Posted March 12th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
"Better Angels" opens with the funeral of a fallen comrade and an entreaty to the titular better angels of human nature. In his eulogy, Rick proposes to honor Dale's memory by recommitting to Dale's rational, humanist ideals, and to the group from breaking. Thankfully, this is dramatic irony, and the group only serves to split even further throughout the episode. It would be very funny of the show to actually follow through with the promise to work together better, and then have the season finale just be one long hour of the group enjoying the fruits of their labors. And then I would stop watching the show altogether. Nevertheless, a good portion of the early scenes involve Rick and company doing their very best to make the camp safe, as sure a sign as any television viewer might need to figure out that all hell is about to break loose.
As always, spoilers ahead. Behind, too, if you weren't aware that Dale is dead now.
It seems as if halfway through this season, the writers suddenly realized that they had neglected to even pay lip service to the survival preparation aspect of the show. And to fix that... now they pay lip service to the survival preparation aspect of the show. It still really doesn't really affect anything that happens, but at least we get to hear Rick make silly strategic-sounding orders like "we're going to maintain a perimeter" and such.
In the world I live in, where zombies do not exist, zombie survival strategy finds its way into my conversations with some regularity. One would think that holds true for the kind of people who seek out a television show about an actual zombie pandemic, and that the writers would take this into account when tailoring the events of the show. But it appears producers just culled a bunch of television writers for this season, regardless of their personal interest in zombies, and that's why such a vast amount of the show's ongoings have nothing to do with them.
It is a remarkable feat how often the Walking Dead writers can create a game-changing episode where nothing happens for the majority of it. A scene with Glen and Andrea fixing up the camper in Dale's memory sticks out as especially pointless. I get that you need a scene where people remember Dale, but check this insane idea out: you can have people talk about Dale while they are doing something that is plot-progressing and interesting. "Fixing the camper" is such a worn-out, lazy device for staging that it could serve as shorthand for any such Walking Dead copout scene.
The only thing this scene achieves is another glaring example that Andrea is the worst-written, worst-acted character on the show. In a cast that struggles weekly to convince people they are living amongst the threat of cannibalism from the reanimated dead, Laurie Holden manages to distinguish herself with particularly unconvincing performances. While Glen's Steven Yeun breaks into tears at the shame of letting Dale down mere hours before his death, Holden maintains the smug grin she has been wearing for the entire scene, the same smug grin she smugly grins in all situations regardless of the appropriateness of smug grinning. (As an aside, there are no situations for which this facial expression is appropriate.)
Beyond the acting, or deficit thereof, Andrea exists in a weird limbo where she is an absolutely pointless character who is nevertheless given a directorial aura of importance. I get the sense that the writers want her to be a central figure, but can't figure out a way to actually figure her centrally in the show's activity. This is especially dumbfounding because of all the starting points they have to work with. From her sister's death to her changing relationship with Dale to her sudden Heston-like lust for powerful firearms and (very odd given the circumstances) single tryst with Shane, it would seem like she could be a real agent of change on the show. Instead, her role is almost entirely relegated to filler dialog scenes. She gets a lot of screen time, but it's hard to imagine anything at all on the show being different if she had been erased from existence on day one. Can you think of anything?
Andrea is coated with a bizarre Consequence Teflon that means that when she fucks a lead character or shoots another in the head, she doesn't gain even the slightest amount of plot traction and nobody ever speaks of it again. Was the sex that bad? Even Maggie wanted to hook up with Glen again after an apparently record-time ejaculation. Point being, if you see Andrea onscreen, it's a good time to use the bathroom.
In a broader sense, it is fairly clear that when it's time to write a script, the onus is on the writer to fill a 40-minute space rather than to pare down the events to what can be told engagingly in 40 minutes. If only they spent some effort actually following up on the many, many plot threads that are instead left dangling, we wouldn't end up with a show where at least 50% of every episode exists outside the cone of cause-and-effect.
Case in point would be the real meat of the episode, which is Shane's long, meandering path to final conflict with Rick. It begins with Lori's utterly bizarre confession that while the death of little Sophia couldn't break her stride, she finds her worldview utterly shaken now that an elderly man, Dale, has also died. This is consistent with most character motivations on The Walking Dead, which is to say it makes sense until you think about it for even one solitary second.
Lori is a pregnant woman who seems to exist in a plane of perpetual anxiety about bringing up her children in the Age of The Undead, and she very recently came to grips with her own son's mortality after Carl's gunshot wound. Yet seeing her husband gun down the reanimated corpse of her son's darling little best friend was just a bad day for her. Yet when it came to Dale, an old man she openly disliked (who she was willing to leave behind to certain death in the CDC), his passing rocks her to her very core, and she feels compelled to reconnect with her hated ex-lover and attempted rapist. Okay.
Of course, it's all just a way to give Shane that little push he needs to go batshit crazy. He obliges, and concocts a dumb plan.
Stealing Randall from the prison shed, Shane walks the boy into the woods, removes his blindfold and muzzle for a talk that ultimately has no clear purpose other than to confound the audience for 40 seconds, and then snaps his neck. The kid didn't even have a chance to say, "Hey, I heard you when you were planning to double-cross that Rick guy. We can lead my group back and we'll help you take over!" This was something I was really hoping would be followed up on, but hah, the joke's on me yet again!
After leaving Randall's body on the ground and ditching his gun—oddly not with Randall, who he claimed had taken his gun—Shane smashes his nose against a tree to fake a fight injury. Then he runs back to camp to warn everyone that Randall jumped him. And despite his ultimate goal being to get Rick alone for a surprise murder, Shane doesn't make an attempt to secure these terms. He doesn't say "I saw him go this way, Rick! We can take him together! Everyone else, hide!" Instead, he takes T-Dog's gun (hilariously) and runs off with Rick, Glen, and Daryl to catch Randall's ghost.
Daryl, in a moment of flagrant narrative expediency, surveys the three-foot plot of land at his feet and declares that tracking Randall is impossible. This gives Shane the opportunity to split up with Rick for their showdown. Funnily enough, after returning to the very same spot hours later in the pitch blackness of night, Daryl becomes Prince fucking Humperdink and he makes a beeline for the spot where Shane murdered Randall. Randall, now a walker, attacks them, and Glen gets to be the hero by putting a machete (or whatever that badass tool is) into his skull. Daryl pulls a five-second autopsy where he determines that Randall was never bitten, and died of a broken neck.
Now, the thing to do with this scene is to have Daryl and Glen make a mad sprint for Rick to save him from Shane. Instead, they shuffle back home (I can only imagine, since they don't appear anymore for the rest of the episode). At this point, everything we've seen with them is rendered pointless. It would be like a police procedural, where two detectives figure out who the killer is, and then do not feature again in the story; the killer is dealt with by other people independent of the detectives' sleuthing. All Daryl and Glen accomplish is retracing the exact thing we already saw played out in front of us. It's symptomatic of the show's habit of childishly pantomiming what a serious scene might look like without displaying the understanding that it is the results of actions that make those actions interesting to watch.
For all the stumbling that leads up to it, Rick and Shane's final confrontation is actually pretty dramatic. Shane finally gets the chance to pour his heart out in a sputtering, angry rant that absolutely had to happen. It's a bit over the top, particularly because it's a textbook case of defeat-by-villainous-monologuing, but something had to cement this standoff as the culmination of the entire Rick/Shane dynamic, because the setup didn't quite pull it off.
The camera direction, panning across the circling pair and keeping the audience off-balance, helped make the most of this scene. Despite the impenetrable plot armor girding Rick's loins, a quick cut to a silent long shot at one point had me half-expecting Shane to actually kill him. Even the outcome of the scene, wherein Rick very clearly disarms Shane with his words (before disemboweling him with Mr. Cutty Knife), rings true to their relationship throughout the series and particularly the second season. It doesn't make a terrible amount of sense why Rick didn't just shoot Shane when he had the chance, since he was clearly going to kill him anyway, but the suddenness of Rick's deathblow was certainly worth another lapse in logic.* Besides, the image of Rick finally killing Shane what appears to be a tearful embrace is leaps better than another sterile gunshot.
The problem is, despite the fidelity of the scene itself, the foundation isn't there to hold up anything more than a simply well-done "Rick vs. Shane" showdown and the dramatic potential inherent in one of them dying. Something about the whole goofy plot smacks of "doing the business of finally killing Shane." This is the confrontation we have been waiting for since the series premiered, and it comes to fruition through the sudden appearance of a minor character whose presence inspires very little tension, and a clumsy wild goose chase. Given that there is a zombie horde en route to the farm by the end of the episode, it seems like a premature climax.
Did nobody consider that having Shane use the chaos of a walker attack as his moment to betray Rick would be the fucking tits? At the very least, an order of magnitude better than the creaky botched plot surrounding Randall? I will say that the slow reveal is a terribly good turn, and that moment of mutual acknowledgement—"at least have the balls to call this what it is: murder"—would be hard to work into a more frenetic situation. But the whole setup just seems terribly rushed, eager to get it over with despite the ridiculous amount of wasted time in Episode 11. Perhaps Shane puts it best, when Rick questions his choice of where to betray him. "It's as good a place as any."
Despite all this, and the fact that the show has lost two of its best characters in as many episodes, I am looking forward to where it leads. Regardless of the outcome of this episode, I had planned to write about how Shane's inevitable death would be good for the show. And however it came about, I think that's still true.
Shane is without a doubt the best-written, best-acted character on The Walking Dead. Jon Bernthal is perhaps the only actor to convincingly portray a man living in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, and Shane has driven more of the show's tension than anyone else. But I'm reminded of the storytelling maxim that says sometimes, you have to kill your babies. That is to say, sometimes the absolute best part of a story, what you would pick last to remove from it, is also the one element keeping it from being a better story. For instance, it's a distinct possibility that Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man is simultaneously the best part of this year's The Avengers and also the specific element that prevents it from working as a superhero ensemble adventure. Shane's character dominated The Walking Dead for two seasons, but his presence also necessitates its focus on catty societal politics instead of fighting for survival.
It feels as if a sacred rule has been broken when a zombie survival drama is also a baby-daddy drama.
Despite losing such an interesting character, Shane's departure is for the best. Coupled with the inevitable abandonment of the farm, and the newfound knowledge that dead bodies will reanimate as walkers regardless of direct infection (or possibly a dormant airborne infection, which would have the same effect), the story could go in a very interesting direction. It's unlikely that the showrunners will suddenly learn how to tell that story effectively, but it should be enough for anyone who sat through this season. And they still have one final episode to impress anyone who's still on the fence about returning for season three. Which includes me.
*Someone suggested to me that Rick was simply holding fast to his desire not to cause unnecessary noise or waste bullets—which would jive with the Red Carpet Sweepstakes code words of the night, "waste no bullets"—but that seems like an odd priority given the situation.
andrea sucks but i think she has that stupid grin 'cause of plastic surgery.
Monday, March 12th 2012
Two minor things bothered me in this episode that you didn't mention/might not have bothered you. Darryl and Glenn having trouble fighting a single zombie in the same episode they go on a zombie killing spree. Everyone wanting to give a gun to an 8 year old, which seems like a terrible idea, but is rewarded when he makes a crack shot that saves his father's life.
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