The Walking Dead Recap: We Hear It’s Pretty Nice in ‘Nebraska’

The first half of The Walking Dead’s second season was a claustrophobic disaster, a directionless wild girl chase that transformed our plucky band of survivors into squabbling horse-farm squatters and, in the process, killed the show’s momentum deader than a walker with a pickax through its cerebellum. But the three-month intermission provided ample reasons for hope. The final moments of the mid-season finale seemed to be a meta-commentary on the frozen state of things, when Rick and his Winnebago gang finally pushed past Hershel’s stultifying haze of Bible study and apple butter and emptied a full year’s worth of frustration and ammunition into a barn full of zombies. It seemed at least a tacit acknowledgment of the show’s sharpest critics: The problem was lurking within all along. When Rick put a bullet into the brain of The Macguffin Formerly Known as Sophia it was possible to think that that he was killing The Walking Dead 1.0 right along with it. That maybe, after the appropriate pupal period, the show would emerge reborn, newly focused, deadlier yet full of life.

Helping matters further was the promise that the second half of the season would be without the fingerprints of Frank Darabont, the Hollywood hand who had shepherded the show through its development and yet, according to industry gossip, ended up utterly flummoxed by the plotting and production vicissitudes of weekly television. Evidence both on-screen and off suggests that Darabont was an unchangeable movie guy, right up to the moment AMC’s fatal crossbow bolt hit him directly in his fat contract, too in love with the gotcha moment in a medium that rewards consistency over cheap thrills. New showrunner Glen Mazzara earned additional sympathy and goodwill this week with his remarkably candid interview over at Vulture. In it, The Shield vet dances a delicate Swan Lake over the minefield of his professional relationship with his former boss, defusing past problems with Clintonian aplomb.

Best of all? The first episode back is titled “Nebraska,” which suggests Hershel’s horse farm has been left far behind. A fresh geographic start is just what The Walking Dead needs, preferably in a region free of rednecks, squirrel meat, and infuriating quantities of quasi-chivalrous, boneheaded machismo. The worst-case scenario, I figured, was that Glenn merely found a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s classic record in an abandoned Prius and chose to hunker down in the backseat with Maggie, grooving to “Reason to Believe” until they could be sure that Rick and Shane had finally managed to get each other killed.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for feeling disappointed when last night’s episode began not with T-Dog jamming out in an abandoned Saddle Creek studio or Dale pumping shotgun shells into a ravenous, lobotomized Tom Osborne, but with Rick lowering his still-smoking pistol. All that time and we were right back where we left off. And not just in a physical sense, either. While Andrea and a suddenly chatty T-Dog reenact the first scene of Monty Python & the Holy Grail, every other character immediately spirals back into the same nonsense arguments they’ve been having since the CDC went up in flames. Rick and Shane bicker over moral authority and leadership. Dale stares daggers at Shane. Hershel wants everyone off his land. Lori, horrible as ever, raises her voice to Rick because Carl, her immortal, gut-shot-surviving son, is growing up “cold.” The evidence? His sympathy for Shane’s monster target practice. (Is Lori aware she’s living in a zombie apocalypse? Being anti-zombie isn’t being “cold,” it’s being “not dinner”!)

The fact that episode author Evan Reilly has to rehash this weighty claptrap yet again — was that “thing” actually Sophia, do we bury or burn the dead, how many showers can Shane take in a day — only serves to highlight the narrative cul-de-sac this show has written itself into, one not even a four-wheel drive, product-placed Hyundai could escape. Outside of Glenn’s blossoming sex life, there are no compelling plots to fall back on now that Sophia has been put down. Instead, graves are dug and flowers are picked. A mournful Hershel grabs a flask and his finest lace finery while Daryl whittles arrows and practices piss-poor Sawyerisms. (“Listen to me, Olive Oyl, I was out there looking for that girl every single day” isn’t going to make you head of Dharma Security anytime soon, dude.) Outside of the farm, one imagines there are interesting people going about their daily lives, doing interesting things, like bludgeoning zombies to death with Louisville Sluggers and expressing recognizable human emotions. But back here on Ennui Acres, these sour people are stuck with each other and it appears we’re stuck with them.

And then, suddenly, like the first, vestigial stirrings of a bite victim after a temporary death, The Walking Dead demonstrated a rare sign of life. In the one-horse, zero-zombie town, Rick and Glenn find Hershel in the Gem Saloon, tossing back bourbon shots and throwing himself a raging pity party. Rick puts on his best Batman voice and berates his hoary host for abandoning his flock. In response, Hershel calls our gang a “plague” which, in light of the current situation they’re living in, seems a bit much, like a 1940s housewife calling a hangnail a “holocaust.” “You’re supposed to be their leader,” he hisses through pickled lips, hitting Rick where it hurts the most. Then the former teetotaler really drops the hammer, sounding like me after the midseason finale: “There is no hope and you know it now!”

Ah, but he’s wrong. Hope strides through the swinging doors in the scruffy form of Michael Raymond-James. From the moment he entered to the moment he left this mortal coil (rather messily and involuntarily, I might add), the former Terriers star commanded the screen in a way we’ve never seen on The Walking Dead. (Be honest: the majority of the performances on this show suggest actors who are either in over their heads or totally out of them.) Neither a “lamebrain” nor a good ol’ boy, Philadelphia Dave is a smart, calculating bastard, the sort of dangerous operator who can suss out an empty chicken farm at the drop of a hat and TKO Santa with a snowball at thirty paces. It was hard not to feel bad for Andrew Lincoln in the midst of this stand-off; his wan, sweaty speechifying was no match for Raymond-James’s natural menace. And while Rick made quick work of Dave and Tony – a lifetime of roast pork sandwiches, while delicious, does tend to dull the reflexes – their presence has the potential to linger and, potentially, provide a Yuengling-soaked spark that had been sorely lacking.

Until now the only threats faced by our survivors were external (face-biting zombies) or hysterical (face-slapping Shane). The arrival of Dave and Tony suggests that Mazzara might muddy up the canvas a bit; that the path from Nowheresville to Nebraska (or beyond) will be littered with dangers both subtle and seductive; that Rick might finally be given a chance to stop debating his merits as a field general and actually start making plays.

Of course, all of that will have to wait at least another week or two. For now, like a wayward Amish teen after his Rumspringa, it’s back to the farm. One of Hershel’s innumerable daughters has gone into some sort of catatonic shock, the sort of mystery illness that appears immediately after arm-wrestling with the bitey corpse of her dead mother. (Symptoms that cause none of the Poindexters around her to check for teeth marks.) Lori, moments after announcing that her son needs his father and that Rick shouldn’t be running off places to save strangers, jumps in a car herself in order to retrieve Rick. The jaw-dropping stupidity of this jaunt is leavened by what happens next: distracted by a map (note: there appears to be only one road), Lori swerves to avoid a conveniently placed zombie and promptly flips her car into a field. Now, it would be presumptuous to assume that Mazzara had read my own suggestions on how to fix this faltering show, but driving Lori into a ditch was recommendation number one. And whether he’s listening or not, it’s another optimistic sign that the new showrunner is intent on towing The Walking Dead out of the creative pit in which its previous driver so inauspiciously abandoned it.

Read the rest of our The Walking Dead coverage here.

Filed Under: Recaps, The Walking Dead

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald