WARNING: SPOILERS for the final half of season two lie beyond, including the thirteenth and final episode that airs in the UK on Friday.
Season one of The Walking Dead was a sublime piece of TV, showing that AMC had the guts to make a show that would be both faithful to the source material and brave enough to deviate into interesting new waters. Despite coming from comic book source material, the show preserved the comic's tone rather than treating its origins like a bad joke. The presence of great filmmaking names like Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd helped to reassure wary fans and soon it was a bona fide hit. A second season of thirteen episodes was commissioned and the long wait for new episodes began.
Like roamers searching for fresh meat, many of us scoured the 'net for news. But what began to emerge was somewhat disconcerting. First there were rumours of Darabont deciding to forgo a writers' room for season two - practically unheard of in American TV production. Then mere days after attending a comic convention panel promoting the show, Frank Darabont was seemingly fired by AMC - a move that felt quite ruthless and left a bad taste in many a mouth, myself included. As further clarification came out, I began to understand that whilst Darabont is a great filmmaker and did well on six episodes last year, the pressure and time constraints of bringing in thirteen episodes - on time and on budget - may have been beyond someone used to working in such a different manner. Television doesn't always allow the luxury of perfectionism after all.
When the show did finally return, it opened with a powerful first episode, before settling into a new location and an ongoing story arc. Hershel's farm and the characters found there, were comfortably familiar for fans of the comic book, but the search for Sophia and the more character driven focus of the show seemed to alienate some.
I'll admit, I became tired of many of the objections I read online to the show's evolving story. People bemoaned the lack of zombies and accused Rick of becoming a dull and insipid worrier, incapable of action. I saw a man doing his best to keep the peace, while still trying to get his head around the mess - not just the zombies, but the interpersonal situations and the group dynamics. His police training and status made him a natural leader, but burden of command is exactly that. A burden. Plus, constant zombie attacks would actually lessen the impact of the walkers themselves, so that didn't bother me. When we did see the undead, they were all inventive and terrifying to behold, thanks to the magic of Greg Nicotero.
Frankly, people need to remember that the title of the series is not a reference to the zombies. The back of every graphic novel of The Walking Dead makes it clear the story is about human survival, not constant gore. That said, the first half of season two was not without its faults. Darabont's departure led to some varied characterisation as the scripts commissioned under his tenure gave way to that of the incumbent showrunner. Certain characters spent the whole season sidelined as well. T-Dog in particular seemed to have little to do after the opening episode, until the zombie in the well incident. Yet he hangs on in there, presumably held in check by the writing staff until Merle returns for bloody revenge. I suspect we'll find him in league with the Governor in season three, but that's my musings for another time.
The midseason finale seemed to silence some of the dissenters, with its powerful revelation about Sophia's fate. What followed was a fairly pedestrian episode that ended in one of the most tense barroom standoffs I've seen in a long time. The show felt like it had a renewed energy, and like the ever more dangerous Shane, it was looking to take no prisoners. More jaunts away from the farm raised the stakes and character arcs began to evolve in a way that felt natural, rather than the scattergun approach of before. Lori became a twisted but almost sympathetic Lady MacBeth; Hershel became so much more than he had been before; Maggie and Glenn became one of the more convincing couples on TV right now; Carl flirted with becoming a sociopath and Andrea became more and more unlikable. Carol became a three dimensional character and her sweet connection to the show's breakout character - redneck hunter Daryl Dixon - became quite heartwarming despite all the horror she had been through.
The growing tension between Rick and Shane moved from fodder for slash fiction writers and hurtled toward the collision the comic fans knew was coming. Several times, it seemed set to come to a head then simmered some more and in the midst of it all, Dale bought the farm. On the farm no less! I'm sure many viewers didn't see it coming, though the rumours that Jeffery DeMunn had asked to be released for his contract - in a seeming show of solidarity for his old friend, Darabont - made the move seem less surprising and more like making the best of a bad situation. Still, it kept us comic fans on our toes and reminded us of creator Robert Kirkman's repeated warnings that no one is safe.
The following episode seemed like an episode of mending fences, both figuratively and literally. Until one fateful and perhaps well meant conversation between Shane and Lori, which reignited the deadly resolve in the man who had sacrificed Otis. From that point on, Rick's card was marked and only his quick wits saved him from a bullet to the head. This penultimate episode also seemingly confirmed that all the dead come back as walkers, something that had been teased in previous episodes and is true to the comics. Confirmed by Rick in the finale as the secret Jenner had whispered to him in the CDC, suddenly the stakes are raised for everyone - not just the current cast.
The meat of this finale though was the zombie herd laying waste to the farm. Here was a slice of action for all those who had complained the show was too slow this season. Between Rick's barn fire gambit and Hershel holding the line armed only with a shotgun and steely eyes, it was a sight to behold. The cast was whittled down to the more compelling characters too, as Jimmy and Patricia became walker chow. I wasn't sad to see Jimmy go, but the moment where the older woman was torn out of Beth's hands was surprisingly moving all things considered.
The chaos of the exodus was well handled and the rendezvous at the place where they left supplies for Sophia was a nice touch, bringing that whole debacle to a close. The final few scenes saw Rick shake off any accusations of being a weak leader, as he issued an ultimatum to the others. Stick around if you like, but I definitely call the shots now. After everything he went through, who can blame him? And after egging him on to kill Shane, Lori's disgusted reaction when Rick told her what he'd had to do made me furious. I now hope she doesn't survive the prison, which we saw looming in the distance at the end of this episode - a tantalising sight for the fans.
Of course, the prison's reveal is somewhat overshadowed by the mysterious arrival of an iconic character from the comics, as Michonne arrives to save Andrea with her trusty katana. Flanked by her 'armless zombie escorts and hidden under a hooded cloak, I'm sure the audience members who are only watching the show (and haven't read the comics) were slightly baffled by her appearance. I'm sure series three will demonstrate just what a badass this woman is!
The Walking Dead season two was marred by behind the scenes shenanigans, but it still produced some of the finest drama of the season. With new showrunner Glen Mazzara now firmly entrenched, season three seems set to be belter. With both the prison and Woodsboro to come - seemingly confirmed with news that British actor David Morrissey has been cast as the Governor - we potentially have a much greater variety of locations moving forward. Plus the drama born of numerous new characters - dynamic ones too, unlike young Jimmy! Mazzara says that he and Kirkman have mapped out the third year - now increased to sixteen episodes. I have high hopes as we hit the stories from the comics that had the biggest impact on me as a reader. It's going to be a great year.
Ben Fardon is now looking forward to the return of Game Of Thrones