The Walking Dead Review – 2.01 ‘What Lies Ahead’

A bitter struggle to survive. Mindless, shambling antagonists. A dwindling team facing a bleak and uncertain future… But enough about the backstage politics! What did Kieran think of the Season 2 opener?

I can’t imagine The Walking Dead being made by a major network. The offspring of such movies as Day of the Dead, it’s very much a work of horror and lends itself to graphic dismemberments and decapitations, so credit goes to AMC for being brave enough to push the boundaries.

And, until recently, the gamble seemed to be paying off.

The Walking Dead was comfortably the network’s highest rated show last year. It even beat its youth-focused Starz competitor, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Apparently shambling corpses are more interesting than sex and sandals – though I’m scared about what that means for our society generally!

Much of the credit has to go to show runner Frank Darabont, of Shawshank Redemption fame, who brought The Walking Dead to life (sorry) on the small screen. His vision for the series has always been cinematic in scale and technique – breath-taking vistas and hordes of shambling dead counterpoint the small scale drama of the main cast.

Then, with the suddenness of a gunshot to the head, Darabont was sacked in February 2011. The reasons remain unclear, though murky arguments about budget cuts and creative differences have raised their grey rotting heads online. Whatever the truth, it is going to be difficult to maintain the high standards of writing, acting, make-up and assorted other elements which made up the quality on screen. Even worse, the best episodes of Series 1 were those written by Darabont himself and, without him, I worry that the series will become like its protagonists; slow, shambling and lifeless.

For now though, this new season opener, written by Darabont under a pseudonym, has his usual sense of quality about it.

As our band of survivors flees Atlanta in search of Fort Benning, they encounter a road blocked with cars and stop to take advantage of the supplies on offer. However, a large group of zombies is closing in, leading to terrifying chaos and the loss of one of the group.

The thing about The Walking Dead that always strikes me is the equality of its horror. The gore is as inventive as any good horror film – screwdrivers to eyes and crossbow bolts to faces – but the lead characters are in as much danger as everyone else. This includes the children, and the sight of a little girl running from a monster makes the well-worn trope of a chase through the woods feel all the more intense. As Grimes makes clear in the excellent opening monologue, “It’s all about slim chances now”, and the show does not pull any punches.

I’m also a fan of the carefully observed soundscapes. All the major scenes have the buzzing of cicadas as an aural backdrop and music is very rarely deployed. It serves as a great reminder of just how isolated these people are and works to concentrate the action, bringing an almost theatrical intimacy to proceedings. This is crucial because ultimately this show is not about zombie killing. The drama is led by the characters and plot devices are rarely deployed to get the action moving.

Andrew Lincoln (yes, that Andrew Lincoln from old C4 show Teachers) plays Sherriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes with a convincing mix of bravery and doubt. While looked to as an authority figure by the rest of the group, his self-doubt comes across quite naturally, given the situation. I particularly appreciated the reflection by his wife, Lori, that when you take charge you get blamed for the failures you have little to do with. The other characters are both terrified and deeply, humanly petty in equal measure, bickering like children about who gets a gun when the dead are closing in around them.

Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) is Rick’s erstwhile best friend, who remains brave and loyal despite his abortive affair with Lori. Her lack of affection is clearly eating away at him though and this episode highlights his divided loyalties at a time when the group already threatens to crack apart under its own internal pressures.

All in all, I enjoyed this episode. It was very well paced, well-acted and excellently written, with a genuinely shocking cliff hanger. I’m just a little worried about what will happen when they turn the show over to another writer. But still, zombie like, I’ll be watching closely…