Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors have escaped from Atlanta. Making for Fort Benning and the hope of rescue, the group is waylaid on the highway by a horde of walkers. With one of the group missing and another severely injured, they find a safe haven at a nearby farm and the hope of a new home. But as the days and weeks pass, the unresolved tensions in the group threaten to tear it apart.
The second season of The Walking Dead picks up shortly after the events of the first. Whilst the first only had six episodes to tell its story, the second has thirteen, giving it more time to explore the premise and characters.
Things get off to a strong start in the first few episodes, which focus on the confrontation on the highway and the attempts to bring the group back together. New characters - the Greene family - and a new location - a large farmstead - are introduced and events unfold with some vigour. However, after the third episode the story bogs down a little as characters start spinning their wheels at the farm. This is where the ramifications of a major pre-season production crisis - a budget cut that infuriated showrunner Frank Darabont and saw him leave the series - are at their most noticeable. Whilst the budget problems ground the series for a little too long at the farm, the producers do make the most of the money they do have. The zombie effects are a cut above the more variable effects of the first season and there are some truly gruesome moments that equal the most visceral scenes of any zombie movie that comes to mind.
The long pause at the farm does allow some effective character development, particularly of Shane (Jon Bernthal), whose growing disillusionment with the group and his inability to accept the new status quo and move on is depicted quite well, even if the story does take a few too many episodes to come to a head. However, probably the best characterisation is left to Daryl (Norman Reedus), who evolves from the quieter brother of racist redneck Merle in the first season into a conflicted, complex character who refuses to fit easily into any stereotype. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), our main protagonist, gets a little lost in the mix this season with storylines focusing mostly on other characters, but comes back strong towards the end of the season as he starts to show signs of not handling the stress of command very well. However, his dynamic with Herschel (Scott Wilson) and the twists and turns it goes through is fascinating, with Herschel moving from a pacifistic man of faith to shotgun-wielding zombie-slayer under Rick's (not entirely laudable) influence. The introduction of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) as a love interest for Glenn (Steven Yeun) also adds a rare glimmer of sunlight to a dark season.
Whilst the season does suffer from some slow pacing in its central section, it remains highly watchable, and the pacing issue is mitigated considerably on DVD without a week-long break between each episode. There are some effective moments of dark humour (the 'zombie well' scene is hilarious), the writing is pretty good and the actors mostly effective. Aside from the pacing issue, the character of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) suffers the worst from inconsistent writing and motivations, which the actress does her best to make sense of but can't quite sell.
Events culminate in a fairly epic two-part season finale in which the bubbling tensions within the group boil over and the biggest battle between the survivors and the zombies to date takes place. Despite some longeurs and niggling problems, Season 2 (****½) ends on a high that leaves a lot of balls in the air for the third season and its promise of introducing some of the best characters and storylines from the comic book to the TV series. The series is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).