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!
18 Miles Out
This week’s close focus on just a few of The Walking Dead’s ensemble cast made for an impressive episode that should be known as ‘The One Where Rick and Shane Have a Long Overdue Punch-up’. Zombie mayhem was present and correct again, with the character drama being threaded through it, and informed by it, better than last week by some margin.
In some ways, it was a very traditional format for series drama; there was an A plot – Rick and Shane’s excursion to dump off teenage bandit Randall – and a B plot – Lori, Maggie and Andrea have to deal with the now-conscious Beth’s apparent desire to commit suicide. If you were missing your favourite character this week, consolation could be taken that the very tight focus on, effectively, just six characters made for a gripping piece, and left nobody with the sort of perfunctory role that T-Dog seems to have every single week. On the whole, if there’s nothing for a character to do, I’d rather not see them at all that episode than have them mill round in the background and occasionally say one line.
The two plot threads were balanced far better than last week’s ‘first half action, second half talking’ approach, and worked better for it. Of the two, it was necessarily the A plot that got the most attention, as alongside some more actual zombie action, the increasingly poisonous nature of Rick and Shane’s relationship came to a head. Rick put his cards on the table, telling Shane that he knew everything – about Lori, about the death of Otis, about Shane’s twisted love for his wife. Shane initially seemed to take this on board, looking chastened for the first time in about ever. But as they found themselves stuck with a dilemma about whether or not to kill Randall, then a swarm of walkers descended, Shane took the opportunity to have his say. And he was pretty firm about it too.
Jon Bernthal’s been pretty impressive as Shane this season, all glowering anger and frightening obsession; by comparison, Rick’s obsession with what may be a now obsolete morality has meant Andrew Lincoln has had far less of a chance to impress. Let’s face it, the goody-goody hero is usually the less interesting part to play. But Rick’s definitely changed over the last few episodes, and this week Lincoln got a chance to impressively show us the extent of that.
His no-nonsense roadside speech to Shane showed us a man to be reckoned with, and also a man who these days won’t shy away from doing what needs to be done, however horrible it might be. It was telling that he accepted Shane’s reasons for sacrificing Otis, and admitted that he might well have done the same thing. But the crucial difference between them, which drove this episode’s conflict, is that Rick will take the time to consider before doing the horrible thing; Shane will just charge in and do it as a first response.
Hence, when they discovered that shifty teenager Randall, pleading not to be left at an abandoned Public Works Depot 18 miles out from the farm, knew Maggie and had therefore known the location all along, Shane’s first instinct was to kill him right there. Rick, typically, didn’t altogether disagree, but wanted to take the boy back to the farm and think on it overnight. But this was what pushed Shane right over the edge, as he came to the conclusion that Rick didn’t have what it took to do the hard thing. The look on his face said it all as he told Rick, “you don’t have what it takes to keep us alive.” And from that moment, the punch up was on.
They weren’t messing about, either. This was a seriously nasty fight, with both parties struggling for possession of the gun. Clearly, Shane meant to use it on Rick; Rick, presumably would have just threatened Shane with it. But if there was any doubt about Shane’s murderous intentions, that went out the window when he flung a giant wrench right at Rick’s head.
Fortunately for both, he missed, though his intention was now in no doubt. Unfortunately, the wrench went sailing through a window into a room full of ghouls, who shuffled out en masse for another tense bit of zombie mayhem. Surrounded by some quite fast-moving walkers, Rick and Shane scarpered in different directions; the fight put on hold, but far from resolved.
We’d seen part of this action sequence in the show’s cold open, but this time I’d say it hadn’t been needed. I like non-linear narratives, but I’m not keen on the practice of grabbing the viewer pre-credits by taking an exciting bit from halfway through the story then rewinding to the start. It smacks of a lack of imagination – what, you couldn’t write an exciting scene at the story’s beginning? Particularly when, I felt, writer Scott Gimple had done so this week. I would have been grabbed quite sufficiently by Rick’s opening speech to Shane, with a zoom in to the latter’s surly face leading to the credits.
Still, at least we knew there was going to be zombie action. While less numerous than last week, it didn’t disappoint, particularly for taking place in daylight where the detail of the impressive make-up could clearly be seen. These were some nasty looking corpses, particularly the big, lipless brute that ended up toppling on Rick – the first of three to fall hungrily on him, pinning him to the ground while he frantically shot them in the head, unable to wriggle out from under.
Shane too had problems as he bolted into a school bus with a door that couldn’t be locked, and tried to knife each zombie in the head as they squeezed through the gap. Randall arguably had it even worse, as his hands and feet were still tied. Even with this stricture, he managed to graphically snap an undead woman’s arm before reaching the knife he needed.
This was some tense stuff, and well done – there was no stinting on the gore, either. But it was also integral to the progression of Rick and Shane’s fight. As Rick managed to grab Randall and run for the car, Randall made the fairly sensible point that it made no sense for Rick to rescue a man who several minutes ago had been trying to bash his brains in. For a minute, it looked like Rick agreed, as he hared away in the opposite direction; like Shane, I was totally taken in by that, so it was a surprise when the car roared up next to the bus, with Rick exhorting Shane to make his escape via the back door.
On the drive back, Shane was more docile, but the look on his face made me think that we’re far from seeing their rivalry resolved. But all the secrets between them are now out in the open, and the field of battle is laid. As a result, I’m now seeing Rick less as a do-gooding moraliser, but as someone whose judgement is more measured and considered than Shane. It looks like he really does have what it takes to survive. But somehow I don’t think Shane will be convinced.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Beth unexpectedly got a plot thread as it became clear she was hellbent on killing herself. Lori and Maggie, inevitably, were horrified, but Andrea had a more Shane-like pragmatism given her own recent desire for suicide. We’ve not really seen any interaction between Lori and Andrea before, but this week they got an electric face-off in Hershel’s kitchen; neither pulled any verbal punches, and we were left in no doubt as to the contempt they hold for each other. Lori sees Andrea as lazy and not pulling her weight; Andrea, for her part, sees Lori as selfish and spoiled, taking for granted all the good things she has in such a horrible situation.
I have to say, it was Andrea I really sided with. It’s no fault of actor Sarah Wayne Callies, but Lori really is irritating and comes across as always wanting more from everybody. This is now so consistent that it must be an intention on the part of the showrunner – I’m sure her selfishness will lead to much trouble in the upcoming weeks. Andrea, meanwhile, had an uncomfortably sensible pragmatism about the desirability of suicide in the scenario they all face. In the event, she left Beth to make her own decision, and the half-assed attempt she made at slashing her own wrists betrayed her lack of conviction in killing herself. Eventually, even Lori had to concede this had probably been the best approach. Trouble is, I’m betting that, having had this one plotline, the writers will be unable to think of anything to do with Beth afterwards. After all, her boyfriend Jimmy has still barely had more than a handful of lines despite having been in it since the second episode of the season.
This dark philosophising on the attraction of suicide was efficiently threaded through the action with Rick and Shane, so the episode as a whole felt far better balanced than last week. There was also some touching on an issue I mentioned last week – is it only bite victims who rise as zombies, or everyone who dies? This came up as Rick and Shane puzzled over some zombies they’d just killed who seemed to have no bite marks at all. Eventually they concluded that the infection must have got in through scratches on the victims; which should worry them both given the open wounds they both got during their fight, and the amount of zombie blood liberally sprayed about near said wounds later on. It could be that one of them isn’t long for the world of the living – my money would be on Shane.
A gripping, action and character filled episode ended with Rick and Shane back where they started, heading back to the farm with a bound Randall in the trunk. Next week, it looks like they’ll have the unpalatable dilemma of whether to kill him in order to ensure their group’s safety. That could be interesting, and intentionally or not shows yet another resemblance to classic BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors.
There’s a truly gripping episode in the first series of that in which the settlement of plague survivors debate whether to kill an apparent murderer in their midst; with no judicial system any more, it could be the only way to deal with the situation. Eventually, the ‘murderer’, a man with the mind of a child, is indeed executed. And then the group find out that he was innocent after all. It made for an enthralling moral dilemma, and it looks like Rick’s gang are about to find themselves in a similar situation. This could be the ultimate test of Rick’s considered judgement versus Shane’s bullheaded pragmatism – and could be very interesting indeed.