‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Nebraska’: This guy walks into a bar…

“The Walking Dead” is back from its mid-season hiatus. I posted an interview with producers Glen Mazzara and Robert Kirkman on Friday, and I have a review of tonight’s episode coming up just as soon as I check the map…

“There is no hope, and you know it now, like I do, don’t you?” -Herschel

Earlier this week, Mazzara had a Twitter back-and-forth with Damon Lindelof that included Mazzara telling the “Lost” co-creator that “TWD” is following in that show’s footsteps. The structure and setting of “The Walking Dead” isn’t quite like “Lost” – this show isn’t interested in what caused the plague or how to stop it, whereas “Lost” devoted a whole lot of time to wondering what the island was, who Jacob was, etc. – but it feels very similar in a lot of ways, and not just because Daryl is slowly morphing into Sawyer. (This week, he even nicknamed Lori “Olive Oyl.”) You have a group of relative strangers bound together by tragedy, trying to survive in hostile terrain with no hope of rescue, and you also have a show that’s trying to take a familiar sci-fi/horror conceit as seriously as possible and use it to tell character-driven stories.

We can argue how successful “The Walking Dead” has been at the characterization, but that’s been the goal. And there is one way in which structurally the two series feel like they have a lot in common, particularly when we’re discussing the second season of each. When “Lost” got to its second (and third, for that matter) season, it feel into a pattern where all the good stuff tended to happen at either the beginning or the end on both a micro and macro level – where episodes would start with a bang, then wander aimlessly until a great final scene, or where the seasons would have great premieres and finales and drag for a long time in between.

And that feels something like the pattern we’re seeing in “TWD” this year. I thought the premiere was terrific, and I was wowed by the end of the mid-season finale, but there’s been a whole lot of standing around and talking during this interlude on Herschel’s farm, most of it being done by characters who don’t feel significantly deeper or more likable than when we met them at the quarry last season.

When I talked to Mazzara and Kirkman, they acknowledged that the farm episodes may have played slower than they intended, but also said that those episodes will take on greater weight in hindsight once we see where the season is going. And maybe they’ll be proven right. But having only seen “Nebraska” for now, it feels like that good beginning/blah middle/good ending pattern continues.

The opening scene, picking up seconds after Rick put a bullet through the thing that used to be Sophia, was great: the emotion felt every bit as palpable as it was at the end of November, and the image of Andrea with the scythe was terrific. And the climactic scene at the local bar, with Rick and Glen and Herschel having to deal with two human interlopers, was as suspenseful as any the show has ever done featuring actual monsters. (Or, rather, it suggested that in this brave new world, people can represent just as much danger as walkers.) Fantastic acting from Michael Raymond-James from “Terriers” as the chattier of the two – my only regret is that he died so quickly, as I found him more charismatic in a few minutes than a good chunk of the regular ensemble – and direction from Clark Johnson (the first of what I hope will be many gigs on AMC shows).

In between the opening credits and the scene at the bar, though? More of the same.

Though the show made me feel the weight of Sophia’s loss in that moment where she walked out of the barn in November, once things went quieter, she went back to being a non-entity. (When Glen lamented that they had lost others, but, “This was Sophia,” I wondered if perhaps he was speaking of an alternate version of the show where Carol and Sophia were the main characters and Carl was only relevant as Sophia’s occasional playmate.)

After Dale got a brain-ectomy right before his plan to hide all their weapons in the middle of a swamp in the previous episode, I was glad to see his intelligence return a bit as he finally theorized what we all know about what happened to Otis. But that flash doesn’t matter much, as he’s not the one who will do anything to stop Shane, and Lori’s too naive to believe it. Or maybe she’s just too stupid, as once again we have a character on this show doing something remarkably dumb – in this case, Lori driving out alone (and without telling anyone where she was going, or that she was going) to try to rescue Rick and Glen from their own attempt to rescue Herschel, without any news that they were in danger –  for the sake of generating more plot. I get that the characters are not all rocket scientists, are not dispassionate experts on survivalism and what not to do in the event they become characters in a zombie movie, but there’s a pretty wide gap between being so smart that you extinguish the potential for drama before it can happen and being dumb enough to pass for a walker with just a little make-up help from Greg Nicotero.

I did like Scott Wilson’s work throughout as the broken Herschel, and if the shootout at the bar starts pointing us in the more dangerous direction Mazzara and Kirkman talked about, so much the better. But if “The Walking Dead” can’t break out of its current rut, it’ll remain just good enough to keep watching every week, and just frustrating enough that I’ll question that decision a few times per episode.

What did everybody else think?