It must be difficult to accurately write about the end of the world. There are no convenient guidelines about how people would and wouldn’t react. Admittedly, that’s a common problem in genre fiction, based as it is on unreal or extremely improbable situations; a writer can be plenty experienced in the world and still not know what it’s like to meet an alien or be chased by a vampire or face off against a serial killer. As much as “write what you know” gets quoted in creative writing classes, most every author will, at some point, be called upon to extrapolate from experience. But the end of the world? That’s tricky stuff, and even trickier is when the world ends slowly. The survivors in The Walking Dead have to deal with the collapse of civilization and the violent demise of the lives they once lived. That’s just the beginning, though. Once you get past that, there’s the grind of surviving in hostile territory, of making it through each day without knowing if you’ll see the next one, or if some shambling, rotting thing won’t stumble across you and eat you alive. It’s a bit like being in a war zone, only there’s no certainty of a safe place to escape to, no real hope that hostilities will eventually end. Trying to capture the psychology of a group enduring this sort of hardship can’t be easy.
Really, it comes down to how much we, as the audience, are willing to take. Tonight’s episode of Dead had characters struggling to find sense in extreme circumstance, and while that’s been a part of the show since the beginning, there were two examples in “Save The Last One” that seemed extreme. First, there was Lori’s conviction that Carl would be better off dead. And second, there was Shane’s willingness to sacrifice Otis in order to save his own life (and, to be fair, get crucial supplies back to the house). Both of these positions represented a shift in attitude beyond what we’ve seen before, and both required the catastrophic events of the zombie apocalypse to be even remotely plausible. But the former unfortunately put an already difficult character into an even worse light then before. Fortunately, the latter (Shane) was a smart twist, the sort of shock that, while not explicitly justified, doesn’t seem entirely out of left field. “Save” was a step up from last week, resolving the wounded Carl plot, bringing more of the survivors into each others' orbits, and giving us another corpse to add to the death tally: poor, well-meaning Otis.
I’ll get the bad out of the way first: Lori’s conversation with Rick about how she thinks Carl should just die already, god, was a bad call. It’s not that hard to understand the goal here. Lori has been beaten down by her experiences, just like everyone else, and you need at least one character who’s willing to admit that everything is basically screwed. Of course, we sort of have someone like that in Andrea, but given the enormity of the problems our survivors face here, surely we can afford a pair of doomsayers. It’s just that Lori’s comments seem less an extension of herself and more a screenwriting cheat to have a character express an extreme negative opinion just to drive the action. Lori’s speech here, about how awful everything is and how there’s no point in keeping anyone alive for long, really just exists so Rick can turn to her later and change her mind. In the moment, yes, she’s speaking for herself, but the biggest character beat out of all this is Rick hearing Carl talking about the deer, and then using that to get Lori to come around on not wishing their kid dead. That’s a decent scene, and it’s one of Rick’s better moments; for once, he comes across less as a sufferer who's incapable of dealing in the face of disaster and more as a down but not out hero. But that doesn’t change the fact that 20 minutes earlier, Lori was arguing in favor of letting Carl die. I’m not convinced that works. I’m not convinced that Lori has been through enough to make this work. Carl has been a fairly happy, upbeat kid, and the survivors, while daunted, haven’t yet reached a point of consistent enough despair to make “Let my son bleed out, for his sake” sound even remotely sane. That’s the problem of trying to write someone as perpetually bad news. Even if her negativity brings out better aspects in other characters, Lori remains a cipher, dependent on the needs of the narrative.
Enough about Lori, though. What worked in “Save”? A fair amount, I’m happy to say. Glenn got more lines, and honest to God, I think any number of this show’s problems could be solved by just making sure he gets to say his piece each week. He and T-Dog arrive at Hershel’s house, and Glenn starts chatting Maggie up, in a low-key, probably-not-thinking-about-sex kind of way. The scenes between these two, while short, work well; they’re both suffering, and the show doesn’t try and pretend they aren’t, but there’s a sense of progress, however slight. Also enjoyable was Andrea and Daryl’s brief walk in the woods. (Although, side bar: you know that whole paragraph I gave on how hard it is to understand how people would react under extreme conditions? I’m having a hard time understanding Daryl and Andrea’s casual willingness to go wandering around in the woods after dark. If Lori’s behavior seems like an over-reaction, the night stroll seems like an under-reaction, driven more by the show’s desire to have the two of them alone for a while. I liked the scenes, but it cuts down on the dread and urgency when characters are comfortable risking so much for so little.) Andrea is no longer as aggressively suicidal, and Daryl has easily become one of the most likable, entertaining people on the series. They bond for a bit, come across a hanging zombie (which was cool), and go back to the others, with Sophia still unfound.
The biggest risk “Save” takes is also its strongest choice and one we don’t discover until the very end. Hershel waits as long as he can before declaring it’s either operate on Carl or let the poor kid die, but just as they’re pulling out a steel table and getting ready to cut, Shane returns with the needed supplies. The day is saved, and Carl survives the operation (smart choice to have this last bit take place off-screen; we’ve seen what it looks like to cut Carl open and dig around, and there’s no reason to show it again), but Otis is gone. Shane claims Otis willingly sacrificed himself, but the last we saw of the two men together, they were running away from a herd of walkers. The scenes at the high school, like last week, are solid; whatever else, Dead knows how to make zombie attacks work. We don’t find out the truth till the end, when the episode cuts to the scene that started the episode: Shane in Hershel’s bathroom, shaving off his hair. Otis died to save him, sure, but Otis didn’t give his life willingly. Shane shot him in the leg, and then, after a fight, left him to get torn apart.
Shane has long been the dark horse of the group, the one most likely to go off the morality reservation, and this reveal works well to bring him that much closer to darkness. It’s not the subtlest moment (it’s not a subtle show, really), but, given how friendly and cool Otis was, and given how well the two seemed to be working together, it’s a strong twist. This show is still struggling with a hero problem; Rick Grimes is, as far as I can tell, supposed to be the one holding everyone together and actively trying to improve their lives. He doesn’t need to be perfect, and he doesn’t need to win or always be in a good mood, but right now, he’s purely reactive. The show needs direction, and apart from the Fort Benning goal, Rick hasn’t been too good in providing direction. Thankfully, tonight gave us a pretty good idea of who our villain is going to be. The zombies are a threat, but they aren’t the bad guys; they’re more like an ongoing disaster, with no real agency. Shane, though, is on the edge. He wants to be a good guy, and he wants to think of himself as a good guy, but people keep pushing him and ignoring him and getting in his way. His decision to sacrifice Otis is easy enough to rationalize; somebody had to get back for Carl's sake, Shane was faster, and both of them probably weren't going to make it. That's the beauty of it. In a certain light, he made the right choice. And yet, there are those marks on him from where Otis grabbed him. And there's the twitching and the grief of Otis's wife. It may have been a necessary decision, but it wasn't the sort of decision a human being can make too many times and go on being human. Every time he pulls that trigger, it gets easier. And who knows who'll wind up in Shane's sights next time?
- Survivors Crisis Update: Sophia is still missing, but Andrea is no longer completely suicidal, and T-Dog’s injury has been treated.
- “So, should we ring the bell?” I think Glenn had more lines this episode than he has so far this season.
- Hanging zombie made for a good gag. (“Got bit/ Fever hit/ World gone to shit/ Might as well quit.”) Although, if Daryl is so concerned about arrows, why not just cut the guy down after shooting him?
- Shane is amazingly cut for a guy who hasn’t seen the inside of a gym, or had more than a handful of good meals, for over a month.
- I love how Shane shaves his hair because that’s where Otis grabbed him.