First episode impressions: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 2 (TV review)

I’m not sure if having a slow pace is a requirement for AMC shows, or if AMC seeks out these kinds of shows for its lineup, but it’s definitely become the network’s trademark. Sometimes it doesn’t work for me: I couldn’t get into “Mad Men” or “Rubicon.” I did like the first season of “The Killing” a lot, but the writers took the AMC mantra too far when they deferred the revelation of the killer to Season 2.

As for “The Walking Dead” (8 p.m. Central Sundays on AMC), I had to force myself through the first few episodes. By the end of the six-episode first season, I was glad I stuck with it — I started to like the people and the beautifully realized world, right down to strategies on how to evade or kill zombies. “The Walking Dead” starts Season 2 at the same slow pace as always, but now I’m more engrossed.

“What Lies Ahead” is a simple but great “kid lost in the woods” story. As the group travels from Atlanta to Fort Benning, where they hope to find civilization, they run into a tipped-over semi truck. It’s just an annoyance by zombie-apocalypse standards, because with the all the abandoned cars on the highway, they’ll be able to scavenge for gas and other supplies, then double back to get around the roadblock. (A big question that wasn’t answered in this episode or in “Talking Dead” after the show: Why are there intact corpses in several of the cars? Hopefully that will be answered in coming weeks.)

Then a pack of zombies comes along, and everyone has to hide under the nearest car. Carol is frustrated that she ends up under a different car than her scared daughter, Sophia, but luckily sheriff’s wife Lori is on hand to muffle and pin down the mom. Unfortunately, in a zombie apocalypse you can count on a kid to do something stupid: Sophia leaves her hiding place too soon and she’s pursued into the woods by a pack of zombies.

Sheriff Rick smartly diverts the zombies, but he loses Sophia in the process, so he and Daryl go on a search mission. An understated highlight of the episode is how Daryl — despite being ticked off at the group for leaving his brother on a roof last season — contributes his expert tracking skills. Additionally, he saves T-Dog (the guy who left Merle on the roof) by throwing a corpse on him as the zombies walk by, and he knows how to gut a zombie to make sure Sophia’s not in its stomach. Daryl is starting to fit the profile of “Tough-talking guy who secretly has a heart of gold.”

The search moves to a beautiful country church, and we get a great image of a handful of zombies scattered amidst the pews staring at a crucified Jesus (bring your own subtext). I assumed all along that the episode would end with Sophia safe and sound, and indeed, that would’ve been a perfectly satisfying way to start the season. But in an admirable twist, we never see Sophia again (I’m starting to wonder if we ever will, at least in human form), and we get another shock, too.

Like any good horror yarn, “Walking Dead’s” deliberately paced scenes — such as Rick and Shane stalking the woods, guns drawn — gives me time to think “What’s going to pop out at them?” and “When is it going to happen … now? … or now? … or now?” The surprise finally comes when Rick and Lori’s son, Carl, is accidentally shot by an off-screen hunter whom we’ll presumably meet next week — the bullet goes through a deer and into Carl’s chest, missing his heart but seriously wounding him.

Peppered in with the search for Sophia, Season 1′s character beats continue. The most eye-opening is when Andrea chews out Dale for not letting her commit suicide in the CDC explosion. Dale — and I, and probably most viewers — read that sequence as Dale saving a grief-stricken Andrea’s life, but Andrea has an interesting alternate take: She says she saved Dale’s life. She really did want to die, but forced her hand by staying with her, and she didn’t want his blood on her hands when she checked out from this “endless horrific nightmare we live every day.”

That thread gets tied up with another one: Broken-hearted Shane, the odd man out in the love triangle with Rick and Lori, plans to split from the group; Andrea wants to join him. Would “The Walking Dead” consider following two separate storylines in different geographic areas? It would open up the show a lot, but I doubt they’ll go in that direction, if only for budgetary reasons.

As with the first season, “The Walking Dead” remains an exploration of how everyone handles a zombie apocalypse differently, combined with myth-arc questions such as “How many people survived the apocalypse?,” “How will civilization rebuild?”, and now, “What happened to those people in those cars?” “The Walking Dead” forces us to look ourselves in the mirror more than any other current show. It may be an “endless horrific nightmare” to Andrea, but there are times when I think this group doesn’t have it so bad. There’s the camaraderie, the common goal, the beauty of the natural world, and the simple pleasures of life. When they see that deer at the end, I thought — up until the point where Carl is shot — “Looks like they’re going to enjoy a delicious meal of fresh venison for dinner before resuming the search tomorrow.”

Yeah, “The Walking Dead” is slow-moving, but I’m starting to enjoy dawdling a bit in this world. If the apocalypse comes, I don’t think I’d want to take the easy way out like Andrea; I’d stick around to see how this all plays out.

What were your thoughts on the Season 2 premiere of “The Walking Dead?” Share your thoughts in the comment thread.