I wish I hadn’t prematurely used my “good writers can hear the fan’s problem with the show in their head and fix them before it does the program irreparable damage” rant in my last review of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip because it has perhaps never been more applicable than it was during last night’s episode of The Walking Dead. Way too many hours of this season have been involved in the quest to find Sophia. It was essentially the only story to be told over the course of every episode of the season. While I’m not a completely heartless bastard, I stopped caring about the fate of this little girl. She had virtually no lines or development in Season 1 before she went missing in the season premiere, and outside of the Daryl Dixon’s now legendary solo expedition into the woods, there wasn’t a lot of drama or thrilling moments garnered from the hunt (Carl getting shot and Daryl nearly dying were essentially the only tangible moments to arise). Instead, we were treated to a season full of boring existentialist conversations between Rick and Hershel, Shane’s admittedly interesting descent into a villain, and roughly nothing else besides Maggie and Glenn hooking up. Like manna sent from the heavens, the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, appropriately titled “Pretty Much Dead Already”, combined into one thrilling episode  all of the potential this season had been missing (and honestly this could have been the only episode of the arc, except for maybe “Chupacabra”) and provided some closure to the Sophia storyline that proves this series still has the ability to shock the audience.

The episode can essentially be boiled down to two sections. It’s deliberately paced (but still interesting) first 45 minutes, and then its final, action-packed and shocking 15 minutes. For most of the episode, Rick makes one last plea to Hershel to allow his group to stay on the farm. After initially seeming completely unwilling to allow them to stay, Rick’s trump card of Lori’s pregnancy seems to soften Hershel’s resolve. One of Hershel’s sons informs Hershel that there are two Walkers stuck in the swamp surrounding the farm. Hershel enlists Rick’s help in corralling them back to the barn. During this whole sequence, Rick and Hershel have a conversation about how the incident has transformed people (not the zombies, but Rick’s group), and that if Rick and his people want to stay on the farm, they’re going to have to learn to treat the Walkers like people rather than monsters that need to be put down. Rick seems to agree with this (only so he can have a place to stay), but actions on the part of an increasingly unhinged Shane (which I’ll get to shortly) will completely unravel this progress. It was Glenn who finally informed all of the survivors about the Walkers in the barn, even though he knew this would further estrange him from Maggie. In a wonderful scene at the beginning of the episode, Rick and Shane have a heated discussion about whether they have the right to interfere on Hershel’s property, and Rick is only able to calm Shane down temporarily. Dale tries to take pre-emptive action by hiding the group’s guns in the woods (so that Shane can’t use them to ruin their chances of staying), but in a scene where Dale walks straight into a loaded rifle pointed directly at his chest by Dale, we learn that Shane is willing to do whatever he thinks it takes to survive and that Dale still holds onto a scrap of his humanity.

Shit really hits the proverbial fan though when Shane simultaneously returns from the woods with the guns just as Rick and Hershel are coming back to the barn with two Walkers on a leash. As Shane is giving a fiery speech about how the group has to do what is right to survive (which in this case involves slaughtering the zombies in the barn) and is on the verge of getting Daryl, T-Dogg and Glen to go along (despite Lori’s protestations), Rick and Hershel arrive, and the sight of those zombies on a leash is all it takes to send Shane over the deep edge (though his continued rejection by Lori earlier in the episode certainly didn’t help). After unloading half a clip into the zombie Hershel is herding to prove just how inhuman these creatures are, Shane finally puts a bullet in her head and leaves a completely stunned Hershel paralyzed with shock and (I’m guessing) anger. Then, without waiting for the group’s approval, Shane batters the locks off of the barn and lines up with the rest of the group’s survivors in a firing squad and mows down every last zombie that walks out of the barn. The show had one last trick up its sleeve though as after the shooting gallery is over, a zombie-fied version of Sophia lumbers out of the barn. Carol nearly runs to her Walker daughter (and is only held back by the strength of Daryl Dixon) as no one in the group has the conviction to do to one of their own what they just did to around a dozen Walkers they didn’t know personally. Once again, it’s up to Rick to be the leader of the group and put a bullet in the dome of a little girl we had spent the entire season searching for. Cue silence and a series break til February.

So much of this season’s problems can be attributed to horrendous pacing. The series wants to be the sort of program that can pull off episodes where nothing really happens and people just sit around and talk like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. There is an entire episode of Breaking Bad where Jesse and Walt do nothing more than try and kill a fly, but the character development on display there as well as the incredibly sharp dialogue make “Fly” one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. The writing on The Walking Dead is not good enough to do that sort of thing. These characters (with the exception of Shane) are all incredibly one dimensional, and the show wasted the opportunity to have these characters grow naturally and become more defined over the space of this relative peace on the farm. Rather than getting to know more about these characters (for example by letting me know more about T-Dogg than he’s black dude in the group), the series simply stalled. It became stagnant, and with the sole exception of Shane, there was no transformation or growth. Instead, we were subjected to endless conversations that would have been forgivable had they been interesting. But they weren’t. The Walking Dead is great zombie fiction, but it’s greatness comes from an ability to combine character driven storytelling with desperate survivalism in an apocalyptic world. It doesn’t do the character stuff great, but normally, it was its aspirations to be artistic that allowed its action to soar so well and carry so much weight. By abandoning the actual tension and danger of the series, this season remained entertaining but it rarely managed to reach the heights that made Season 1 the smash hit it was.

However, those final moments of last night’s episode were among the strongest of the entire series and hold up well against moments from its virtually flawless pilot as well as this season’s high-point, “Chupacabra.” Moral ambiguity and the gradual erosion of the survivors’ humanity is what makes the graphic novels the show is based on so spectacular. As early as volumes 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead comics, our survivors discover that their danger is as much related to their own failings and flaws as it is from any external zombie threat. The moment where Shane lets his anger and resentment toward Rick and Lori cloud his judgment about what is best for the group (which is staying on the Greene family farm) and he brutally shoots a Walker not to kill but to make a vicious point mark the moment where this show is finally starting to go down that path (though his shooting of Otis earlier in the season certainly covered similar ground). While the survivors had no choice but to gun down the Walkers once they escaped from the barn, it was the cool and calculated way they did it which made the scenes before Sophia’s big reveal so memorable. There was a complete lack of mercy and a cold efficiency to that slaughter which gave more credence to Hershel’s earlier discussion of transformation than I had thought. The camera work for that scene was really great and it ratcheted up the intensity. The episode’s director also worked on Breaking Bad during the Hank shoot-out sequence which was one of that series’ highlights. Really, though, the moment this episode will ultimately be remembered for though was the reveal of Sophia. I thought they were going to find her alive (mainly because she never disappeared in the comics and was a puppy-love romantic interest for Carl). I did not think the show had the stones to turn the little girl into a zombie, let alone have Rick (the series’ hero) be the one to put her down like that. I’m glad to know the show can throw curve balls from time to time.

I’ve been harping on his performance all season, but Jon Bernthal has really begun to distinguish himself as the master thespian of the cast. While a healthy portion of that can be relegated to the fact that Shane is the only character on the series with any real depth (and thus Bernthal has a wider set of emotions and tones to draw from), I’m still going to give credit to Bernthal’s characterization who has managed to keep Shane from becoming the cartoonish villain that he can border on being (and comic book Shane totally was). He can go from having touching moments with Carl to threatening the life of Dale to going absolutely ape-shit against the Walkers and Hershel to being in complete stunned silence when Sophia appears. He has to put Shane into so many different modes and he never misses a beat. Scott Wilson has turned out to be a great Hershel. His back and forth with Rick when Rick was pleading for the group’s safety was very well done, and his complete emotional shutdown when Shane put down the Walker was quite impressive. It will be really interesting to see if the series portrays the angry Hershel that we get brief glimpses of in the comics. Also, kudos to Andrew Garfield whose look of anger and betrayal during Shane’s meltdown actually led me to think very briefly that Rick was going to shoot his best friend in order to protect the group. That was how I thought that whole scene was going to end before Sophia lumbered out of the barn.

All in all, you really couldn’t ask for a better way to end this half of the season. It manages to simultaneously give closure to the big dangling (and annoying) plot thread of the season while setting up all of the conflict and tension that is sure to come. I can guarantee that any good will Hershel had managed to channel toward the survivors in light of Lori’s pregnancy has completely evaporated, and there are going to be serious questions of leadership within the Rick group now that Shane has so completely disrespected his authority. Now that Sophia is dead, it may be interesting to see where they take Carol’s character (who gives T-Dogg competition for most worthless person in the cast), and I can already imagine that lines are going to be drawn in the sand between the factions of the survivors who want to follow Rick’s lead and those that want to follow Shane’s. The Lori pregnancy story is only just beginning, and while Rick is managing to be civil with Shane about these matters (by not bringing the affair up at all), I think it’s safe to assume that Shane won’t be willing to just let this rest. I only have two hopes for the next half of the season. A) I sincerely hope this mess quickly leads our group to the prison and B) I really want to see Michonne (the most bad-ass character in the comics) introduced into the TV series by the season’s end (though I’m not holding out any hope there). Also, Carol and T-Dogg dying would be an added bonus. All in all though, I’m now satisfied to go without The Walking Dead for a couple of months as this season finale has left me plenty to think about.

Final Score: A