Following the cataclysmic events of their first season finale, the Walking Dead gang are on the road again. Considering that throughout most of Series One Rick Grimes and his pals barely left Atlanta, What Lies Ahead is surprisingly mobile. As are the zombies.
Not quite monologuing to himself (although he might as well be) Rick chatters into an unresponsive walkie-talkie, recapping the final moments of series one. The group's numbers have vastly depleted and a crazy man tried to blow them all up. They've now decided to travel to Fort Benning, where they hope to find salvation. Hopefully minus the zombies and crazy people.
Not far up the road however, progress becomes blocked by a wall of abandoned vehicles and the breakdown of Dale's beloved RV. As Rick and chums attempt to find spare parts for Dale and circumvent the blockade, they are caught in the path of a herd of walkers. It's like the stampede scene in Jurassic Park, except much longer, smellier and everyone has to hide under cars. Amidst the chaos, one of their number is lost. It's left to reluctant leader Rick to organise a search party while trying not to get anyone else killed.
What Lies Ahead is a powerful start to the popular comic book adaptation's second series. There are a number of effective scare and action scenes, with the zombie 'herd' being particularly well-realised. The series' characteristic gore is back too, in a CSI: Zombies inspired scene in which Rick and Daryl root around in one unfortunate zombie's innards. It's shockingly gruesome, even by the show's own standards.
There's lots of action, but The Walking Dead is a series defined (both on television and in the comic books) by its bickering and constant leadership struggles amongst the group. Dissent amongst the ranks is rife, from moody Shane (struggling with his separation from Lori and Carl) to angry Andrea (resenting Dale for 'saving' her life). As in the comic book, the zombies are almost secondary to the arguing characters and their assorted neuroses. They're such an argumentative lot that it makes any of them difficult to actually like. It's only the supposedly volatile one (squinty Hillbilly Daryl Dixon) that seems to have his head screwed on properly. The group's leader certainly makes some stupid decisions. He may wear a Sheriff's hat and uniform, but Rick has yet to learn that zombies respect no man's authoritah. And talking of wardrobes, the characters obviously haven't been reading The Zombie Survival Guide; thick leather jackets and chainmail should be the order of the day, but they all wander around in vest tops and t-shirts as though trying to catch a tan. Sure the weather is lovely, but suntan lotion doesn't protect against zombie bites, last time I checked.
As the group search the woods for missing Sophia, I was put in mind of a LOST episode. There's arguing in the shrubbery, the appearance of a random animal (in this case a lovely deer) and even a deserted building or two. A cameo from Jesus gives Rick time to soliloquy some more and abused housewife Carol an excuse to get hysterical again. As he did through much of the first series, Dale spends most of the episode sitting on the roof of his RV. Of all the places to be true to the source material, why did The Walking Dead have to keep Dale's potty hat? His pomposity seems all the more ridiculous - his group seniority completely unearned - with that thing on his head.
The characters might be annoying and their actions silly, but What Lies Ahead is a lot of fun nevertheless. Each character has something to do and they cover plenty of ground in 67 minutes, from churches to abandoned tents. The well-spaced zombie encounters are thrilling, gory and inventive. I've yet to be convinced of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (although he does a great Jack Shepherd impression) but Norman Reedus remains the breakout star as Daryl. Meanwhile, there are times when conflicted Shane feels like the show's heart. If the show is going to take the same route as the books with his character (and all signs point that way) it's certainly building it up better than Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's Days Gone Bye did (“BTW Shane is mad now. Bye Shane”). It took the first series several episodes to find its feet, but this one hits the ground running. Whether it can keep up the momentum remains to be seen, but it's a very promising start.
This first episode ends on a cliffhanger; one which many will recognise from the comic books. The series characters may not look forward to What Lies Ahead, but on the basis of this opening episode, the fans certainly should.