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I confess; I don't watch "The Walking Dead" for the gore and blood, for the endless battling of our heroes against Walkers and the blood-thirsty living.

‘The Walking Dead’ In-Depth Analysis: Season Two

 

Season two of The Walking Dead was the series of episodes that grabbed me and held on tight. While season one was a great setup, it was very short. Once I got to season two, I found myself unable to stop watching, sometimes screening episode after episode late into the early morning hours. “Just one more,” I told myself repeatedly.

I am well aware that many fans of AMC’s mega-hit The Walking Dead did not like season two. Neither did many critics. I suppose that had I watched season two unfold episode by episode, it would have rendered as too drawn out (especially the search for Sophia). A lot of fans watch for the zombie action, of which there was relatively little until the end of the season.

I confess; I don’t watch The Walking Dead for the gore and blood, for the endless battling of our heroes against Walkers and the blood-thirsty living. The series gets me for the characters and their slow development, the social commentary, and the questions pondered throughout the series. I am not a fan of zombie genre, yet now that I’ve been pulled into the world of Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), the Greenes, Glenn (Steven Yeun), and all the rest, I can’t imagine escaping from it. As some have aptly observed, the “walking dead,” refers not to the zombies, but to the still-living who are grappling, sometimes aimlessly in the metaphorical dark, with how to cope with a sudden new reality.

The Walking Dead season two begins not long after the zombie apocalypse. Their hopes for an end to the nightmare dashed in Atlanta at the CDC, they are heading the 125 miles to Ft. Benning, where Rick believes their best hope lies. But soon after they leave Atlanta, the come across a massive highway jam-up–a graveyard of abandoned and overturned vehicles. It’s an eerie sight, and a sort of “therefore but for fortune” moments.

Generally speaking, I view season two like the last balloon of hope, slowly deflating. Crushed and desperate to hang onto anything after the CDC, the group realizes that to stay alive they need to rely and fight for each other, and with Sophia going missing in the first episode, that realization is put to the test. Searching for the missing girl in the first episode, Rick asks for a sign, guidance–something, anything–from God. A reason to be hopeful in this dangerous new world.

And then, in the midst of the forest, Rick, Shane, and especially little Carl are awed by the sight of a magnificent buck, which looks Carl directly in the eye. Is this the sign (deer are often used in literature and filmmaking as a metaphor for hope in a bleak environment)? But then, a shot rings out; the buck is felled by a nearby hunter, and Carl becomes collateral damage. The dear is nothing but an out-of-place reminder of what life had been and is no more.

But providence often comes in bizarre packages, and so Rick and company, desperate for sanctuary, are guided to a nearby farm by the hunter–a place seemingly untouched by events of the past several months. So it is here, on this pastoral landscape of Hershel’s farm that the survivors seek for any sign of hope. Despite the fact that Carl’s life hangs by a thread, the group is safer than they’ve been in a long time, and secure behind fences and fields in the shadow of Dr. Hershel Greene’s large house and on his farm.

The Search for Sophia Peletier

The search for Carol’s missing daughter, which goes on longer than anyone might realistically believe she’s yet alive, is important for the group, for Carol, and interestingly, for Daryl Dixon. The group still holds onto the possibility of an end to the nightmare–perhaps at Ft. Benning, but I believe that deep down, no one really believes Ft. Benning still stands. But hope is very hard to kill. As long as the search for Sophia continues, the group is focused on the immediate mission, with little time to think about the inevitability that they will have to leave the relative safety of the Greene farm–and that nothing better exists. Anywhere.

The story arc also asks the question: In and environment fraught with so much danger, what is the right thing to do? Do you continue to search for a little girl who’s likely been bitten? Or do you hold out the hope that she might somehow still be alive, hiding in a house or a cave somewhere? On one hand, there is Shane, and on the other extreme is Daryl, who is obsessed with finding Sophia, refusing to give up the search.

Police officers Shane and Rick know that in the case of a missing child (under the best of conditions), the first hours are crucial, but as time passes, the likelihood of survival grows dimmer. On the other hand, their experience is likely with abduction, and not in dealing with the undead. And there’s a difference (beyond the obvious); an abductor has intent, a zombie only wants to find food. They haven’t any skill, and hiding from them is a way to survive–if only in the short term. They seek prey of convenience, and a bright young girl could possibly stay outside their grasp.

Rick’s insistence is fueled by guilt; Sophia had disappeared on his watch, and the thought of her left alone in the wilderness to fend for herself is impossible for him to bear. On the other hand, Shane sees no utility at all in continuing the search. Part of it is his ongoing pissing contest with Rick over who gets to be the Alpha male and take home the prize female (Lori). Shane’s losing, of course, and his fury over that, combined with his short fuse sets up the confrontation with Rick, and leads to his death. Shane (along with Merle in season three) is a character largely responsible for his own death in this new world.

For Carol, who in season two is still a relatively minor character (Melissa McBride does not appear in the opening credits, but as “also starring”), finding Sophia is all she has. Carol is not a hopeful character. The victim of an abusive bas**rd of a husband, she is fearful, weak, and downtrodden. She has been dealt a terrible life, and now that Ed is gone, why should she not be plagued with a real loss–her daughter? Almost believing she has it coming to her because she’d prayed for Ed to be punished–or something in her life “to change” (as she says in season five), Sophia’s death would be just deserts for both her passivity and for her hope that someone or something would save her from Ed.

The most interesting story to be told from the search for Sophia is Daryl’s. Why is he, of all the survivors, so determined to find her–beyond all reason? He is a pragmatist in so many ways, even less hopeful of life’s outcomes than Carol. He’s just lost his brother–the only person upon whom he’d been able to rely in the aftermath.

His brother had done him no real favors, as we learn through subsequent episodes: he’d not been around to protect him against their abusive father, he’d brought him into a terrible, harsh life of drug dealers and crime. And Merle, himself, beyond being a terrible example for his “baby brother,” can be very brutal himself. Although Merle had not been the best companion for Daryl, he’d been something–and Daryl had been fiercely loyal to him (something that really comes home in season three). So in a way, if he can save Sophia, perhaps he can feel some solace for having not been on that rooftop for Merle. Daryl is accustomed to living on his own in the wilds, and is perhaps the best equipped of them all to find Sophia if she’s still alive. But there is something more, I think going on.

Perhaps more importantly for Daryl is the connection he feels to Sophia. As an abused child, Daryl feels a kinship with both her and Carol. Out from under Merle’s thumb, Daryl’s more empathetic nature can emerge, without requiring him to shed the tough outer shell. Who is Daryl Dixon without Merle? Who does he become? Does he become even harder, tougher? Or is there a humanity in Daryl that can only develop when he’s not proving himself as big a bad man as Merle? (This is really highlighted in the season three episode “Home.”)

Anther part of Daryl’s obsession with finding Sophia, I think, has to do with wanting to prove himself to the group. He and Merle had planned to rob the survivor group (something revealed in “Home”), and although Rick and company would have had no way of knowing that, Daryl does, and perhaps he views it as a way to compensate for bad intentions, replacing them with good. Norman Reedus has often noted that Daryl is embarrassed by the man he had been, the life he’d lived “before.” And the combination of his sense of experience with both Sophia and Carol–and his desire to show himself to be a better man than he has been drives Daryl to a point long past reason.

When Sophia is found, ultimately, in the barn, it destroys him. Realizing suddenly that he had been on a fool’s errand, he separates himself from everyone, retreating to the aloof loner he’d been. Refusing to help, refusing to talk to anyone, he tries to convince all, including (and perhaps especially) himself that he “doesn’t care,” even torturing Randall (“Judge, Jury, and Executioner”) But Daryl is changed forever in the end.

Hershel’s Farm and the Full House in the Barn

Hershel’s homestead represents what life can be like in the zombie apocalypse. Largely shielded from the outside world, Hershel, his daughters and extended family cope with life on land unmolested by the zombie plague. Taking Rick out into his fields one day, Hershel tells him that he often comes out just to gaze upon the beautiful landscape of wheat fields and the distant mountains. It’s a reminder that nature is yet able to provide a pastoral setting and a peaceful life.

But the reality is far from idyllic. In the barn, Hershel keeps a bevy of zombies, some family members and close friends; others had been captured by Hershel’s trusted manager Otis. Among the kept zombies is little Sophia. Hershel represents those Rick’s group encounters from time to time who believe that the zombies are not dead, but still have the glimmer of life within. If only someone might find a cure, they might be saved somehow. Or not. Hershel believes that the zombies are “sick.” And it’s immoral to kill a sick person. “Would you kill a schizophrenic,” he asks just because his behavior is erratic and dangerous?

In a way, Hershel is holding onto the last thread of hope he has available to him. And perhaps even he realized he’s deluded about his wife and family hidden in the barn. And when Shane “murders” them again, and in front of Hershel, it is horrifying. We feel for Hershel, and the zombie family as they fall. Knowing that Hershel is delusional about them doesn’t make their second death any less emotional for us. We can feel his pain, and understand why he’d kept them fed and “alive.”

How much different is Hershel than Dr. Jenner, continuing to work to the end for a cure? Or Milton, who believes that life still exists within the zombie’s brain–somewhere? The creepy woman who continues to keep her zombie husband alive by the campfire, feeding it animal (and even human) flesh? Even the governor, keeping his daughter Penny in his closet wants to believe that the zombie plague is not without possible redemption. In season five, we have Abraham, whose entire existence is bound up in his “mission” to get Eugene to Washington so he can cure the disease. And when that hope is ripped from him after Eugene’s confession, Abraham is done.

How does one treat those survivors? Break through the delusion? Shock them into the knowledge that the zombies are, in fact, dead–and deadly (as Shane would, or Merle)? Do you treat them gently, as Rick might (or a later-season Daryl might)? What is the right and ethical way to deal with the delusional without putting everyone else at risk?

Lori’s Pregnancy

Lori’s pregnancy story arc asks several important questions: Is it right to bring a new generation into the wastelands of the world? How could a child survive–even if proper nutrition and care could be found. Is it fair to the child? To those around its upbringing? Or does a new life in this hellish world signify the will to survive–an urgent message as everything seems to be dying? Certainly Judith (born in season three) has provided the survivors with moments of peace and hope, yet what are her chances? Will she die (and soon)? What will that do the fragile hope that surrounds her and the people in her life?

Shane and his Downfall

Shane’s downfall begins with the sacrifice of Otis. Leaving Hershel’s farm manager to be eaten alive could very well have saved Carl’s life after the shooting. On the other hand, Shane’s actions amount to sacrificing a life for a life. Clearly Shane values Carl’s life more than he values Otis’s, but leaving him to die is a ruthless act. But is it justified–on any level? Although Shane does not confess, Daryl (who notes that the only way Rick hasn’t is because he refuses to see the truth) and Dale (of course) strongly suspect. Daryl seems disgusted that Rick looks to Shane, and no one else, for advice, telling Dale that the group is “broken.”

From the Otis affair, Shane’s life spins further and further out of control: the barn incident, Randall, and ultimately pulling a weapon on Rick. Is is out of jealousy or that he believes Rick is too weak? Rick and Shane provide us with point and counterpoint of two close friends–both police–have come to terms with reality in the new world. Rick is a peace officer–a man of peace, who when pushed past a tipping point will react. Violence for Violence. Shane represents the worst within us: xenophobic and hotheaded, he’s all about preventive violence–justified, ethical, or not.

Season two brought a lot to the table: the beginning of evolution for Daryl Dixon, the fall of Shane, the introduction of the stalwart characters of Hershel, Maggie, and Beth Green. Glimmers of hope, and then, as it must be, hope dashed. Next week, please stay tuned for the next part of this series, taking a look at season three.

My review of The Walking Dead mid-season finale will post Monday morning sometime, and we’ll be all hands on deck for this week’s Let’s Talk TV Live, with a full 90 minutes devoted to The Walking Dead.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called “Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton,” The Apothecary’s Curse The Apothecary’s Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books.

Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as “The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture,” “The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Hidden History of Science Fiction,” and “Our Passion for Disaster (Movies).”

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