‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’: Opening the barn door

A review of tonight’s “The Walking Dead” mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I’m in line for the early bird special…

“I forgot that they’re dangerous.” -Glen

Well, if they’re going to go away until February, this is the way to do it.

I’ve been underwhelmed by a good chunk of the season so far, but tonight’s closing scene was so effective that I think I’m going to remember it far more strongly over the next two-plus months than I will a lot of the dull moments we got during this long stay at Hershel’s farm.

It’s not even that it was a spectacularly-written scene. Sophia had been gone long enough that odds were high she’d turn up as a zombie, and a lot of the behavior leading up to Shane prying the barn door open made no sense. (Even if Rick couldn’t let go of the catch pole and Hershel was too shocked to take it himself, why did no one else in either group either stop Shane or let Rick do it? I buy deeply moral – or deluded – Hershel being paralyzed in that moment, but everybody?) And Shane has gone from morally ambiguous anti-hero into cartoonish villainy, throwing a violent tantrum because Lori spurned him for Rick. 

But it was an example of how much great direction – in this case, from Michelle MacLaren, who’s been responsible for so many things that are awesome on “Breaking Bad” (including Hank + parking lot + magic bullet) – can elevate iffy material. The messy, handheld shooting style of that final sequence made it feel much more intense and apocalyptic than it had any right to be. By the time it was over, I felt shaken – which is no mean trick for a show where I’m not sure I’m invested in what happens to any of the characters (other than maybe Daryl and Glen) going forward.

Was the zombie slaughter – and Rick re-establishing his leadership bonafides by being the only one able to do what needed to be done with Sophia – enough to justify the way the show has dragged for weeks now, rehashing the same 3 or 4 arguments over and over and over again? Was it even enough to make up for the sluggish earlier parts of this episode? Probably not, no – though Sophia’s fate did put a good button on Rick and Lori’s ongoing debate about the place of children in this world – but if it serves as a kick in the behind to Glen Mazzara and company going forward, I’ll take it.

What the final scene, and Glen’s line I quoted above, should remind everyone is that the post-zombie world is not fun. It’s not idyllic. It’s dangerous. And that’s how the show should feel.

I don’t mean that every episode has to be wall-to-wall zombie attacks. What I mean is that we’ve now spent a half a season with the characters in a relatively idyllic setting, which in theory should have given us a chance to get to know them better, and it didn’t really work at all. Whether it’s the source material, the scripts or the acting, almost everyone comes across as two-dimensional and disposable. But if you put those characters under pressure – even if it’s just the anticipation of something bad coming, as opposed to actually being under siege – their blandness doesn’t matter as much.

I don’t know if they’ll be leaving the farm now, or if Shane will attempt to strongarm their way into staying, but a peacetime “Walking Dead” really didn’t work. A “Walking Dead” where things are tough and people have to actually make hard choices in the moment, rather than talking and talking about having to make them one day in the future, would be a major step back in the right direction.

And until we see whether or not the show heads back in that direction, I can at least remember how I felt watching those last few minutes. They were really, really good.

A few other thoughts:

* Carol potentially pairing off with Daryl? Yawn. Though I’m curious to see who and what she becomes now that Sophia’s dead. She’s definitely the least-developed – or maybe just least interesting – survivor of the folks we met back at the quarry.

* Whether the group stays or goes, I want to see Maggie continue to be part of the show. The writing for the women characters hasn’t been that great this season, but she’s been a notable exception.

* I did like Rick and Hershel’s exchange about Hershel’s belief that “these people can be restored,” and Rick realizing that he’s not talking about the zombies. In Hershel’s mind, people like Rick and Shane have been transformed almost as badly as the walkers. And given what Shane does at the end, purely out of spite, he has something of a point.

* On the other hand, once the secret of what was in the barn came out, why on earth would Hershel let Rick and the others keep searching for Sophia? It’s one thing to hide her existence when he didn’t want them to know about the barn, period, but after? That was just there to set up the “surprise” of her presence.

* While I’m obviously supposed to sympathize with Dale ahead of Shane, no good was going to come of hiding all their guns in a remote part of the swamp. In this case, he’s lucky Shane happened to be following him.

Before we go to the comments, let me remind you once again about the no spoilers rules for this blog, and specifically how it relates to a show like this adapted from a popular source material:

1)No Spoilers.

2)This includes any discussion of the previews for the next episode.

3)This includes any discussion of storylines from the comic that haven’t happened yet in the timeline of the TV show. (And, yes, the show has and will continue to deviate from the comic in some ways, but for the sake of those instances where they’re going to be the same, I don’t want people talking about something from issue 50 when we’re watching episode 11.) 

4)This includes anything you’ve seen or read elsewhere about anything that has not happened within the context of the episodes that have already aired.

Got that? Now what did everybody else think? Did the finale make you more excited for the season’s second half, or less?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com