The brilliance of the first half of the second season of the AMC series "The Walking Dead," which wrapped up Sunday night, should speak for itself. But not everyone was a fan, including AOL TV's Maureen Ryan, whose vivisection of the series left me wondering whether we were watching the same show. And yet it's well written and persuasive enough to beg a very different take here.
The season's seventh episode–its last until "Dead" picks up again for another six episodes beginning in February–may be the most incredible hour of TV I watched all year. And that includes the stunning season finale of "Breaking Bad."
Which isn't to say it represents some quantum leap from the six episodes that preceded it this mid-finale. If the show's creative quality was supposed to degrade in the transition of showrunning duties from Frank Darabont to Glen Mazzara, that's news to me. If the first season left itself open to criticism as nothing but a gorefest thrill ride, the second season so far stands as an utter refutation to that sentiment.
What's all the more remarkable about the show's maturation is the narrative risk it took to get there. By making the daring move to derail the "Dead" characters from the ceaseless violence that awaited them on the open road in favor of sequestering them on the relatively peaceful idyll of Hershel Greene's farm, this series truly came into its own.
While zombie entrails may not have been as copious as during the first season–though hardly in short supply either–the series took its characters deeper without dissipating its crackling energy. If anything, that energy took on a more coiled intensity that finally erupted in memorable fashion that I won't describe–no spoilers here, folks.
The second season is offering a very simple but powerful question: Is there any sense in being humane amid inhuman conditions?
Though the "Dead" group has always been rife with assorted tensions that seem set to explode any minute, the first half of the second season makes clear that question has driven a rift between them all. There are those like protagonist Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his family who are trying to hold onto conventional moral values even as the world in which those values were formed falls apart. And then there is Shane–played by an Emmy-worthy Jon Bernthal–who advocates cutting off anything that leaves them vulnerable to attack, no matter what the cost.
And then there is Hershel (Scott Wilson), whose seemingly crazy decision to harbor zombies in a barn has a seductive logic. Is there just cause for killing a "walker" without self-defense? What's incredible is that somehow I find myself in agreement with both Hershel and Shane even though they are inhabiting extreme ends of a moral spectrum. If I were Hershel and found a way to secure my zombified love ones until a potential cure could be found, would I do it? Absolutely. If I were Shane and seen up close just how horrific the havoc the zombies wreak, would I have a zero-tolerance policy toward letting any of them "live"? Damn right, I would.
To be able to put the viewer simultaneously in the mindset of moral polar opposites–I'm hard-pressed to remember a TV show that's managed to pull off such a nifty trick.
"Dead" leaves the audience at such a juicy juncture that this two-month layover is going to be painful: How on earth is this group going to function as a cohesive group when they are separated by a moral chasm?
At its best, "Dead" has recovered the gritty greatness ABC's "Lost" possessed early in its run but ultimately squandered in a narrative complexity that tied itself into pretzels. Dismiss it as mere sci-fi if you will, but "Dead" makes you think about the real-life grey zone of wartime, when the rules that govern society aren't as easily applied.
In my mind, "Walking" stands shoulder to shoulder with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Congrats, AMC: The three best currently running series on TV just might all reside on one network.