Is “The Walking Dead” losing its way?

I went into season two of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” thinking it would be a slam dunk. How could it be anything but? The first season, at just six episodes, was one of the most intriguing pieces of television I’ve seen in years. Most of its allure was the pacing. Every episode had moments of pure calm that were invariably interrupted by drooling hordes of zombies. But the zombies didn’t carry the show. The characters did most of the work, which is exactly what a good zombie show needs. We need to care about the characters so that the inevitable losses have some consequence, a task the writers of the show met head-on. All of this is to say that my expectations, high as they were, were based on the merit of the first season.

Season two started well. The survivors from last season had decided to leave Atlanta and head for Fort Benning. They hit a roadblock on the way out of town, which included a brush with a shuffling horde of zombies. We saw a pair of walkers dispatched, the first with a screwdriver through the eye, the second with a quick stab to the brainstem. It was a perfect re-introduction to the gruesome, post-apocalyptic world I loved in season one.

While creative zombie-killing is great, it isn’t enough to carry the show. There has to be some sort of plot. For season one, it was getting into Atlanta and the CDC with the hope of finding more survivors. In season two we have Fort Benning, again with the hope of finding survivors. It’s a fine plot, though it does get quickly derailed when Sophia, one of the children in the group, is chased into the woods and later disappears. Sophia’s disappearance would have been fine had it been contained to just an episode or two, but it has utterly consumed the show.

I think Shane said it best in episode 5 when he said, “…you got 72 hours and then you’re looking for a body, and that was before.” Even if Sophia was a primary character, spending this kind of time looking for her without any indication she may be alive would be maddening. I’m sorry, but no amount of Rick grimacing or Carol staring into the distance will make me care about Sophia’s whereabouts. She just isn’t an interesting character. Leaving the group to stagnate on the farm has made several of them less interesting as well.

Consider Andrea. She was one of the least consistent characters in the first season, but she also lost the most, so her wild character swings at least had some basis. In season two she’s flat-out crazy. She’s become obsessed with carrying a gun, despite the fact that she doesn’t know how to handle one. It’s not even clear why she wants one, other than just to have it, which should raise some questions for the rest of the group.

How have I not yet mentioned that she shot Daryl in the head? In case I haven’t made it clear, she’s untrained with a gun. Regardless, she thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to take a shot at a target that is mere feet from three other human beings and obscured by the sun. Would you want her anywhere near a firearm? I wouldn’t, but apparently the two state sheriffs felt otherwise. In the very next episode she has a gun back in her hand. She even makes jokes with Daryl about shooting him in the head. I’m sorry, AMC, but what the hell are you thinking?

The one good thing to come of Andrea’s utter insanity is that she’s pushing Shane further along his own descent into madness. Shane is the one interesting thing about this season, but his volatility has been wasted on the benign location and the scarcity of drooling undead so far.

I think the general lack of zombies remains my biggest issue with season two. In season one, zombies were everywhere, all the time. The world felt dangerous and unmanageable, and yet, the characters were surviving. At its core, this is what a zombie story is about. It’s about a world we all know and love becoming foreign and dangerous and the efforts we take to make the world knowable and lovable again. Once that world is knowable and lovable, the story ends. The Georgia of “The Walking Dead” is much too comfortable, much too familiar. It’s a feeling I would be fine with for an early episode but not six. It’s time to shake things up. It’s time to leave the farm and try to make the rest of the world a livable place.

  

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