Count me in with the other viewers who did not see THAT coming. The Walking Dead finished the first half of its second season with an incredibly affecting final scene that illustrated things the campers had only been discussing for several weeks. It was a powerful moment that recharged the series after a string of episodes bounced around topics the show had already covered like the needle on a broken record.
Zombie Sophia slinking out of the barn after the greatest zombie massacre since probably a few hours earlier somewhere else in the world was some heavy, serious stuff. It answered the "Where's Sophia?" and "Is Sophia alive?" questions (though Hershel may have a different answer for the second one) that we've spent six episodes painfully asking ourselves. It temporarily brought our survivors into the "Zombies are people, too!" mindset of Hershel, who'd just seen undead versions of his friends and family end up on the wrong side of target practice. It validated much of what "crazy" Shane had been off his rocker about and forced the other survivors into Shane's plan of action. And most importantly, it made a man out of Rick.
And the implications moving forward are just as numerous. Finding and killing Zombie Sophia was a huge turning point for everyone involved, especially Rick. Now that Rick has stepped up and done what had to be done, has he effectively voted himself into the leadership role that had already been carved out for him? Or has he become a changed man as Shane said he needed to? At its slowly beating heart, The Walking Dead is all about the question of sustaining humanity during times of extreme crisis. Rick hung on to that humanity for much of the first season-and-a-half, while his (former?) best friend Shane traveled steadily down the primal survivor-mode route, two perfectly suitable strategies at odds with each other. Rick putting a bullet through Zombie Sophia's brain was a big statement, especially considering he had just rescued an undead stranger that was stuck in the mud. You know that "what if?" scenario you ask your buddies about? The one where you say, "If you were in a zombie apocalypse, and your mother/best friend/girlfriend/dog got turned into a zombie, would you be able to pull the trigger?" By opening the barn doors, Shane essentially forced Rick's hand on that question, and it proved Shane's point.
We don't know if Hershel knew Sophia was in the barn. Otis played the part of zombie wrangler before, so it's conceivable that he just gathered them up and threw them in the barn without tabulating a zombie population census and handing it to Hershel. But there's no way that rescuing zombies is a one-man job, so someone else had to know about Sophia. And as we saw last episode, the zombies were being fed; even if your mind is numbed by feeding live chickens to your undead family members, you're going to notice that one of the beasts in your barn is an adorable little girl. Point is, it's almost impossible that not a single one the Farm People, even with Otis gone, knew there was a young child in there. And when a group of people looking for a little girl who matches the same description stopped by, well, someone wasn't telling them everything. Secrets kill, people. I can't wait for the awkward conversation when Carol asks Hershel if he knew Sophia was in there all along.
What I really liked about the whole Sophia thing was threefold. First: The Walking Dead is a television show, and in the fairytale world of TV, good things happen. Even country bumpkin Daryl was preaching about hope and clinging to the idea that Sophia was out there and they HAD to keep searching for her until they found her. Maybe it's the sadist in me, but I love seeing TV characters' hopes get absolutely pulverized. And when Sophia walked out of that barn, it was like napalm being dropped on everyone's hopes and dreams. The Walking Dead is at its best when the light of hope is dim. This is a zombie apocalypse. Things are supposed to suck. If you want family-friendly hope and smiles and rainbows, go watch Terra Nova.
The second thing I loved about Zombie Sophia was that she wasn't just a child, she was a child we knew. In our current cultural transition period between political correctness and anything goes, it still takes big balls to kill off a child on television. But The Walking Dead's story is better for it. The message is clear: If you're alive on this show, no matter what color, size, or age you are, you can die. That has to be the series' motto moving forward, and people need to die. All the time. Please, The Walking Dead, introduce us to new characters, make us really like them, and then kill them. That's a show I will love, because that's a show with real stakes.
Finally, as someone who reads the comics, this was a huge blow to what I know about the story. The series has strayed from the comics plenty, but this is the first time it's purposely strayed and greatly improved the story. As I was watching, I was expecting [blank] to [blank] [blank] (you know what I'm talking about, comic readers), a big moment from the comics early on. But now, I can take everything I thought I knew about the series and throw it off the side of the building into a herd of hungry zombies. Killing Sophia in this fashion wasn't just a sidebar from the comics like creating a band of zombie-killing Vatos in Season 1, it was a major detail that separated the comics and TV show into entirely different entities. And from a selfish point of view, this also bodes well for some of my favorite characters, gone too soon in the comic, to stick around a lot longer.
"Pretty Much Dead Already" provided the spark needed to recharge Season 2 after an uneven beginning. It couldn't sweep away the missteps from the previous episodes, but it showed us what The Walking Dead can do when all its pieces are in the right place. It provided the all-important "Oh shit!" moment that hasn't occurred since the Season 2 premiere, gave us solid, intellectual talking points to think about over the show's winter break, and most importantly, left us looking forward to what's in store. And thank goodness we won't be doing a lot of talking about whether or not they should keep looking for Sophia.
– Shane now knows Lori's pregnant. He clearly thinks the baby is his, but she insists it's Rick's. Rick doesn't seem to want to think about who the daddy is at all. Whose baby do you think it is? And will Shane thinking it's his change his behavior around camp or make him more of a lunatic?
– Do you feel, as I do, that Shane was vindicated when Sophia stepped out of the barn? He was right about her being dead, and the threat of the barn walkers is now squashed. He may not be the most courteous guest, but is there any doubt that the group is safer because of his actions? When Dale told Shane he belonged in "this world," he meant it as a backhanded compliment. But guess what, old man, "this world" is the only world we got right now! Team Shane! Team Shane! Team Shane! How awesome was Shane shooting those rescued zombies while making his case for them to all be killed NOW?
– Hey Dale, hiding guns is one of the stupidest ideas I've heard of during a zombie apocalypse.
– Please, let's not even discuss a possible romance between Carol and Daryl. Even though they've had some tender moments and their coupling would lead to some awesome relationship names (Darol, Caryl), it isn't going to happen. Nor should it happen.
– Talking Dead, the so-far excellent live discussion of The Walking Dead that airs on Sundays after each new episode, should never, ever be an hour long. Ever.
– The Walking Dead hasn't been making waves for its acting, but there were some good moments in "Pretty Much Dead Already," particularly in the final scene. Jon Bernthal (Shane) did juiced-up meathead well, Melissa McBride (Carol) wrenched hearts with her grief, and Scott Wilson (Hershel) put on a perfect face while his world crumbled around him. But my award goes out to Madison Lintz (Sophia), who completely transformed herself from the character we knew into Zombie Sophia.
Please: No spoilers from the comics in the comments section below!
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom