This is probably entirely unfair of me—although unfair in whose direction is a bit more open to debate—but I've decided that I really won't be able to critically assess Season 1 of The Walking Dead until after I've seen Season 2 of The Walking Dead. This isn't a completely unheard-of phenomenon for television; lots of shows don't really hit their strides until the second season, and that's not necessarily because they don't know what they're doing. It's also because they don't know if they're going to get a second season, and so questions of what characters should be introduced and how quickly, how much the creators are going to expand the boundaries of their show, and how far to take the story are going to be handled with a great deal of uncertainty.
That goes double for a show like The Walking Dead. Although it's turned into a runaway success, that was by no means certain when the show started production for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it costs a whole lot of money. Interviews with the producers also revealed that they didn't have their cast fully locked down and weren't even sure if they'd get their second-season order until 2011. None of this is to excuses the moments where the show has gone awry; bad writing is bad writing, and no amount of behind-the-scenes uncertainty can excuse it, but it may account for the up-and-down quality where a great episode is followed by a shaky one, as well as the sometimes hectic pacing. I stand by my ratings, as much as I do any ratings, but an overall assessment of the season will become clearer once The Walking Dead has good footing beneath it. The show has a lot it wants to accomplish—it's about nothing less than the end of the world, after all—so judging its success at doing so only six episodes in seems premature.
Still, we've got a job to do, folks. Episode five, by the on-again, off-again pattern the show has (probably inadvertently) fallen into, ought to be a good one. We open up with Rick on the radio to Morgan, his voice betraying what sounds like futility, warning him to stay away from Atlanta. Meanwhile, while the ugly work of braining and burning the recently dead gets carried out, Andrea doesn't want anyone coming near Amy's body. Does she not realize the reality of the situation, or does she just have to see it for herself? It turns out to be the latter. The scene where Amy reanimates slowly, with dead eyes and hands twitching purposelessly, with nothing left of her but hunger, is a real heartbreaker. Andrea deals with it the only way it can be dealt with, but it's an emotionally powerful moment, a tone-setter that reinforces how things might get better, but they don't get any easier.
Meanwhile, Carol gets a moment while taking care of the unmourned Ed to work out some issues from their marriage. But while she gets some closure, Jim's troubles are just beginning. He's been bitten, and half the group starts to treat him like he's already a zombie. It's hard to blame them; Rick's plan to get him to the CDC seems like a fairy tale fantasy. Stowed away in the camper to keep him safe from the contingent of people who'd just as soon save time and put a cap in him now, he undergoes terrifying, feverish hallucinations in which he sees the faces of zombies, likely the ones that killed his family.
The disagreement between Rick and Shane about whether or not to head to the CDC quickly boils over into a confrontation in which Shane angrily reminds Rick who kept his family alive during the time he was gone. Shane continues to be hard to read; he's the one who seems to see, more than Rick, the need for singularity of vision, for leadership and unity, among the group and definitely believes in practicality over righteousness, a lesson Rick has yet to learn. (His radio messages to Morgan are clearly conversations with his own conscience, and it doesn't even seem to occur to him that the note he's leaving for Morgan is also directions for any other evil-minded creep who comes across it.) But he's also still gripped by his passions, and his face is a battlefield of emotion as he realizes how easy it would be to shoot Rick in the woods and make an excuse later. He decides not to do it, but not before Dale sees him; how much Dale sees, and how much he loses trust in him because of it, is an ugly unsettled question.
On the way to the CDC, Jim, who's only gotten worse, decides he wants to be with his family—that is, to die. They leave him behind in a harrowing scene; Andrew Rothenberg is a Chicago actor I've liked in a lot of things, and it's a shame to lose him from a cast that needs a subtle presence like his. But he plays his scenes here well; he seems so helpless and lost that you feel sorry for him even though you know nothing about him. His scenes are a reminder that at a time when there's fewer and fewer people alive, every life is valuable. (This is the idea behind Rick's typically principles-over-practicality belief that no one should ever take a human life, a belief that everyone but him greets with the appropriate irony.)
Morales and his family decide to peel off on their own and head to Alabama, in a nice scene that nonetheless makes you wonder why they were introduced in the first place. But that only means they miss the episode's biggest, most shocking reveal and the first hard evidence that The Walking Dead is going in a very different direction from the comics. Arriving at the Center For Disease Control and finding it abandoned, littered with ancient, decayed bodies in a state of total putrefaction and empty gun emplacements, Rick throws a fit. He screams in frustrated rage at an automatic camera that "You're killing us!" as walkers start to close in and Shane and the rest of the group plead for him to flee. He's acting totally irrational, but he's right. There is someone in the CDC building, one living scientist left behind to research the event he calls "Wildfire." His experiments involve putting human flesh in a centrifuge, but one clumsy mistake and his samples are all incinerated; this is apparently a setback so severe he considers suicide. Eventually, he decides no one is left in the world, only to discover he's wrong—and the episode ends with the metal gates of the building opening up for our survivors to enter.
Sure enough, this episode was a very good one, gripping as hell and maybe my favorite episode of the season so far. It was also helped immeasurably by director Ernest Dickerson, who provided some fantastic shot set-ups and used the 16mm camera better than anyone has so far. The shots outside the CDC at dusk are some of the most striking visuals I've seen so far in a show that's provided plenty of them. The episode provided a lot of emotional drama, and while it was somewhat light on zombie action, it did deliver a huge rush of action thrills at the end. It's stripping down the characters to the point where their relationships are becoming more meaningful, and it's introduced a real wild card at just the right time. Most importantly, it's made the show 3-for-2 and set up the season finale, which looks to be pretty impressive from what little I've seen. As I said at the outset, a fair assessment of The Walking Dead's first season may have to wait a while, but "Wildfire" gave me hope that its creators really do know what they're doing.
- According to our man at the CDC, it's been 163 days since the outbreak of Wildfire. That doesn't necessarily help with the show's timeline, though, since that number may have been long before it became a widespread phenomenon. Still, it's a good jumping-off point for speculation, so go crazy.
- Nice classic horror movie fake-out in the scene where we're expecting Amy's corpse to react to getting her birthday necklace to reanimate, and instead, we get a flash-cut to Darryl dispatching a random corpse.
- Glenn shows some depth for the first time, insisting that "our people" be buried instead of burned. I wasn't sure if I liked it at first, but I think it's probably good for Glenn to be something other than just a joker.
- "People around here can make up their minds without dragging my marriage into it. That's a habit you need to break."
- "It's not about what you want. That sound you hear is God laughing while you make plans."