There are few words that capture the feeling that accompanies watching game-changing television. Perhaps because it so often involves deaths and surprise twists of fate, often we as viewers are left in shock, our mouths open in speechless disbelief. And while the events that took place on last night’s The Walking Dead should come as a surprise to no one, TVAngie may have captured the mood best when she wrote me after the episode ended to exclaim that she “needed a cigarette.”
Let’s bitch it out…(Major spoilers ahead)
I live for television, or more specifically, for television that elevates the medium to new heights. For television that touches me and makes me feel. For television that enthralls me and makes me threaten to kill passerbys who try to engage me in conversation. There’s nothing quite like “big moments” in television as they become watercooler moments and take their place in pop culture.
I’m talking about big events. I’m talking about Michael shooting Libby and Ana Lucia on Lost. I’m talking about Buffy sacrificing herself for her sister in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I’m talking about Teri getting killed on the first season finale of 24. I’m talking about Ned Stark being executed in Game of Thrones.
I’m talking about death…surprise death, casual death, world altering, mind-blowing, boot up the interwebs to register my complex emotional state death.
And after last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, I think we can put Shane’s (Jon Bernthal) death up there with the best of them. Having read the comics, I’ve known this moment was coming for a loooong time. And I would imagine even casual viewers had a feeling that it would come to this, that the only possible end for Shane was death, likely at the hands of one of the group.
Shane has been coming unraveled for quite some time: he almost killed Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in the woods back in the first season and later sexually assaulted Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) at the CDC in ‘TS-19’. This season he abandoned poor Otis to the zombies to save himself in “Save The Last One”and then he almost killed Dale in the fall finale “Pretty Much Already Dead.” So the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
‘Better Angels’ is clearly one of the best hours that this show has ever done. In terms of mood, visuals, and acting, I feel confident saying that this is the show that we all knew The Walking Dead could be. Whether you were a naysayer about the early episodes of the second season or not, it’s clear that the show has begun a new chapter as these last few episodes have a feeling of renewed urgency, purpose and direction. In the wake of Dale’s and Shane’s death and a zombie horde descending upon the farm, the show has set itself up for a nail-biting season finale next week.
Things opened with a really well done intercut montage between Dale’s funeral and a zombie raid by Shane, Andrea (Laurie Holden), Daryl (Norman Reedus) and T-Dog (IronE Singleton). The juxtaposition between Rick’s words and the brutal zombie deaths, including the group ganging up to kick the everloving crap out of the last one, cleverly foreshadows the events to come: the group is damaged, they’re more effective when they work together, but they are violent, emotional people. The final shot before the credits, of Shane kicking in the zombie’s skull, reinforces his disturbed state.
The rest of the show is basically a quick descent into madness. Before we progress, I need to highlight Jon Bernthal’s work as Shane. Much like Jeffrey DeMunn’s work last week, Bernthal really steps up in ‘Better Angels’ and makes the most of his swan song. It’s been a difficult balancing act because this is a character that can clearly go over the top, but Bernthal has resisted that temptation. Remember the opening and closing scenes of ‘Save The Last One’ when he shaves his head? That could have been cheesy and silly, but Bernthal has made Shane a sympathetic, damaged, rational, abrasive villain for the better part of the last twelve episodes. So it’s nice to see him finally let loose – explosively – in the aftermath of Lori’s confession that their affair did mean something to her and that the baby could, in fact, be his.
If there is one (or two, see below) missteps ‘Better Angels’ made – for me at least – it is the decision to have Lori’s confession be the impetus for Shane finally taking action against Rick. Yes, we saw the two men beat the crap out of each other just a few episodes ago in ’18 Miles Out’ but I would argue that that was more of a battle for dominance and leadership of the group rather than the deathtrap that Shane deliberately lures Rick into here. Don’t get me wrong – I can completely understand why Lori’s words finally flip Shane’s psycho switch (with Rick gone, he could rekindle those feelings with Lori and assume his role as leader of the group), but it somehow felt too much, too soon, despite the slow build-up I’ve already mentioned. It could just be my disbelief that anyone would sacrifice anything for Lori since she’s so annoying (caveat: the confession is the most mature and least idiotic thing she’s done all season).
From there it’s a quite trip into crazytown: Shane leads Randall (Michael Zegen) out of the barn before Rick and Daryl can release him. In the woods, he breaks Randall’s neck. Here is an exercise in economy: rather than show us the murder, there’s a simple beauty in having the murder take place off screen – it is so much more effective to let them walk out of sight and wait…and wait…and then suddenly have Randall stop talking. Afterwards Shane breaks his own nose against a tree (I had to turn away…ugh).
These scenes in the barn, as well as the woods, are more great examples of the show’s keen visual style as Shane’s crazed face is shown in close-up, amplifying his madness. Afterwards he lures Rick into a clearing with plans to shoot him, but Rick fools him, stabbing him to death before Carl (Chandler Riggs) puts down zombie Shane before he can bite his father. Unfortunately the shot attracts the attention of a horde of zombies nearby who, in the episode’s final beautiful image – a birds eye view of the entire clearing – are seen emerging within sight of Herschel’s (Scott Wilson) farm. Dum dum dum!
- This final cliffhanger is the other problematic part of the episode for me. If we’re to believe that the gunshot attracted the walkers, then why didn’t they come running after the barn massacre in “Pretty Much Already Dead”? Perhaps we can make the argument that they are more attentive (or active) at night, but this still seems like lazy plotting.
- Comic fans likely chuckled at T-Dog’s line (“The Govenor’s given you a stay of execution”) when he went to collect Randall. The Governor is a very important character that we’ll meet next season on the show. And we’ll say no more about him until he appears!
- Although TVAngie and I have always maintained a fairly strict division between the comics and the show, I need to raise the big difference between the two with regards to Shane’s death. In the comics, when Carl shoots Shane, he’s not a zombie – he’s just an angry man who’s about to kill Rick. While I can appreciate how valuable it is to have Rick put down his friend, the gravity of having a child kill someone he looks up to feels much more powerful to me. Guess we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out next week.
- One of the most interesting scenes is in the aftermath of Shane’s death as we see the zombiefication process take hold of him. These bits, featuring rapid cuts of different zombies eating and attacking people, complement the reveal that Glenn (Steven Yuen) and Daryl make when they discover zombie Randall: you don’t need to be bitten to become a zombie after you die. This means that all living people carry the source of zombiefication in them already.
- In non-Shane related bits, there’s a nice ode to Dale when Glenn and Andrea work together to repair his RV as the group finally moves into Herschel’s farm. It’s a bit of an extended bit, but I thought it carries a nice gravitas to a fallen man that they both regret not treating better. For a show about world weary people carrying on in the face of perpetual death, it’s important that they continue to grieve for fallen comrades, or else we’ll soon have a show with nothing but Shanes.
So what did you think of ‘Better Angels’? Did Shane’s turn to the dark side pay off all the arguments and group division from the last eleven episodes of this season? Did you catch the number of references the group made to how frequently Rick leaves them, which is quickly becoming its own theme? And what do you think will happen next week now that a huge group of walkers is about to descend on the farm?