When you find yourself with a stunning and wholly unexpected break-out hit on your hands – as American cable TV channel AMC did with the six-part The Walking Dead mini-series in 2010 – the big question mark and headache hanging over things is: can you repeat that success in the sophomore year? Can you convert that flash in the pan to something sustained and long-lasting, or will it fall apart in your hands when you have to get serious about it?
It doesn’t help when the production’s co-creator and showrunner (Hollywood director Frank Darabont in this case) suddenly leaves the project a couple of episodes into the making of the second series, after most of the writers have also just been replaced. It speaks volumes of considerable trouble behind the scenes, and means that when you’re watching the finished episodes you’re actually micro-analysing it thinking: “Is this where the quality dips? Where the rows set in? Where the shark-jumping begins? Is that why Darabont quit/was fired/delete as applicable?”
Fortunately, even with the micro-analysis set to full-strength, it’s hard to see how the first episode of season 2 represents a shift in direction or dip in quality thus far. The opening half hour in particular in staggeringly strong and also very simple in premise, as our heroes get stuck in a motorcar graveyard on a freeway in the middle of nowhere. Inevitably, a wave of the walking dead approach – too many to fight off, so all our heroes can do is hide and take cover in and under the wrecked vehicles as the zombies shuffle past inches away, in a deeply nerve-wracking extended sequence that leaves you holding your own breath past the point of comfort.
Critics fear that Darabont’s departure means they’re ‘soaping it up’, but certainly in the first half of this episode the ‘soap’ elements are simply those that existed in the first mini-series – the tangled relationship of the sheriff’s wife and his deputy; Andrea contemplating suicide. Yes, the second half of the episode does feature a long sequence where the sheriff (Britain’s own Andrew Lincoln) has a chat with his Saviour in a church in the middle of nowhere – but by then we need the respite, and the potentially mawkish moment has been paid for upfront by the deliriously macabre black comedy spectacle of zombie worshippers sitting silently in the pews, before promptly getting hacked to pieces or their heads caved in by an explosion of righteous retribution from the good guys. Even the falseness of the church itself (the tolling bell is the total artifice of a timer-activated recording played over a loudspeaker) adds an edge to any potential sentimentality-overdose from the ‘talking to God’ sequence.
Nor does the episode end with a pat resolution. We do not find the missing member of the group we’ve been searching for; and then out of nowhere there is a shocking gunshot during an apparently magical encounter with the ‘natural world’, and one of the members of the regular group that we’ve always assumed would be safe to the end is on the receiving end of it.
Far from finding any cracks or signs of shark-jumping in this season opener, I thought this was possibly the strongest episode we’ve seen of The Walking Dead since the pilot. It continues the tension and genuine outright horror (one of the scenes where the group have to check out what a zombie had for its last meal is astoundingly gross), deftly juggles the ‘soapy’ side to things, but at the same time it now has a new sense of self-confidence in what it’s trying to do and a new swagger in how it goes about doing it that stem directly from the success of the first season.
Whether this is just Darabont’s last triumphant hurrah at the helm and the cracks (if indeed there prove to be any) will start showing in two or three episodes’ time is another question entirely, but for now The Walking Dead is at the top of its gleefully grotesque game.