The season two premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” makes one thing clear — these characters are doomed. The show picks up right after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exploded at the end of last season, opening with a monologue from Rick (Andrew Lincoln, “Love Actually”) that sets the despairing tone flowing through much of the episode. “The Walking Dead” returns with a punch and reiterates that zombies are no longer constrained to horror movies: They can actually make for great serialized storytelling.
The Walking Dead
Season Two Premiere
Sundays at 9 p.m.
The fact that “The Walking Dead” makes zombies interesting is its greatest strength. After all, there is nothing particularly mystical or complex about zombies. Their only real “ability” is to make other zombies. But zombies — or “walkers” as they’re labeled in the show — are terrifying. They are monsters, but they seem so plausible. They represent societal deterioration, chaos and the beginning of the end of human life. And as this gang of ragtag small-town Georgians are reminded in every episode: Walkers travel in herds. You can never just kill one and be done with it.
The show’s chilling visuals and nail-biting moments of terror and suspense are enough to keep people coming back for a while, but the writers will to need to pay close attention to character development. Most of these characters can easily — and already have in past episodes — slip into flat stereotypes found in any B-list horror film. This season premiere showcases the writers’ abilities to avoid these stock types.
The acting in the premiere had even the younger cast members delivering compelling performances. The subtlety of Chandler Riggs’s (“Get Low”) performance as Carl in the final scene is breathtaking. The moment when he moves towards the beautiful stag — a sign of power and life starkly contrasts this crumbling world — is the episode’s best scene. But of course, in standard “The Walking Dead” fashion, the peace is shattered by a tearing bullet and the chaos returns: Hey Rick, you asked God for a sign and he gave you one. Don’t take your 12-year-old zombie hunting.
By this point, most of the characters understand this never-ending battle. Even as Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies, “Prison Break”) promised her son Carl, he would one day see the Grand Canyon, her hesitation made it clear she didn’t believe her own words. The way “The Walking Dead” handles the hopelessness that fills the world these characters live in will largely determine its continued success. Zombie stories rarely have happy endings — which can work fine in the movies, but can a show keep its audience coming back when every glimmer of hope for these characters is crushed week after week?
The premiere also reveals that, even though their world is at the mercy of undead monsters, these characters still have very real, very human problems. Andrea (Laurie Holden, “The Shield”) recalls the oppression of her abusive husband, Lori confronts Shane (Jon Bernthal, “The Pacific”) for his violent actions at the CDC and Carl is going through the transition out of boyhood, longing to be treated like the other men in the group. Many of the characters are also holding onto old norms. Sexism plagues the group, with most of the men uncomfortable with a woman carrying a gun. Lori maintains societal standards as well, feeling uneasy about stealing from the dead. These human problems form the characters and make the show more than just a horror story.
“The Walking Dead” has the ability to prove that genre television can be great television. The writers must continue to make the audience care about and root for these characters, all while maintaining an appropriate balance between intriguing story and thrilling gore. Yes, watching Rick and Daryl gut a walker is disgusting, but that’s the kind of high-stakes, volatile world these characters live in. The gore isn’t as gratuitous as it might be in a badly constructed show — it’s necessary to the storytelling. While it’s doubtful things will end well for this gang of heroes, their journey to the end is still fascinating to watch.