The first season of AMC’s The Walking Dead ended on a bittersweet note. While AMC promised to deliver a second season to the cult hit about a crew of zombie apocalypse survivors, the network was criticized for firing show-runner, Frank Darabont (after he had already fired the entire writing staff). Although AMC’s motives are officially unclear, reports suggest disputes between Darabont and the network over the direction of the show and more importantly, production costs. These rumors don’t seem too far-fetched. AMC has been pushing their producers, including Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, to deliver more efficient (read: cheaper) shows, even if it meant sacrificing character development.

But despite AMC’s corporate insensitivity and money grabbing, the season two premiere of The Walking Dead still proved to be hot commodity. The season opener garnered 7.3 million viewers last Sunday, shattering the first season premiere’s 5.3 million viewers. The first couple of episode of the new season bear the imprint of Darabont, who was on set for their production. But the remaining episodes – six this fall and then another six to begin in February – may be a different proposition. Stepping into the Darabont void is his former No. 2 Glen Mazzara, along with the creator of the graphic novel the show is based on, Rick Kirkman. So whether or not the second season of The Walking Dead will live up to the tantalizing character study, edge-of-your-seat pacing, and gory splatter-fest that made the first season such a hit is very much a matter of perspective.

From the beginning The Walking Dead has made a point to be more than just a TV show about zombies. God knows that the entertainment market has seen a glut of the undead recently, but The Walking Dead manages to use the premise of a zombie apocalypse as a call to action for its characters. The zombies – called “walkers” – serve more as backdrop to the show’s ruminations on human nature and development of archetypes, rather than just an obstacle to overcome or a physical threat to brain.

The show follows a ragtag crew of survivors hanging on for dear life in the face of what appears to be an increasingly desperate situation. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is the tall, cowboy sheriff with a proclivity towards always doing the right thing, who finds himself as the de-facto leader. Silently butting heads with Grimes is his brooding ex-partner and tentative friend, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal). Walsh, thinking his partner was all but lost to the walkers, manages to insert himself into Grimes’s family, sparking an affair with his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and becoming substitute father figure for Grimes’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs). When Grimes is reunited with his family, Walsh begrudgingly steps back, but has a hard time suppressing his feelings for Lori.

Although this love triangle is at the core of The Walking Dead story, there are several other minor threads. Jittery Andrea (Laurie Holden), still reeling from her sister's death, is upset with the others because they refuse to let her have a gun after she expressed a wish to die at the end of the first season. Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) is the bearded, wise old man of the group, who feels obligated to save Andrea, much to her annoyance. Other characters include the delightfully redneck, crossbow toting, Daryl (Norman Reedus), good-natured T-Dog (IronE Singleton), paranoid mother Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride) and her wandering daughter, Sophia (Madison Lintz).

The beginning of season two finds the gang on the road again following a last minute escape from the CDC. Once it seemed that they had reached relative safety, a fatalistic doctor and a depletion of resources forced the group back in the desperate world of the undead. This time they’re heading to Fort Benning in hopes that some semblance of humanity remaining. Along the way they encounter a traffic jam, the type zombies are apt to cause, miles of cars either abandoned or full of decomposing bodies. Their RV blows a radiator hose and they split up to scavenge for replacement parts and other supplies. Of course it’s only a matter of time before a roving pack of the undead pass through, sending the crew to hide under the derelict cars. In the middle of the excitement Sophia is chased into the woods by a couple of zombies, manages to get herself lost, and the rest of the episode is spent looking for her.

One thing The Walking Dead has consistently eschewed is any sentimentality towards its child characters. The very first episode opened with Rick Grimes blasting a little zombie girl in the face and this week’s episode ended with Carl taking a slug in his torso. This egalitarian doling out of death is more of an appeal to reality rather than an attempt to shock. In the post-zombie apocalypse world, everyone is fair brains. So when Sophia goes missing, questions are raised: How long should the group search for her before they move on? At what point does necessity override blind emotion? The characters too are painfully aware of this tension between morality and basic survival. Dale lies to the group and says the RV still needs work in an effort to delay “the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ arguments,” illustrating nicely the show’s discussion of humanity in a world devoid of humans.

The Walking Dead has many great attributes. The show is filmed on location in Georgia, during the summer, so the atmosphere is replete with sun-stroked highways, dense forests and an ever-present soundtrack of cicada chatter. The effect is a feverish, humid anxiety and a landscape that seems just as dangerous as the hoards of zombies. Also the show wouldn’t be near as popular if it didn’t properly deliver the gore, which it does of course. The special effects crew behind the series does a wonderful job of creating zombies in new and interesting stages of decomposition, and the type of gutsy violence seen on The Walking Dead is shocking for basic cable. Last week’s episode featured Daryl and Grimes elbow deep in undead innards looking for little bits of little girl, and Lori gouges out one zombie’s eyeball with a screwdriver in a tearful, traumatic fashion.

Of course there are times when the emotional quota of The Walking Dead gets unwieldy. When the gang stops at a church to take a breather from their search, we’re privy to a number of prayers – including Grimes’s WWJD moment – which all feel stock. But that’s ok. The Walking Dead is working with a genre that is fraught with unabashed conventions. It’s a tough thing to do: making a movie or show about zombies and doing it in fresh, original ways. But The Walking Dead is doing it better right now than anyone else out there.

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