I'm not quite sure where to start here. Oh I know. Hey AMC, please stop trying to draw parallels between The Walking Dead and Mad Men in those stupid promos. Because they're nothing alike. While a man crying or a spilled milkshake is considered a pivotal event in AMC's subtle study of character (snooze), the reinvigorated The Walking Dead, behind the aggressive chest-thumping of new showrunner Glen Mazzara, is all about visceral intensity. "Beside the Dying Fire" ended with Rick Grimes putting his foot down and telling the group how it's going to be. And the thrilling and satisfying finale may as well have been the new regime in charge of The Walking Dead saying the same thing. This show is done with talking. At least for now.
In addition to toddler-sized piles of shell casings, what made the episode work so well is that it felt less like the end of Season 2 and more of a bridge to Season 3. Ever since Sophia walked out of the barn the show has been on a different trajectory, and "Better Angels" and "Beside the Dying Fire" effectively closed one chapter and started another. Shane's death, both of them, was, for all intents and purposes, the end of Season 2. But with one hour left in this season, it was time to throw a zombie-killin' party and hand out glimpses that fans of the show and comics would love. Even if the action scenes amounted to little more than circular drive-bys and Hershel standing still and firing off about 100 shots from a pump shotgun without reloading, the carnage was something out of a game of Left 4 Dead and exactly what we all wanted to see, whether we admit it or not. A little bloodlust is great for the soul.
However, we shouldn't kid ourselves because there was some ridiculousness going on. But who cares? The whole first half-hour was the zombie-apocalypse series equivalent of the last day of school because the producers didn't want to just clear the table, they wanted to blow the thing up. There was no regard for story early on, but there didn't need to be. "Beside the Dying Fire" was all about instinct and surviving. For half an episode we witnessed an orgy of headshots, an ocean of gratuitous zombie brain matter, a steady stream of scenes that were horror-movie cool just for the sake of being horror-movie cool (Hey Rick, why didn't you say "Yo Hershel heads up!" instead of waiting for a walker to get within sniffing distance of the old man before shooting him?, etc...). It was the kind of stuff that wasn't perfect, but made me giddy with glee because it was relentless and unapologetic in giving the majority of the fans what they wanted.
The aftermath of the barn-burning zombie storm was almost equally enrapturing. The survivors, splintered into groups, needed to quickly decide a plan of action and I loved seeing tiny glimmers of that "everyman for himself!!!" mentality (Ahem, T-Dog!) in some, and self-sacrifice from others (Hershel). It also represented a huge change for the series because there was no place to go for the survivors, no chances of Kumbaya sing-alongs on the farm, and most importantly, no sense of safety.
It's times likes these that a leader (or a dictator) rises, and Rick pretty much filled both those roles. He's been inching towards taking control of things, and killing Shane pushed him past the point of no return. This is his group now, whether they like it or not. Remember, Rick didn't kill Shane in the comics. This Rick did. It's almost enough to drive a man to say, "This isn't a democracy anymore." Even though he's being more of a dick, this is the Rick I like to see. Since Shane is gone, someone has to be the one to scream at people and tell them what they're doing wrong, because people do a lot of wrong things in this series.
Before Rick put on his iron fist, he casually dropped the fact that they're all infected. That's what Dr. Jenner told him in the Season 1 finale, and that's what became obvious last episode. I'm not sure what the big deal is here. The survivors are all infected with Zombie Syndrome. But you know what the cure for Zombie Syndrome is? Staying alive. Pretty much the same thing you would do if you didn't have Zombie Syndrome. So let's call this a non-issue unless you stab your best friend in the heart, then just remember to put a bullet in his brain after to cure him.
Rick also let Lori (and the rest of the group) know that he killed Shane. But he did it in a pretty crummy way. For some reason, Rick decided never to make it clear that Shane was milliseconds away from killing him, and that shanking Shane was done in self defense. Maybe next time, Rick. Lori of course reacted to the whole situation, including Carl shooting Zombie Shane, in that typical hypocritical Lori attitude. It was just a few episodes ago that Lori heavily implied that she wanted Shane "taken care of," but now Rick is the bad guy because he killed Shane in a "me or him" situation? Oh Lori, even when Rick does something right you think he does something wrong. If I were Rick, my priorities would be 1) shelter 2) food 3) ammo 4) divorce lawyer.
But now Lori has company in the totally annoying female department thanks to Carol, whose behavior in this episode was completely ridiculous. Every time she opened her mouth I just wanted to slap her. Sorry Carol, you do not get to nag Daryl and try and convince him that Rick is talking crazy. Ugh, Carol. You sucked this episode. Like, way more than usual.
You know who doesn't suck? Andrea. I know she's not some people's favorite, but if you ask me she's the one who has adapted the best to the world going to poop. Last week she skewered a walker with a pitchfork, and this week she saved Carol's life (not sure if worth it) and held her own massacre in the woods. Great stuff by Andrea tonight. MVP worthy, for sure.
However, Andrea's greatest moment wasn't even her moment. That belonged to the mysterious hooded figure wielding a katana that helped a zombie lose about eight pounds of weight with one fell swoop of her blade. Comic book readers will recognize her as Michonne, and I nearly cried manly tears of joy upon seeing her. What a surprise! So great to see a character you've loved in print come to life on screen. And yes, those were two armless zombies on chain leashes with her. We'll explain what the deal is with those two next season. For those who missed the news, actress Danai Gurira (Treme) will play her in Season 3.
And in another great nod to fans of the comics (not really a spoiler but if you want to remain completely unspoiled, skip this paragraph), the final shot we see is of the prison, where we all presume much of Season 3 will take place. Very cool, and an easy way to virtually high-five fans of the comics.
Those two reveals, as well as what we've seen in the last several episodes, were a sign of where The Walking Dead is going to go from here. Frank Darabont's days of angry philosophizing and repeated monologues are over. The Walking Dead is now what it was meant to be: a never-ending zombie movie. I'm not sure what you wanted out of a finale for Season 1, but I got what I wanted. I'm not sure I've seen a series change so much in just a handful of episodes.
– Bye-bye Hershel's relatives/farm roommates who didn't do much anyway. You were always zombie food anyway. And you both died in the stupidest ways so you deserved to go.
– These people are really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, good shots.
– I really like T-Dog's effort to horde all the fine ladies for himself when he was trying to drive east before Lori told him otherwise. Nice try, T-Dog! Sounds like you and I have the same priorities! And what up with T-Dog saying he saw Andrea go down? Did he mean on Shane back in the car on the road? Because we never saw her get eaten, T-Dog.
– Hey, how about leaving a little soap note on a windshield for Andrea, too? Buncha jerks!
– Argyle sweater zombie has to be the lamest zombie in the series.
–What up, T-Dog! You made it! Congratulations, bro.
I want to give this to Michonne but really Andrea earned this. She sacrificed herself to save Carol. She never panicked. She got abandoned and held her own. And she killed a LOT of zombies. With Shane gone, she might be the best character out there now.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom