The last thing I wanted to do on Sunday night was watch another mediocre-to-sorta-good episode of The Walking Dead. Doing my taxes, rearranging my closet, folding my socks, staring at nothing, really anything at all seemed like a better option than spending yet another hour on this show.
And then came “Better Angels.” Holy crap on a spatula, that was a great episode. Visually, storywise, overarching plotwise, characterwise, everything. We’re talking series premiere good. I have no idea what the heck happened between last week and this week to make this so much better than prior eps, but I hope it keeps happening. This version of TWD is one I can get behind.
We need to talk about Shane. (This part is going to get a wee bit spoilery with the comics, nothing majorly overt, but just a head’s up.) He has always been a terribly problematic character, second only to Lori in sheer irritatingness and inconsistency. Apparently Frank Darabont didn’t like how quickly Robert Kirkman killed him off in the comics — quick enough that he becomes a “blink and you’ll miss it” character — that he decided to keep him around indefinitely. A show like The Walking Dead needs someone like Shane. The zombies aren’t any more villanous than a plague of locusts. They suck and make life infinitely more difficult, but there’s naught to be done except to do your best to work around them. A Big Bad actively fucks your shit up. She or he goes out of their way to ruin your day and wants to see you beaten, broken, and destroyed. They also push the plot forward and give the other characters — especially the protagonist — something to react to and plan against.
That was what Shane was supposed to be. Instead he spent most of his screen time as a Medium Sized Tool who occasionally rose to soap opera levels of psychotic behavior triggered by incessant head rubbing. In “Better Angels,” Shane finally put on his supervillain face. He went from being an instigator to a full on Bond villain. Take the cold open for example. While the gang were killing zombies on their own, they all went for the headshot. Then Shane set his sights on a walker and beat it up. His violence sparked the animalistic side in the others and they all started kicking the goo out of it until Shane’s bloodlust peaked and he killed it. That was pretty much the antithesis of Dale’s message, and it’s poignant that it happened during Rick’s Big Speech. (It was also about as understated as Daryl’s hog, but that’s a complaint for another time.)
Ah, the ole’ Chekhov’s Gun routine. Like last week with Dale and Andrea getting chummy, the writers psyched the comics fans out with Shane giving Carl the gun. Well, sorta. Shane has had an expiration date stamped on his forehead since day one, so his death wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was how well the whole thing played out. Though Dale’s death is the only drastic change between last week and this week, it’s not the absence of his character that improved the show. Instead, it was a combination of better writing (you won’t get a “great” out of me on that score until someone teaches the writers the meaning of subtlety) and a catalyst. His unexpected execution by mud zombie became the fulcrum around which the group united as an effective and productive team. Except for Shane. Loud, crass, cruel, stupid Shane. He’s the broken spoke, the squeaky wheel if you will (and if you won’t, here’s a scene of Shane fixing a squeaky windmill which moves in a circle like a wheel, just in case you weren’t clear on the metaphor).
Where “Judge, Jury, Executioner” took place almost entirely at dusk, “Better Angels” starts the following dawn. As I said last week, the time of day is a quick and dirty writer’s cheat for establishing tone. Following in that tradition, dawn is a time of promise and renewed hope. We make plans at dawn because the whole world is there just teeming with possibilities. Dawn is when a horror movie ends. Ghosts, vampires, and things that go bump in the night skitter away with the dawn and the handful of survivors step into the morning sunlight joyful to be alive. We saw that with the funeral service and Rick’s eulogy/call to arms. Andrea, T-Dog, and other second stringers (and Shane) went out and actually did something about the cattle-killing lamebrains instead of lamenting about it and glaring at each other for 42 minutes. Rick made a decision about Randall, a real decision, not one he picked based on the arbitrary whims of other people, and stuck to it. The other characters talked to each other.
Let me reiterate that last point. The other characters TALKED TO EACH OTHER. They all had personalities (not counting Carol or the rest of Hershel’s family that aren’t Maggie). It’s like all of a sudden they’re three dimensional people with complex opinions who talk to each other like human beings instead of plot points. Even Lori wasn’t a cipher or a harpy or a crazed Lady Macbeth. And who knew T-Dog was actually funny? Where was this guy the last 18 episodes? I like this guy. Can we have more of him? Maybe a snark-off between T-Dog and Glenn? It’s nice having characters not only engage with each other, but to have characters that never get the chance to interact (like Glenn and Andrea, Daryl and Rick, Glenn and Daryl, Lori and Hershel, and T-Dog and anyone else) relate to one another as people with a shared goal. The group isn’t just unbroken, it’s completely whole. They are a civilized society with a plan for the future.
Then came nightfall. It’s important to note here that we don’t actually see sunset. We got our fill of foreboding last week. This week is all about hope and the inevitability of the death of that hope in the face of reality (insert joke about the upcoming presidential election here). The gang might have thought they had come out the other side, that the worst of it was behind them and they really could get through this thing. But as Rick pointed out later to Carl, everyone dies eventually. They aren’t living some horror movie that ends when the sun comes up. For them, for all of us, the sun always goes back down again and we’re left to face alone the endless darkness and its malevolent inhabitants. And just because a new day makes us feel fresh and clean doesn’t mean we actually are. Rick will have to carry around Shane’s murder for the rest of his life — however long or short it may be — and there’s no doubt he’ll feel it harder than Shane felt his own guilt over Otis. It’s also a turning point for Carl. Last week he was practically begging to see a killing up close, and now he’s done it himself. There’s no way that kid grows up normal. They’ll be lucky if he even ends up sane.
- “He said this group was broken. The best way to honor him is to unbreak it, set aside our differences, and pull together. Stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Take control of our lives, our safety, our future. We’re not broken. We’re gonna prove him wrong.”
- “Randall’s not the only threat out there. Keep an eye out for each other.” Ah, there’s the heavy-handed subtext I know and loathe.
- “This was you, not me! Not me!”
- “The Governor called, you’re off the hook.” Heh. T-Dog wins best line of the night.
- “He died, Dad.” “Yeah. Yeah. Feels like a lot of that going around.”
- OH MY GOD. T-Dog had lines. Several lines. In different scenes. And he made jokes. It’s a Christmas miracle!
- First Sophia, and now Dale. They keep saying things like “it didn’t feel real before, but now it does.” They do remember there was a whole first season, right? I mean, like, 6 other group members were killed off last year. This isn’t some new thing they’re experiencing.
Alex Brown is a research librarian by day, writer by night, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. One of these days she will go out and have a life, but the daystar, it burns. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.