Season Premiere review — The Walking Dead, “What Lies Ahead”

The Walking Dead was not a good series in its short, six episode season. The pilot is one of the best single episodes of television in the past few years, but after that, things devolved into a rudderless, repetitive and un-subtle mess. Dead was always going to have an uphill battle with its plot due to the source material’s consistent, elongated dread. However, what made episodes 2-6 problematic (though the final two were better than the middle three) was the series’ terrible character work. Nearly everyone started as base stereotype, which is to be expected, especially with this genre, but instead of improving with complex shading, subsequent Walking Dead offerings presented characters that were even more stereotypical and obvious. The way the series treated race and particularly gender in the first season was flat-out awful. Men act! Women clean! Black people dress and talk like Samuel L. Jackson impersonators who work out of Sarasota Holiday Inns! It’s been said many times, but Dead’s humans aren’t any more interesting or developed than its zombies.

Of course, the series might deserve some benefit of the doubt. The first season was conceived and produced in a short period of time and even the greatest of series couldn’t produce a substantial amount of character development in a half-dozen episodes when there are major set pieces involved. Dead’s character work in season was exceptionally bad, but still. With double the amount of episodes for the series’ second season and more time to prepare, The Walking Dead team could turn things around.

Unfortunately, tonight’s season premiere, “What Lies Ahead” suggests that it wasn’t necessarily the time dedicated to character development causing all those problems in season one, it was the actual execution. Although “Ahead” features a handful of intense, sometimes thrilling sequences, everything grinds to a halt when the episode decides to give the characters lots of downtime to talk – and talk to God. I appreciate the attempt to make the characters more complex and well-rounded, but I am not sure that allowing them to spew religiously themed platitudes top a statue really makes those attempts manifest into anything quality or even worth the time the episode spends on them.

As I said, if there is one thing Dead knows how to do, it’s all things related to zombies (which is always going to keep it from being an outright failure, I guess). As a viewer, we know certain things are coming. We know that the group is going to hatch a plan – in this case move away from Atlanta and towards an army base – and that plan is going to turn horribly wrong relatively quickly. Nevertheless, the series knows that we know this and it uses our awareness to create a solid overlying sense of dread that constantly simmers and washes over events. Basically any time a zombie is on the screen, The Walking Dead and its intense atmosphere works quite well.

In this episode, those successes manifest multiple times in the first hour. There’s been much discussion about the interstate sequence and for good reason, it doesn’t disappoint. The sequence is well-constructed, allowing for certain characters to be trapped under cars while others maneuver on foot to protect them or themselves and there are just enough near-misses to keep the anxiety up over what is a fairly extended production.

And even though AMC has been using it to promote the series’ return for what seems like forever, the scene where Andrew Lincoln’s Rick takes out two zombies with a rock works wonderfully in context. Finally, the bit where Rick and Daryl cut open a zombie’s stomach to search for details on what it has eaten is palpably gross. When Walking Dead is cooking like this, it’s a very, very entertaining program.

However, the extended running time of “What Lies Ahead” ultimately hurts the episode’s impact. It appears as though the writers still haven’t figured how to pen solid, easily digestible dialogue and for whatever reason, they like to have these characters talk about religion and not do so in a subtle way. There were a number of moments in season one that ran into this problem as well, where characters would drone on about faith and belief and God.

While I don’t have anything against characters being religious, particularly in a world like this where it actually makes a lot of sense for them to be, it didn’t work last season and it sure as heck doesn’t work in tonight’s premiere when the characters are literally talking to Jesus at the front of a small church. Both Rick and Carol, whose runaway daughter powers much of this episode’s action, both get substantially long speeches where they pray, plead for forgiveness and ask for signs. Not only do these bits completely delay any tension or momentum the previous hour built up, they’re poor excuses for any real character development. We knew Carol was religious and Rick’s speech was basically there to be obvious set up for the cliffhanger in which his son Carl gets shot. Again, I have no issues with religion or religious characters, I just take issue with these writers continually using it as a crutch instead of giving the characters much else to talk about.

There are a few moments in the episode that present a glimmer of hope on the character front. Daryl is no longer a hilariously stereotypical redneck and Norman Reedus actually turns a really solid performance here. Andrea’s continued desire to either kill herself or get away from Dale and this group also work, but that might only be because Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn are pretty good in their roles. However, I think I liked Lori’s speech to the group the most. She was defined almost entirely by her relationship with the two leading men last season, so it was nice to see her not only sticking up for Rick, but also sticking up for herself.  Sarah Wayne Callies performed that scene well.

Of course, The Walking Dead still has major issues with gender where it always seems like the men are telling the women exactly what to do, how to do it and making sure they are reminded of their place. Part of that stems from the fact that the four most interesting characters are men (Rick, Shane, Dale and Daryl), but that’s obviously on the writers as well. I would say this premiere makes progress in that regard, yet, that’s damn faint praise.

“What Lies Ahead” is an episode that probably won’t change anyone’s mind on The Walking Dead’s potential in either direction, but it does feel like a positive, marginally propulsive step towards complexity. The zombie stuff is still wonderful and if the series’ writers avoid religion or figure out a way to avoiding making the religious overtones so overt, things could improve fairly quickly. This is never going to be a “great” series, but there’s hope for The Walking Dead to still be good, I think.

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