There are two persistent complaints about season two of The Walking Dead: Hershel’s farm and a paucity of ‘walkers.’ Neither complaint seems appropriate to me. The main criticism that I level toward season two is the inability of the characters to recognize the threat they are in and do what should be abundantly clear—team up. However, this is not to say the season did not entertain; it did. It is not to suggest that the season failed. It was a good season, and season three promises more success.
The season begins effectively with “What Lies Ahead.” The answer to “what lies ahead” reveals a bleak, harsh world that has little room for compassion, cooperation and essentially civility. The group travels along a clogged highway and eventually is forced to stop. The aftermath of the zombie apocalypse is well established in this scene. Cars clog the highway and dead bodies, people who have met a terrible death, rot inside.
A herd of ‘walkers’ happens upon the group despite vigilant surveillance by Dale from his RV rooftop. This scene strains believability, but it does lead to an intense situation that propels the second season forward.
Rick quickly alerts the group to scramble underneath the cars to avoid the ‘walkers.” This plan works until, Sophia, Carol’s 12-year old daughter, scrambles out before the last of the ‘walkers’ have shuffled by. She is chased into the nearby woods by two ‘walkers’ followed by Rick. The first half of the season focuses on finding her and establishing the harsh, cold reality of this world.
The situation with Sophia as well as the first scene in the pilot establish that nothing, even innocent children, are safe. Typically, television shows don’t threaten children; it is simply too unpleasant and distasteful to imperil innocent children. Not so here.
Another theme emerges with much more import in this episode and continues through Hershel’s world view—religion’s diffidence coupled with one’s reconciliation to this reality. While the group scours the countryside searching for Sophia, they stumble across a church.
Inside, the parishioners, instead of having their prayers answered, have transformed into ‘walkers.’ As they shuffle out of the pews into the nave to eat the fresh human food, Rick, Shane and Daryl kill them with extreme prejudice. The camera cuts to a crucified Jesus, speckled with blood from his crown of thrones as members viciously hack the skulls of the dead. The group looks toward the image of Christ and several offer prayers. None of them are answered. Most notably, Rick’s, as he asks for a sign, some help to lead, and promptly witnesses his son shot in the very next scene. This recurring scenario occurs throughout the season—one’s expectations of hope dashed into abject horror.
The farm owner and patriarch Hershel revives the notion of religion still having some import in this world. He essentially sees the ‘walkers’ as sick and confides to Rick that eventually a cure will be developed. He views the current apocalypse as nothing more than nature correcting itself, and that balance will be restored; in short, part of God’s master plan. His is remarkably caviler as he articulates his point. However, Hershel’s faith is disabused by the end of season two. After he narrowly escapes the swarm of ‘walkers’ flooding his farm, he tells Rick, in a state of shock and incredulity, that when Jesus promised a resurrection of the dead, he thought it meant something different. This is perhaps the best line of the series. Hershel is hardly a religious man as season two ends and given that no one’s prayers are answered, the show has a decidedly agonistic world view—it’s ‘survival of fittest.’
When Sophia stumbles out of the barn a ‘walker’ and Rick steps forward to shoot the child-zombie in the forehead, we clearly understand that with the exception of one character, Rick, no one is safe. The title even seems to mock the idea of Sophia surviving–“Pretty Much Dead Already.” The scene also destroys Hershel’s faith.
With some shows, we know that certain characters are not in jeopardy. Take True Blood, for example. While two main characters, Eric and Bill, are threatened with death if they fail a mission in a recent episode, we understand that the threat is idle. They won’t be killed, so we hardly care. The Walking Dead creates consequences and amps the stakes up. Anyone can die at any time, including children.
The threat to children is real in The Walking Dead. So because there’s a serious threat to children, then there’s a serious threat to humanity’s survival. Children, you have heard, are our future. Rick and Lori’s only child Carl is shot, and they debate if they should even try to save his life. The debate leads to a discussion about the type of world they think appropriate to live in. She further underscores the threat to humanity’s persistence with her pregnancy. She contemplates aborting the child but ultimately decides against it. Why should any couple bring new life into this world? Food for the ‘walkers?’
The show provides juxtaposing viewpoints through two characters: Shane and Dale. Dale represents the moral conscience of the show—the quaint notion of maintaining a sense of dignity and humanity in an otherwise stark world. The group’s members find themselves along the continuum. Each eventually moves in one direction along it—away from Dale’s view and toward Shane’s, including Rick.
Many found Dale’s position frustrating and hopelessly naive. I found Dale to articulate the most sensible and logical position. He argues throughout the series for civility and compassion—his impassioned defense against killing the interloper Randal demonstrates this.
Dale understands precisely what Rick does: working together with Hershel’s family on the farm is the best chance at not only survival but also ‘normalcy.’ Dale and Rick prefer cooperation with Hershel. But as the season ends, autocracy usurps cooperation—Rick’s in charge.
Dale’s impassioned plea for Randal’s life falls on deaf hears, sans Andrea. (Andrea understands better than most, perhaps, the value of a second chance, though everyone in the group has had close calls.) And to make sure that Dale’s perspective finds little resonance moving forward, a ‘walker’ promptly eviscerates him shortly after giving his speech for civility. Dale’s position is rejected by the group and consequentially the show’s world view generally.
On the other hand, Shane embodies ‘survival of the fittest.’ His callous killing of Otis establishes that for Shane, it’s kill or be killed. Shane believes he can do what it takes to survive—this includes killing innocent people. Shane has little patience for Dale and even Rick as they operate from a different paradigm. Shane would likely slay Hershel and commandeer the farm if it were his choice.
It is, however, the disharmony caused by Shane that ultimately spells doom for establishing a family life on Hershel’s farm. The warring alpha males, patrol partners, and life-long friends simply fail work harmoniously. The show then forwards the assumption that humans, especially males, simply can’t get along. One must be in charge and everyone else his submissive. The assumption colors the characters and their choices, but it is a world view that scarcely finds challengers.
Certainly, this idea has merit, as one looks through human history and locates spectacular and cruel conflicts. But one would be negligent not to point out human’s harmonious existence. Humans cooperate with each other and have cooperated with each other forever. In fact, were it not for our ability to cooperate, it is likely we would not have persisted. Why, then, does the show prefer to eschew harmony for survival of the fittest? Narrative conflict?
When Rick stabs his best friend, Shane, the event for the roaming herd of ‘walkers’ to overwhelm the farm is initiated. The herd would have shuffled by the farm had Rick and Shane been able to work out their differences. There would have been no need for Carl to shoot the zombified Shane drawing the attention of the herd.
The show kills off both Dale and Shane and their juxtaposing positions too. However, as season two concludes, Rick establishes authoritarianism over the group. By killing Shane, Rick becomes more like him in a sense. So while Rick may have a gentler hand in administrating his authority, Shane’s orientation to The Walking Dead world is confirmed.
It is not all doom and gloom; there is a little sliver of hope. Lori’s pregnancy offers this—can humanity survive? Of course, we don’t know if the child is healthy and “normal;” in other words, not a ‘walker.’ The other note of hope comes via the helicopter.
The helicopter has appeared twice in the series: once in season one and once in season two. This suggests that some form of an organized government might still remain. If there is, then perhaps there is a safe and secure life awaiting the group. We’ll have to wait and see, but I think not.