“Walking Dead” Rebounds from Boring Season with Well-Executed Finale

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Sorry, there is no argument. Episodes two through six of the current “The Walking Dead” season sucked.

Sure, some had moments, and some were better than others, but at the end of the day, they simply did not make for compelling television. The episodes moved at a crawl. There was absolutely no direction to the story-telling. The characters completely stagnated and in fact had the same arguments and discussions in multiple episodes (case-in-point: Lori and Rick had a discussion about whether it made sense to raise Carl in this apocalyptic world; episodes later, they had the same exact discussion about Lori’s unborn child).

And, no, there is no place for a “you just don’t get AMC’s methodical pace” counter-argument. Yes, “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” can be deliberate, even “slow” at times, but they still find a way to make every moment count. They foreshadow future developments and twists. They build and destroy characters and relationships. They use dialogue (and silence) to uncover secrets about the characters.

Season two of “Walking Dead” has rarely done any of that, making its slow pace and redundant plot progression inexcusable. The show hasn’t been about providing nuanced, deep storytelling–it has been about not having a clear sense of what it wants to be, what it needs to be. Far too “in its own head,” the creative voice of the show has been conflicted over not wanting to be a non-stop action series (which would get old really quick) and not wanting to be a truly complex drama (which would, eventually, wear down a lot of the mainstream viewers that can’t process shows like “Breaking Bad”).

The closest thing to a plot structure this season has been the ongoing quest to find Sophia, and while the tale of trying to find a scared little girl in a zombie-run world has merit, the writers did not have enough ammunition to make it meaningful. And few writers likely could have–for a show like this, it’s not macro enough to drive an entire season. As a result, there was only so much that could be given away between point A and point B (and in the case of “TWD,” the weekly giveaway amounted to almost nothing), and so even the core plot driver felt pointless and lifeless.

Sunday’s mid-season finale cannot make up for the entirety of the show’s recent shortcomings. It cannot make a bad season into a good one. But, in its own right, it was a very well-executed finale–and easily the most powerful “Walking Dead” to date–and at least enough to restore faith in the writers’ ability to tell this story.

Going into this week’s finale, one thing was abundantly clear to anyone who knows a thing or two about compelling television: the Sophia storyline had to end in heartbreak. Just like with Rita on “Dexter” and Teri on “24,” death, no matter how saddening and disappointing, was the clear right direction for the character. It was the only plot direction that had a prayer of making the past six episodes worthwhile and reinforcing the show’s meaning.

Finding a scared, ill-prepared little girl hiding, safely, underneath a tree or in an abandoned house would simply be an unfair progression of the story and a slap-in-the-face to all those who believe the stakes are high in the world of “The Walking Dead.” Granted, my personal prediction was that Sophia would have been shown getting attacked by walkers in THIS episode, possibly in a heartbreaking closing scene in which the camp has to choose between its safety and chasing after Sophia, but the actual ending was just as poignant and just as honest.

Sophia, it turns out, had been turned zombie–presumably very, very shortly after getting lost–and stowed away in “zombie barn” on Herschel’s farm. After Shane, against the orders of Hershel and Rick, led the survivors in a rebellious effort to kill all of the zombies in the barn, some of whom were near-and-dear to Hershel and his family, out walked Sophia, as a zombie, dropping everyone’s jaws in the process.

Largely dismissive of Hershel’s belief that the zombies were still people (just sick people), none could fully understand his desire to keep the walkers in the barn alive. Until one of their own (especially a young girl) emerged from the barn. Then, suddenly, the seemingly-easy choice of whether or not to kill a zombie became a difficult one. Not necessarily on the question of whether to do it–they obviously had to–but whether it could be done with ease.

And so stepped up Rick Grimes, whose order not to kill the walkers had been disobeyed by Shane and the fellow survivors. He had temporarily lost control of the group that was more inclined to side with the colder-hearted Shane on matters of survival. But when the dirty work needed to be done, he was the leader willing to put the bullet in Sophia’s head.

The ending scene was dramatic and powerful–everything, from the music, to the camera work, to the emotion on the actors’ faces, clicked. It was simply stunning, not so much in a “I can’t believe this is happening” way (we all knew something like this was inevitable for the mid-season finale) but in a, “I can relate to the characters’ emotional struggle” way.

It is that latter quality, one necessary for all brilliant dramas, that had been lacking for the past several episodes. And boy did it return at a necessary time.

There are a number of obvious directions for “The Walking Dead” to take when it returns this spring–let’s hope, for the sake of the show, it surprises us and takes an unexpected one.

But regardless of which one it chooses to pursue, one thing is clear: it must remember that slowness does not automatically equate to tension. No one is asking for “TWD” to become a non-stop zombie chase show, but when it does slow down, it has to remember that the mere idea these characters exist in this apocalyptic world is not enough. Each episode must raise the stakes. It must build and destroy relationships. It must make each moment, zombie-controlled or human-controlled, count.