I’ve taken something of a hiatus from reviewing over the Thanksgiving holiday, and it is very nice to return slightly refreshed with a really tremendous episode of The Walking Dead. I know I’ve been hard on the series thus far, but I think a lot of that stems from the fact that I think the series could be something really special, and outside of a few moments here and there, I wasn’t really sure The Walking Dead was giving it to me.
However, “Wildfire” is certainly a major, major step in the right direction and is definitely the best episode of the season. I wasn’t sure if there would be a season one episode that topped the pilot, but I am absolutely glad to be wrong in this case.
Last week’s climactic zombie attack on the camp was a big highlight, but “Wildfire” succeeds by smartly not letting that event slide by without consequences. The whole episode focuses on what happens in the aftermath of that traumatic experience, which is an obviously intelligent decision. Because both Rick and we at home were thrown into this zombie apocalypse as it was already happening, neither of us really got to see how other people reacted. Sure, we’ve seen how people live in the aftermath of a zombie attack and that has definitely been intriguing, but for the most part, the characters in the camp were already “used to” their awful circumstances — in as much as you can be used to a zombie apocalypse.
In that respect, the way the events of “Vatos” spill into “Wildfire” serves as our first real experience without how this group of survivors deals with a massive amount of adversity. The last few episodes have set the table for how they interact within the constructs of their makeshift equilibrium (and only succeeded in some ways, I think, but whatever), and the zombie attack last week took that all way so that they could all give in to the tension in this week’s episode.
Everyone is sweaty, tired, scared, confused, angry, you name it, they’re experiencing it. And the episode does a nice job of letting these emotions run wild and spill over — huh, like a wildfire — while also letting the actors do a lot of top-notch work in the process.
Andrea stays with Amy’s dead body all night, refusing to let anyone console her or dispose of the body. Despite Laurie Holden’s great work in the scenes, I thought the episode was going to make Andrea into something of a crazy person that would then cause more trouble than the camp needed, but thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Andrea decided to stay with Amy because she wanted to watch her come back alive as a zombie just so that she could apologize for past sins and say goodbye in the proper way, even if it meant watching Amy being to change into a flesh-hungry monster. It’s a great scene, and one that emphasizes the bond between these two sisters in such a way that even after only four episodes, it’s heartbreaking to watch.
And wonderfully, the emotional stakes don’t stop there, as a number of supporting players get nice (read: sad or troubling) moments in the spotlight. Glenn breaks down in tears when Darryl attempts to burn some of the not-yet-zombie’d humans, making sure that everyone knows that they aren’t the kind of camp that burns their own people. Carol not only gets to say goodbye to her abusive POS of a husband, but is also able to take out some of the frustration and rage he created within in her by smashing his dead brain in with a pickax. And even redneck Darryl continues to prove that he isn’t as awful as initially thought, as he showed genuine remorse for almost everyone who was experiencing any kind of pain — even if he thought it was better off to just kill them or their loved ones.
Additionally, the hysteria in the camp ignites some obvious tensions between Rick and Shane, as the latter blames the former for leaving to get the guns in the first place and the former unfortunately disregards the latter’s ability to take care of his family while he was lying in a coma. What I like about the arguments between Rick and Shane here is that the episode doesn’t always paint Rick as the saintly hero that he kind of thinks he is, as it rightly points out that Shane did do a great thing in keeping Lori and Carl safe. Sure, he lied to them about Rick being alive and then also considers just killing Rick in the woods, but Rick has swooped in and taken control of the camp without much discussion. Things seemed to be going a little better before he got there, and so Shane has some right to be pissed.
“Wildfire” also succeeds by showcasing previously unseen developments that will surely be crucial moving forward in the season and the series. Jim also finds himself on the wrong end of a zombie bite, and the episode does a nice job of chronicling how the zombie disease works through someone’s body and takes over their mind. It isn’t a big part of the episode, but Jim is another supporting character that is given a fairly potent and emotional send-off that feels earned.
Moreover, this episode introduces the seemingly last remaining member of Atlanta’s CDC branch in a totally effective and entertaining standalone sequence. I think I would watch a bottle episode with Noam Emmerich prancing around the massive CDC facility, drunk off his ass and screaming into a web camera that features no one on the other end. He notes that it’s been 200-odd days since “Wildfire” (the zombie virus spread, not the episode) began and doesn’t seem very hopeful that anything will change soon.
Rick bringing the survivors to the CDC is a nice set-up for what should be an interesting finale. That location presents some pretense of hope, but considering this series’ source material and everything we’ve seen thus far, the CDC surely isn’t going to provide too much assistance to a situation that seems beyond repair. But after the tremendous emotional beats shown in “Wildfire,” I’m much more excited about the season one finale that I was just a few hours ago.