In its first season, “The Walking Dead” was like a gore-streaked helium balloon that began firmly tethered to its source material and started to float off into the ether about halfway through. Now, it appears, someone is yanking its string. After that ill-fated trip to the CDC in the season 1 finale, we’re back on track with the novels. But compared to the books, which feature nuanced portrayals of frightened people who’ll do whatever it takes to survive, these characters are damned frustrating. T-Dog, who gashed his arm in the first episode of season 2, is suffering from blood poisoning. Andrea keeps running into bad zombie luck – which, in her own sarcastic, embittered tone is just great for her. Carol’s desperation to find little Sophia (where is Sophia, anyway?) has rendered her weak. Even Dale, so irrepressibly good-natured, is beginning to feel the strain. And Shane’s particular variety of crazy appears to diminish when confronted with real problems.
Oh, and we have real problems galore. Poor little Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) had a quiet, zen moment with a big buck – a more violent variation on the sweet stillness of Wil Wheaton on the railroad tracks in Stand By Me – and unfortunately got a bullet to the chest. As it turns out, our protagonists weren’t the only hunters in the woods…Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince, a prolific character actor famous for his slithery eyes) didn’t see Carl until he was on the ground. Rick sprints with Carl’s nearly lifeless body to Hershel’s farm, from whence Otis hails. Hershel (Scott Wilson) rolls up his shirtsleeves and starts in. Only later do we find out he’s a veterinarian.
Poor Carl, his usually ruddy features blue from blood loss, lies half-dead on the bed as Rick, Shane, and Lori try to cope with this new turn of events. Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) is floating to the top of this season as our strongest character; in the opening we get a rare flashback to the day Rick was shot, before the zombies blundered into the world. She seems to be wearing the pants around here, which is an interesting choice: Rick and Shane’s power struggle was getting old last season, and it’s about time someone knocked them down a peg, as they’re both (understandably) running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Otis and Shane take off for the high school about five miles away, where a FEMA shelter promises the medical supplies needed to save Carl’s life. Meanwhile, Daryl (Norman Reedus) uncovers doxycycline in Merle’s (Michael Rooker) bike (“Merle used to get the clap on occasion”) to treat T-Dog’s blood infection. This is a deliberate poke – hey, remember that guy we left handcuffed to the top of a building last season? Not done with him yet. (No surprise – any horror fan will tell you you don’t just bring in Michael Rooker for a few episodes and then let him run off into the sunset.) And here we leave off, no better and no worse. Carl’s life is in the hands of two men trapped five miles away, our little group of survivors is splintering viciously, and we still can’t locate that little girl.
There aren’t many actual zombies in this episode – which, again, is not a surprise considering the diminished budget. Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies, as well as little Chandler Riggs, turn in top-notch performances despite the fact their characters are becoming more frustrating by the episode. Ending on cliffhangers is a time-honored way to keep audiences watching week after week, but AMC should watch itself; we need more development than this from episode to episode to continue tuning in. In any case, I’ll be here, recapping each and every one for you on Mondays, til the end of the season. Next Monday is Halloween – and I hope AMC brings it!