For fans of AMC's zombie drama The Walking Dead, it may have been the TV series' most crucial moment.
Ex-cop Shane Walsh had a rifle in his hand, backing up onetime partner Rick Grimes as the two looked out for walking corpses and game animals in the woods. Walsh, who had had a secret affair with Grimes' wife, hefted the rifle, clearly considering "accidentally" shooting his friend.
Seconds later, another friend approached, and the moment passed. But in the brutally explicit graphic novel on which the AMC series is based, there's a different outcome. Grimes' 7-year-old son kills Walsh with a pistol, proving life in a post-apocalyptic world packed with flesh-eating zombies erases traditional morality pretty quickly.
In that moment, the knowledgeable fan knew: Even a TV series that shows Grimes disemboweling a zombie in painstaking, gory detail — to tell if it had eaten a missing child — has some boundaries.
And that's okay for Robert Kirkman, the creator of the Walking Dead graphic novel and an executive producer-writer on the TV series.
"It's like the TV series is in an alternate dimension," said Kirkman, who still says he is "absolutely floored" by how popular last year's six-episode debut season turned out to be.
To be sure, there's plenty of gore in AMC's Walking Dead. Zombies are dispatched with screwdrivers in the eyes and rocks against their heads, black blood spouting with disturbing realism. And it's a formula that works: The show's debut last year drew over 5 million viewers, a huge hit for AMC.
But the graphic novel's brutal truths about humans are more muted on TV. In print, the ragtag group of survivors discovers the biggest danger isn't always the undead; it's the people trying to survive with limited resources and no infrastructure.
"That's something we didn't have room for in the first season," Kirkman said. "You get the sense from the comic series that zombies are manageable. What you really need to be scared of in this world is other humans."
As the show's second season opens tonight, Grimes is leading 11 survivors from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Along the way, they encounter a new type of zombie behavior and new threats to the two children among their group.
They land at a farm owned by Hershel, a god-fearing doctor quite familiar to fans of the graphic novel. (One disappointment: In the first two episodes given to critics, we don't yet discover whether TV Hershel has the same stuff hidden in his barn as comic book Hershel.)
"Zombie stories, more than any kind of monster story, (focus) intently on the human drama," Kirkman said. "Stories like The Walking Dead end up being more about protecting your children or working well with others. That's the universal appeal of a survival story."
A zombie outbreak
As supernatural bogeymen go, flesh-eating zombies may be our most modern monster.
Originally a corpse brought to life by witchcraft in Haitian and African legend, the zombie became a flesh-eating scourge in George Romero's 1968 film classic The Night of the Living Dead.
"It's the personification of a deadly virus," said Matt Mogk, an author who founded the sorta-serious Zombie Research Society, dedicated to puzzling what might happen if a zombie plague actually occurred.
"In the same way in Japan, after World War II, they created Godzilla — this monster to symbolize all their fears about their modern society — zombies do that for our culture now," said Mogk, whose new book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, traces zombie history and quizzes Homeland Security experts on survival strategies.
Mogk admits, as a guy who has spent years puzzling what a "real-life" zombie outbreak might look like, The Walking Dead brings questions.
How do these survivors find enough gas to run a wagon train of cars? Why are they surprised in some scenes by decaying zombies, which must stink from yards away like months-old corpses?
"The response I get from fans is, 'Thank God it isn't horrible,' " Mogk said. "Zombies, they kind of get no respect. They're not sexy, they're not brooding, they don't have personality. So it's great to see them getting their due, in any way."
Difficult as it was for Kirkman to turn his blitzkrieg of a graphic novel into a successful TV show, he now has a much harder task: keeping it that way
He spends lots of time these days doing press to assure fans that the surprise ouster of original executive producer Frank Darabont won't bring down the show's quality.
In some ways, Kirkman is the poster child for creative freedom, publishing his Walking Dead graphic novel through Image Comics, a company that allows creators to keep the full rights to their work.
"I hope I'm not the poster boy for anything, because I don't think I'd look that good on a poster," cracked the rotund writer. "But I'm not that intelligent, and I don't feel like I'm that talented. This can happen to anybody who keeps their head about them when things are taking off."
Unlike certain zombie characters we know.