AMC’s The Walking Dead ends season two with “Beside the Dying Fire.” In the aftermath of killing Shane (Jon Bernthal), twice, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) make their way back to the farmhouse. But a horde of walkers interrupts their progress, soon overrunning the property. A plan by the others to corral them and lead them away fails because of the sheer number of the walkers, and soon the human group is splintered. A couple familiar faces are lost as the survivors scramble to get away in twos and threes, only to meet up later. The debriefing does not go smoothly.
Many have complained about the lack of walkers throughout the often slow-moving second season. “Beside the Dying Fire” satisfies those fans, and then some, with a huge extended fight scene full of fire, flesh ripping, and gun shots. It is certain that this opening sequence, lasting nearly half of the episode, is the biggest walker battle that The Walking Dead has ever done.
It’s also the coolest, proving that most of the characters have now developed enough to handle themselves in such a situation. The ones that haven’t, like Jimmy (James Allen McCune) and Patricia (Jane McNeill), well, they don’t make it out alive. Season two has been a slow burn, to be sure, but its heavy character development comes to a head in “Beside the Dying Fire,” and this trial by fire, literally, is a judgement of a sorts.
Fans are told over and over again that people have to be hardened, make tough choices, and live with no rules to survive The Walking Dead. Sometimes this can be taken for granted in a group, where there is safety in numbers. Weaker members of the party rely heavily on the others, and it works out OK. But some less-tough characters take the opportunity to learn from their comrades because, when the chips are down, every person must be able to handle themselves. And now there are only one or two characters left who may not be able to do this.
It’s good that The Walking Dead doesn’t kill off anyone major in “Beside the Dying Fire.” Jimmy and Patricia are minor characters who haven’t had a lot to do, so they are expendable. After losing Shane and Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) in the past two episodes, it would have been really hard to take anyone else important meeting their demise. The excitement and thrill of the fight scene gives plenty of closure to the current arcs, and by taking out their haven, two smaller roles, and tons of walker extras, the death quota is satisfied.
Patricia and Jimmy’s deaths will affect more important characters, such as Hershel (Scott Wilson). Hershel was originally supposed to die in season two, which makes a certain amount of sense, in that as the others abandon the farm, they leave behind the man who runs it. But, thankfully, this creative decision was reversed, and Hershel, after a close call, makes it to safety. Wilson plays the part with such gravitas, and leaves enough unanswered questions behind to keep viewers engaged with his character moving forward.
As everyone flees in “Beside the Dying Fire,” only Andrea (Laurie Holden) is left behind alive. It’s a tragic moment, and very frustrating, given the place Andrea holds in many fans’ hearts. Not that anyone is in any position to rescue her, but abandoning her still feels wrong.
Somehow Andrea escapes into the woods. This is believable because she is at the fringe of the confrontation, and because she is then pursued for hours by lots of walkers, whom she tries to take out one by one. Not many could live through such an escape, which tests endurance to the limit, but Andrea is one of the most capable characters, and so is a good choice to put in this situation.
Of course, even Andrea can’t keep up the pace forever. She stumbles and faces imminent death. So enter Michonne (Danai Gurira, Treme).
All right, so Gurira has just been cast, and a stand in is used in “Beside the Dying Fire.” That doesn’t change the fact that viewers are now introduced to a pivotal character from The Walking Dead comics who is coming on board on television program next year. Michonne is hooded, wields a samurai sword, and is trailed by two arm-less, jaw-less walkers on chains. She is an imposing figure, making for a heck of a reveal in the finale, even if her face remains hidden.
On Talking Dead, producers speak of Michonne being the first character introduced in The Walking Dead who has learned how to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. The already familiar characters have been growing, as mentioned above, and are starting to figure out what it takes to survive. But Michonne already knows. Will they be open to learning from her, or will they clash as Rick resists handing over leadership? And that’s assuming, of course, that Andrea and Michonne even connect with the group.
The stage is set for a Walking Dead reunion, though. Another big reveal in “Beside the Dying Fire” is a well fortified prison only a short ways away from the on-the-run survivors. It will play a large part in season three, which the cast and crew claims will be even better than season two, by quite a large amount. Because of this hub, which will surely bring people back together, it seems like Andrea should have no problem getting her reunion, whether she welcomes it or not.
This also sets the stage for another familiar face, as surely people from miles around will be drawn to the base. Specifically, Merle (Michael Rooker) has been confirmed to be returning to The Walking Dead. Will he be an illusion, like earlier in season two, or will he be flesh and blood this time? Signs point to the latter, but we’ll see.
Oh, and the Governor, the most well-known villain of the comics, will also be in season three. So there is plenty to get excited about.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group, sans Andrea, spends the last part of “Beside the Dying Fire” spilling every secret left. Or, at least, Rick does, and since he’s the one the fans have seen keeping big secrets, it’s cathartic to see him tell the others, even as they feel betrayed. Rick not only admits to killing Shane, which they should be thanking him for, but also tells them the secret that Jenner (Noah Emmerich) entrusted to Rick in the finale of season one: they’ve all been infected.
What does this mean? Well, it means that if one is killed but the body is not destroyed, that person will rise back up as a walker. This has already been shown to happen to Shane. Rick stabs Shane, but Shane comes after him as an undead walker. Luckily, Carl puts walker Shane down for a final time.
Rick tells Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) the tale first, and she is shocked, in a bad way. She won’t even let Rick touch her. Lori has much to do with the showdown of Rick and Shane, her words sparking much of their conflict, and both men wanting her causing a lot of the strife. But she just can’t believe how ends up unfolding. Perhaps she is feeling guilty for her part in Shane’s death, thinking that she could force a showdown that didn’t end with a killing. Perhaps she didn’t anticipate the change it would cause in Rick to murder his best friend. Maybe she’s just mad that Carl, her ‘innocent’ child, gets involved. Whatever the reason, she seems to be at least as upset with herself as she is with her husband.
These secrets pour out of Rick during a bit of a psychological snap. He grows much colder, and takes more control. The others watch on with seeming horror as Rick declares that they are no longer a democracy, and that he is in charge. No one gets up to dispute him or leave, but that could simply be due to circumstance. Up til this point, Rick has the respect of everyone. They follow him because they want to. Now will they follow him only because they fear death if they separate from the group?
However it plays out, fans will have to wait until fall for answers. Word is that there will be two batches of eight episodes each in season three, making it the longest season yet. It is said to be quite a bit better than season two, but even if it’s only just as good, it should be a fantastic adventure.
The Walking Dead will return to AMC this fall.