On the season finale of The Walking Dead, the honeymoon's over

Holy crap, tonight's season finale of The Walking Dead,"Beside the Dying Fire," was an absolute demolition derby, and — as the show embarks on a new chaotic chapter — some your favorite (?) survivors may have been put out to pasture. Spoilers way on, obviously.

Let's be honest, the six-episode opening season of The Walking Dead was less of a television season than a taste test. Season Two was the real experiment in long-form zombie melodrama.

Just as Rick's group of survivors experienced growing pains onscreen, the production team had to work around the departure of showrunner Frank Darabont, a less-than-optimal budget, and the challenge of writing taut dialogue without the selling point of a zombie massacre every episode.

As a result, Season Two had the feeling of an extremely long bottle episode, with moments of intense interpersonal drama punctuated by explosions of carnage (see: Shane opening the barn, Rick and Shane's Randall fistfight, Dale's death).

The survivors needed downtime to figure out what the hell they were doing, and it seemed like their invisible puppet masters needed a moment to boot. Now emboldened by gangbusters ratings, The Walking Dead is ready to cut the survivors loose, and we're all better for it.*

*That is, except for Beth's boyfriend Jimmy, who croaked after 45 seconds of screen time, and Otis' mostly mute girlfriend Patricia, who died in a manner eerily similar to her deceased squeeze. Otis + Patricia = human sacrifice power couple.

The opening scene was a deliberate reminder that there's a big wide world out there. This throwback sequence started with a zombie herd eating Rick's dead horse, following a mysterious helicopter (remember that?), and forming a walker mosh pit on Hershel's farm. This particular zombie herd is to the Grimes family what the shark in Jaws: The Revenge is to the Brodys. The survivors can hole up with Hershel, but wooden fences only last so long.

At this point, "Beside the Dying Fire" became a gleefully cathartic orgy of death and destruction. That plot-halting barn is burnt down, characters too boring to win our affections died horribly, and the survivors learned just how insecure they were. Assorted observations from the herd invasion and the aftermath:

- Composer Bear McCreary's score has been rivaling his Battlestar Galactica work lately, but the zombie groans really blotted out the music.

- T-Dog began and ended the season talking about the coast. Seriously, he only discussed sofas and oceans this entire season. If you put your ear next to his ear, I imagine you can hear seagull caws.

- T-Dog's latest character development = poor at U-turns.

- I doubt that's the last we've seen of the farm. Who knows if the herd stuck around, but I can definitely picture a field trip sometime in the future. In any case, the gang will be hanging around the prison for the time being.

- Everyone is rightfully annoyed that Rick held back Jenner's revelation that the living are all infected.

- Lori annoys everybody when she becomes indignant that Rick killed totally-past-redemption Shane. You absolutely cannot half-ass a Lady Macbeth routine.

- Various unresolved plot points going into the third season: Merle's whereabouts, the mysterious helicopter, whatever happened to Randall's camp, where Morgan and Duane are.

- And finally, katana-wielding wasteland warrior Michonne showed up to rescue Andrea. Robert Kirkman told us a thousand years ago that she was en route, and I'm psyched to see her materialize in the middle of a leadership crisis. And according to the press release AMC fired out tonight, actress Danai Gurira (Treme) will play her next season.

Finally, I was really excited about Rick's "This isn't a democracy!" outburst at the end of this episode. With Rick tired of playing den mother, I can definitely see somebody new making a power play. Will it be Darryl or Michonne? Or will some poor souls even defect to The Governor? Let's commemorate the end of Hershel's farm with some Walking Dead Season 2 Superlatives.


Class Clown: Whenever Lori Grimes is onscreen, accidental comedy is around the corner. This character is a one-person Rube Goldberg machine. Whether flipping cars for no real reason or telling Andrea to do more dishes or pitting Rick against Shane or getting mysteriously wistful about their fling two episodes later, Lori is the epicenter of perpetual silliness. I know we're not supposed to like everybody, but this character needs an infusion of "not terrible" pronto.

Most Likely To Succeed: This honor goes to Darryl Dixon, as there will be an audience revolt if our hillbilly ronin is killed. Save Glenn or possibly Rick, I'm not sure who else but Darryl could be the audience's favorite character. Darryl really shone this season, as he made the zombie apocalypse look easy. He was quick with a quip and generally acted like the reincarnation of another Georgian wilderness hero, Burt Reynolds in Deliverance.

Even his crazy was endearing — Darryl collects zombie ears because his childhood sucked! Until Merle comes back and forces Darryl to choose between crystal meth-fueled racism and Lori accidentally filling the RV with maple syrup, our hero and his backwoods bushido aren't going anywhere.

Best Hair: Shane is dead, but he was a wild-eyed adonis with a shaved dome.

Most Likely To Marry His High School Sweetheart: T-Dog. Why? Because we know so little about him it's comical, and have thus been forced to write fan fiction in our heads. And for the record, her name was Leslie and they met in pre-calculus.

Cutest Couple: Now I know some of you are Maggie/Glenn fans, but Rick and Hershel were the true power duo. One is a cop on the edge with a heart of unalloyed platinum, the other is a pissed-off veterinarian with homespun wisdom and a shotgun with infinite ammo. Now that they've both flexed their badass credentials, I'm hoping they develop a dynamic not unlike Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot in Road House.

Most Artsy: Darryl Dixon again! Ear lanyards, remember?