Posted February 27th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
THREE FOR THREE. It's hard to imagine after the conga-line of missteps in the first half of season two, but The Walking Dead has been hitting the right targets consistently since it returned this year. In fact, it's getting better by the episode. Last night's episode, "18 Miles Out," was so solid that while live-tweeting the episode on the NerdMentality account, I struggled to think of anything to say other than "Holy shit!" and "Oh ya ya ya ya ya ya ya." We can only wait and see if the showrunners can maintain this momentum, but "18 Miles Out" is the best the series has had to offer since the premiere. Spoilers ahead.
The main thrust of the episode is Rick's attempt to kill two birds with one stone: exile Randall from the farm and reassert himself as Shane's superior. It's been a week since the survivors took in Randall to treat his utterly destroyed leg, and because this show takes place on an alien planet, his horrifically grievous injury has fully healed. Rick's beard has grown a whopping 2mm and Randall's stringy mess of pulled pork has reformed itself into a functioning calf muscle. Makes sense. Regardless, now that Randall has been saved from death and nursed to health, it's time to drop him off in the wilderness to be eaten alive. To achieve this lofty goal, Rick takes his utterly close friend-brother Shane.
In terms of Rick and Shane, this is the episode we've been waiting for since we found out Rick's wife was still alive and what holes she had filled with Shane's didgeridoo. Like so many other of the show's plotlines, its long and uneven gestation is ultimately justified by the great payoff. When Rick pulls over to settle things with Shane, nothing is held back.
Unlike many actors on the show, Andrew Lincoln can deliver a monologue and make it sound like less like a Muppet delivering awkward dialog and more like a real human speaking from the heart. Or, in this case, from the sack. It's a great moment for Rick, as he lays all his cards on the table: he calls Shane out on his assumptions, stakes his claim on Lori and the baby, and asserts himself as King Dick of the survival party. It's a one-sided verbal curbstomp, reminiscent of Casino's infamous meeting in the desert where Nicky finally and resolutely makes Ace his bitch. But obviously, Shane is a borderline-psychotic jarhead, so things don't quite stay sewn up.
The whole plot of leaving Randall alone and injured in the middle of nowhere tugs at my humanity, which is good, since that's really what a show about potential extinction should do all the time. But it also provides a spark to reignite Rick and Shane's shortly-dormant mutual hostility when Randall reveals that he knows Maggie (and might potentially know where she lives). Shane, being a Neanderthal, opts to kill Randall in cold blood, and Rick, being not detestable, stops him.
The resulting fight is a bare-knuckled, unhinged brawl where buried animosity meets animal fury. The two throw all sorts of punches and metal objects at each other, and while it's hard to imagine Rick holding his own against the beefier Shane, it's an excellent fight. When Shane misses his deathblow and instead attracts the attention of dozens of walkers, it devolves into an every-man-for-himself fight to survive, and Rick has to decide whether to leave Shane to die or live by his sheriff's code and save him. There are a few delicious moments where it looks like Shane may be sacrificed to the same principle of practical survivalism that has guided his actions thus far, and they are a believable few moments. But ultimately Rick finds one of the signs he's always looking for, two dead police partners in uniform, and he swoops in for a bad ass rescue.
The tension of the danger, the blood-spattering violence, and the all-important human element are all pitch-perfect for the show. Mirroring Rick's assertion of his manly authority, this sequence was the series' big long "how you like me now?" to doubters (like, well, me) who had labeled it tone-deaf at the outset of this season—although to be fair, we were correct at that point.
Now, while the conflict over Randall was well-justified, the conclusion left something to be desired. This may take us off course momentarily but I have to dig in a little because this whole situation bugs the hell out of me.
The dilemma with Randall—which looks to be a spotlight feature in the next episode—is how to dispose of him without having to literally kill him, and how to muster the courage to kill him if there are no other options. And it's an utterly unconvincing dilemma.
As Rick correctly points out in Episode 9, all of Randall's buddies left him for dead. They have no reason to look for him. More than this, what does Randall matter, anyway? If he knows where Herschel's farm is, why wouldn't he have led his posse there in the months since the outbreak? Even if he didn't know it was populated, it beats sleeping in your truck. Besides, if the men Rick killed were wandering vagabonds from Philadelphia and Randall is a local, it's unlikely he even has longstanding ties with their group, and limited loyalty to people who left him compared to people who saved him.
And what is even the necessity of tossing Randall off the farm? He's treated as a threat, but I don't see it. They seem to be stretching the tenuous "he shot at us at one point" concept as proof that they're handling Hannibal Lecter. This is a group of people who went back into zombie-infested Atlanta to rescue Merle, who attempted a coup at gunpoint and nearly murdered T-Dog in a fit of racist anger. They gave weapons to the Vatos gang after they kidnapped and threatened to kill Glen, and nearly blew everyone away in a Mexican standoff. Rick saves Shane after he attempts to kill him with a giant wrench, and admitted to leaving Otis to die, possibly intentionally. Andrea shot Daryl in the head and is still allowed to maintain her post as a "guard."
So how is one kid a threat to a group of people who are all packing heat? I'm fine with Shane taking this option, but for Rick it's idiotic, and his final conclusion that Randall probably has to be killed is so flimsy as to be off-putting.
Beyond all this, I already really like Randall. Something I have been meaning to bring up is how badly the show could use a character who actually enjoys killing walkers. Glen, the video game enthusiast, sounds like a good match (although in this world, Left 4 Dead and other zombie lore do not exist—but Valve does, as Glen is a Portal fan? Kind of close to home) but he's a gentle little lamb. Seeing Randall gleefully kick an oncoming walker's arm in half (my, what impressive leg strength!) and then stab the shit out of its head fits in perfectly with the way movies like Zombieland have convinced me zombie combat would play out. At least some people would have to enjoy the thrill of the kill.
But of course, that's mostly an issue for the next episode. As it stands, the issue of Randall was a decent Rick vs. Shane divergence of principles, and it made for an absolutely top-notch half-hour episode of The Walking Dead.
But because The Walking Dead is a half-hour show masquerading as an hour-long show, there was an equal portion of airtime dedicated to an utterly pointless side-plot that is a three-strike failure. Firstly, it involves Beth not being a zombie; secondly, it involves Andrea; and thirdly, it's yet ANOTHER retread of a character wanting to commit suicide, complete with the same Kevorkian...ian (Kevorkianesque?) arguments about suicide being a hands-off choice. And we don't even know this character! I am only a mortal man—it is a physical impossibility for me to give fucks about this storyline. I cannot do it.
The only thing to say about this entire portion of the episode is that Andrea is treated like shit by the end of it, which is the correct way to treat a character that is shit. I really don't understand what the people behind this show are attempting to do with her. It seems as if they're intentionally crafting some kind of total fucker for viewers "love to hate," and yet they keep pulling punches and generally skewing events to be more sympathetic to her. When Lori calls out Andrea for shirking her duties in order to stand guard on the camper, Andrea gets to play the Shane role and proclaim that her ability to keep the farm safe from walkers trumps any other chores she could do. No reason is given why Lori doesn't point out that Andrea has yet to provide a single—NOT ONE—singular act of value to the group, and that her only action as guard thus far has been to shoot a wounded Daryl when she was explicitly told not to. The lack of repercussions for that action are not only infuriating in this context, but also depressing in general, as it devalues the show as a whole when such a momentous event turns out to be nothing more than a cynical, transparent gimmick to keep people from changing channels during a commercial break.
Whenever filler material like this pops up, I can't help but wonder what T-Dog is up to. Or Daryl. Or Dale. Or even Carol. They must be doing SOMETHING, right? No, because they do not exist when the camera is not on them.
One of the show's many bad habits is that it has utterly inept management of its back burner. Characters are either actively involved in a storyline ("actively" meaning they get a lot of screentime devoted to it, not that they necessarily do anything active with it) or they are in The Void. As if the show were directed by an early-development infant, once characters are out of sight they no longer exist. Since the cut on his arm got healed, T-Dog has done nothing but act as the group's designated "direct attention to an offscreen thing" man. Daryl apparently spends his time whittling sticks. I think Carol handles the laundry, or something. Dale sits on his camper waiting for someone to talk to about Shane.
When they're needed, these people will shoot off a few lines at another character, sure. But what are they DOING in the meantime? I understand that in reality, mundane routine would occupy the lion's share of life without modern conveniences. But is that the extent of the writing staff's creativity? This is a character-focused, plot-driven thriller series. It should not play out like a game of basketball, where five characters get playtime and the rest warm benches until they're called upon. If they insist on keeping so many characters on hand, they need to justify them as fully-realized people who are all living real life. It doesn't work when you have characters like Carol, who are simply cardboard figures set in front of a camera to weep now and then over a lost daughter, as if this is their only thought or defining characteristic for weeks at a time. That isn't how people work. Dale isn't a human if all he thinks about is how dangerous Shane is for days at a time, and all he does about it is tell someone now and then. Even if they're just gathering bodies to stack up in a big bloody showcase, I need to care about them as more than just bags of frightened meat for that to pay off.
The blinding brilliance of the Randall mishap made it difficult to see or care about the familiar failings that helped extend the episode to the 60-minute mark, but even so, I find myself not looking forward to the next episode with much enthusiasm. From the looks of it, Randall is going to be tortured for no clear reason, and it is likely going to take its toll on how much I like any of the characters on the show. They will have to pull some incredible rabbits out of their hats to justify what upcoming trailers have in store for the poor guy. But I hold out some hope for Beth. The dead police officers that remind Rick of his loyalty to Shane are given a great deal of time devoted to making it clear they had not been bitten, which strongly suggests they were turned into walkers some other way (even if they were executed as uninfected humans, walkers would have eaten their bodies, like the man in "Save the Last One" who hanged himself before turning and subsequently had his legs eaten). And ultimately, I don't think they're going to kill Randall, which gives me hope for future episodes. He will probably be a wedge issue for awhile regardless, and from the looks of it, Shane still isn't convinced that his glorious leader deserves that position.
Depending how quickly they move through the issue of dealing with Randall, there could be a lot to look forward to as early as the next episode. But it's hard to say. Can Shane convince Andrea to start some shit before episode 12? Can he get Andrea killed during an attempted coup? Do you believe in miracles?
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