SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!
Save the Last One
It was (almost) straight back into the thick of the zombie action in this week’s Walking Dead, but for the first time this season, it felt like the characters had more dramatic heft than the events surrounding them. For the first time this season, this episode felt like a drama punctuated by zombie action, rather than zombie action interrupted by lulls in which characters stated the obvious.
It was dark territory indeed this week, no mean feat for a show that’s set in a post-apocalyptic hell roamed by flesh eating corpses. But it wasn’t the scenario in which our characters found themselves that made it so dark; rather, it was a series of cleverly intertwined musings on the desire for survival versus the choice to opt out and die.
That this seemed more interesting than the zombie shenanigans faced by Shane and Otis at the infested school medical centre was perhaps the first time this season that the characters have felt fully rounded enough to actually care about. The depth of the characters in the first season was one of the reasons the show was part of that group – including Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones – that propelled genre television into the ‘serious drama’ realm. I must confess that, until this week, I hadn’t really felt that season 2 had managed to recapture that; this episode, by show newcomer Scott Gimple, amply made up for it.
The theme of whether it was worth living in a world like this, or better just to give up, was what drove the episode, and was first brought up in a truly intense scene between Rick and Lori. With their son Carl still in critical condition, and Shane’s return with the necessary medical equipment very much in doubt, Lori had started to wonder whether it would be better if Carl didn’t make it after all. Why, she argued, would a child want to live in a world like this, eventually to become nothing more than a hunted animal himself?
This is a theme touched upon in the original comics on several occasions, but the performances of Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies gave it a lot more oomph than just reading it on the page. And as in the comics, you found yourself wondering whether giving up might be the more sensible thing to do. As Lori pointed out, their friend Jackie (who chose to die in the explosion of the CDC) hadn’t had to see any of the terrible things that had happened since. Rick, of course, was more optimistic – he’s the hero, he has to be. But even then, when it looked like Hershel was going to have to take the risk and operate on Carl without equipment, it was Lori he asked to make the choice.
In an episode where death seemed more significant than it has recently, Andrea and Daryl found themselves having a similar heart to heart as they went on a (somewhat inadvisable) trip to the woods by night to continue their search for little Sophia. Darabont regular Laurie Holden (best known to me as Marita Covarrubias in The X Files) has been varying anger and despair in her portrayal of Andrea since Dale persuaded her not to remain in the CDC as well, and this is obviously going to be a running character thread.
As I mentioned last week, of all the characters, Daryl seems best equipped psychologically to deal with the situation, and he countered Andrea’s hopelessness with similar optimism to Rick. He’d been lost in the woods as a child too, and after all, he’d made it ok. But he gave Andrea’s death wish short shrift as they encountered an all too gruesome reminder of the consequences; a man who’d hanged himself from a tree but neglected to shoot himself in the head, leaving his reanimated corpse dangling helpfully while others munched on the flesh from his legs.
This was a nicely gory way of ramming home the point of their argument, as Andrea confessed she wasn’t sure if she still had a death wish. But later, as Dale apologised for taking away her decision and gave her back her gun, you had to wonder. You also had to wonder whether Dale had a death wish of his own as he went on a ramble through the darkened traffic jam in search of cigarettes. I’m a hopelessly addicted smoker myself, but even I would probably rather endure nicotine withdrawal than wander around a dark area that might be full of zombies. Still, nice to see that Dale smokes Morleys; this fictional ‘almost-Marlboro’ brand may be most associated with The X Files, but it’s been a staple of TV shows since at least the early 60s.
In contrast to last week, pretty much all of the characters got a moment in the spotlight here, with none given a raw deal. We got to know Hershel’s daughter Maggie better this week, and I particularly enjoyed the growing intimacy between her and Glenn. Glenn as a character has sometimes got short shrift in the comic, but has sometimes seemed even more perfunctory in the TV version; it was nice to see Steven Yeun given some decent material at last, as he caught the character’s blend of smartassery and adolescent awkwardness. Lauren Cohan as Maggie seemed a lot more ballsy than she does in the comics, which is no bad thing, and it looks like she and Glenn might grow close…
Leaving earlier than he did in the comics, though, was Pruitt Taylor Vince as Otis. Otis in the comics always seemed a bit of a spare part, as though Robert Kirkman introduced him then had no idea what to do with him. Vince’s characterisation actually gave him more depth, but he certainly didn’t outstay his welcome. I may have been concentrating on the character drama this week, but the intervening zombie action was still pretty thrilling as Otis and Shane struggled to get away from the infested school.
There were some well-directed shock moments like when Shane was about to jump from a window and a zombie suddenly reared out and grabbed him; or when a horde of them, previously unseen, lurched into the chain link fence Shane and Otis were resting against. But nothing like the shock moment that was revealed in flashback after Shane returned, alone, to Hershel’s farm. For it transpired that, despite Shane’s tale of heroic sacrifice, Otis had actually been shot by Shane himself to decoy the zombies while he got away.
The moment this happened was a genuine shock, despite previous heavy signs that Shane was a wrong ‘un. Remember last season, when he sighted Rick with his hunting rifle before Dale turned up? Or when he practically tried to rape Lori in the CDC? Shane’s badness came to light fairly early on in the comics and he was duly despatched (though Rick had to dig him up again later to shoot him in the head properly). It’s one of the best decisions of the TV version to change this, as Jon Bernthal’s charismatic performance makes him believable and likeable even though you know what he’s capable of – in this case, not even leaving poor Otis the last bullet to shoot himself before the zombies tore him apart.
As Shane took the opportunity to shave his head back at the farm (to hide the marks Otis had made struggling with him), he looked like the very devil himself in the steamy bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, in one of the few missteps this week, we’d seen this in the pre-credit sequence. It works well as a device causing the viewer to wonder why this was significant, which was revealed at the very end of the episode. But while I can see the intention, I thought it also drastically undercut the tension of Shane and Otis’ deadly mission; after all, we always knew Shane would make it back, because he hadn’t shaved his head yet.
That criticism notwithstanding, this was far and away the best episode since the show’s return. The drama was compelling, the zombie action thrilling, and the dramatic balance between the two far better struck than in previous weeks. The characters too seem finally to be shining the way they did last year. Despite the fact that the overall plot has, technically, barely moved, I was gripped throughout, and hope we can have more episodes of this kind of quality.