I’ve spent a lot of time in this space ribbing Rick Grimes for his severe, nearly terminal case of the dawdles. But maybe Glen Mazzara was simply trying to illustrate how hard it can be to deal with even the most obvious of problems, particularly if they, like Randall, quite literally fall into your lap.
When Mazzara took the reins of The Walking Dead at mid-season, he found himself the inheritor of a number of increasingly untenable situations. The largest, of course, both in import and skull size, was Shane. Deposed showrunner Frank Darabont had committed the show to the idea that Shane needed to be transformed from a dick-swinging good old boy — and Rick’s best friend — to a shaven-headed rage monster, a shoot-first-ask-questions-never wild card that was somehow driven insane by his perfectly reasonable sacrifice of a slow-jogging farmhand in order to save the life of a child he loved. Over the course of this season, the only thing sweatier than Shane’s stubbly dome were the writers as they went to increasingly ludicrous lengths to amp up the tension between Shane and everyone in the group, having him trade punches with Rick, threats with Dale, bodily fluids with Andrea, and bouts of silence with T-Dogg because, come on, it’s T-Dogg. That’s all anyone does with him. By last week’s episode, the only person still on Shane’s side was his loyal Hyundai, a car so devoted to its master that it followed him everywhere, always screamingly clean and with its logo helpfully on display. What made all this worse is that while Shane was very clearly meant to be seen as unstable and dangerous — or, as Lori put it with typical grace and subtlety, “He’s dangerous” — he instead very often seemed to be right: Looking for Sophia was a waste of time, keeping zombies in the barn was extremely dangerous, and Hyundais really do provide a remarkably smooth driving experience, particularly compared to similar SUVs in their class. (I’ll accept delivery of my complimentary sedan via the Grantland office, thanks.) Be honest: If you were locked up on a horse farm with those duds, how long would it take before you, too, started banging your face into trees?
So while I still insist there was a version of the show in which Shane was a moody dissenter, not a half-cocked creatine commando, the deck was stacked against him. And in direct contrast to Rick, who hemmed and hawed and eventually had his decision about Randall made for him — by Shane, natch; it turned out to be a snap — Mazzara, to his great credit, didn’t hesitate. Rather than trying to rehab an already overdosed character, he unsheathed his bowie knife and gutted him without so much as blinking an eye.
There’s been a lot of this sharpening and pruning in these episodes since the mid-winter hiatus, making The Walking Dead often feel more like a housecleaning than a horror story — although the two could overlap if the entire, unshowered cast really does try to move into Chez Hershel. Even those of us who have taken to approaching each new episode of the show like Andrea with a bloody pitchfork can see the incremental improvements — ones far more subtle than Shane’s assisted seppuku. It was evident in the opening moments of “Better Angels,” when the survivors were seen assisting each other, securing the perimeter of the property and burying whatever was left of Dale. Perhaps the bearded memory of their fallen friend had some residual positive effects, or maybe it’s just that he’s easier to listen to when he’s not yammering directly in their ears. Either way, it was a surprise to see even Lori coming across as halfway human, reaching out to Shane as the personal savior and nooner buddy she remembers, not the rapey Korean car aficionado he became. Boosting the bonhomie among the protagonists can pay even bigger dividends than Mazzara’s other clear objective, juking the scares. The bulging body count, the heightened sense that nowhere is really safe — all of this is worthless without a vested interest in the people who are still chowing down on Lori’s famous cucumber salad, not each other.
Unfortunately, even in a relatively strong episode like last night's, there are times when the limits of what Mazzara can actually do are made frustratingly clear. No matter how successful he is in stoking our sympathies for these characters, they’re still these characters. Like a restaurateur who blows the budget on new place settings and candelabras but can’t bring himself to change the menu, he’s still reheating much of Darabont’s particularly thin gruel. There are underexposed dudes like Daryl and T-Dogg (although the latter was at least allowed to speak) and uninteresting dames like mousy Carol and bedridden Beth. And worst of all is Carl, an unlikable and oddly unsupervised squirt forced to carry load-bearing plot planks that suit him about as well as his father’s oversize sombrero. I’ve always suspected that Carl was one of Darabont’s original sins, since the presence of a moon-faced innocent forced to adjust to a harder world is big-budget moviemaking 101. But regardless of his age or relative coolness in the comics, casting kids is always a crapshoot. And I mean this as no disrespect to young Chandler Riggs. It’s just that there’s very little a 12-year-old can contribute emotionally or otherwise to a high-intensity show like this one — and if you’re investing in the idea that a performer will mature and age into a more interesting actor, well, I’ve got four Bobby Drapers (and counting!) who would beg to differ (and might even beg to shine your shoes; Hollywood’s a tough town).
Carl’s arc this episode — from giving a gun away to Shane in the first act, having his father give it back to him in the second, and, per Chekhov, shooting an undead Shane in the head with it in the third — was gloppy and uninvolving. (Not to mention convenient. The zombie virus picked a good moment to mutate past bite requirements. And hadn’t the guys been wandering around in the woods trying to find the already dead Randall for hours? How did Shane end up picking an assassination spot within shouting distance of the house? And, really, no one kept an eye on Carl during “lockdown”? (My only theory is that T-Dogg was in charge of babysitting him and thus remained mute while he ran off because T-Dogg’s dialogue is more closely rationed than running water.) I’d much rather see some of the nominal adults experience internal growth than any kid. And, to be fair, they sort of did, although Shane’s internals weren’t so much “growing” as they were “eviscerated.” The final confrontation between the former bros was intense and eerily beautiful, framed by a low harvest moon. (Much of the episode was gorgeous, wonderfully shot by Guy Ferland, a riot of autumnal colors and fading sunlight.) But more than anything it was a relief. The best thing about Shane — and, for that matter, Randall — being gone is that there won’t be another episode devoted to discussing what to do about him. In a perfect world, Mazzara will unleash the flesh-eating hounds on the farmhouse in next week’s finale, offering up all the other bits of still living deadweight for them to snack on.
This unsentimental decision-making might not represent a cure, but it does represent the second-most valuable commodity in both a monster apocalypse and a TV show facing a third season: hope.