‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Better Angels’: What a Shane

A review of tonight’s “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as the couch and I become old friends…

“He died, Dad.” -Carl
“Yeah. Yeah. Feels like a lot of that going around.” -Rick

“The Walking Dead” season 1 only had six episodes to accommodate everyone’s schedule and get it on air by Halloween of 2010. As a result, it felt less like a season of TV than a rough sketch of a series, introducing lots of characters and ideas and then going away before it could build any real forward momentum. Season 2 had a more traditional 13 episodes, and has had a more traditional cable season structure as a result. I don’t think it’s been successful at a lot of what it’s tried to do in terms of deepening our understanding of the characters, but there have been a number of clear arcs, most prominently the rising tension between Rick and Shane, who not only have a major philosophical disagreement, but a mutually exclusive desire to be Lori’s man, Carl’s father, etc.

And that tension reaches its inevitable conclusion this week as Rick kills Shane after recognizing that Shane really did want to murder him to claim Lori, Carl and the unborn baby as his own.

I try not to talk too much about comparisons between “The Walking Dead” comic book and “The Walking Dead” TV show, but sometimes, I think it’s instructive to examine the choices the show made. In the comic, Shane dies before they leave the quarry outside Atlanta, and is actually gunned down by Carl (which I think is a bolder move than having Carl take out a zombified Shane). When I interviewed Frank Darabont back at Comic-Con 2010, he cited Shane’s death as a prime example of the kind of detours off “the Kirkman path” he looked forward to taking with the TV series.

“I re-read the first part of what Robert had done, recently, because you forget as you go along, and I was shocked at how quickly Shane was no longer in the thing! “Oh, geez! Are you kidding me?” I had forgotten it was handled that quickly. Because I can see Shane being around for a while. Certainly, we”re not even close to scratching the surface of that yet at the end of six episodes.”

And I can understand the desire to keep the guy around a while and milk the conflict between him and Rick as long as is plausible. The problem is that the show (both before and after Darabont’s departure) really struggled to make Shane into more than a two-dimensional goon, so nakedly self-interested  that it was hard to imagine anyone – be they another character on the show or someone in the audience – being sympathetic to his point of view, even though there were plenty of times where Shane arguably was more in the right than Rick or Dale. He was the bad guy who needed to be put down, if only Rick could throw off his blinders from the days gone bye and see the monster his partner had become, and that’s not terribly interesting.

Obviously, we know more than the characters on the show do. We’ve seen and heard enough of Shane to realize what an enormous mistake it is for Lori to make peace with the guy, which only gives him renewed hope for a future with her and desire to kill Rick so he can be the boss of the group, the farm and the family. But even in direct interactions with various characters, Shane has seemed too clearly unhinged and selfish to be trusted. And given that several characters – Lori in particular – already come across to the audience as making too many dumb mistakes, seeing them fall under Shane’s sway again and again does not help their cause.

But if the show stumbled a lot with how it lived on Shane’s borrowed time, I thought “Better Angels” itself was one of this season’s stronger outings, particularly in Andrew Lincoln’s performance as an increasingly desperate, tired Rick who’s run out of answers. I’ve liked Lincoln throughout the series, but it’s been a while (probably going back to this season’s second episode, where Rick was physically and emotionally drained by Carl’s ordeal) since he’s had a showcase like this one. Both the scene in the barn with Carl and Rick’s anguish over having to kill his best friend – “This was you, not me! You did this to us!” – were terrific.

I also felt more of an impact with how the show dealt with the aftermath of Dale’s death than it did with Sophia’s. Of course, Dale was always a much more prominent character than Sophia was – the show kept trying to make us care about her after the fact, which didn’t work and caused problems with all the character/plot decisions being made as a result of her death – but both the funeral (intercut with Shane’s team going to town on a nest of walkers) and Glen and Andrea getting the camper to run and smiling over their memories of the old guy were emotionally effective scenes.

And because Shane’s death was inevitable (more because of how the season was constructed than me knowing his fate from the comic), the more interesting development from the climax seems to be the discovery that anyone who dies can become a walker, as opposed to just people who were bit or scratched or otherwise killed by walkers. That’s also a bit of mythology from the comics, though the rules may work differently here(*), but it creates a host of potential new problems. And it also makes it harder for anyone to look at death as an escape from this nightmare, since you need to suffer a serious head trauma to avoid turning into a walker (or, as Carl did to Shane, you need to be put down a second time after you’ve died).

(*) Note, for instance, that in the traffic jam scene from the series premiere, there are several corpses in the cars that are just dead, no walking required. So either the show decided to follow the rules from the book after they did that episode, or it’s more complicated on the show than in the books.  

There were some interesting editing choices in the closing minutes. I’m going to assume that the flash-cuts of zombie faces we saw immediately after Shane died were the show’s attempt to visually depict his rapid transition from living to dead to walking dead. But after Carl shot Shane(**), there was that cut to what looked like a huge nest of zombies somewhere in the woods nearby. That was a long shot, and the visual and editing style weren’t the same, but the latter cutaway at least made me raise an eyebrow.

(**) For once on an AMC drama, Chekov’s Gun was actually a gun.

One episode to go this season, and among the problems still on everyone’s plate: a villainous band of humans that Randal says is about five miles away, a zombie army that appears to be camped within a similar distance (if not closer), Shane is dead, and now everyone’s going to realize that the zombie plague is even worse than they thought.

For a show that has moved very cautiously for much of the season, that’s a lot of plot to potentially deal with in an hour, though it’s entirely possible that several developments get tabled until season 3.

Finally, let me remind you again of this blog’s No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I’ve had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources.

3. No talking about anything that’s happened in the comic that hasn’t happened in the TV show yet.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com