Recap | <i>The Walking Dead</i>: 'Pretty Much Dead Already'

"This world, what it is now, this is where you belong. And I may not have what it takes to last for long, but that’s okay. ‘Cause at least I can say when the world goes to shit, I didn’t let it take me down with it." -- Dale

After a sluggish and frequently dull six episodes weighed down by the lackadaisical search for Sophia, the forced escalation of tensions between Rick and Shane, and the improbable transformation of Andrea, The Walking Dead experienced a return to form, of sorts, just in time for its two-month hiatus. It's frustrating, sure, but that's become the byword for this second season.

"Pretty Much Dead Already" isn't without flaws, mind you; many of the problems that plagued the previous six episodes are on display in the midseason finale. However, writer Scott M. Gimple, who also penned "Save the Last One," ensures that some of the more subtle character developments of this meandering season pay off, particularly for Hershel, Carl, and the Glenn-Maggie relationship (oh, hell, let's throw Rick in there, too, primarily for how he relates to Doc Greene). And the final scene? It's visceral, affecting, something the rest of the season has seldom been.

To get everyone to that point requires Glenn, in very Glenn-like fashion, to fully spill the big secret of Hershel's farm -- "Um, guys ... so … the barn is full of walkers" -- kicking off a seemingly endless barrage of shouting and recriminations that continues for much of the episode. An enraged Shane lays it all out for the group, dismissing the idea that Sophia may be alive, and arguing they either have "to make things right" by killing the zombies in the barn, or leave their sanctuary and head to Fort Benning. As utterly unlikable and dangerous as Shane is, it's tough to argue with him (unless, of course, you have knowledge of Lori's pregnancy).

Carl, noticeably darker and more outspoken since his recovery, isn't about to sit still while they leave his friend behind. Going over schoolwork with his mother -- a nice visual reminder of Sophia's absence -- the boy proclaims, "I’m not leaving until we find Sophia. And I don’t want to go even after that. I just think she … she’s gonna like it here. This place, it could be a home." (If that doesn't telegraph where the episode is heading, you've not been paying attention.) Moments later he confronts Shane, saying, "I know you think Sophia’s dead and that we should stop looking for her. But that’s … that’s bullshit." Bullshit, indeed. Where have you been the rest of this season, Carl? Oh ... right.

Sparked by Glenn's admission, Shane becomes the burning fuse of "Pretty Much Dead Already" -- he even provides the episode's title -- inching us closer and closer to the powder keg. Whether the tail end of that metaphor refers to the barn full of walkers or the entanglement of guilt, trauma and resentment ensnaring the survivors is up to you. In any case, Shane is the key player here, moving from scene to tense, uncomfortable scene, driving the drama. It's his demand for action that pushes Rick, now armed with the information about the barn, to passionately and desperately plead the group's case with Hershel, who gives them until the end of the week to clear out. "I’ve given you safe harbor," the once-kindly vet says, pausing from lunch and Bible study. "My conscience is clear."

They're very much alike, Rick and Hershel, each clinging to his own delusions -- the former that he can find a safe home for his expanding family, the latter that one day soon a cure will be discovered, and life will return to normal. Shane tells Lori that Rick "ain't built for this world, not for what it is now," but he might as well be talking about Hershel. For all of his medical knowledge and self-efficiency, he's not equipped, not willing, to face the widespread horrors lurking beyond the boundaries of his farm. And Rick's group isn't merely a threat to the walkers -- those "sick" relatives and friends -- in the barn, but to Hershel's carefully constructed worldview.

Negotiations with Hershel stalled, Rick is forced to reveal to Shane why he's so determined to stay on the farm, leading Shane to make his case to Lori as to why he's a better man, a better protector, than her husband. In doing so, he divulges that he actually keeps count of how many times he's saved the lives of her and Carl -- it's four, if you're wondering -- and that he blames Rick for the deaths of Amy and Jim in the attack on the quarry camp. Oh, also? Shane is certain the baby is his. No surprise there.

Barely stopping for an exchange with Carl, Shane goes to the RV to retrieve the group's weapons stockpile, only to discover that the guns, and Dale, are nowhere to be found.

Rick, meanwhile, is ready to head out with Andrea to search for Sophia (really!) only to be waylaid by Hershel and Jimmy, who urgently need his help in the woods ... to rescue two walkers mired in the silt of the creek bed. Corralling zombies that wandered onto the farm had been Otis' job, so they do need Rick's assistance. However, this is also a test. "It doesn’t matter if you see them as human beings anymore," Hershel says. "But if you and your people are going to stay here, that’s how you’re gonna have to treat them. My farm, my barn, my say." I understand the need for this sequence, as it reinforces the Greene family views, explains how the walkers end up in the barn and demonstrates that Hershel has rethought his position on Rick's group. Unfortunately, though, it's very mechanical, as if we're stripping away the covering to view the gears of the plot; it's a writer's cheat to move all the parts into place for the episode's final scene. But, hey, it works.

Back at the farm, Glenn finally approaches a still-angry Maggie, confessing that he had to tell the others about the barn, that he'd begun to treat the walkers like a video game, losing sight of the threat they pose: "I forgot that they’re dangerous. I don’t care if they’re sick people or dead people, they’re dangerous. And then I realized something else. That I don’t want you in danger ever. So I hate to blow your dad’s big secret, but I’m sick of secrets. Secrets get you killed. And I’d rather have you pissed off at me and alive than liking me and dead. So that’s why I told them."

In the nearby swamp, Shane finds Dale trying to hide the bag of guns in the hollow of a tree -- "Imagine if you applied your tracking skills to finding Sophia," Dale says, lending a voice to the viewers' thoughts -- resulting in a standoff that's essentially a repeat of their previous confrontation, only this time Dale is armed. In the end, it doesn't matter, as Shane takes the weapons and heads back to the farm, where he hands them out to the rest of the group.

Amid protests from Maggie, Lori and Carl, the now-armed survivors spot Hershel, Rick and Jimmy leading the walkers at the end of snare poles. Incensed, Shane leads the charge to the barn, where he fires three rounds into the chest of a zombie to illustrate to a shaken Hershel that they're not "alive." The boundary crossed, Shane opens the barn, and the armed survivors -- including Glenn, who looks to Maggie for a nod of permission -- open fire on the walkers. Hershel is on his knees, in shock, as Rick stands frozen in place and Lori tries to shield Carl from the carnage. It's a gut-wrenching scene made worse when, just as it seemed all the undead had been put down, a growl emerges from the darkness of the barn and out shuffles Sophia, the girl they'd been (nominally) searching for these past five days or so. Held back by Daryl, Carol sobs, calling out her daughter's name, but the rest of the group seems unable to move -- everyone except Rick, whom we're told isn't made for this world. He's the only one capable of lifting his gun and shooting Sophia in the head.

It's an emotionally devastating scene even if, like me, you suspected Sophia might eventually turn up as a walker. However, it's also one that raises questions about the characters and the timeline. I can buy that, because rounding of zombies was Otis' job, the rest of the Greene clan doesn't have a list of the barn's inhabitants -- and, therefore, Hershel wasn't callously watching Rick's group search for the girl when he knew where she was all along. However, I'm not so sure that Sophia could've been turned and shuffled her way onto the farm in the time between her disappearance and the arrival of Shane, Rick and a wounded Carl. (Was she not staying in the house Daryl found? How did her doll end up in the ravine?) But maybe it's best not to pick at that loose thread ...

Grade: A-

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