The Walking Dead, Ep. 2.13: “Beside the Dying Fire” a rollicking, rock-solid season finale
The Walking Dead, Season 2, Episode 13: “Beside the Dying Fire”
Written by Robert Kirkman and Glen Mazzara
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC
Credit where credit’s due. Where the first season of The Walking Dead sputtered out with a crap CGI explosion that was way beyond its means at best (and before that, an actual countdown to destruction…yikes), “Beside the Dying Fire” keeps up the intensity of last week’s stellar outing for its entire first half, before ending with a dénouement that mostly works. It’s both a far better ending than we got last time around, and far better than much of the season it concludes.
That aforementioned first half is probably the most intense extended section of the entire series, a rollicking, genuinely unpredictable affair that was genuinely tense and scary throughout. Ultimately, of course, the body count was insignificant (especially since the only casualties are characters we’ve never spent any time with anyway), but given all the ass-kickery on display, that’s hardly an issue. The show even broke its holding pattern of having Lori and Andrea as either incompetent or perpetually kitchen-bound: Lori quite credibly mows down a few walkers with a pistol, while Andrea seems to get stranded in an episode of Spartacus: Vengeance, taking down endless waves of walkers in a neverending forest setting, Give the lady a hand. (Or a machete. Comic readers likely know what that’s about, but the rest of us will have to content ourselves with blind speculation for now.)
Once the carnage settled down, the episode did expose a familiar flaw. Once again, as soon as the day breaks again, we’re forcefully reminded that young Chandler Riggs, who plays Carl, is simply not a strong actor. His plea for Rick to go back and look for his mother should be an utterly heart-rending moment, urgent and touching, but his awkward line readings don’t let that come through. (There’s a distinct sense of “sorry guys, this is the best take we had.”) Beyond that, though, the comedown was generally effective, showing Rick to be a frighteningly altered person, perhaps one more in line with the Rick of the funnybooks. A few moments here and there were stilted (Carol’s brief, awkward conversation with Darryl, for instance), but for the most part everyone’s objections and questions were well-founded. And, of course, the series lets us know concretely where we’re headed this fall with that closing crane up to the prison in the distance.
So how does Season 2 measure up as a whole? It’s no less patchy than the first season was, but the highs have definitely been higher this time around. The show’s chief weakness has consistently been its pacing. Fully half of the season consisted of episodes that either didn’t advance the characters or plot, or did so in ways that might have been accomplished much more swiftly. This is the part where fans of the comic step in to argue that the deliberate pace is imported from the comic; that may be true, but The Walking Dead, the TV show, doesn’t have the calibre of writing or character design to support a glacial pace without losing serious entertainment value. Next season brings a bigger episode order and the promise of a new setting and some seriously hyped-up scenarios and characters. Glen Mazzara was able to make some modest headway this season after taking over from Darabont, which can’t have been an easy position to be in, but here’s hoping he kicks it up a notch and makes The Walking Dead more consistently like the rock-solid show we saw this and last week.
Fans of the Walking Dead will look back at season two and remember it as the swan song for both Shane and Dale, two men who couldn’t be more different. The second half of season 2 began with the killing of Otis, leading to Shane’s slow transformation into the show’s number one monster. It was only a matter of time before Shane, a character who died very early in the comics, got what he had coming. With the death of those two men, one thing was clear: Nobody of any importance would die tonight. The question on everyone’s mind was how would the creators deliver a memorable season finale? Thankfully they delivered in spades, giving viewers what they’ve been waiting for by finally getting everyone off the damn farm.
The real payoff in “Beside the Dying Fire” was what came of Rick Grimes. Rick deciding to not end Randall’s life two episodes ago was a test, but his real test came a week later at the feet of Shane. In the process of trying to save the group, Grimes took on a responsibility he did not ask for nor wanted when he stabbed his best friend to death. For weeks now on our WD podcast, I’ve been arguing that Rick wasn’t the leader he should be, nor the character we know and love from the books. With Shane around always questioning and challenging both his authority and decisions, Rick was left not only doubting himself but seeming increasingly weaker to the rest of the group. I think everyone can all agree that we were all a little sick and tired of Rick always needing to talk about his feelings. Now the character at the centre of AMC’s hit series has finally emerged from the Season 2 finale a changed man, and is ready to finally take charge.
“If you’re staying,” says Rick when the gang threatens to splinter, “this isn’t a democracy anymore.”
For those who had been complaining about the lack of zombie attacks, producers Robert Kirkman and Glen Mazzara delivered as many walkers as their budget could afford. Poor Herschel had to stand by and slowly watch his farm run amok by the dead, while the rest of the group raced around in separate vehicles delivering round after round. Gory, graphic and gruesome are three words you want to add every week to a review of the series, and “Beside the Dying Fire” offered enough thrills, chills and spills of guts and blood. Poor Jimmy and Patricia; if only we knew anything about you, maybe we would care.
The Walking Dead has had it’s fair share of problems wherein the writers seemed to be struggling to find ways to draw out the personalities of the majority of their characters. The likes of T-Dogg and Carol, have suffered the most, but throughout all of season 2 each and every member of the group has been wrongfully ignored or underwritten far too many times. While Jimmy and Patricia arguably had to depart, as their roles in the series were never, ever established, tonight’s episode actually made use (as much as it could) with just about everyone else. T-Dog was given something more to do than stand casually by in the background for a change – Carol not only managed to make her way through a herd of walkers alive but talked some sense into Lori who outright panicked – and gun-toting Hershel held the fort showing off his shooting skills. Darryl continued to be the Darryl we all love – smart, loyal, courageous and honourable – and Glenn’s ill-timed confession of love for Maggie was a welcome heartwarming surprise. But the best storyline of the night belonged to Andrea. For someone so willing to end her life not so long ago, Andrea fights tooth-and-nail after mistaken for dead and left behind.
And who is this mysterious samurai who fights with a katana while dragging around armless walkers in the middle of the night, chained and dressed like a gimp? Readers of the comic series would know her name to be Michonne, but since we don’t spoil what is still yet to come, I’ll leave it at that. Needless to say, for those of us who have read the books, this was by far the highlight of the night.
It could be argued that “Beside the Dying Fire’ works primarily because it keeps the talking on hold until after it has done wreaking terror with huge action set pieces. The massive horde of walkers keeps the survivors so busy they don’t have the chance to spend another hour irritating each other and us the audience. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but I would like to think that the writing has dramatically improved over the course of season 2. The essence of any good story after all is conflict, but a season finale just isn’t the time for bickering and whining. By having the walkers storm Hershel’s farm, the series is forced to progress and, finally move on to a better location.
The season finale ends with the glimpse of the prison standing a short distance from where the group had stopped for the night. The final two episodes of season 2 are arguably two of the best yet, breathing new life into an undead series.
After the group separates they meet back where season 2 began on the crowded highway on which the group lost Sophia. It was a nice touch in showing the writing left on the windshield of the car for Sophia, before they escaped to the farm.
Chandler Riggs really cannot act if his life depended on it. Either he needs to be recast or his character needs to disappear.
On last week’s podcast, I joked about how I thought it would be funny if the group left the farm and forgot T-Dog behind. Looks like the writers took inspiration from my idea, only used it against Andrea instead.
It was finally revealed what Jenner whispered in Rick’s ear back at the CDC, although it was quite obvious after last week’s actions. As I’ve hinted several times on our Walking Dead podcast, it had something to do with the nature of the zombie virus: as seen in last week’s episode, everyone is already infected, and it doesn’t require a bite or even contact with zombie blood to become infected. Now the question is, does Dale come back, or is he safe since he was shot in the head?
Someone please explain Lori and her negative reaction to Rick’s account of Shane’s death. It’s hard to tell if Lori’s crazy inconsistent behavior is a result of miscommunication between various writers, or if she likes having two men around fighting over her.
Once again, the music by the show’s composer, Bear McCreary, was fantastic.
Listen to our extended thoughts on our Walking Dead podcast.