If the events of this season finale are anything to go by, Shane and Dale should be grateful that they checked out when they did. As gunshots explode within the quiet night sky, walkers converge upon the farm en masse. It's every man for himself as all Hell breaks loose.
The opening is reminiscent of George A. Romero's Day Of The Dead, depicting a cityscape entirely free of breathing human life. No alligators though, alas. Considering how slow the hordes move, they reach Hershel's farm awfully fast. Rick and Carl don't even get time to make it across the fields before the shambling ghouls have converged upon the house. This gives the writers opportunity to rid themselves of a few more excess characters (two more of Hershel's unfortunate family) and show how useless the survivors are in a crisis.
It's not long before Andrea is lost in the woods, Carol is in need of rescuing and T-Dog is running a mile in the opposite direction. But on the bright side, at least T-Dog is doing something. He's even allowed a few lines of dialogue in this episode. Admittedly, he's using that dialogue to express his own cowardice, but it's a start, eh?
Faring much better, as ever, is Daryl Dixon. I'm aware that these recaps read like a love letter to Norman Reedus's cuddly Hillbilly, but he's emerged as The Walking Dead's best character by far. His motorcycle rescue of Carol is just the sweetest thing, as is his casual defence of Rick later in the episode. The situation rapidly goes from bad to worse, culminating in Hershel's farmhouse burning to the ground. The group panics and sets off running in different directions. As Rick, Carl and Hershel reconvene at the very intersection where this season began, they're unsure as to whether they'll ever see their family and friends again. When the others finally do arrive, it's in a saccharine manner worthy of a LOST beach reunion.
The action beats over with, Beside The Dying Fire turns to the thing that The Walking Dead does best – big revelations and Rick making a speech. In this case, it's a call-back to Season One's finale, regarding the answer to a question I don't even remember being asked in the first place – what did the drunk scientist whisper to Rick just before he blew the place to smithereens? Why, only the very nature of the zombie apocalypse, of course. It's little wonder that Rick's fellow survivors are pissed off at him for keeping this bit of potentially game-changing information from them. Lori is even more shocked when she learns what transpired between Shane and her husband. Can Rick's leadership recover after his one-two punch of questionable ethics? On the defensive, he turns and shouts at everyone until they see things his way. Well, after the things he's been through since awakening from that coma, Sheriff Grimes can be forgiven a tantrum or two.
In the woods, Andrea is lost, alone and rapidly running out of ammunition. She's a resourceful, strong woman, but still no match for a horde of hungry roamers. Maybe her comic book counterpart would have fared a little better (to be fair, that version of Andrea is much further into her stride now) but she soon finds herself cornered and helpless. Cue the arrival of one of The Walking Dead's best characters: Michonne.
Beside The Dying Fire is all about the tantalising imagery, promising beautiful things for Series Three. No sooner is Michonne (complete with the swords and zombie entourage) glimpsed than the episode cuts away to something else. It ends with the biggest teaser of all – the appearance of a location that those familiar with the comic books will find very exciting.
As it ends, Series Two finds the survivors physically in much the same position as which they began: searching for salvation and stranded in the middle of nowhere. As characters however, they have come on leaps and bounds (except for you, T-Dog). The horror and action has felt bigger, better and more ambitious. There have been duff episodes and subplots (anything with Sophia) but the big stuff has been very well done. Despite budget cuts and the loss of Frank Darabont, this second series has been much better than the promising but ultimately disappointing first. I wait for baited breath for its return, and long may it live. Here's hoping it goes on to realise its full potential, for at least as long as the comic books have. Well, maybe not quite that long. At the series' rate of decompression, the zombies will all have decomposed by then, and so will we.
In the very cruellest of strokes, Channel 5's continuity announcer closes the season with the fateful words, “The Walking Dead will return next year.” In a world without The Walking Dead (okay, for a year) we will be finally forced to start living.