“Look, I don’t need all the answers, just a nudge, a sign. Any sign’ll do.” — Rick
That The Walking Dead‘s season premiere would grapple with matters of faith, in God and in man, is made obvious in its opening moments, as Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) again turns to his confessor, the walkie-talkie. Hoping against all hope that Morgan will one day answer, Rick dutifully continues his morning broadcasts, his morning ritual, confiding in an unseen, and perhaps nonexistent, being things he could never admit to his fellow survivors — chief among them, self-doubt and even despair. “It’s all about slim chances now,” he intones, a line repeated in AMC’s marketing for the second season.
The soliloquy also serves to bring the audience up to speed on the plight of our rag-tag group, still reeling from the dispiriting detour to the Centers for Disease Control, which started out as their salvation — wine, hot water and powdered eggs, all in a walker-free bunker — only to very nearly become their grave. (Okay, it did become the fiery grave of Jacqui and Dr. Jenner, but nobody cares about them.) It’s a smart narrative device employed by deposed writer/executive producer Frank Darabont — credited in the episode as “Ardeth Bey,” Universal’s Mummy — to rip through the exposition and quickly get the survivors on their planned 125-mile trip to Fort Benning, the destination championed by Shane (Jon Bernthal) before Rick’s CDC suggestion won out.
As we’ve come to expect by now, things start out well enough, with a chopper-riding Daryl (the scene-stealing Norman Reedus) leading the caravan out of Atlanta, and a smiling Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) fondly recalling a long-ago family trip to the Grand Canyon cut short by a sick baby Carl. Shane and the increasingly grating Andrea (Laurie Holden) chat in the RV as he cleans his gun, compliments her weapon — a gift from her father — and, I don’t know, offers to show her his etchings. It’s an awkward scene that suggests, if not an attraction, then at least an acknowledgment that the two are kindred spirits, something that becomes more overt later in the episode.
The convoy (and the Andrea-Shane flirtation, thankfully) comes to an abrupt halt as they encounter a stretch of interstate highway made impassable by countless cars, their dead passengers entombed inside. “This is a graveyard,” Lori says, perhaps unnecessarily. (It only occurred to me later, and maybe I’m being dense, but, how did all of those people die?) A suggestion by Glenn (Steve Yeun, whose screen time is sadly limited) that they turn around and make for a bypass a few miles back is shot down by Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) — they can’t spare the fuel — then made moot when the RV breaks down again, bursting a radiator hose.
At Daryl’s suggestion, the group fans out, scavenging the cars for parts, fuel and food, creating an incongruous scene of the survivors “shopping” among the items of the dead. Carol (Melissa McBride) smiles as she holds a blouse up to herself, turning self-conscious when she realizes Lori is watching, somewhat disapprovingly. “Ed never let me wear nice things,” she offers apologetically, referring to her abusive, leering husband, killed in the walker attack on the camp. (Carol and her daughter very well may be the only ones who are actually better off because of the outbreak.) Shane, meanwhile, finds a bottled-water truck, and immediately takes a fully clothed shower. “It’s like being baptized!” he shouts joyously, underscoring the religious undertones of “What Lies Ahead.”
However, that joy is short-lived as Rick and Dale spy the first in a shambling horde of walkers — or “herd,” as the survivors later dub it — and signal to the others to take cover under the cars in what’s easily the tensest, most suspenseful television scene in recent memory (you can watch most of it here). The two child actors, Chandler Riggs as Carl and Madison Lintz as Sophia, deserve particular credit here, as they’re separated from the adults, who can only watch in wide-eyed horror as the feet of a legion of undead shuffle between them. T-Dog (IronE Singleton) gashes his arm on a car door, blood gushing everywhere, as he stumbles, searching for a hiding place, while Andrea sits in the RV cleaning her disassembled pistol, unaware of the danger until the walkers pass the window. She scrambles into the cramped bathroom, fumbling with the gun parts as a particularly curious zombie boards the vehicle, sniffing, searching for food. In classic horror-movie fashion, the walker is about to leave, satisfied the RV is empty, when Andrea drops part of her weapon, giving away her location. As she struggles frantically to keep the ghoul out of the bathroom, with only a flimsy accordion door separating them, Dale drops a screwdriver through the roof vent, providing Andrea with her only weapon. As she drives the tool through the eye of her undead attacker, a bleeding T-Dog is saved from his own pursuer by a stealthy Daryl, who dispatches the walker then uses its body, and a corpse from one of the cars, for olfactory camouflage as the rest of the herd passes.
And just when it seems as if the danger has subsided, Sophia is discovered by two walkers, who chase the terrified child into the woods, with Rick hot on their heels. He rescues the girl, only to lose her again as he bashes the skulls of her putrefying pursuers. Rick and the increasingly awesome Daryl search for Sophia, but only find a third zombie, which they kill then subject to a backwoods autopsy to ensure it hadn’t feasted on the younger Peletier. “Yeah, Hoss had a big meal not long ago,” Daryl proclaims while rummaging through the rotting entrails, “I feel it in there.” Thankfully, it was merely an apparently slow-moving woodchuck.
The stress of Sophia’s disappearance exposes fissures within the group, as Andrea confronts Dale first about taking her gun, and then about preventing her from dying in the CDC explosion. “You took my choice away, Dale, and you expect … gratitude?” she blurts out, in front of everyone. A distraught Carol, echoing Rick’s feelings of guilt and self-doubt, lashes out at him for leaving her daughter, the first sign faith in Rick’s leadership is shaky. Most of the survivors head back into the woods the next morning, leaving T-Dog to tend his wounds and Dale to fix the radiator hose (he confides to T-Dog that he already made the repair but pretended otherwise so the group wouldn’t be faced with the choice of staying to search for the girl or moving on; “pantomime,” he calls it).
Although Sophia’s trail has gone cold, the searchers are drawn by distant bells to a church, where they don’t find the girl or any humans (the recorded bells are on a timer), only three walkers, sitting quietly as if in contemplation, observed by an enormous crucifix. Like Morgan’s wife in the first episode, they seem to be going through the motions of their previous lives — pantomiming, if you will — the female ghoul still wearing a veiled hat. The survivors make short work of the “worshipers,” with Daryl eyeing the figure of Jesus and saying, “Yo, J.C., you takin’ requests?”
The rural chapel provides the perfect backdrop for some of the party to lay bare their souls, as Carol tearfully prays that God isn’t punishing her by letting Sophia die, Rick asks for a sign that he’s doing the right thing, and Shane elaborates to Lori his plans to leave the group — a conversation overheard by Andrea, who tries to convince Shane that she’s Thelma to his Louise.
With sunlight burning, Shane and a guilt-ridden Rick remain behind with Carl, sending the others back along the creek, splitting up the group (a decision questioned by Daryl). The larger faction stomps through the woods, doubts about Rick’s leadership written across their faces — something Lori can’t help but notice: “You all look to him, and then you blame him when he’s not perfect!” Properly chastised, they move on.
Meanwhile, Rick, Shane and Carl creep along, alerted by the footsteps of what turns out to be a majestic deer, unaware of, or unconcerned by, their presence. Carl, his hand outstretched, approaches the stag, as Rick and Shane quietly bask in the idyllic scene. Surely this is the sign Rick had prayed for just minutes earlier. Oh, of course it isn’t. The scene fans of The Walking Dead comic knew was coming arrives as a gunshot rings out, the bullet passing through the deer and into Carl’s stomach. It’s a gut-wrenching, yet beautiful, moment that puts Rick & Co. on the path to Hershel’s farm, where the characters will spend much of this season.