Okay, so season 2 of The Walking Dead has been a little stale. I mean, we've sat on a farm biding time for almost thirteen episodes now, and it hasn't made for the best hours of television. That's because, for most of this season, there's been no reason to worry. Besides that overly long, trite complication with Sophia, and the fact that Carl was shot, nothing immense of important began to happen with the group until after the mid-season hiatus. While it makes sense to get the characters settled in somewhere (I mean, they're not really going to go looking for zombies, are they Lori? Andrea?), it also means viewers have to dilly-dally alongside them for entire episodes. It wouldn't be so terrible if the drama was actually exciting, or if the characters that the show really wants you to care about weren't so vapid. But that was only the first half.
The second half took care of business. It decided, "You know this lull we've been having? Let's end it. Let's make some noise." And The Walking Dead did. I haven't had this much fun with the show since the first episode of the first season, when the drama really made an emotional mark. Getting back to the stronger main characters like Rick and Shane made for some interesting complexities - and we also got some action along with it.
But the episode makes up for all of those really boring scenes soaked in melodrama from the first half's filler episodes by completely ambushing the group with zombies galore. I mean, they're pouring out in droves, attacking anything and everything in sight - seriously, unknown extras got hooked up this episode thanks to the need for bodies on-screen. It's exciting and thrilling and breathless, an intensity unmatched throughout the entire season just because of the sheer amount of action happening. This is a culmination of season events akin to a show like Justified, wrapping up everything in an explosive finale. Of course, The Walking Dead is nowhere near the greatness of Justified, and the events don't stack like that other show, but at least The Walking Dead tries. I can live with that.
The key to "Beside the Dying Fire" is that everyone gets separated. There's a danger for every single character, not just Rick and his family; the question is, how many will make it out alive? It allows this episode to develop bonds the viewer might not have known they had with characters. Do I really want Andrea to make it, or should the group just leave her stranded at the farm (my answer: leave her)? Do I want Carol to be saved (yes, I do; she's been annoying, but I'll grant her immunity for now since she's had a rough season)? The meet-up at Sophia's haven ties this season together, for better or worse, even if we don't want to remember the rigmarole that was the search for Sophia.
Even Rick has changed now that he's been forced to kill Shane; the group isn't really sure what to make of the situation, and although it's sort of weird they're questioning Rick about it so hardily when Shane has been the aggressor all along, I like the turning of the group mood here - there's a potential for mutiny, for throwing people under the bus, that can create good drama for next season.
Suffice to say that even during a significantly bland season, "Beside the Dying Fire" manages to scrabble up enough firepower to save the show from a complete bust. It's no wonder there were great expectations for season 3; this episode has put the show in the position for some wonderful new drama, and hopefully this time, the prison complex is a bit more complex than the farm.