The Walking Dead keeps on getting better and better. For what feels like the third episode in a row, I’m on here proclaiming the latest episode – “Wildfire” – as The Best Since The Pilot! Last episode was a cracker, but while I feel it was in the closing few minutes that it ratcheted up to true brilliance, this episode pretty much starts at that level and maintains it throughout, if not taking it even higher.
It should be said that this is a very different animal from last week. While that was all about shock and violence and a rush of activity with lots going on, here we slowed things down, and really got into the heads of the characters. I love how the show has done that, how every episode so far has had its own distinct tone and felt like its own kind of story: something that will surely work wonders for the rewatch value come the release of the DVD. Here, we have a masterful character drama – penned by regular writer on The Shield, Glen Mazzara -with the kind of depth and nuance you’d expect from the network that brings you Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It felt like just about every character had at least one moment where you had to sit back and think, “Wow, that was powerful – great acting.”
Let’s start with Rick – after all, he is our main character. In this episode, we really see the cracks emerging in that knight’s shining armor of his. I said in an earlier review that his trembling hand after his confrontation with Merle Dixon reminded us he’s not Jack Bauer, he’s not a rock-hard action man. And we see it here, how despite finding himself in a position of leadership he’s uncertain of himself, he wants his wife and his best friend to tell him he’s doing the right thing (they both do, but neither really means it, and Rick knows it). We see him making two dawn radio calls to Morgan, and we know he’s been doing this every day since they went their separate ways in the first episode. We also get the sense that this is as much about Rick having time alone to talk to himself and voice his own private thoughts and insecurities as it is about contacting Morgan. It’s when we see Rick at his most vulnerable. That is, of course, until his very public breakdown at the end of this episode, when he thinks he’s led the whole group and his family to their doom on a dead-end errand. It was unnerving to see our hero get so panicked, so desperate. I actually felt relieved for him when the door opened – though we’ll see if that relief carries over into next week.
Cracks are starting to show on Shane, too. While his turn to the dark side was necessarily sudden in the comics, the TV show has done a masterful job of slowing down Shane’s mental collapse, really giving us insight into his desire to be the good guy, and the cumulative slights and perceived wrongs against him that are all building up to turn him against Rick. Though we’ve had hints of violence before, it was really with this episode that we overly see Shane emerging as the season’s probable Big Bad. I’m of course referring specifically to the moment where Shane is training his rifle on Rick, a glint of madness in his eye. What an intense moment when Dale caught him in the act! One recurring motif in this series thus far has been misdirection: such as misdirecting us into thinking the Vatos and Merle were a threat to the group, when the real danger was a group of zombies that arrived out of nowhere. On that vein, I get a creeping feeling that we’re being set up to view Dr. Jenner as a villain-in-waiting for the group, when the true climactic bad guy of the season will turn out to be Shane.
I’ve been less impressed with Lori than other members of the cast – though to be fair, I always liked Lori less than other characters in the comics – but in this episode Sarah Wayne Callies brought the goods, delivering a subtle performance that hit the right notes, giving Lori shades of ambiguity that make her story more complex than just “Rick returns and so Lori ditches Shane for Rick without a second thought.”
After being a standout in the last episode, Laurie Holden continues to bring the goods in the role of her life as Andrea. I know people will have been screaming at their televisions, “JUST LET THEM SHOOT YOUR SISTER IN THE HEAD ALREADY!”, but I think that whole scene was handled beautifully. Was anyone else like me, sitting on tenderhooks waiting for the big jump scare where Amy suddenly reanimates and sits bolt upright, screaming? It’s what just about any zombie film would have done. But what we got here was an awakening, a rebirth, and – brilliantly played by Holden – Laurie looks momentarily overjoyed at this “miracle” of her sister coming back to life before her eyes. “It’s her birthday” – Dale prophetically stated. But just when we might have thought Andrea was being weak, we see that she knew all along what she was doing, and in fact proves her great inner strength by finishing off Amy herself.
Since I touched on Dale, I’ll yet again say that Jeffrey Demunn is doing stellar work – every week I like his Dale more and more, and am reminded why he was always one of my favourite characters in the comic. I noticed they changed things so his wife died of cancer rather than by zombie attack, though – without getting spoilery – I think I can understand the reasoning behind the change. His relationship with Andrea was realised very well, and believably set the stage for what is to come between them.
Alas, poor Jim, we barely knew thee. After being a standout in the previous episode, Andrew Rothenberg hit another home-run in what we now know is to likely be his last appearance as Jim (unless he shows up as a walker in future). The way Jim’s exit was handled in the comics was one of my favourite moments from the first graphic novel, so I really anticipated how they’d handle it for TV. I was a little bit disappointed in the removal of one of my favourite lines from the history of the series: when Jim says that he wants to become a zombie, because then maybe he’ll be able to find his family as zombies and they can all be together again. The TV show settled for the more subtle approach of, “I want to be with my family.” Rothenberg brought a real dignity to Jim’s finest hours, and did justice to this big emotional moment from the comic’s early chapters.
Even the characters with smaller roles in this episode impressed. Glenn has largely acted as comic relief in the series thus far (and has done well in the role), but Steven Yeun brought some dramatic heft to “We don’t burn them!”, when demanding they give their friends a burial rather than dump them in the fire with the other zombies. Melissa Suzanna McBride had her best moment so far too as Carol, with her cathartic caving in of her dead husband’s head with the pick-axe. And I like how, under all the angst and the swagger of Daryl Dixon, Norman Reedus lets us see the doubt, the humanity, even the decency flickering around just under the surface, trying hard to keep itself hidden. And we got a surprisingly cruel moment from Jacqui, responding to Jim’s pleas for her not to tell the others of his wound by screaming and pointing at the proverbial leper, inciting a level of hysteria that almost got the guy killed on the spot. Her subsequent hand-wringing and clinging all over him therefore felt a little disingenuous to me, but I’d say that says more about the contradictory nature of the character (who I think could be a kind of analogue to Donna from the comics) than any shortcomings in the performance of Jeryl Prescott.
But if there is any character whose development in this episode I wasn’t impressed with, it was Carl. The show has done a great job of capturing the husband/wife relationship between Rick and Lori and how much that means to them both, but in the comics the father/son dynamic between Rick and Carl is even more crucial, but thus far the television show has done a lot to tell us about the relationship, without really showing us much since their emotional reunion in “Tell It To The Frogs”. Chandler Riggs seems like a fine young actor, and has been able to handle emotionally-charged scenes, but soon Carl is going to need to do more than cry on demand. And I actually fear they’ve shown Carl crying too much. In the comics, the first moment I can really remember Carl shedding tears was in the climactic moment that ended issue #6, and when that moment is adapted for the television screen, I think we risk losing some of its emotional heft since we’ve already seen Carl crying over and over.
So there was me thinking that this whole episode would just be about slowing down and studying the characters, really getting into the emotion that the comic does so well. Fine by me. Then we have the group driving off in their convoy, that excellent, spine-tingling “Kaneda’s Death” theme playing in the soundtrack, and I think that’s the end.
Then we find out why the episode is called “Wildfire”.
And in the closing minutes, the dynamic of the episode, if not the season, is turned on its head, and we realise this isn’t a character-driven episode where not much happens, but in fact we’re moving forward A LOT. Do I think the group are going to discover the answer to what caused the zombie outbreak, or get a cure? Of course not. Because after the shocking shift, it goes back to being all about character. Noah Emmerich does a brilliant job depicting Dr. Jenner’s despair – you had to love the delivery of “Tomorrow, I think I’ll blow my brains out” – and what we had at the episode’s close is a wonderful piece of dramatic irony. Before we even get to see the relief of Rick and the group as they reach their apparent salvation, we already know there is no salvation waiting for them. Just large, empty rooms, and a lone madman looking for fresh meat…
I can’t believe that, already, we’ve reached the point where we only have one episode left. Next week is the finale, and here’s the exciting thing about all the deviations from the comic: this finale could go anywhere. There is so much to cover, so many directions it could go, I’m as enthralled and as eager to see how it all wraps up as someone who has never picked up an issue of the comic and only discovered The Walking Dead on TV.