THE WALKING DEAD Recap: “Bloodletting”

     October 23, 2011

Last week, AMC brought The Walking Dead— its beloved zombie series– back to the airwaves, and there was much rejoicing.  After a nine-month absence, former policeman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his former partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), the incredibly wise Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and the rest of the survivors finally decided to leave the confines of zombie-filled Atlanta, and almost immediately they ran into problems:  a runaway child, a gaggle of zombies, an ominous church, and—in the episode’s final moments—a bullet to the chest for Rick’s son.  Where did things go from there?  Find out in this week’s Walking Dead recap/review, after the jump.

the-walking-dead-season-two-posterFirst of all, allow me to say this:  I feel that I went a little too easy on AMC’s The Walking Dead last week.  My immediate reaction upon seeing the second season premiere was one of almost pure happiness—I’m never unhappy to be watching the only zombie-centric TV show on television, especially one with so many gloriously gory makeup effects on display—but after spending a few days digesting what I’d seen (much like a zombie eating an entire woodchuck’s skull), I decided to rewatch the season premiere to formulate a second opinion.  Turns out, I thought the season premiere was even weaker upon second viewing.  Hmmm.

And so, as we head into this—the second of what will be an entire season’s worth of recaps for AMC’s The Walking Dead—I am determined to separate my inherent love for all things zombie from the actual entertainment value (and overall quality) of this series.  While I’m not anywhere near ready to declare The Walking Dead a “bad” series (if you want to assign a number to it, I’d give it a 7 out of 10 in its weak moments, an 8.5 during its highs), I am interested in seeing it improve.  Surely we’ll all agree that there’s nothing wrong with wanting an already-decent show to be even better, right?  No?  It’s gotta be “love it madly” or “hate it with a passion”?  Oh, internet.  You are incorrigible.

Last week, things got off to a rocky start, both with critics and with the characters at the heart of the show.  On the critical-reaction side of things, more than a few people pointed out that the episode didn’t really need to be as long as it was, while others had trouble getting past the “Can zombies smell humans or not?” issue that arose during the episode’s biggest set-piece.  Overall, the reaction was favorable (and the episode posted some insanely high, record-setting ratings), but it’d be disingenuous to suggest that everything was—as a certain ill-informed Jersey Shore cast member might say—“cheese and daisies”.

As for the characters themselves, the decision to hightail it out of Atlanta proved to be fraught with even more danger than they’d predicted it’d be:  Several miles outside the city, a gang of “roamers” attacked the survivors as they attempted to clear a path for themselves through a massive snarl of traffic, and– after another bad decision (or two) and a chase through the woods–Rick found himself at fault for losing track of Sofia, one of the survivors’ kids.  The search for this missing girl monopolized the episode, but in its closing moments, we got the premiere’s real money-shot:  Rick’s son, Carl, getting shot through the chest by an off-screen hunter while approaching a deer.  Ruh-roh.

So, how’d the show (and its characters) fare this week?  After that painfully chatty introduction, I’m happy to say “a lot better”, on both fronts.

On the critical side of things, I thought tonight’s episode was a marked improvement from last week’s episode (though, as always, I remain lightly annoyed with Rick’s determination to approach each new setback by beating himself up emotionally;  to be fair to the show’s writers, though, that’s something that Rick’s also keen on in the comic series), which sometimes felt a little bloated and redundant.  Things were tense, there was very little in the way of speechifying, and Jon Bernthal got another handful of chances to shine.  I would’ve liked to have seen a little less of Rick losing his sh-t over his gut-shot son, but that’d be quibbling.  Really, overall, I was very happy with tonight’s episode.  Looks like my resolve to give this show what-for will have to wait for another week– when it deserves it (fingers crossed we never get there).

As for the storyline:  “Bloodletting” begins with a flashback, which is a very rare thing to see on The Walking Dead.  Whereas shows like LOST built entire episodes (and, indeed, seasons) around the idea of flashbacks, Walking Dead tends to live in the here and now:  last season, the flashback to Shane visiting Rick in the hospital immediately following the zombie outbreak was generally considered one of the high points of the entire show up to that point, and I’d argue that tonight’s flashback—to the moment when Shane had to go tell Rick’s wife, Lori, that her husband had been shot (which we witnessed back in the series premiere)—was another one.  Call me crazy, but I get a charge seeing these characters in the midst of their pre-outbreak lives.  Wonder what that’s all about?

The flashback was there to serve as a parallel to the situation that began at the end of last week’s ep, with Carl getting capped in the woods by newcomer-to-the-show Otis (an always welcome Pruitt Taylor-Vince).  Rick meets the Greene family shortly after Carl gets capped, running through the entryway to their farm and demanding to see the “doctor” he’s heard lives there.  In short order, we meet that doctor, Herschel Greene (Scott Wilson), his daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and the rest of the family.  Fans of the Robert Kirkman comic series know that Maggie and Herschel will play pivotal roles in the near future, and here they both made decent impressions.  Could’ve used a little more Maggie, but I suppose we’ll get to her—and, if the show’s following the same story as the comics, her romance with Glenn—in the weeks ahead.

Herschel goes to work patching up Carl, while Rick does his emo thing in and around the Greene family estate.  It’s a sprawling farm (wonder what’s in the barn…?), and quite far from where they left the rest of the survivors.  Speaking of which, Lori, Andrea, Daryl, and Melissa are still traipsing around the woods looking for Melissa’s daughter, while T-Dawg (ugh) and Dale are kicking it back at the RV.  We learn that T-Dawg’s got a pretty nasty blood infection, and he and Dale spend the episode debating their value to the rest of the group while searching the surrounding area for antibiotics (Dale’s shocked that more people don’t carry antibiotics in their cars, oddly enough).  I liked the fact that the group was—for the most part—split into separate areas in this episode, and I liked the way that director Ernest Dickerson balanced the action:  we didn’t spend too much time in one area.

And so it went:  Rick—who was eventually joined by Lori—stayed at Greene’s farm, donating blood to the “Save Carl” campaign;  T-Dawg had his life saved (yet again) by Daryl, who revealed that he had an entire pharmacy sitting in the saddlebag of his chopper (including what appeared to be some of Breaking Bad’s blue-meth);  Sofia remained missing, her mother remained worried, and Andrea remained kind of f-cked up, emotionally.  And as for Shane and Otis, well, they had their hands full retrieving medical equipment from a nearby high school.  And it’s here that I’d like to mention something that I imagine won’t be very popular with the masses (but I’ll go ahead and say it, anyway).

Jon Bernthal—as Shane—is one of the best parts of this series.  He may, in fact, be the best actor on the show, turning in the most consistent and compelling performance.  There’s been talk about Walking Dead fans being torn between “Team Shane” and “Team Rick”, and I’m now firmly on the side of “Team Shane”.  Sure, he banged his buddy’s wife while he was out cold in the hospital, and yeah, he got a little rape-y there at the end of last season, but…I dunno what else to say, folks:  I find Bernthal a more compelling onscreen presence, and his very obvious faults only serve to make him a tarnished hero in my eyes.

Beware:  spoilers follow.

I would like to pose the following question to you, the Walking Dead faithful:  what if this show’s creators and showrunners decided to really take the story in a different direction?  They’ve said before that the Walking Dead TV series will be its own thing, right?  Well, how would you feel if they really made good on that promise?  What I’m asking is, what if AMC’s The Walking Dead rewrote Walking Dead history to be a series about Shane?  In short, what if Rick’s the one who doesn’t survive?  Would you be outraged?  Would you stop watching?  Would you be intrigued?  Who do you think’s the more compelling actor on this series:  Jon Bernthal as Shane, or Andrew Lincoln as Rick?  Who would you like to see leading the survivors?  Personally, I dunno that the show would be smart to rewrite the history of the storyline established by Kirkman that dramatically…but I do think that Bernthal’s the more interesting actor and character, and it’s always fun to play “What if?”

Overall, a much stronger episode than last week’s, and I’m very curious to see where things go from here.  If I were grading this—and I’m totally not—this week’s episode would earn a strong “A-“.