The new mini-season of "Walking Dead' picks up right where the last left off – with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) having just killed the zombified Sophia (Madison Lintz).
Killing a child is no small thing. When I was watching the six episodes that ran last fall, I assumed that Sophia would be found alive, an assunption I would not have made about any of the adult characters. Her death was shocking, an indication that the television series would be quite as dark and uncompromising as the graphic novels on which it is based.
Indeed, Robert Kirkman, an executive producer on the show as well as author of the novels, did not go that far in the original work. In the third volume of the collected comics, Sophia is still alive and very much a companion to Carl (Chandler Riggs). (Shane, of course, is long dead in the books but quite alive – and angry – in the series.)
“Nebraska,” written by Evan Reilly and directed (masterfully) by Clark Johnson, is a major departure from the books. Until now, each set of six episodes has more or less corresponded to a volume of the collection. Reilly’s episode appears to be taking the series in a new direction.
Yet if the plot diverges, the essential theme of the show remains the same: When humans are reduced to simple survival, just how far will we go? Do we create social order (the small group formed at the beginning of the show; the somewhat larger group that includes Hershel and his family) or do we devolve into savagery? And what constitutes hope?
These questions can be profound or sophomoric. In “Nebraska,” they’re a little of both.
At the beginning of the episode, both the original group and the larger group appear to be at the breaking point. Shane’s (John Bernthal) action has split the original regulars – Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) sees Shane as a killer of humans as well as zombies; Daryl (Norman Reedus), who nearly accepted the social unit last fall, has been driven back to his individualist ways; Laurie and Rick are at a breaking point that reaches disaster – as well as driving a wedge between Hershel (Scott Wilson) and the rest.
(A moment here, if I may, to celebrate DeMunn’s portrayal of Dale – I’ve been waiting 35 years for him to get a screen role worthy of his stage work. It’s finally happened and he’s making the most of it.)
There’s fine emotional work as the episode progresses, delving into the mourning done by those whose conscience allows them to mourn (and detailing the anger or despair that replaces mourning in the rest).
The question of what constitutes hope – always lurking around the edges of the show – is here articulated. This is both the heart of the episode and where it touches the bull-session. "Walking Dead" is not quite willing to embrace nihilism, evolution (hope for the survival of genes), or messianic religion (hope for the select) – probably because nihilists, evolutionists, and messianics are all watching the show. Rick waffles like crazy defining who has and needs hope. It’s the show’s single wince-inducing moment.
What’s not at all wince-inducing, however, is what Rick does towards the show’s end. (If you haven’t seen the episode and haven’t stopped reading yet, please be aware -- this is a major, major spoiler.)
Responding to a possible, but far from proven threat, he commits an act of murder. It’s far less justified than anything that happens in the first three volumes of the graphic novel (which is as far as I’ve read). Like the other group members who are present in the scene, we both breathe a sigh of relief and are stunned. That sigh makes us complicit in Rick’s savagery. His action is as hasty and impulsive as Shane’s – in effect, Rick has become what Dale fears Shane is.
Which leaves us in a world of brutal moral ambiguity.
The days when television protected children and protagonists are far behind us.