Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

“The clock is ticking.”

Praise be, they’ve found Sophia (Madison Lintz)! Before finally locating the little girl who has single-handedly dragged the first half of The Walking Dead’s second season into uneven disappointment, the mid-season finale, “Pretty Much Dead Already,” hit all the right notes, ending the seven-episode run on such a positive beat that it’s a shame we have to wait until February to continue the narrative. Not that the powerful episode absolves the show’s producers and writers of their many woes thus far in Season Two; in fact, it’s all the more frustrating. But, for once, a Walking Dead episode that primarily consists of zombie-free, dialogue-heavy exposition (i.e., 85% of Season Two's eps so far) captivates from beginning to end.

And the story kicks off with Glenn (Steven Yuen) telling the rest of the group about the walkers in the barn, much to his new chick Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) dismay. Naturally, they’re not thrilled with the news, especially not Shane (Jon Bernthal), who’s ready to take violent action, per usual. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), on the other hand, is willing to turn the other pistol, so to speak, to respect Hershel's (Scott Wilson) wishes so pregnant Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) doesn’t have to fend off walker swarms with a heavy belly and unavoidable nausea if they're expelled by him.

Realizing that the gang is getting restless, and that the unstable Shane is primed to wipe out Hershel’s barn full of “people” (including his dead wife, dead stepson, and a slew of dead friends, neighbors, and random folks he traps out in the woods), Rick has another one of his negotiation chats with the old man. This time, though, he puts it all out on the line, telling Hershel about Lori’s pregnancy and how the world has changed since the news cameras that showed Hershel a less dangerous world stopped rolling. Hershel’s set in his ways, even though Maggie cites some Bible passages in an effort to wake his stubborn ass up. She calls them “walkers,” which amuses Hershel; he questions if her changed point-of-view is the work of “the Asian boy.” The same Asian boy, Maggie points out, that saved her the day before, when the horribly rendered, CGI-tainted zombie attacked her inside the pharmacy in last week’s episode, “Secrets.”

Lori’s pregnancy also becomes knowledge to Shane, after Rick enlightens him in hopes of persuading Shane to comply with Hershel’s demands and keep the group on the farm. Shane congratulates him, which, as we all know, isn’t without hidden contempt. Though Shane’s anger materializes more towards Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), who grabs all of the guns from the trailer and sets off to stash them as far away from Shane as possible.

“Rick…He isn’t built for the world.”

Dale isn’t Shane’s top priority—Lori is, and it doesn’t take long for her former fuck-buddy to plead his I-know-I’m-the-father-and-that-Rick-is soft-batch case to Rick’s emotionally frazzled wife. He tries to make Lori aware of Rick’s weakness by reminding her about the four times he’s saved her life, which is four more than Rick has played her direct hero. Lori doesn’t give a rat’s ass, though; as she puts it, even if Shane is in fact the baby’s daddy, “It’s not gonna be yours, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”

Matters on the Glenn-and-Maggie front are much rosier, however. Initially, she smashed an egg onto his head because it’s “rotten,” a mature way of displaying her heatedness over Glenn’s speech about the barn. She continues to ignore him until Glenn mans up and tells her that the reason why he told everyone about Hershel’s big secret was to protect her—if no one else knows about the walkers, they could break out one night while everyone’s asleep and feast upon Maggie. And Glenn’s not about to let that happen. And then they kiss and make-up. If anyone’s going to get the girl on The Walking Dead, we’re glad it’s the nerdy dude who namedrops the video game Portal in front of his lady fair.

The tough dude who’s on the verge of blacking out seems to have zero chance of winning Lori back, so it’s time to for him to take charge. First, though, Shane needs those guns. He finds Dale trying to hide the weapons in the nearby swamp, which leads to a confrontation that culminates with Dale sticking a rifle into Shane’s chest. He doesn’t pull the trigger, explaining to a ready-to-die Shane that he doesn’t want the world that’s gone to shit take him down with it, like it’s done to Shane.

And the complete opposite of what it’s done to Rick—if anything, the world of stumbling corpses and rampant hopelessness has turned the former sheriff into a man of even bigger and more realized conscience. In true take-one-for-the-team spirit, Rick accompanies Hershel and his anonymous son (if it takes a trip to IMDB to learn a character’s name, he’s clearly useless and poorly developed) to the spot in the woods where they capture walkers, stick nooses around their necks that are attached to poles, and transport them into the barn. Wait until Shane gets a load of his boy Rick, huh?

“Time to grow up!”

Before he catches Rick in the act, Shane first has to rally up his shell-shocked troops. After his verbal scuffle with Dale, Shane heads back to the farm and gives everyone a gun—yes, it’s time to eradicate the barn’s denizens. But he first catches sight of Rick, Hershel, the random son, and their two captive zombies. Shane and the rest of the present gang (meaning, everyone else on the show, farm heads and main cast) sprint to the barn and cut them off.

Shane, flipping the hell out, goes on a well-delivered rant (kudos to Jon Bernthal on the performance) about the walkers’ true identities, that of ghouls that can take upwards of seven bullets to the chest, lungs, and other upper body spots without falling down. Shane unloads a clip into the walker closest to Hershel, who stands there in shock. And then, Shane blows the zombie’s brains out as Rick and the others scream for him to stop, that “this isn’t the way.” Nor, we’d presume, is it “the way” to open the barn up and let the walkers out, which is exactly what Shane does next.

Here comes the firing squad—Shane, Glenn, T-Dog (IronE Singleton), Andrea (Laurie Holden), and Daryl (Norman Reedus). In militant, cold-blooded fashion, they shoot down all 12-plus zombies as the living cadavers stumble out from the barn. Hershel, on his knees, watches in teary-eyed horror; Rick, standing, also watches in horror, though without the waterworks. Once the walkers stop emerging, the living heads stand frozen in their tracks.

And guess who makes her long-awaited, thank-heavens-she’s-present appearance? That’s right—it’s Sophia, who’s been in the barn all along as one of Hershel’s protected zombies. For once, Shane isn’t so quick to fire away; like everyone else, he’s unable to move, paralyzed by the shock of Carol’s (Melissa McBride) little girl’s big comeback. It’s not so easy when the target isn’t a stranger with a bulls-eye on his or her rotting face. The only one able to react is, wouldn’t you know it, Rick, who steps up to the plate and discharges a bullet into poor undead-Sophia’s forehead—say hello to Rick The Fearless Leader.

Thus, sealing the lid on one of the fall TV season’s most infuriating, polarizing, and sluggishly paced storylines. And, just like that, ending the kick-off section of The Walking Dead Season Two. Rick has finally grown a pair, Glenn is in love with cutie Maggie, Lori's preggers with either Rick’s or Shane’s kid (we’re betting it’s the latter’s doing), and Hershel is most likely ready to drop his Bible and raise holy, vengeful hell against the sons-of-bitches responsible for terrorizing his no longer quaint lifestyle. But lord help us if T-Dog goes missing during The Walking Dead's February 12th reinstatement hour; it's not like that guy has anything else to do on the show.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)