When it comes to television, series season debuts and enders typically draw a much bigger audience than the regular season episodes and the knowledge that many more eyes are upon them during these crucial installments inspire those who toil in the business to bring their A game to them. Can't exactly say it's a surprise but the big, much-hyped season finale of THE WALKING DEAD tonight turned out to be a big bust, its creators' A game distinctly third string. "Beside the Dying Fire" was painfully awful, an embarrassing compendium of everything that has been so very wrong about the series this season.
The pre-credit sequence shows a zombie herd forming over an extended period, marching along, growing as it goes and finally, as it reaches the fence around the Greene farm, it's roughly the size of Napoleon's army. The horde leans against the fence until it collapses and the dastardly ghouls are on the property.
This happened at some point during the day, the day we were shown in last week's episode and that fact, introduced only a few seconds in, already makes the episode extremely problematic. As I've documented at some length here, TWD's writers have proven themselves abjectly incapable of crafting a story featuring a series of events that happen in a set timeline. One has to look to daytime soaps (their model for this season) to find a worse example of allegedly professional episodic television that so openly and blatantly disregards this most basic element of competent narrative construction. Last week, I wrote:
"Hershel's farm has, throughout the season, seemed to feature some sort of magical zombie repellent. Even as two groups of our heroes prowled the forests on the property in different places and for an extended period in search of Randall, they didn't encounter a single zombie except that of Randall himself (reanimated after Shane killed him). But as the shot that dusts zombie Shane rings out, the forests on the farm are suddenly absolutely thick with walkers, perhaps having freshly teleported to the scene, and they all immediately begin to converge on the source of the gun-shot, setting up a big showdown with the dead just in time for the season finale."
With the pre-credit sequence tonight, it's established that a herd of hundreds of walkers was on that property during all that searching. They converged on the farm tonight from every direction, appearing everywhere.
That timeline problem ran smack-dab into another one tonight. We don't know exactly how long the search for Randall continued but it was still daylight when it started and dark at the end. The longer it's said to continue though, the more thorough it becomes and the more ludicrous it is that none of the searchers encountered any zombies. If, on the other hand, it didn't continue for very long after dark, tonight's installment introduced a new problem. The farm is completely overrun. We follow every minute of the action; by the end of it, our heroes are forced to take to their vehicles and flee. They drive all night (in different directions) and at some point the next day, they all end up back at the traffic snarl they encountered at the beginning of this season. The traffic snarl that was established in the second episode as being only 2 miles from the farm.[*] They drove like bats out of hell all night and came to a place that, even at a slow speed, was about two minutes away. How long was that night? There's no answer that doesn't amount to an insult to every viewer of TWD and it's an insult this series offers on a regular basis.
The overrunning of the farm highlighted how bad the writing has been. TWD is supposed to be an ongoing tale of survival horror but for much of this season the writers have, instead--and stop me, if you've heard this one from me before--wallowed in retread soap storylines, while the zombie apocalypse has been relegated to a very distant concern indeed. In "18 Miles Out," Rick suggested they should start using their knives rather than guns to kill zombies. Logically, the group should have been using melee weapons all along, just as in the comics. Such weapons are quiet, effective and never run out of ammo, but Rick's suggestion with regard to knives was the first--and only--time the matter had even been raised in conversation, a full 10 episodes into the 2nd season of the series. Heaven forbid the characters should ever be made to spend any time on dull things like surviving their situation--it would take away from the running-time spent wallowing in love triangle melodrama, baby-daddy melodrama and so on. And why should they be concerned about it anyway when they seem to have a magic zombie-repelling farm and the Ammo Fairy to keep them in bullets? They don't have to worry their little heads about such things until or unless the writers decide to take a break from questioning Rick's worthiness as a father or Lori's essays on how women should stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Tonight it became an issue. A full-scale zombie invasion of the farm caught them totally unprepared. They had no warning system, no Plan A, no back-up plan, no escape route, no rendezvous point and the only reason the walkers had been on the property undetected in the first place was that they weren't making a practice of patrolling the grounds. In the course of the episode, one of the vehicles ran out of gas; they didn't have any extra (in the previous episode, they'd let the RV sit for so long it wouldn't start). The scenario served to highlight how very far the writing this season has departed from what should be its primary focus.
Without a plan, they initially decided to jump in their vehicles, kill as many zombies as they can then try to lure the rest of the herd away from the farm. A fight against such overwhelming numbers is nothing but a waste of what should be precious ammo so why not skip that and just try to lure them away in the first place? For that matter, all our heroes really had to do was just drive away for a few hours and wait until the herd passed but that would preclude a big, loud Last Stand battle over the farm for the season ender, so, as usual, all of the characters, to serve a metatextual need, get stupid. There was a lot of driving and yelling and shooting and assorted mayhem. To make this possible, the creators of the series took away the increased abilities they've been granting the dead of late, making them once again a slow-shuffling Romeroesque horde, as zombies should be. Jimmy and Patricia, the designated red-shirt non-characters, became Zombie Chow. In the end, everyone fled.
While nearly everything else about TWD remains mired in the poor house of creative bankruptcy, the cinematography at least continues to improve. There were two particularly impressive shots tonight of zombies framed by the barn as it went up in flames (after Rick set it on fire), another visual indicator of the remarkable potential this series had if it had been in more competent hands.
The main action over, the episode devolved into the usual wretched melodrama.
It wouldn't be TWD without mind-numbing repetition, so the different groups that have fled each have a variation on exactly the same cliché'd conversation. Did anyone else make it out? Do we go back for them? Do we leave them? Lots of over-the-top agonizing, determination to find loved ones, long faces.
Hershel, Rick, and Carl flee together and, stopping at the traffic snarl the next day, Hershel is ready to write off the others and tells Rick he should take Carl and leave. Rick snaps at him "You're a man of God--have some faith." With a straight face and in total earnest, Hershel replies:
"Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something... a little different in mind."
...which probably topples "he talked about the deer" as the best unintentionally hilarious line of this badly-written season.
So the writers could stage a Big Emotional Reunion scene, all of the scattered characters independently decide to go to the traffic snarl and after having them apparently drive all night at high speeds in different directions, the writers decide not to belabor their plight by writing a credible scenario and have them all just coincidentally turn up there at the same time.
The writers' traditional contempt for women kicks in. As usual, Lori gets the worst of it. Rick tells Lori what happened with Shane; how Shane killed Randall in order to lure him away, how Shane planned to kill him and how he ultimately had to kill Shane. Lori seems horrified then poised to throw up then her countenance becomes one of pure, merciless hatred and if looks could kill, Rick would have been one paid-for son of a bitch in that moment. This is her reaction a few episodes after she, herself, told Rick to kill Shane. Rick would have probably been much better off killing her. Rick reveals to the group that, back at the CDC, Jenner told him everyone was infected with the zombie virus and will reanimate when they die. There follows a lot of contrived bitching and moaning about the fact that Rick never shared this information. The info doesn't change anything at all, of course, but how terrible of Rick to keep this from them! All of the women then suggest to their respective cliques that this means they should get the hell away from the others.
The characters prove they haven't learned a thing from what just happened and set up camp in the open forest. They hear a sound near them and almost panic but instead of checking it out, Rick seems to come unhinged and, waving his gun at everyone, makes a nasty "I am your king; bring me your gold" speech, ending by declaring to all present that, if they're staying, this "isn't a democracy anymore." Just call him Il Duce. Charming.
On IMDb's TWD message board this morning, I made a prediction:
"Tonight, the farm will be overrun and this will be greeted with great enthusiasm, merely because everyone--even the show's defenders, who pretend otherwise--is sick to death of it. The farm isn't really the problem, to be sure, but it is something people have come to strongly associate with the shortcomings that have comprised this very bad season. Because of this, if it's wiped out tonight--no matter how badly it may be done--I imagine everyone will cheer."
That remains to be seen, of course, but I'm guessing I've gotten it right and I'm also guessing that enthusiasm may make many more forgiving of this bad, bad episode.
I remain unconvinced.
[*] UPDATE (23 Nov., 2012) - One of my obsessively nitpicking detractors on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board challenged this some months ago. The distance isn't, in fact, as precisely established as what I'd written, there. When, in "Bloodletting," Maggie, on horseback, rides out to the larger group intent on fetching Lori, she gives directions about how to get to the farm from the traffic snarl. "Backtrack to Fairborn Road. Two miles down is our farm." While my detractor sought merely to muddy the waters regarding the traffic snarl
being close to the farm as a means of accusing me of inaccuracy, it's clear the traffic snarl is, in fact, quite close to the farm. Carl was shot somewhere in the immediate area and when, earlier in the same episode, Rick is running to the farm with him, the portly Otis, who can't keep up, says the farm is half a mile in a particular direction. Upon coming to the farm, the larger group then spends the next several episodes mounting their search for Sophia from the farm. So while it wasn't strictly accurate to say the snarl was 2 miles from the farm, the snarl is clearly in the immediate vicinity of the farm and there's no basis for any case for it being any real distance from it and particularly not any case that it could be far enough to even remotely account for all those hours of driving. ADDENDUM (17 Jan., 2013) -- Carl, in this very episode, describes the farm as "a mile away" from the traffic snarl.
Yes, it's a silly nitpick and not really worth even addressing but my TWD articles have become fodder for such nitpicking and contrary to what said nitpickers suggest, I do like to keep things accurate, here.
 And Rick's suggestion that they use knives was stupid anyway. It's hard to jam a knife into a human head, particularly the head of a creature that is trying to bite you. Better weapons include hatchets, hammers, bats, spears and so on. Even swords would be preferable to a pocket knife.
 Tonight, the Ammo Fairy visited Hershel while he tried to make his last stand in front of his house--he stood his ground and heroically blasted away at the encroaching dead with his shotgun, repeatedly popping off several times the gun's capacity before ever reloading. Infinite ammo weapons have long been a common feature of movies and television, but this one was particularly blatant and emblematic of the carelessness that goes into the making of TWD. The sequence was very badly staged and edited in general. Hershel blasted advancing walkers over and over again yet they would be closer to him in earlier shots than they were in later ones and the zombies he'd already dropped would disappear from the later shots as well (he should have been waist-deep in them toward the end but when the action cut back to him at one point there were none on the ground until he started shooting again).
 Jimmy's end was particularly poorly handled--he drove the RV to the barn where Rick and Carl were trapped on the second level, they jumped on the roof and instead of just driving on as soon as his passengers were on board, he comes to a dead stop, gets out of his seat for no possible reason and is attacked and consumed by a gaggle of zombies that get in.
 And the idea of returning to the farm after the walkers leave is never discussed. They simply abandon all the supplies they left there and head on up the road.
 Even with Shane dead, ludicrously contrived Shane melodrama continues. Brack.
 Just as they failed to learn anything from the horrendous attack on their camp in the first season--even after that, they had the same minimal concern with safety and survival measures throughout this season.
 Another contrived drama. One of the vehicles ran out of gas and, of course, they were totally unprepared and carrying no extra. When it's suggested that some break off from the group and go fetch some, Rick vetoes the idea on the grounds that they shouldn't split up. Makes sense. The obvious solution is that everyone jump in the remaining vehicles--there's plenty of room--and go for gas together but because the writers want the characters to camp in the open that night and feel uneasy about it, this is never suggested.
[Cross-posted to my comics blog]