Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead debuted on AMC in October of 2010. With the success of the six-episode first season, AMC quickly renewed the apocalyptic zombie series (based on a comic book series of the same name). The second season hit the airwaves a year later, but not without some controversial changes. Despite the show’s overwhelming popularity and a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Series (Drama), Darabont was let go from the series. His departure left uncertainty about whether the quality The Walking Dead would suffer.
While I can’t say whether Darabont’s absence was the cause, the second season did not get off to a great start. The first season had been a taut, fast-paced, dramatic horror tale of survival under the most extreme of circumstances. The first half of the second season ground the show to a slow-paced soap opera with a few bouts of “walker” (the show’s preferred term for zombies) encounters thrown in every once in a while. Luckily, the second half of the season picked up the pace and most of its old walker-killing thrills returned. Further discussion of the season will require some serious plot spoilers, so beware if you haven’t seen it.
In season one, we left off with what was left of the survivors narrowly escaping the explosion at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) building in Atlanta. The second season gets off to a decent start with the group making their way down the highway with little idea of where to go. Their journey is halted by a group of walkers who force them to hide amongst the abandoned cars that litter the highway. In all the confusion, the young child Sophia (Madison Lintz) is lost. After that, the show takes a weak turn that lasts a few episodes. Carl (Chandler Riggs), the young son of the show’s protagonist Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his wife Lori (Sarah Calles), is shot. So the group holes up at a farmhouse occupied by elderly Hershel (Scott Wilson), his daughters, and a couple friends. While I was glad to see some new characters, my interest deteriorated when I realized they were not leaving the farm. Episode after episode had them at either hanging out at the farm or looking for the missing Sophia. Frankly, it got a little boring.
One bright spot was “Chupacabra,” where Daryl (Norman Reedus) goes off on his own to search for Sophia, only to fall on one his own arrows during a walker encounter. He makes his way back to camp after being goaded by hallucinations of his missing brother Merle (Michael Rooker). After eating some raw squirrel meat, he hobbles back to camp only to be shot by Andrea (Laurie Holden), mistaking him for a walker. However, the season spends way too much time dealing with the drama between Rick, Lori, and Shane (Jon Bernthal), for whom Lori seems to still have feelings. The brighter spots of the earlier episodes are when they manage to get away from the farm. The scenes with Rick and Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the hunter who accidentally shot Carl, at the high school (trying to find medical supplies) are tense and exciting. Bernthal also does a great job with his descent into a mad guilt over his role in the death of Otis.
However, the slow pace at the farm almost made me want to give up midway through the season. Luckily, it picked up just in time, roping me right back in. By episode seven (“Pretty Much Dead Already”), things started whipping up into the frenzy that would mark the last several episodes of the season. The Walking Dead works best when you never know what’s coming next.
Season two’s second half does a better job at keeping the audience guessing. Shane’s increasing unpredictability and constant antagonizing of Rick kept the tension level rising. The unexpected deaths of some major characters and Lori’s pregnancy (is the father Rick or Shane?), added major drama, or which the show was in desperate need. As fun and scary as the walker encounters are, it’s the human drama that drives the show. Some of the early episodes at the farm lacked both. What brought the show back around was the increasing tension and feeling of peril that loomed over the characters.
The Blu-ray of The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season is presented in 1080p with the original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The picture quality is excellent. The show’s gritty look is well represented here. Nothing on this show ever looks bright and shiny, but deep tones of the forest and the vast farm landscape have a vivid appearance. The detail is excellent. Blood splatter and dripping zombie guts come through in every disgusting detail. Skin tones, whether natural flesh or the pale, discolored tones of the walkers, look quite natural (as natural as zombie skin can look, that is). The sound is presented in Dolby TrueHD 7.1. The lossless soundtrack is very intricately detailed. Bear McCreary’s spooky score sounds great. Shotgun blasts zing through the channels with excellent directionality; insects buzz in the background, and walkers rustle in the bushes. Dialogue is easy to understand, even the quietest whisper comes through clearly. Overall, the audio and visual presentation is superb, adding a vividly immersive quality to the viewing experience.
The special features on the set include a half hour of deleted scenes, 11 making-of featurettes, cast and crew commentaries on five of the episodes, and a series of webisodes about a family trying to survive the outbreak. The best of the deleted scenes, which are presented with optional commentary from executive producer Glen Mazzara, is a 13-minute sequence cut from the season premiere “What Lies Ahead.” The scenes offer an alternate beginning to the season where the survivors return to the nursing home seen in season one, only to find everyone dead or walkers. Mazzara provides an excellent commentary track explaining why the scenes were cut.
In some cases they just felt the storytelling did not work, and that newcomers to the show would be confused by a first season location. It was also felt that the direction taken in the scenes were not true to the characters. For example, at one point Daryl yells at young Sophia. It was meant to increase his motivation to find her when she is missing, but producers felt it made him too unlikeable. In another case, former cops Shane and Rick miss a detail noticed by Daryl, making them look incompetent. Whatever the case, it was very interesting to hear why the decisions for the cuts were made.
The featurettes are also worth watching. They provide insight on creating the walkers, the music, wardrobe, sound effects, and show production. One of my favorites was “The Ink is Alive,” which talks about how the show differs from the comic book series. Writer Robert Kirkman offers insight as to why changes were made. One of the biggest reasons is to keep readers of the comic books in suspense over what is going to happen on the show. Other reasons have to do with the differences in storytelling in comic books versus television.
The webisodes are a six-part mini-series (totally 20 minutes) telling the back story of “bicycle girl,” a walker Rick encounters when he is looking for his family in season one. The webisodes are presented with optional commentary from writer/director Greg Nicotero. The commentary tracks, on episodes 1, 7, 8, 11, and 13, are primarily made up of crew, including director Ernest Dickerson, Mazzara, Nicotero, and Kirkman. Only a few of the actors show up on the various tracks, including Reedus, Laurie Holden (Andrea), Steven Yeun (Glenn), and Wilson. The commentaries center around production aspects of the episodes, including what went it to pre-production and how much the story deviates from the script during the shooting process.
Overall, The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season is a must have for fans of the series. It looks great, sounds great, and the special features provide a lot of useful information about the show. As with any network TV show on home video, it’s so much more satisfying to watch the episodes without commercial interruptions. It was easier to forgive the slower pace of those episodes being able to watch them in quick succession with the later episodes. Season two ends with a tantalizing array of possibilities. I can’t wait to see what’s in store when the third season premieres on AMC October 14, 2012.
Photo credits: AMC