It’s strange how visceral a horde of the walking dead can feel. How it brutally and vividly brings to life all the drama and despair of the post-apocalypse. How dead and hollow the whole show feels without re-animated cadavers. Sure, the last episode featured a solid showing from the zombie horde, but it’s been months since they’ve truly been a threat, and it’s entirely too easy to forget just how immediate they make everything else. This is post-civilization: it’s distant, imagined, and very fictional, and hard to grasp without a thorough grounding, something that the moaning undead provide in spades. It’s the single draw that’s made everything else worthwhile, from the melodramatic love story between the governor and Andrea, to the loss of Rick’s wife, to Glenn’s transformation. Without the in-your-face, graphic depiction of the lumbering zombies and the threat that they provide, everything else is utterly meaningless. Perhaps that wasn’t clear enough to the show’s creators, who deprived us of zombies for almost three months during the mid-season hiatus. Then hardly featured zombies in the mid-season premiere. Then waited until the very, very, very end of the second episode to bring them back.
“Home” is quite certainly a step up from Suicide King, though it is similarly lacking in action. Daryl Dixon is back, contrary to the hints that he might be taking a break from the show after leaving with Merle, and the chemistry between the brothers is actually quite good. It’s an awkward re-union, what with Daryl having abandoned Rick’s group and Merle having tried to kill entirely too many of the show’s main characters, but they certainly deliver. Though Daryl has changed remarkably during the last few seasons, we get hints of their pre-apocalypse relationship. Merle still tries to be his normal low-life self around Daryl, but the connection is no longer there. Things come to a head when a group of Spanish-speaking strangers are in danger from a wandering pack of zombies. Merle doesn’t want to help them, seeing no benefit in it for himself, and when Daryl almost single-handedly takes out the group of zombies, Merle proceeds to attempt to loot the strangers. It’s a pretty blunt moral dilemma for Daryl, and one with a very simple solution, but at least we get to see a clear resolution of their differences. Unfortunately, the increased viewership and budget hasn’t resulted in a particular improvement in the editing and choreography of this particular action sequence- though zombies are being slaughtered and survivors are in danger, it just seemed sloppily done and lacking in impact.
We also see more development in Rick’s psychosis and Glenn’s assumption of leadership. The episode begins with Rick wandering out of the prison gates, pursuing a vision of Lori, and leaving the doors wide open behind him. As the episode progresses we see Hershel attempt to snap him out of it, but Rick simply can’t shake the immediacy of his wife’s seeming return. He believes it must mean something, even if she isn’t real. It’s fascinating and macabre to see Rick so despairingly trying to grapple with a loss of meaning, half-conscious of his hallucination but still desperate to find some sort of stability in a world that’s so completely senseless. In his absence, Glenn is suddenly overwhelmed with a newfound senseof responsibility and leadership. Without Daryl and Rick, the two most able and proven fighters in the group, he assumes his role as authority figure entirely too eagerly. Though we saw him reach a new level of maturity and martial prowess at the hands of Merle in Woodbury, we learn that he still doesn’t quite have what it takes to lead the group alone. It’s compounded by his complex relationship with Maggie; does she trust him, resent him, or does she even know what’s going on? Suddenly she shuts him out, and won’t even let him touch her. Things don’t seem to be going so well for the little guy that, just a few episodes ago, was ripping apart furniture and zombies with his bare hands to save the woman he loved.
Things improved little on the Woodbury end in this episode- suffice to say that Andrea makes fewer stupid mistakes and the governor is still pretty emo- but it’s all made up for by the episode’s heart-pounding finale. It’s prefaced by the once-creepy prison inmate Axel’s transformation into a legitimately good guy and an effectively budding romance between him and Carol. The writers did the unthinkable, changing the southern creeper with the moustache into a charming fellow. Charming, that is, until he gets a brutal and sudden bullet to the head, in fine Walking Dead fashion. We never get enough time to say goodbye to characters that have inhabited enough screen time to steal our hearts, and Axel is no exception. The ensuing fight between the soldiers from Woodbury and the scattered and unprepared inmates of the prison is brutal, extended and exceedingly well done- especially when walkers are thrown into the mix. Gunfights are one thing- we’ve seen a fair share of them over the course of the past few episodes- but the chaos, panic and terror caused by the appearance of the undead add a whole new level of terror to the show and bring to life the apocalypse in a way that the prolonged drama of the preceding two episodes never could.