Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Emma Bell, Melissa Suzanne McBride, Norman Reedus, Andrew Rothenberg, IronE Singleton, Noah Emmerich
: Glen Mazzara
: Ernest Dickerson
Network: AMC, airs Sunday nights
Original Telecast: November 28, 2010

In “Wildfire,” the penultimate episode of THE WALKING DEAD, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) leads the survivors on a desperate odyssey back into the lions’ – well, zombies’ – den, as they head for the Center for Disease Control and possible salvation for the now-infected Jim (Andrew Rothenberg). It seems impossible that anyone could have made it through the collapse of the city, and yet deep beneath the streets one lone scientist (Noah Emmerich) on the brink of insanity may be all that stands between our heroes and a more horrific end to their journey.

Many fans of the comic book have been watching this television adaptation with considerable admiration, since it not only captures a lot of what made the comic an award-winning success but directly involves its creator, Robert Kirkman.

However, series producer Frank Darabont made it clear that although they intended to adhere to the spirit of the print series, adapting swaths of plot and bringing various set pieces to life (or unlife), they had every intention of letting the TV show find its own path even if that deviated dramatically from the comic. This episode marks a significant step in that direction. We are most definitely off the map as we gear up for the first season finale, and it’s an exciting feeling.

This installment also offers some of the most heart-wrenching material to date, with powerful performances from the series regulars as they face the loss of several survivors either dead or dying. Before leaving the violated security of their hilltop refuge, Andrea (Laurie Holden) has to face putting a bullet in her sister Amy’s (Emma Bell) head. In this world, the dead don’t stay that way for long.

Amy’s reanimation, a slow and subtle process at odds – brilliantly – with the usual quick-change method seen in other zombie stories, is played for every ounce of pathos it can offer, while Carol’s (Melissa Suzanne McBride) axing of her mostly-consumed husband Ed’s body goes far beyond the mechanical need to prevent his revival. Her rage is as palpable as the apparently real sweat on every cast member’s brow as she hacks away at Ed’s remains, releasing years of pain and anger.

It wouldn’t be a zombie story without a survivor slowly succumbing to infection, and Jim is our sacrificial lamb in a poignant subplot that shows how close many of these strangers have become. Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) is becoming the heart of the group, consoling all and offering a reasoned, conscience-guided distillation of everyone’s plans and suggestions. But how long will he hold his tongue now that he’s seen Shane (Jon Bernthal) contemplate murdering Rick in cold blood?

The third act is accompanied by a shift in tone and an homage to THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (which also featured a “Project Wildfire”). Rick is as unhinged as we’ve ever seen him when the episode reaches its tense final moments, and there are uncomfortable parallels with shows like LOST as THE WALKING DEAD veers into building its own “mythology” around the viral outbreak that might come closer to offering an explanation than Kirkman’s comic ever has. On the other hand, the show might merely be playing the game of tantalizing viewers with the promise of revelations only to dance – or shamble – away from that commitment in the finale or the next season.

But if guarded optimism is the best I can do as we settle in to wait for Season 2, I should also add that it’s way too soon to tell if THE WALKING DEAD will succumb to any of these traps or if it will find a satisfying and thrilling path through the zombie horde and deeper into the landscape of the apocalypse.

In the meantime, we have one episode left, and several questions lingering from this season’s storyline. Will the CDC trip shed any light on the epidemic? Has Morgan heard any of Rick’s transmissions? Will Shane trade friendship and loyalty for rage? And where the hell is Merle Dixon?

CLICK HERE for ASSIGNMENT X’s complete Season 1 episode guide

CLICK HERE for EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS of the cast and crew of THE WALKING DEAD from the PaleyFest2011 event

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