“Pretty Much Dead Already” is an important episode. Not only is it the midseason finale (yay cliffhangers!), but it’s also the line in the sand between Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara as head honcho of The Walking Dead. This season has had some high points, low points, and points hovering somewhere just below middling, so I, for one, hope the change in leadership will bring about a tighter ship. Or at the very least finally settle on being adequate and run with it. We won’t get a real feel for Mazzara’s techniques until next year, but fortunately for Darabont, “Pretty Much Dead Already” made for a high note to bow out on.
For the first 45 minutes, this episode was more or less rank and file with the rest of the season: a few sparkles of greatness, some head-scratchingly stupid moves, and a whole heckuva lot prime cut bullhockey. Dale, Andrea, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, and Maggie are stuck in school grade romances where you always hurt the one you love, Shane is out to prove he’s the biggest, toughest, meanest meanie on the playground, and Rick wants to be the bestest 8th grade class president evar. Oh, and T-Dog and the other Hershel hangers on were doing stuff over there or whatever.
Before I get to the really good stuff, that scene with Daryl and Carol in the stables really sticks in my craw. I get that Carol might come to a point where she realizes she may never find her child (or find her alive), but I don’t buy two things about that scene in the stable:
1.) It’s only been, like, a week, two at the most, since Sophia went poof. The Carol that has been established wouldn’t have shrugged and said “oh, well” after such a short amount of time. No good mother would.
2.) Worse, to have her trade her missing daughter for a dude? Oh, Daryl, it’s fine that my only child might never be found again, but you’re here so that’s cool. Makeouts? Truthfully, I think the timing and the structure of the conversation conveyed something the writers weren’t intending. Much like Dale’s confrontation with Shane last week (and this week in the swamp) that made him come off like a busybody jealous boyfriend rather than someone concerned about the loose cannon with a gun, I don’t think the writers realized what they were doing with Carol and Daryl. What was (probably...hopefully?) supposed to be a scene that established romantic tension and pragmatic acceptance of a painful scenario came off as Carol ready to ditch Sophia for Daryl. This made Daryl’s reaction seem less like someone upset about people giving up on a lost cause (because he was a lost cause once and there was no one there to look out for him, says your Psychology 101 professor) and more like he was pissed over her sexual overtures.
Okay, rant over. On to more entertaining topics. There’s a lot to unpack about this episode, almost all of it falling in the third act. “Dead Already” resolved Glenn and Maggie’s spat over the barn walkers in such a way that it felt like a real couple’s argument and not just a case of a bitter single woman nagging her sex-stud boyfriend. They had a problem, they discussed it, they came to an agreeable compromise, and then they stuck to it. Glenn looking back at Maggie before joining in on the gunfight wasn’t “Mommy can I have a cookie?” but “I need to do this and are you okay with it?” And she was, because she’s the only smart person on the show. The writers have set Rick up to be the straight man, but Maggie’s got that role locked down. I really hope that if/when they leave Hershel’s farm Maggie goes with. She’s too great a character (and Lauren Cohan is too great an actress) to ditch after a handful of episodes.
Then there’s Lori’s fear about being pregnant in a world where that makes her a supersized happy meal to a hungry walker, compounded with Rick’s panic over the very real possibility that he could lose his wife and unborn child if they’re forced out of Hershel’s idyll, and divided by Shane’s mounting instability. He’s been acting a fool ever since murdering Otis but the more he keeps pushing the ethical envelope the easier it gets. As long as he can keep justifying slaughtering a shuffle of zombies — which he’s only doing as a slap to Rick’s face, not out of any real sense of protection or concern — he can keep tinkering with his moral compass and not feel guilty. Berenthal’s treading on some moustache-twirling villainy, but for the most part he pulled it off.
We’ve also got Hershel’s steadfast insistence that the undead are really just people with a bad case of the sicks, and the look on his face as he watched all that explode in a hail of bullets and decaying guts was wrenching. Rick is right, Hershel’s ignorance of the realities of the zombie apocalypse made him make an incredibly stupid, risky, and dangerous decision to keep them in lockup. The walkers would have escaped eventually, and without weapons Hershel and co. would quickly be overrun. Rick would have never been able to convince him to take out the walkers anymore than you could convince me to execute my neighbors because you don’t like the way they park their cars.
Rick has kept his zombie killing to the bare minimum. He’s still uncomfortable with the whole thing, though he’s willing to do what needs to be done. Lori’s recognition of that is why she is so against Carl having a gun. He’s not old enough to have the life experience he needs to keep killing zombies and still have a conscience about it. She’s — rightfully — afraid of his becoming too casual about it, of having death and killing become routine, of him turning into Shane. That’s why she tells Shane even if it is his baby (a probability I don’t think Rick’s thought through yet) it will never truly be his. As the show kept saying, Rick isn’t built for this world and Shane fits too neatly in it. And while the latter significantly increases your chance of survival, the former allows you to keep your humanity intact.
And then there’s Sophia. If the writers would spend even half the energy on character development that they do on big moments like Rick putting Sophia out of her misery I could put my Negative Nelly hat to better use on Terra Nova and American Horror Story. Because that was a truly great moment in the show’s history. I’ve long suspected Sophia was toast and that it was just a matter of time before we found her moaning about brains (in Woodbury perhaps?). But her being part of Hershel’s petting zoo was unexpected. (I guess I should have been more prepared, after all AMC showed Rick shooting the little girl from the gas station in the preview wink wink nudge nudge.) The only things that detracted from the scene were Rick screaming at Hershel to take the pole (what, no one else was physically capable of holding a dead dude on a stick except an ex-cop and an old man?) and Shane’s peacock posturing and caveman chest-beating (yes, we get it, you’re upset, but please, dude, take a chill pill). But the good bits outweighed the heavy-handedness of the rest of the scene.
For a show that manhandles subtlety as often as it does, it was a nice touch to give all of Shane’s supporters guns and turn them into a mini army against the walkers. Better still, they’ve spent all of their free time hunting for Sophia and talking about how they should just abandon her because she’s probably dead, well, that came back to bite them on the ass when she strolled out of that barn. It’s one thing to talk about eventualities, it’s a whole ’nother thing to be hit over the head with them.
In the end it came down to Rick. It always comes down to Rick. Through all of Shane’s grousing, Andrea’s harping, Dale’s backbiting, Glenn and Maggie’s face sucking, Lori’s whinging, Carol’s whimpering, Daryl’s ass kicking badassery, and T-Dog’s T-Dogging, Rick remains above it. A good leader doesn’t have to march around in military dress shouting commands and looking impressive (notice how Rick’s stopped wearing his uniform and Shane’s wearing pseudo army duds?). A good leader is diplomatic, compassionate, can compromise for the good of the group, and can guide the followers without making them feel like they don’t have a choice. A good leader makes the hard decisions, takes the bullet, and does the dirtiest work in order to maintain the group. Shane may be hopping all over his moral lines in the sand, but killing a little girl isn’t something he’s ready for. None of them are, not even Rick. But Shane and Hershel got them into this mess and someone’s got to get them out of it. Sophia had to be put down, and Rick was the only one brave enough to do it. And now he has to carry that with him for the rest of his life.
Well, folks, that’s it until February 2012. What’d you think? Did the finale restore your faith in the show or shore up your criticisms? I’d also love to hear your theories about come what may in the comments section — just remember, if you’re dragging in stuff from the comics, please preface it with a big ’ole SPOILERS tag so we don’t ruin things for the virgins. So, conspiracists and fans, where do you think The Walking Dead is headed? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my newest favorite behind the scenes photo ever taken. See ya’ll in a few months!
- “Hey, where’d you go?” “I’m here.”
- “How many times has Rick saved your life?” Good job, Shane. Women love it when men keep score against each other.
- “At least I can say when this world went to shit I didn’t let it take me down.” “Fair enough.”
- “I forgot that they’re dangerous.”
- “I wanna take Norman Reedus behind the middle school and get him pregnant”
- Shane, haven’t you ever heard the phrase “don’t poke the bear in the zoo”? That applies to cannibalistic corpses, too.
- Lori still has Carl doing homework. +10 mom points.
- It’s a shame when a 10 year old has a better moral compass than a 30-something year old man.
- If the Emmys had a scenery chewing award, Jon Berenthal would win hands down.
- So you mean to tell me that Hershel’s had to listen to them talk about a missing little girl all this time and he’s had her in his barn and didn’t say anything? Nope, not cool, man, not cool.
Alex Brown is an archivist and reference librarian by day, writer by night, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.