S2E1: If you were expecting one of television's most interesting dramas to experience a sophomore slump, my bet is that on Sunday night, you found you were gravely mistaken. The Walking Dead's Season Two premiere not only lived up to, but surpassed my expectations. The pace is frantic and unpredictable from the second the episode opens and that energy carries throughout. For a regular series, that statement would probably lend itself to criticism, but the almost disjointed pace of The Walking Dead is part of why it works - it's the closest thing to reality that can you achieve on a show about flesh-eating zombies. Speaking of reality, the quality of zombies is not diminished this episode - just ask the snarling, seething one that follows Andrea into the RV bathroom.
The episode opens exactly where we left off, with our heroes fleeing the CDC explosion in Atlanta in hopes of finding greener pastures. But seeing as nothing is ever simple for the survivors, it's only a few minutes into the episode before they run into trouble - and I'm not referring to the fact that the RV breaks down. That's just the turning point in a series of unfortunate occurrences, starting with an onslaught of walkers on the highway.
"This is a graveyard." -Lori
Buoyed by the opening scene in which Rick sends a message to Morgan about the group leaving Atlanta and delivers that sound byte we've heard on every preview for Season Two - "right now it's all about slim chances" - our survivors barrel along. They're shaken up, and they now know that there is no cure for the zombie virus. Circumstances are tough, their hopes are dashed and all they can do is hang on to their slim chances for survival.
That's when Dale's RV breaks down in the middle of a highway stacked with abandoned cars. The survivors search the cars for items they can use to fix the RV and to survive - a logical move that doesn't sit well with Lori. It brings up the compelling question of whether scavenging for survival is necessary or disrespectful. Despite that, things seem all too easy, so I doubt I was the only one who expected the wave of walkers that comes slinking toward our crew, leaving them no time to escape. Rick, Carl, Lori, Carol and Sophia hide under cars when time allows them to do little else. Dale crouches on top of the RV and T Dogg and Daryl sneak around in hopes of taking a few of the bastards out. Andrea, busy trying to put her gun back together, doesn't notice the walkers and ends up trapped in the RV bathroom in an attempt to hide. That's when it all goes to hell.
A walker figures out Andrea's in the bathroom and begins trying to break in until Dale drops a screwdriver in through the sunroof so Andrea can stab the drone in its eye until it slumps over. T Dogg accidentally slashes his arm and almost becomes zombie bait, when Daryl comes out of nowhere like some sort of Navy Seal/ undead assassin and stabs the zombie in the back of the neck, covers T Dogg with dead bodies and then slips under a few of them himself. Finally, we have the folks lying under the cars - which was a bit of a half-baked move. When it seems all is clear, Sophia peeks out and is spotted by a walker who chases into the woods while her mother watches helplessly from the underbelly of another car. Thankfully Rick quickly follows and coaxes the walkers away from the little girl, and since a shot would call more walkers to their location, he bashes both their heads in with a large rock. And you thought budget cuts were going to tame this show.
There is one slight issue: when he follows and kills the walkers, Rick leaves Sophia in a hiding place, and despite his helpful instructions, she gets lost on her way back to camp. Thus, the episode spends the majority of its time with a hunt for Carol's young daughter.
"We cut the sonabitch open. Made sure." -Daryl
First Daryl and Rick take off into the forest to find Sophia, and what they find in a walker who looks like he may have been a fan of the grateful dead and outdated formal wear. They kill him - silently - and try to determine whether or not he ate the missing little girl. In an obvious move to outgoo last season's "Guts" episode in which Rick and Glenn wore zombie entrails through the streets of Atlanta, Daryl and Rick cut open the hipster zombie when they see it has fresh flesh in its teeth. The sound effects really make it; it's a disgusting and surprisingly comical scene, and the effort is practically useless once they find the remains of a woodchuck in the walker's stomach instead of the missing girl. But at least they know.
While they're gone, Carl finds a weapon set and takes it out of a dead man's arms. The scene was delightfully suspenseful and his mischief gives Lori and Shane a reason to fight. She says "this" (a.k.a. sexual tension) needs to stop - Shane says it will stop because he's leaving.
While we expect when Rick and Daryl return, the others will pat them on the back and say thank you for trying so hard as they spend the whole sleepless night collectively worrying, instead Carol breaks down and blames Rick for making the wrong decisions when he saved Sophia. She blames him. This moment and the distinction that follows is one of the great things about this show: the idea that doing what you think is right or best in the heat of the moment doesn't always work out for the best. This hits Rick hard - all he cares about is doing the right thing. No one else even tried to save Sophia when he ran straight into the walkers' woods. If he hadn't let them away, they may have killed the both of them. He truly did his best, but that could still mean that Sophia met with a grisly end. There are no easy, win-win choices in this environment - and that's something that's hard to accept.
"Stay quiet, stay sharp." -Rick
The next day, most of the group goes after Sophia, with Dale and T Dogg staying behind to fix the RV. Andrea demands her gun back from Dale, who's refusing to give it to her because he's afraid she'll commit suicide. She's livid; she only left the CDC because she didn't want Dale to die for her. All she wanted was to end the "nightmare" and he stole her choice by threatening to stay. It's quite a heavy discussion, but it's a natural one with the world in the state it's in.
As the group searches, they find a tent. Sophia isn't in it, but there is a dead man who appears to have shot himself in the head - great timing considering Andrea's recent outburst. It's just then they hear church bells - they assume Sophia will be there and go running. Unfortunately, it's no Sunday picnic. The necessity of silence is incredibly effective here as they run across the clearing to the church, which is full of walkers and the gothic massacre that ensues is quite the visual. It turns out the bells are a sound effect on a loud speaker set on a timer. They're all rightfully defeated.
Shane and Lori discuss him leaving, and she's worried about the effect it will have on Rick and Carl, but Shane kills it by saying, "I'm the one who loses you." Andrea overhears this and sees an opportunity to have someone to split from the group with her. While they discuss their escape, Carol, Lori and Rick pray in the church. It's an interesting, powerful concept that these people can somehow still have some level of faith in the face of sheer destruction.
"This means something, finding her." -Rick
Rick still carries the guilt for not finding Sophia, so they split up so half can go back to the road and Shane, Carl and Rick can search for the girl. First Rick runs back in to the church to ask the Lord for answers - is he doing the right thing? It's impossible to know the best thing to do out here, and that uncertainty is starting to eat away at him.
Lori, obviously upset by Shane's decision to leave, harps on her group and tells Carol to stop blaming Rick. Rick may not know if he did the right thing, but she's sure he did. As that group treks back, Rick, Carl and Shane keep looking for Sophia and happen upon a deer. In what seems like a happy, stolen moment, Carl moves toward the deer gleefully but at an almost excruciatingly slow pace. When he's about to get close enough to touch it, the unthinkable happens: a bullet goes through the deer and straight into Carl. And like the badass it is, the show leaves us right there with nothing but mountains of worry on our shoulders.
The series is off to an incredible start for its second season. All of the characters have grown - especially Daryl who never would have helped T Dogg before the bonding CDC ordeal. The episode placed both children in harm's way, while most series tend to have an unspoken bond that the children will generally have brushes with death but never really succumb to its grip. Either one of the show's youngest characters could be done for, and that's one of the most terrifying and compelling aspects of The Walking Dead. When they say no one is safe, they mean it.