Save the Last One suffers from one major problem: telegraphing. I rather liked the episode overall, and feel that it keeps up the narrative push and character development which made Bloodletting so good, but 2.3 gives away a pretty shattering end-of-episode reveal in its opening scrawl. I don’t know that that particular misstep ruins the episode, but Phil Abraham’s first time in the director’s chair on the series would have very much benefited from some discretion on his behalf and a decision to play with his cards closer to his chest.
At this point I’m going to do something somewhat different here. When I write these pieces– as I do when I write about films– I operate under the assumption that readers haven’t yet seen the episode, so I stray on the side of caution and tend toward keeping mum on the explicit gory details. That said, the episode’s opener in contrast with its climax, in my opinion, bear a detailed discussion, so anyone who hasn’t watched Save the Last One should probably read with caution. This is going to be detail-heavy.
Why, you might ask, does the episode demand spoilers? It’s a huge turn-about for Shane, for one, fleshing out his persona even further in a way that’s organic and builds off of what we know of him as a man, but the ramifications of his actions will inevitably be felt further down the road as the season moves ahead. I think calling Save the Last One a game-changer would be jumping the shark, if only a little, but there’s no arguing how much it’s going to change the way we look at Shane and how we interpret his dynamic with the rest of the cast.
The Walking Dead is somewhat about the secrets people keep, and that largely comes down to Shane (and by extension the much-maligned Lori). He’s already sitting on one big truth– his affair with his best friend’s wife– but now he’s guarding the reality behind Otis’ demise. I think of Shane as a broiling pot of water threatening to bubble over, someone who bottles himself up and refuses to deal with everything he keeps inside, and his betrayal of Otis could be the catalyst that sees Shane come totally undone. Shane has been one of the primary driving forces of the show since its inception, pushing plot ahead more than nearly anyone else in the cast from episode to episode; he’s also one of the most interesting and overall well-drawn characters. It’s a combination that should make for some pretty outstanding drama down the line as he wrestles with himself over his guilt and struggles to maintain his lie. While that deception is centered only in Shane, it’s a pretty big whopper more than capable of completely upending group dynamics and shattering any sense of security or peace the primary cast has attained in arriving at the farmstead.
Shane’s arc isn’t the only area in which Save the Last One scores big. In fact, just about everyone is given time to breathe and develop if only just a little bit, from Lori to Dale to Andrea to Daryl to Glen (though poor Theo is neglected in this orgy of character portraits). Best of all the episode mostly steers away from trading plot advancement for its character beats, allowing its players to grow organically without hamstringing the story. However, I particularly like the material that the episode gives to some of its more unpopular characters; whether they’re bitchy or selfish or ineffective, they’re saddled with some pretty humanizing stuff that makes them pop despite being so strongly impugned.
When it comes to it I think one of the biggest bones of contention for most when discussing The Walking Dead lies in its unlikable characters; in particular, audiences seem to loathe Lori with the sort of passion best reserved for Neo Nazis, and from talking to people here and there I’m getting the impression that Dale’s self-righteous and self-serving attitudes toward Andrea have made the affable man less than beloved as well. (Not to mention Rick, whose inability to make decisions is slowly turning him into something of a milquetoast doofus.) But there’s no hard, fast rule that says every character must be portrayed positively. While I’d say that Lori, in the past, has just felt like a caricature, here she’s given some depth; maybe we don’t agree with her but she’s justified regardless and she comes off as far more down to Earth. Even Dale, who basically incinerates any goodwill his speech to Andrea may have generated immediately after orating to her, feels a bit more real and sympathetic here– maybe he’s going about repairing his relationship to Andrea the wrong way, but his intentions are good even if his methods are somewhat skewed.
But Save the Last One comes down to that huge reveal at the end, no matter what else is discussed. This could be a pivotal episode, if the writers are smart enough to capitalize fully on Shane’s transgression and Otis’ subsequent gruesome, agonizing death; in point of fact, Save the Last One could lead to a season that’s emblematic of what the series is really supposed to be all about. While watching zombies shuffle around and groan and die to gunfire and arrows is fun, the real meat of the show comes down to witnessing human behavior in an extreme situation. Shane might not be the most honorable man in light of the episode’s events, but his actions emphasize what the show is all about– let’s see if the creative team can really use Save the Last One to full advantage.