'The Walking Dead' recap: Suffer the little children [Updated]
On Sunday night, "The Walking Dead" returned for its second season with a thrilling, heart-wrenching extended episode that saw not only the disappearance of Carol's daughter, Sophia, but the agonizing shooting of Rick's son, Carl. [Updated at 10:40 a.m.: Readers, I was so certain Carl could not survive that in an earlier version of this recap, I pronounced him dead. It looks like I might have been too hasty to write him off the show and have corrected this post.]
It was arguably the best installment of the series so far, which surely will help dispel some of the fan anxiety surrounding the controversial departure of the show's creator, Frank Darabont, earlier this year.
New show runner Glen Mazarra had promised reporters at an event last month that he planned to remain true to the spirit of the series the Oscar-nominated writer-director adapted from Robert Kirkman's comic book (Kirkman is also an executive producer). "What Lies Ahead" offers grim, compelling proof that he intends to live up to that promise.
In an opening sequence, Rick announces his plan to travel with the other survivors from Atlanta to Ft. Benning in an attempt to put the disappointing experience at the CDC behind them -- almost revealing what Jenner whispered to him in last season's finale. Cut to scenes of the traveling caravan, Rick driving Lori, Carl, Carol and Sophia; Dale at the helm of the RV, with Andrea and Shane his passengers. Andrea watches Shane clean his gun, and he offers to do the same for her weapon.
The group runs into trouble, though, when a section of their route turns out to be littered with abandoned, overturned cars. Daryl offers to lead the way through the wreckage on his chopper, but the RV blows a hose, forcing the group to stop out in the open. Dale takes a moment to teach Glenn some basic mechanics, while the others scavenge to find anything usable -– food, water, clothes and gasoline. And then the walkers arrive. A whole shambling horde of them, leaving Rick and the others little choice but to dive underneath the vehicles for cover.
Trapped alone inside the RV, Andrea retreats to the bathroom with the parts of the dismantled gun, but she's found by a wandering walker when one of the pieces clatters out of her grasp. He begins clawing wildly at the door. She's saved when Dale passes a screwdriver to her through the opening in the roof, and she stabs the hungry zombie repeatedly. T-Dog is threatened too, after he gashes open his arm, leaving a trail of blood for the walkers to follow as he searches for a place to hide. Struggling to remain conscious, T-Dog is saved when Daryl comes to his rescue, camouflaging both their scents by hiding underneath some nearby corpses.
It's young Sophia, though, who is discovered by a walker when she ventures out too quickly from her hiding place. She makes a run for safety, down an embankment off the highway, and Rick goes after her as she runs through the woods. When he catches up to her, he stashes the girl in a tight space near a body of water, telling her that he can't shoot the walkers for fear of drawing the attention from the rest of the herd. His plan is to draw them off and return to her later -- he tells the girl that should he fail to return, she should run straight back the way they came, keeping the sun on her left shoulder. Although she seems to be listening, Sophia almost immediately leaves her hiding space and runs away.
Daryl helps Rick track the girl, but they only find a walker who's recently feasted -- the men perform a quick, informal autopsy to confirm that it was a woodchuck, not Sophia, that was on the lunch menu. Meanwhile, tensions are rising among the survivors, with Lori confronting Shane about his recent behavior -- including the incident at the CDC, which Shane calls "a mistake" -- and Andrea attempting to persuade Dale to return the gun her father gave to her. Matters don't improve when Daryl and Rick return empty-handed, even though they pledge to go back out again as an organized search party to look for Sophia the following morning.
The party does go out, finding a tent with a corpse inside before they hear the sound of church bells. They run into a clearing and find the source of the sound (along with three walkers sitting on pews inside a chapel). It's only a recording, and Sophia is nowhere to be found. As the party disperses, Shane tells Lori that he plans to leave and strike out on his own; Andrea overhears the exchange and insists on being able to depart with him.
As Daryl leads the others back to camp, Rick, Shane and Carl remain behind to continue the search. Rick goes inside the church to pray for, if not a miracle, then at least a sign from God. He seemingly receives one when they stumble across a magnificent deer grazing in the woods, but as Carl quietly walks toward the animal, his two father figures looking on, a shot rings out from the distance and takes down the deer, and the boy. Rick, incredulous, rushes toward his son.
What did you think? Did the episode live up to your expectations? And just when are they finally going to reveal what Jenner told Rick in Atlanta? Leave your comments below.
-- Gina McIntyre
Photo: A scene from "The Walking Dead." Credit: AMC