The Walking Dead Watch: Nebraska

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“Into that great void, my soul be hurled…there’s just a meanness in this world.” — Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

Of all the flyover states The Walking Dead’s writers could have chosen as the title of this season’s second half opener, “Nebraska” is the most penetrating. It’s a gamble – they have to thread a tight needle, continuing character development and picking up the dismal pace that plagued the first half of Dead’s sophomore season, and “Nebraska” doesn’t exactly denote urgency. But the title, and even much of the episode, belies a shift that could satisfy fans and fanatics alike. In an interview with New York, Glen Mazzara, the showrunner who replaced Frank Darabont, promised to pick up the pace, saying his plan “is to accelerate and then figure out more story.”

In case the months off have clouded your memory, we spent much of last season lamenting the show’s languid pace as our weary refugees settled on a farm and searched endlessly for missing Sophia. As it turns out, she had been transformed into a walker and was being held in a barn with dozens of other zombies. The season culminated in a massacre where the group collectively blew the zombie horde away and Rick popped monster Sophia in the head.

Last night’s mid-season premiere picked up a split second after that finale’s cut to black and the pace (kind of) picked up as well, with Andrea finishing off a not-quite-so-dead zombie with a scythe swing to the skull. Other than an underwhelming car crash that pretty much everyone saw coming and a small saloon shootout, that’s about all the action that took place in the episode. But “Nebraska” gives us plenty to chew on, and sets a nice direction for the next part of the story.

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One by one, most of those who had loved ones in the barn come to the realization that their family members had been dead long before bullets passed through their zombie brains. Carol deals with her grief by wandering in the woods while Hershel seeks out his old watering hole, where Maggie explains he “pretty much lived” before he gave up drinking. And so, Rick and Glenn embark on the dangerous mission of bringing him home.

The saloon where they find Hershel (and it is a saloon; nice job production designers) is the setting for much of the episode’s emotional action. We learn that Carl’s survival after a gunshot wound was the miracle that convinced Hershel there was hope; the gruesome massacre of his zombie wife destroyed his faith. As Hershel belts back shot after shot of whiskey in a long scene intercut with smaller developments at the farm, Rick tries to tell him there is still a chance for humanity.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, two new fellas show up — stragglers from the northeast who’ve wandered into town. These are the first new humans we’ve seen in a while, and they come bearing bad news. Fort Benning has been overrun (there goes that plan!), and much of the country is littered with zombies. Something’s not quite right about these two, but it’s going to be a minute before we find out what. In the meantime, Laurie decides to go after Rick, and the second we see her walk out of the house, map and pistol in hand, we know this is a terrible decision. Then in the most obvious piece of action yet, Laurie smashes into an errant zombie and flips the car. Is she alive? Did she lose the baby? Will this ignite another months-long manhunt?

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For those answers, we’ll have to wait until next week, because something is going down in this saloon. The episode’s title, ostensibly, comes out of the conversation between Rick, Glenn and our two mysterious Yankees. When they discuss places they wish they could go, Nebraska — a place with a low population and lots of guns — tops the list of flyover states. In a slow boil, the two try to invite themselves into the shelter of the farm, politely at first, then firmly. The tone of the scene is well-crafted (the slow conversation builds a tension unlike anything from this season’s first half) and it devolves in an instant into a shootout where Rick dispatches both strangers, giving one a double tap to the head for good measure.

Slaying walkers is one thing, but now the group’s leader and moral compass is killing humans to ensure the survival of his clan. The scene poses many complicated questions: Who decides who lives and who dies? Will the Darwinian struggle for survival catch up to the group in the long run? How far will you go and how much of your humanity will you sacrifice to ensure the survival of your loved ones? These are themes The Walking Dead has explored since its pilot, but that philosophical expedition is taking on a new intensity.

Intentional or not, the show’s title alludes to one of pop culture’s strongest references to Nebraska, the 1982 album by Bruce Springsteen. In the title track, the Boss tells a first-person narrative of Charles Starkweather, who went on a rampage, killing 11 people in 1958. The song’s narrator sees humanity plagued by existential doom, which may be catching up with Rick and the gang. We knew that Shane was willing to kill people in order to survive; now that Rick is willing to do the same, we have to wonder whether this small surviving pocket of humanity is doomed as well.

Zombie Kill Report: One and a half. It’s unlikely that the walker Laurie nailed with the car was killed, but the one Andrea takes out with a nicely swung farm tool was a good start to the episode.

Gratuitously gross moment: After loading the dozen or so zombie bodies in the bed of a pickup, one walker’s arm squishily falls off and plops onto the ground. Andrea yells for the truck to stop and picks it up with ease.

Lesson not learned in the off-season: Dale continues his annoying habit of sticking his nose into everyone’s business. He tells Laurie he’s convinced that Shane killed Otis. Will there be a showdown between the hothead and the elder statesman?

What did you think of last night’s episode? Do you have hope for the second half of season two? Let us know in the comments below.