Two weeks ago, AMC’s The Walking Dead made its mid-season return to the air after a brief hiatus. I’m not at all worried about spoilers at this point– if you like the show, you saw what happened in the cliffhanger ending of 2.7, and if you haven’t watched the show then you shouldn’t be reading this– so it’s with little trepidation that I bring up where the program left us off, namely with Rick Grimes holding a smoking gun after gunning down poor zombified Sophia. After spending six episodes mostly treading water and teetering on the verge of being irredeemably dull, current showrunner Glen Mazzara managed to come out of nowhere with a real sucker punch of a reveal that put The Walking Dead firmly back on its rotting feet. In short, Pretty Much Dead Already bought the series some momentum; the question lingering two months ago was one of whether it could hold onto that much-needed shot in the arm.
The answer is a pretty resounding “yes”– at least as far as it concerns Nebraska. Remember the more in-charge Rick we met in the show’s earliest days in season one? He’s back. Rick has caught a lot of flak for being kind of an ineffective milquetoast in the second season, and in some cases just for making the decisions of the heart that he’s prone to make– like searching relentlessly for Sophia. In many circles, Shane is seen as the stronger leader between the two despite his inclination toward delusion, his tendency to explode into psychotic fits like a small angry child, and his willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives for…well, arguably for the good of everyone else, but in the infamous Otis debacle, that callous act had just as much to do with saving Shane’s skin as it did Carl’s.
I won’t lie– Shane, for all of his increasing faults and misdeeds, has his appeal. I’ve said it numerous times here, but he’s an endlessly watchable character and probably the best written of the entire cast; he has substance, and he’s been painted with a sure, well-rounded brush that makes him intricately complex. More than that, he often does have the right idea, but as Andrea points out in Triggerfinger, his sales pitch needs a lot of work. People don’t tend to take well to being strong-armed into doing the “correct” thing, no matter how logical it is to, say, tear the barn doors open and open fire on every zombie inside. Shane might have common sense survival skills, but he’s not a people person; no one will follow him no matter what he does because he doesn’t have Rick’s way.
Of course, Rick’s way has been very grating since the end of season one, so it felt like only a matter of time until Shane ousted him as the head of the survivors and began laying out new directives for the rest of the cast. Not anymore. Nebraska‘s a solid episode all around, but like Pretty Much Dead Already it’s the last five minutes that seal the deal and mark it as a moment to savor in the show’s minute history. Not only does the climax completely drip with tension in every single line and movement– and recall timeless, iconic Western imagery, perfect for our favorite cowboy– but it lets Rick be the man of action we know he can be. And it’s interesting to see that Nebraska‘s ending so closely mirrors that of Pretty Much Dead Already, though the details and intentions behind both differ drastically. There’s nothing merciful or “right” about what happens in Nebraska; things get violent because Rick has no other choice, and a man has to do what a man has to do. Sorry, Dave and Tony.
None of this is to say that Nebraska is perfect, mind; it still has its share of characters doing bone-headed things (see: Lori’s brave rescue attempt that ends with her plowing her car into a ditch, which turns out to be good because it leads to great zombie grue in Triggerfinger, but still, dumb move, Olive Oyl), but they’re far reduced in comparison to the episode’s better attributes, though I’d like T-Dog to get the Glen treatment and become a more complete character while Dale really ought to stop kvetching about Shane to anyone who’ll listen. I think we’re reaching a point where everyone else in the cast is understandable, even if they aren’t agreeable; Hershel’s coming around in reversing his stance on walkers, and he’s coming to grips with the fact that his decision regarding the barn could have cost a lot of lives, while Carol’s also changing her worldview to something more realistic in the wake of her daughter’s transformation. It’s a balancing act that should prove tricky to maintain with a cast this large, but nobody here’s right or wrong in any strict sense, and I like that.
Triggerfinger is much more about moving pieces into place than it is about a principal taking action. That’s not to say the episode lacks anything resembling action, of course; much of the story here unfolds in the town center where Rick went all Man With No Name on his fellow man in Nebraska, and it turns out (surprise!) that the Sheriff, Glen, and Hershel aren’t alone. Dave’s and Tony’s friends don’t take too kindly to their loss, and a shootout ensues. (And here I thought Philly was the city of brotherly love.) What’s most interesting about the bits that unfold in the town center is that the threat of human violence raises so much more tension than the inevitable arrival of droves of walkers, who, attracted by the gunfire, decide that they could use a late night snack. Walkers are kind of predictable. They don’t have much by way of strategy on their side. Humans, though, are much trickier to pin down. I’m curious to see how this bodes for the rest of the season, especially since the survivors have Randall, one of the living interlopers, in their custody.
But I digress. Triggerfinger‘s clear purpose is to set up a grudge match between Rick and Shane for all the marbles (and the “next week on” clip kinda confirms that), largely at the behest of Lori, who’s doing her best Lady MacBeth impression here as she whispers in Rick’s ear about Shane’s lies and various other crimes– provable or not. Again, she’s not really wrong. Shane may have the right idea about a number of things, but he’s unstable and– here’s that word again– unpredictable. That latter quality isn’t exactly what you want in a follower, much less a leader. So Lori’s scheming isn’t really scheming at all, though I’m sure that it certainly looks like it to many; Shane’s a hothead and he’s unraveling more and more as the show progresses. The writers go out of their way to emphasize that he’s not an inhuman monster– see his tender and caring moment with Carol and his interactions with Carl– but it’s clear that Shane’s becoming more of a danger to the survivors, even with all of his pragmatism.
I might sound like I’m raving about Nebraska and Triggerfinger, and, well, maybe I am a bit; they’re both fairly solid episodes in a series that’s been very touch-and-go for most of its lifespan. I don’t know if it speaks well to the show’s strength if “fairly solid” constitutes a wildly positive review, but I’ll take what I can get, and for the time being I’m hooked. We’ll see where we end up next week with 18 Miles Out.