So how great was that last scene? I’m tempted to just start there, and let the rest of the episode go hang. Until that last sequence, “Pretty Much Dead Already” was the usual mix of pretty good and deeply irritating, with characters having confrontations and big dramatic moments that would’ve been more impressive if they hadn’t all seemed to happen independent of everything else. It’s not quite so bad as, say, American Horror Story, where the connective tissue between storylines makes damp Kleenex look like solid building material, but too many of the characters on The Walking Dead don’t have consistent motivations. This is hard to explain, because I don’t mean everyone needs to have one objective all the time, from now until the end of the series. It’s more that if, say, Dale’s going to start freaking out about Shane, there needs to be a character-driven reason for him to do so. We know he values life, and that he’s protective of Andrea. But that alone isn’t enough; Shane needs to be more of an obvious threat, and while those of us in the audience know he assaulted Lori, and shot Otis, Dale doesn’t, and Dale’s constant assumptions to the contrary actually hurt his case instead of helping it. The sum affect of all this is that when Dale tries to hide the guns, and Shane catches him doing it, Dale comes out the worst in the confrontation between the two of them. Even if Dale’s arguments don’t convince the rest of the group or Shane himself, those of us watching at home should understand what he’s saying, and even agree with him. We know better than anyone (except poor Otis) just how dangerous Shane is becoming. But even knowing all this, I still thought Dale was behaving irrationally. The past two episodes have done a great job of wrecking one of my favorite characters on the show, and doing so in a way that’s endemic to one of the series’ core flaws: putting plot ahead of character.
This is way more of a problem than Rick and the others being unlikable. I can live with a show with unlikable protagonists. But characters need to have a certain level of coherency in which their goals drive the plot, and not the other way around. That’s been one of The Walking Dead’s problems for a long time now. This week, the Dale/Shane conflict is heightened in order to drive the episode’s final moments. It doesn’t matter that Dale doesn’t have enough confirmation for his suspicions to freak out to the degree he freaks out, or that the result of his apparent over-reaction is to make him look like the dangerous one, instead of Shane. What matters to the writers is getting the scene in place, justified or not. It’s frustrating to watch, because it gives so much of the show a loose, reeling vibe, one that doesn’t heighten the suspense so much as continually derail it. One of the reasons why the ensemble so often comes off as idiots is that the writers aren’t good enough to create situations that would endanger them without requiring them to behave foolishly. That’s always a challenge with genre stories (how many mistakes are “believable”? When does it go from “to err is human” to “oh come on”?), and again, it comes back to trying to control too much of the story, to work backwards from the big moments as opposed to letting them develop on their own. Too often, TWD is more interested in the effect than the cause.
But man, when the show actually puts some time into those causes... Let’s talk about what worked in “Dead,” shall we? Glenn finally tells the rest of the group about the “walkers” (I hate that word, I hate how contrived and silly it sounds every time it’s used. They’re zombies for god’s sake, stop making up unnatural, and unnecessary, slang.), which is a relief. The episode puts a lot of effort into heightening the tensions between Hershel and Rick’s people, and while it’s not exactly subtle, it makes enough sense to be effective. This is conflict that should’ve been building for a few episodes now, instead of arriving fully formed right before it explodes, but I’m willing to take what I can get. Shane is infuriated by Glenn’s news, because it gives him something to focus his rage on, and while Rick is still trying to play the diplomacy card with Hershel, Shane is beating on barn doors and shouting about how they’ve got to take care of the problem, before the problem takes care of them. This escalates in such a way that you can’t help noticing how Shane and Shane’s friends all have guns--and that none of Hershel’s people seem to. And really, isn’t that the end point of any argument? Sure, Rick is trying to play nice, Rick wants everything to hold together, but when you get right down to it, all Hershel has on his side is a law of property that may not mean so much in the land of the dead. It’s not like he can call the cops to get the trespassers off his land. (I wonder if this is why Rick keeps saying over and over how they’re “guests.” Maybe he’s hoping if he says it enough times, it’ll actually mean something.)
“Dead” also puts some effort into making Rick more than the guy who stands in the background looking pained, and it pays off. The show has clearly been trying to position him as the one sane and decent man in a world of increasing madness, but for once, that actually works, largely because even Rick seems a little crazy now. His conversations with Hershel are increasingly desperate, because he has a pregnant wife (and Rick earns so many points from me for finally admitting that Lori’s pregnancy is as much about the danger to her as it is about the welfare of the eventual baby), and it’s obvious how strained he is, how close to some kind of personal edge. The series is trying to pit Rick against Shane, humanity against brute force survival, and this episode did a decent job of demonstrating how that conflict might actually work. Shane’s intensity, which so often comes across as bad-ass aggression, is really just a way of denying responsibility. So long as he tells himself there are lines he won’t cross, he can keep on justifying his behavior as necessity; and the more lines he does cross, the easier it will be to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. For once, Rick’s desperate attempts to cling to the old world don’t seem quite so impotent and misguided. It’s the only way left to avoid becoming a monster.
This wasn’t perfect, of course. The argument between Daryl and Carol is a bit weird, if only because it revealed just how little personality Carol has left at this point. (If she’s not worried about her daughter or bemoaning her abusive husband, who the hell is she?) But it was nice that Daryl apologized to her later for calling her a “stupid bitch.” I’m not sure I needed to hear Carl’s thoughts on what the group needs to do next, but at least we’re getting a better sense of who he is. It was also good to see Glenn and Maggie make up, because both of them came off looking a little better by the end. Glenn stops being a pushover, and tells Maggie he thinks the barn is a bad idea, and that he’s worried about her safety (and he also acknowledges how stupid the well game was), and Maggie is clearly upset by her father’s behavior. It’s not Shakespeare, but they make sense, and Maggie isn’t just being crazy because she has lady parts. There’s a sweet exchange between her and Glenn at the end, when everything’s going crazy outside the barn--Glenn has a gun, but he looks to Maggie first before firing away with the others, and she nods at him to go on. I guess you could say he’s still being led by the nose, but it’s a couple’s moment, and I like the respect it shows.
Most of all, I just love that final scene. After confronting Dale in the woods, Shane has finally reached the end of the rope. He comes back to the farm determined to do something, and if that something means going against Hershel’s wishes and shooting a bunch of zombies, so be it. It doesn’t help matters when he sees Rick and the good pet doctor coming back through the forest with a pair of zombies on leashes, a clear reminder of Hershel’s commitment to believing that the walking dead are just the walking sick, and that sooner or later, a cure will be found. (The scene in the woods where Rick helps leash a couple of zombies stuck in the mud is also terrific, because it clarifies just how foolish Hershel’s plan is, and makes Rick look a little better by comparison.) So Shane snaps, and there’s a lot of shouting in front of the barn, and some shooting, and finally the barn zombies come out, and Rick’s group puts them down, with Rick himself standing on the sidelines, frozen, horrified. This is all exciting and powerful, but the real kicker happens at the end, after it looks like the barn is empty. Everyone’s gone quiet, it’s the moment right before the recriminations and accusations begin anew--and that’s when Sophia comes out. She’s dead, of course, and she’s probably been dead for a while. Which means at some point Hershel and his people caught her and put her inside, which is why the group hasn’t been able to find her. Which also means that Hershel must’ve almost certainly known (or at the very least suspected) Rick and the others were hunting for someone who’d been right under their noses the whole time. Everyone stares at the little girl; Carol breaks down; but when it comes time to end Sophia’s suffering, Rick’s the only one who can make the move. The Sophia reveal is a punch in the gut, because narrative fiction teaches us the longer someone stays missing, the better the chance they’ll turn up alive; otherwise, where would the drama be? By using the little girl in this way, the show transforms what should’ve been anti-climax into a reinvention of an entire storyline. It's not enough to make the bad parts of the earlier episodes great, but it does show that the writers had more on their mind than stalling. Sophia is stark proof against Hershel’s deluded dream of cures and the return of the status quo, but even more, she's evidence of the failure of Rick and the others' determination to keep on living like its the old world, a world where you search for lost children as long as you can, where a refusal to give up hope is considered noble, not life-threatening. Shane claims he believes this this, but it's clearly driving him insane, and when Sophia comes out of the barn, he's just as frozen as the others. In the end, only Rick can do what has to be done. He shoots a little girl in the head, and in doing so, demonstrates that he might be the only one who understands what this means: everyone is presumed dead, until proven living. Please plan accordingly.
- “Pretty Much Dead Already” is The Walking Dead’s mid-season fall finale. We’ll be back in February, and while I won’t say this episode resolved all my criticisms, it did make me look forward to see what happens next.
- This was beautifully directed throughout, pulpy and effective. (Just how I don’t like my orange juice.)
- Oh hey, T-Dog is on this show! I forgot about him, much as the writers apparently did. (They’ve also done a terrible job of establishing how many people live on Hershel’s farm. It’s like his house is a clown car stuffed full of vague, washed-out Southerners.)
- Every time Hershel calls Glenn “that Asian boy,” I hate him a little more. (Actually, this may be another point in th seasons’ favor; Hershel’s shift from nice old man to deluded fool has been fairly gradual.)
- Dale’s scene with Andrea was terrible. Is he supposed to have feelings for her beyond symbolic paternalism? Because if he does, that makes it even worse.
- See you in a couple months, folks.