AMC’s second season premiere of its smash hit The Walking Dead, “What Lies Ahead,” broke basic cable viewing records this week. In the episode, the survivors camp is traveling to an army base when Dale’s (Jeffrey DeMunn) RV breaks down in the middle of a sea of wrecked cars. While gathering supplies and fixing the vehicle, a herd of zombies walk by. While the others hide, Sophia (Madison Lintz) gets scared and flees into the woods. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) takes off after Sophia and kills the zombies, but after two days of searching, there is still no sign of the litle girl.
“What Lies Ahead” asks a very tough question of the main characters. How long should they continue to look for this little girl? How long can they afford to? With the zombies roaming the country, it is unlikely she can survive long at all. With a second night approaching, is there even a chance she is still alive? Are they putting themselves in jeopardy by continuing to look, when they should be moving on and trying to find a safe haven? How much search time is owed to grieving mother Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride)?
There are no right answers to these questions, though in the new talk show following, Talking Dead, they post a poll in which they claim 99.9% of voters wouldn’t search at all, hardly likely. Which is why each character has their own opinion. Dale pretends the repair is taking a long time to keep the search party looking. Rick, wracked by guilt, doesn’t want to give up, either. Honestly, neither does anyone else, really. The loss of an innocent child is a tough twist to take. But with little hope, some of them will want to start moving on again soon. Is that an evil desire, even though it is logical when their lives are definitely in danger?
As if the writers aren’t cruel enough to children, the only other one in the group, Carl (Chandler Riggs), is shot, presumably by a hunter. Who the hunter is is still unknown, but hopefully it is just an accident, and the shooter will provide help for the wounded little boy. How cruel can one series be, focusing all of the misery and strife on the kids? It’s unexpected, shocking, gut wrenching, and the reason so many people tune in.
Will Shane (Jon Bernthal) leave the group? It’s something he wants to do, and Andrea (Laurie Holden) even tries to get in on it. Shane wants to leave because Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) rejects him, but it’s still not a good idea. He is a valuable defender of the group, someone they cannot afford to lose. It also lowers his own survival rate if he separates. For drama’s sake, it seems unlikely he will end up deserting. But The Walking Dead is nothing if not surprising, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
If there is one positive about the zombie apocalypse, borrowing from an actual good point made in Talking Dead, it seems to be helping reduce racism. Daryl (Norman Reedus) hates black people, like his brother, a fact highlighted especially when T-Dog (IronE Singleton) contributes to Daryl’s bother going missing. But in “What Lies Ahead,” Daryl rescues T-Dog, who is injured just as the zombies begin to walk past. This may not be the beginning of friendship, but not allowing another man to die shows that Daryl is not nearly as one-dimensional as his still-missing sibling.
Something completely unexpected in “What Lies Ahead” is Andrea’s anger at Dale. In last season’s finale, Dale forces Andrea to leave the CDC just before it is blown up. Dale thinks he is doing her a favor, and expects gratitude. Instead, she is furious, his actions ripping their bond apart, rather than strengthening it. Andrea is desperate and hopeless, wanting to go out on her own terms, which do not include suicide-by-zombie. Sitting in a building as explosives go off would be instant and nearly painless. Now she faces continuing to try to live in a ruined world, mourning the loss of her sister, and traveling with a group she doesn’t quite fit into. Powerful stuff, showcasing deep, rich character development. Major kudos!
Intensity if something The Walking Dead does well. Not just when hurting children or allowing characters to long for death, but also when seeing a zombie herd. The characters huddle under cars, on top of an RV, bury themselves under dead bodies, and Andrea locks herself in a bathroom. This is an extended sequence as undead person after undead person slowly shuffles past the caravan. Viewers are on the edge of their seat, waiting for something to happen, and while a couple of incidents do, it just keeps going on. It’s a level of commitment to creepy that is nearly unmatched anywhere else, and it’s impossible to relax until it is all over.
Why are the zombies traveling in herds now? This begins to question the undead’s actions as a group. It is known they have no high brain function and act on instinct. Apparently, hunger is the driving force. Wouldn’t lone zombies be more able to sneak up on potential prey, though? In the city or tight spaces, having a group can force a trap and be beneficial, even if the prey is shared. But shuffling across the countryside, such a large gathering will scare off animals and humans alike. The few wondering solo in the woods chow on game, but the mass goes largely hungry.
Also, how long can the zombies survive without feeding? With the human population dwindling, food will grow more and more scarce. When will these creatures begin to die off once and for all? Technically, they are dead, but they need some type of sustenance to keep the body moving. Without food, they will stumble a final time and die. As far as has been seen, water is not something they go after. Maybe they get all the liquid they need from blood? Still, it doesn’t seem like this particular herd could make it very far before collapsing.
To find out how long the zombies last, watch The Walking Dead Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC. Season two will consist of seven episodes this fall, and six early in the new year. The series also stars Steven Yeun.