Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Remember last season’s episode of The Walking Dead when Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and a few of his fellow survivors stumbles across that gang of Latino gangbangers? Seriously, what the fuck was that all about? The ep was titled “Vatos,” written by the source material comic book’s creator Robert Kirkman, and it was completely random; OK, so there was a message to be had about how folks who’d theoretically be the world’s most dangerous criminals can exude humanity and compassion once it was revealed that the “thugs” actually run a makeshift nursing home for sick people.

But that was subtlety with a hammer, a bizarre way to make a grandiose statement about mankind’s reaction to a zombie apocalypse. It also distracted from what The Walking Dead’s first season should have been focused on: sticking to its central characters, developing them, and finding a semblance of one ongoing narrative to ride out. Only six episodes deep, the first season, while entertaining and overall an effective introduction, was scatterbrained as hell.

Which is why an episode such as last night’s, “Bloodletting,” should encourage skeptical viewers about where The Walking Dead is headed in this longer, 13-episode run. Revolving around the uniquely dire situations of the group’s two youngest members, “Bloodletting” unites the characters and points them all toward a pair of equally important goals, establishing themes for the season that should (hopefully) give The Walking Dead the feel of a series that has a clue as to what its plot is; as opposed to last season, when the AMC mega-hit felt like a grab bag of tones, character motivations, and storyteller intentions, with frequent interruptions from murderous ghouls, and, yes, those damn Vatos.

”Merle got the clap on occasion.”

Quickly responding to young Carl's (Chandler Riggs) gunshot-to-the-chest that wrapped up last week’s season premiere, “What Lies Ahead,” Rick and Shane (Joe Bernthal) connected with the shooter, Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who frantically rushes them to his farm in a fit of guilty leadership (Carl’s wound is the result of Otis’ careless deer hunting) at the start of “Bloodletting.” There, Otis’ elder pal Hershel (Scott Wilson) checks a lifeless Carl’s chest with a stethoscope, notices a faint heartbeat, and deduces that the bullet has split into little pieces. Rick, understandably, is a sobbing mess; Shane, having previously decided to split from the group and forge ahead on his own, now has a reason to hang around, and he’s also visibly distraught.

And, jumping ahead to the back-end of “Bloodletting,” one of Hershel’s daughters, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) hops on her horse to fetch Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and bring her back to the farm to be by her son’s bedside. After bashing a zombie’s head in while on horseback, and saving Andrea’s (Laurie Holden) ass, Maggie gives the rest of the crew in the woods—including Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun), and Carol (Melissa McBride)—directions to the farm.

Once back on the highway to reunite with Dale (Jeffrey Demunn) and a sickly T-Dog (IronE Singleton), Carol pleads against the notion of joining Lori, Rick, and Shane on Hershel’s farm, desperately reasoning that her still-missing daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz) might return to the highway. Daryl, who continues to prove his value as more than Season One’s pissed-off redneck antagonist, suggests that they put up a big sign to guide Sophia, a wholly embraced idea. Even though Daryl reveals his concealed stash of painkillers, which was mixed in with his also-missing brother Merle’s (Michael Rooker) collection of mind-altering drugs, the crew realizes that T-Dog can really use Hershel’s medical knowledge—Dog’s arm, sliced open during the gang’s encounter with the zombie herd that opened “What Lies Ahead,” is covered in discolored veins, and he’s talking like he’s weeded up. So it’s decided that Glenn will take T-Dog to the farm while the others remain in place and wait for Glenn’s “yay” or “nay” about Hershel’s legitimacy.

Too bad they don’t know that Hershel is only a veterinarian, though, a sad truth that Lori pulls out of him once she’s inside the farmhouse (which, conveniently enough, looks a hell of a lot like the one in George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead). Shane is forced to play the action hero since Rick’s veins are being drained for blood to inject into Carl, who’s suffering internal bleeding. Your boy Shane might not be too happy to find out that Hershel’s merely a vet once he’s back from his medical supply run, alongside a guilt-stricken Otis, a search-and-obtain job needed to swipe a respirator and other mandatory items from the undead-infested FEMA station located in the local high school’s parking lot. That is, if Shane actually makes it back—he and Otis make a bit too much noise, rile up the swarms of flesh-eaters stalking the FEMA bunker, and chase Shane and Otis into the school’s hallway, a momentary sanctuary that’s protected by a not-so-sturdy metal gate holding off dozens of starving, angry zombies.

By George, I Think We’ve Got An Actual Plot

Up until the episode’s closing, zombie-heavy schoolyard sequence, “Bloodletting” emphasizes characterization and story development over action, a wise move on writer, and new Walking Dead showrunner, Glen Mazzara’s part. So far, eight episodes into its existence, most of The Walking Dead’s best moments have prominently featured the “walkers” themselves, particularly the intensely suspenseful herd sighting in “What Lies Ahead.” But if the show keeps on that track of zombies constantly trumping the living characters, The Walking Dead runs the risk of solely appeasing violence hounds similar to how some heads only watched The Sopranos for the “whackings,” only far more justifiable in such one-sided appeal than David Chase’s undeniably character-driven Mafia classic.

The Walking Dead’s second season already has more arcs and tangibly individual personalities to its credit than last year’s batch. Rick, mad at himself for bringing Carl along for his Sophia rescue mission, now has a legitimate reason to question both his own management capabilities and God’s watchful eye; Shane, despite wanting to roam free and away from his recent cut-buddy Lori, has no choice but to stay close by and help Rick (whom he’s jealous of in regards to Lori) and Carl (whom he previously tried shunning away as a defense mechanism against growing any more attached to Lori’s kid); Daryl is emerging as the group’s go-to problem solver, but there’s a newfound complexity to his character that should play out fascinatingly this season; and Carol, relegated to background decoration throughout Season One, has become a full-bodied presence with more to lose than most of her associates.

It’s no less difficult to muster up empathy for Theodore "T-Dog" Douglass, however, the victim of one of TV’s worst character names and a guy who’s yet to serve any purpose other than be the show’s catalyst for obvious racial ploys (Season One: Merle and Daryl don’t like the Black dude; Season Two: T-Dog ponders who’ll be the first to get lynched, talking about himself). As long as he doesn’t find camaraderie with any stereotypical gangbangers, a la “Vatos,” though, Sir Dog can stay put.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)