I decided to stop reviewing The Walking Dead five weeks ago, but also said it was likely I'd offer thoughts after season 2's finale. Well, that time is now! Considering recent episodes were made after showrunner Frank Darabont resigned as showrunner, I was surprised they were mostly stronger and brimming with incidents. Maybe this was Darabont's plan all along (meaning the season just had a limp middle), or maybe his successor Glen Mazzara decided to bring a sense of urgency to the season's back-end. Whatever the reasoning, with two major characters deaths occurring, it was a tangible shot in the arm for this highly-rated but creatively shambolic series.
Now, killing people is an easy way to provoke strong reactions in an audience, so I'm not saying The Walking Dead has completely turned a corner yet. But now that a few characters are pushing up daisies (one bringing a long-running feud to an overdue conclusion), I hope the writers will plug these holes in interesting ways. I'm certainly excited by the news Britain's own David Morrissey (State Of Play) has been cast in season 3 as The Governor (a very popular villain from the comic), and the finale's tease of an impressive fortress the characters will likely take refuge in.
About those elephant-in-the-room deaths: I didn't expect Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) to die, but the manner in which he was dispatched was pretty good. After an episode dealing with the apocalyptic chestnut of how to deal with a prisoner you can't free, yet also can't afford to keep incarcerated, Dale's voice of reason was silenced by an unfortunate zombie attack in a field. A zombie that was only in the area because young Carl (Chandler Riggs), emboldened by his new-found Stetson, had allowed the "walker" to escape from a muddy creek. It was also a particularly nasty death scene, with the zombie clawing Dale's guts open, leaving him in such agony that Daryl (Norman Reedus) had to end his torment with a shot to the head. As I said, this was a big surprise to me, and that's something you don't always get with scripted TV these days. Considering DeMunn's career-long association with the departed Darabont, did he request this on-screen exit, knowing he wasn't really needed for the episodes to come?
The second death felt more planned, with Shane (Jon Bernthal) finally meeting his maker. Bernthal's character improved immeasurably this season, as Shane embraced his latent dark side and tried to usurp best-friend Rick (Andrew Lincoln) as leader of the group. It's just a pity that (a) Shane never really had much chemistry with would-be lover Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), whom he slept with behind Rick's back; and (b) I never really believed in the friendship between Shane and Rick. It was unfortunate for the show that most of their relationship, from the audience's perspective, was so quickly spoiled by knowledge that Shane's a bad egg. It would have worked much better if Shane's view of things was more persuasive. Still, the writers did what they could in this season, and it was indeed enjoyable watching Shane sink ever deeper into a psychological mire, culminating in the Miller's Crossing-esque episode "Judge, Jury & Executioner". The way he arranged to be along with Rick in a field, illuminated by a Full Moon, to shoot his friend/rival and effectively inherit Rick's wife and kids, made for a tense and gripping conclusion.
Beyond those two moments, The Walking Dead still has problems handling its ensemble cast. T-Dog (Irone Singleton) has been ignored to such an extent that it's become embarrassing and insulting to the actor; especially as T-Dog's the sole black character demoted to scenes where he sits around listening to the "white people" make plans without asking for his input, or carry Lori's luggage into a farmhouse.
Andrea (Laurie Holden) has also fallen back into irrelevance after a promising run of episodes earlier this season, and without Shane as her mentor/comrade I hope there's a strong plan for her next season. The relationship between Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) started well, but the writers didn't seem to know what to do now they've had sex and Glenn earned her father's blessing. And lord knows what's going on between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl, because it's mainly just something on the periphery to fill screen-time. And don't get me started on the peripheral characters on Hershel's farm, who have hung around all season, barely interact with Rick's group, and nobody really knows their names.
The finale, "Beside The Dying Fire", was the most crowd-pleasing episode since the feature-length pilot, featuring a "herd" of zombies breaking into Hershel's farm and laying siege to the barn and farmhouse. There was plenty of action and pace, although you never really feared for anyone's life because the show would be foolish to trim its regular cast any more. (Indeed, only two nondescript members of Hershel's family were eaten by zombies, to practically no reaction and repercussion.) But while it was a very entertaining hour, it felt more like a palate cleanser; clearing the decks for a darker third season with a larger canvas. Rick's tarnished his reputation for decency in everyone's eyes by killing Shane, his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) can barely stand to look at him (but wasn't she trying to talk Rick into getting rid of Shane not along ago? I give up!), and Rick revealed the secret he's kept since season 1's finale: the group are already infected by the zombie-virus, thus primed to become "walkers" the moment they die, regardless of being bitten. (That's right: Dr Jenner's infamous whisper wasn't in regard to Lori's pregnancy. To be honest, I barely remembered that mystery still needed answering.)
Anyway, I'd be lying if I said The Walking Dead didn't get better after I decided to stop reviewing it. The final four episodes were stronger than the opening four, so the writers evidently need to try and ensure their flabby middles are tighter (and give every character meaningful things to go). Maybe now that Darabont's a memory, the show will start to find a faster pace and introduce more diverse drama. Recent episodes benefited from the added zombies and boiling resentments between the characters. It definitely beat the endless chit-chat that dragged the show down before it went on hiatus.
And yes, who isn't insanely curious about the hooded, sword-wielding bad-ass leading two armless zombies through a forest on dog leads? Oh right, the comic-book's readers.