The Walking Dead's six-episode premiere season felt like a snapshot of a greater program to come. From a narrative standpoint, the show successfully examined both the collective scope and individual cost of civilization's rapid disintegration in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. While segments of season one felt incomplete and rushed, The Walking Dead always managed to pay homage to horror/western tropes while making them feel new again, even dangerous. Showrunner Frank Darabont, fired from his post in July of last year, instilled a sense of lived-in dread and solace by advocating a profoundly cinematic style of filmmaking (tracking shots, wide angles, etc.) and effects (such as lens flares) for precise dramatic pacing.
Whereas season one embraced a rambling, almost nomadic sensibility, the second, shepherded by new showrunner Glen Mazarra, settles down in one location early on, allowing for the show's key themes—legacy, family, and jealously—to resonate. The nuances of emotional and physical destruction are still paramount, and the shift from the urban desolation of Atlanta to the back roads and dense forests of the Georgia countryside is a welcome one, offering a multitude of new conflicts and spatial possibilities. But there's also a suffocating focus on interpersonal relationships between couples, which often grow tiresome in their repetitive nature and pedantic resolutions.
During the superb first episode, aptly titled “What Lies Ahead,” Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his weathered crew of survivors hit the road for the safe confines (so they think) of Fort Benning. Almost immediately, they come across the remains of a massive traffic pile-up on a desolate highway. Trapped by a mountain of wreckage, the group is exposed, vulnerable to the many predators (living and undead) roaming the terrain. As the group forages for goods in the abandoned cars, a gigantic herd of “walkers” quickly descend on their location. Rick and the others scurry under cars, watching as their position is overrun. The walkers eerily march by in unison, unaware of the fresh meat a few feet away. It's the season's most effective and frightening set piece, displaying a pinpoint sense of timing that exemplifies the sudden helplessness inherent to this stark new world.
The sudden disappearance of young Sofia (Madison Lintz), who flees the highway after being attacked by a walker, initiates the season's crucial disquisition on the panic and heartache of separation. The relentless search for the girl in the impending episodes inevitably divides the group morally and ethically, ultimately testing Rick's resolve as a leader. Desperate circumstances lead them to an isolated farmhouse where a country doctor, Hershel (the great Scott Wilson), his daughter, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and a few other survivors live quietly apart from the mass carnage. Rick and his group settle on the outskirts of Hershel's property, creating a new community of sorts between two factions of people whose close proximity reveals hidden secrets on both sides.
With its emphasis on suffocating close-ups and bland static master shots, The Walking Dead is now, under Mazarra's control, stylistically different from Darabont's more fluid vision of the show, but its sterling establishment of mood remains the same. Indeed, the second season's best moments stem from contained set pieces where Rick and others must make life-changing decisions without the luxury of time or reflection.
In “Nebraska,” a brilliant episode about random brutality as a fact of life, Rick ventures into a country town looking for Hershel, who's fled the confines of his farm for the local watering hole after the psychologically damaged Shane (Jon Bernthal) rashly massacres a bunch of walkers, among them friends and family, stowed away in the doctor's barn. During a heated conversation inside the dilapidated bar, Rick and Glenn (Steven Yeun) talk down Hershel from self-destruction. Suddenly, two roaming gunslingers interrupt the proceedings. What begins as a sobering moment of camaraderie instantly turns into a western-style standoff; words become weapons and the fate of the entire group rests in the violent outcome. Surprising moments like this one fill The Walking Dead with a palpable unpredictability, the feeling that at any moment one's path can permanently shift in an unforeseen direction.
Unfortunately, there aren't nearly enough sequences like this one to make up for the often-tedious writing, which leans heavily on ideological and emotional speeches. The exhausting tug of war between Rick and Shane, a man whose jealousy reaches deadly proportions in “Better Angels,” is endlessly frustrating, with both talented actors stuck in a kind of narrative quicksand that bogs down the drama in repetitive verbal standoffs. Many of the other ongoing narrative threads suffer from the same redundancy, such as the trite romantic travails of Glenn and Maggie, while others, such as subplots involving the wants-to-be-gun-totin' Andrea (Laurie Holden) and the morally conflicted Daryl (the heinously underused Norman Reedus) are simply undercooked.
By the end its sophomore season, The Walking Dead remains a frustratingly mixed bag of intense highs and melodramatic lows. On the one hand, it's a show fascinated with creating complex mise-en-scène, whose nuances are brilliantly expressive of character. But one can't deny that a certain redundancy has set in regarding its storylines and character developments. With 19 episodes now in the can, it remains to be seen if the producers will ever be able to reconcile the show's competing strengths and weaknesses, which seem, at present, fused together at their core.
Anchor Bay's 1080p transfer is nothing to get too excited over. The blown-out yellows and vibrant greens and blues that dominate the show's color palette appear over saturated during several day scenes and poorly shaded during certain night scenes. Still, the crispness of the image gives the myriad of kill shots and zombie close-ups a textured and grotesque dimension. Sound is also a mixed bag, as many dialogue sequences are difficult to hear even on high volume, while ambient noises like gunshots are deafening. There seems to be a leveling issue between the competing audio tracks.
Suffocating and overwhelming. Five different audio commentaries provide more than enough perspective from new showrunner Glen Mazzara, director Ernest Dickerson, and a host of other above-the-line talent. Creator Robert Kirkland's musings about the evolution of a walker "herd" on episode 13's commentary track reveals just how much attention to detail and motivation (even on an undead level) goes into creating The Walking Dead. If the commentaries don't give you enough flesh-eating context, then the 11 featurettes, many five-to-seven minutes in length, will more than finish the job. Each covers a different aspect of the production process, from zombie special effects to theme music. "All the Guts Inside," which documents an infamous scene early in the season where Rick and Darryl perform an autopsy on a walker to determine the contents of its stomach, is especially nasty. Finally, there's 30 minutes of deleted scenes that offer alternate narrative routes and perspectives for key moments. Only the most devout fans of The Walking Dead will froth at the mouth for this extended coverage.
After two seasons of extreme human toil and relentless zombie carnage, The Walking Dead remains a frustrating mixed bag of intense highs and melodramatic lows.