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!
With the season end in sight, this week’s Walking Dead suitably ramped up the tension in another gripping episode that seems to demonstrate a show regaining its form. Brilliantly paced, Evan Reilly and Glen Mazzara’s script built from a slow burning character drama to a climax that’s been seemingly waiting in the wings for weeks.
First though, the gang had to mourn Dale after his shock death last week. The show’s cold open nicely intercut Rick’s eulogy at his graveside with an incredibly brutal and graphic zombie hunt. As Rick solemnly intoned that he was going to do things Dale’s way from now on, a close up on Shane showed him looking distinctly unimpressed. The zombie hunt flashed through the ceremony, showing Shane’s preferred method of doing things – brutally, pragmatically and finally. The effects here gave us some top notch gore, as walkers were dispatched in some inventive, non-gunfire ways.
There was some time to take stock, as Rick set about organising the proper fortification of Hershel’s farm – something that they might sensibly have done some time ago. Having resolved to follow Dale’s moral compass, Rick was still set on reviving the plan to release the hapless Randall a long way from the farm, and from his well-armed comrades. He plainly didn’t trust Shane to help him with this, choosing Daryl instead. A sensible choice, but one that Shane saw straight through; as they argued the toss, it was interesting to see Shane as the calm one for once, with Rick acting like an arrogant hothead who knew all the answers. This, surely, was what precipitated the later, tragic events of the story.
First though, Carl confided in Shane that he saw himself as responsible for Dale’s death, by failing to kill the walker he taunted last week. Shane’s advice on this was as pragmatic as ever; it wasn’t Carl’s fault, but he should keep the gun and learn how to protect himself. The grownups wouldn’t always be there to watch out for him. Actually, by the end of this episode I was beginning to wonder whether anyone was keeping an eye on him at all!
Rick having finally taken Shane’s advice on talking to Carl, there was a touching father/son bonding scene, in which Rick almost tenderly outlined the new realities to his son. It was interesting to note that, after having proclaimed he’d do things Dale’s way, the thrust of this was Rick’s firm persuasion that Carl really should be armed. There was much debate after last week’s episode as to whether Dale’s pre-apocalypse, ‘civilised’ approach was the wrong way to go with the way things had become; it looks like Rick has decided that civilisation has to be tempered by the brutal realities of the situation. He continues to develop as a character, much as he does in the comics, and Andrew Lincoln was particularly good this week with some very strong material to work with.
Sarah Wayne Callies got some good stuff too, in a significant scene with Shane in which Lori finally acknowledged her own responsibility for the impossible situation between him and Rick. Lori’s been arguably the most annoying character this year, presumably intentionally; selfish, indecisive and occasionally incompetent at basic self-preservation. Seeing her finally admit some of her own shortcomings was a surprise, and the scene with Shane felt like the beginning of some kind of closure.
In hindsight, a lot of the early part of this episode was indeed building up to closure on Shane. The fuse was lit as he stalked into the barn where Randall was tied up, then began flipping out and smashing himself on the head. After weeks of gradually unravelling, it was plain that he’d finally, completely, lost it, and this made for interestingly tense viewing as I genuinely couldn’t tell which way he was going to jump. As he led Randall through the woods, encouraging him to spill all about his gang, I really believed that Shane might take the step of joining them. So it took me quite by surprise when they disappeared behind a tree and a distinctly nasty, neck-snappingish noise was heard.
And then, as Shane smashed his head against a tree, his plan became clearer – he was faking Randall’s escape. But why? Plainly he was up to no good, but even here it was hard to see what he was hoping to gain.
It all came to a head in one of the tensest scenes the show’s done, as Rick and Shane came to a desolate, moonlit field near the woods. Director Guy Ferland gave the scene some excellent visuals as Rick and Shane stood silhouetted facing each other, the moon high behind them, as if reaching the final showdown in a classic Western. The implication was clear, and Rick, a trained cop after all, figured it out quickly. “So this is where you’re going to do it then?” he asked, knowing that this was Shane’s endgame. “Good a place as any,” Shane replied laconically. The showdown vibe was unmistakeable; that same laid back attitude the antagonists display at the end of every Sergio Leone movie. I fully expected a long, drawn out standoff with increasingly close shots of the actors’ faces interspersed with shots of fingers twitching near triggers.
And what we got, cleverly, was something quite different. Having built up that vibe, the script switched tack as Rick went into classic ‘police negotiator’ mode, trying to persuade Shane that, if he only gave up the gun, all this could be forgotten and they could move on.
This was certainly the ‘Dale-like’ thing to do, and was reminiscent of the more peaceable philosophy of heroes like Jean-Luc Picard or the Doctor. It was also, in light of Shane’s increasing insanity, plainly the absolute wrong thing to do here. This played out for a tense few minutes, until Rick took the step of holding out his gun to Shane. At this point, I was prepared for two outcomes; Rick getting killed (unlikely), or Shane accepting his terms and condemning the viewer to more endless weeks of seething tension between them.
Instead, I was again genuinely surprised that the scriptwriters had the balls for Rick to finally accept what had to be. As Shane reached for the gun, Rick, sobbing, stabbed him through the heart. It was a shocking moment, well-handled by both actors. The look of amazement on Shane’s face as Rick finally bought into his way of doing things was priceless. Mind you, I also wondered whether the whole thing had been engineered by Shane as an elaborate, unhinged way of committing suicide; the scene seemed laced with deliberate ambiguity on this.
Even than, the shocks weren’t over, nor the script’s clever mind games. Carl suddenly popped up, having seen everything (really, does nobody keep an eye on what he’s doing?). And it looked for a moment like he was going to shoot his father. Rick certainly thought so, an indication of how he’s not getting the changes in his son.
But no, as the gunshot rang out, it was the stumbling, now zombified Shane that Carl shot; possibly a clever nod to the comics, in which Carl shot the living Shane much, much earlier. It also served to establish (along with the discovery that the strangled Randall was now a zombie too) something we’d suspected for a few weeks now – you don’t have to be bitten to come back from the dead. This is a potentially interesting development; it means that, if this is caused by some kind of virus, everyone is a carrier, with death waiting to trigger it. I wonder if that’s what Dr Jenner whispered into Rick’s ear at the end of Season One? Still no resolution on that – yet.
As a prelude to the season finale, the episode ended with a swarm of walkers, drawn by all that gunfire, stumbling across the field towards Rick and Carl – and the farm. Clearly, in time-honoured zombie movie tradition, the climax to this season is going to see an invasion of the undead laying siege to our heroes’ refuge. Will they survive? Will they have to move on from the farm? (God, I hope so!) And more importantly, will they have the sense to get guns with silencers?
With the episodes of the last few weeks, The Walking Dead really seems to have got its mojo back after a distinctly patchy, often badly paced season. This was another strong story, and a great sendoff for Shane. Jon Bernthal has been excellent in the role, and will be missed. Zombie stories really need a human villain to work; the zombies are an all-pervading danger, but they’re essentially mindless. For genuine nastiness, you need the living, something George Romero’s movies always remind us of. I gather that another of the comic’s well-known baddies is due to put in an appearance soon to fill the void. First though, our heroes have got what looks like an all out zombie onslaught to contend with. If it can match the quality of the last few episodes, roll on next week…