's most repetitive dialogue was centered on Rick's inexplicable insistence on leaving his son's bedside. At first, Rick wants to leave the farm to find Lori and tell her that Carl has been shot. Shane tells Rick that he won't let Rick leave Carl's side, and he's right—both practically, since Rick needs to be there for blood transfusions, and emotionally, since Rick would never forgive himself if Carl died while he was away. Rick agrees, and Hershel's daughter Maggie gallops off to find Lori and bring her to the farm. Problem solved—until the exact same conflict happens later in the episode between Rick and Lori, when Rick tries to leave the farm again, even though absolutely none of the reasons for him to stay have changed. There are ways these annoyances can be brushed away—saying that Rick is acting out of shock of grief, or that he thinks they won't be able to recover the medical supplies without his help—but it's a problem when the viewer has to make excuses for inconsistent characterization or bad writing.

The episode ends with Shane and Otis making a desperate attempt to recover medical supplies from a zombie-infested FEMA shelter. Whatever The Walking Dead's problems, its action sequences are reliably thrilling, and this one doesn't disappoint: After Shane cleverly draws the zombies away with a few well-placed flares, the two recover the supplies, but get cornered by the undead before they manage to escape.

At the bare minimum, The Walking Dead should be exciting, and the final moments of "Bloodletting" provides more than enough action. Let's hope that next week's episode brings the rest of the show up to speed.

Note: For the sake of those who haven't read The Walking Dead comics series, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.