Commentary, TV

Review // The Walking Dead: "Better Angels" & "Beside The Dying Fire"

March 20, 2012

As a timid apology to my readers, I deliberately kept quiet about last week’s episode of The Walking Dead (“Better Angels“), as I wasn’t sure what to make of its cliffhanger.  For that, I am sorry.

You see, I felt that “Beside The Dying Fire” would better serve as a more seamless continuation of Shane’s (Jon Bernthal) plot to kill Rick (Andrew Lincoln); his eventual demise by Rick’s sneaky knifing skills; and the baffling way in which that magic gunshot attracted what appeared to be an innumerable and inordinate herd of walkers to the farm.

Cue the zombie horde survival mode of your favorite first-person shooter.

As fans of the series already know, the two resounding questions of last week’s penultimate episode were:  1. Why did Shane suddenly wake up as a walker after having gotten stabbed to death by Rick (and not bitten by another walker)?; and 2. Why would a single, fateful gunshot attract a huge crowd of zombies, when so many other “noisy” mishaps on the farm could have done the same?  Thankfully, the season finale cleverly addressed the above flesh-eating queries with the following strings of logic:

1. In The Walking Dead universe, the undead and the living carry the zombie infection.  Only that, with the latter, the infection lies dormant until the living in question are either killed or bitten, at least as far as I’ve ascertained.

2. It wasn’t necessarily the gunshot that attracted the horde to the farm.  “Beside The Dying Fire” opens with a horde of walkers eating human remains in the city, only to be distracted by a flying helicopter, whose route purposefully or inadvertently  lead them to the perimeter of the farm (walkers tend to follow suspicious sounds of human activity, as fans of the genre know), where Shane’s gun (of “Better Angels”) misfired just in time to lead our favorite cadaverous lemmings in the direction of the farm.

While item 2 came across as a stretch of “chaos theory” proportions, it was certainly an improvement over the conspicuous unlikelihood of droves of walkers roaming through the woods on the perimeter of the farm, largely remaining quiet and to themselves until they heard the dinner bell of the season finale.  Bon appetit.

Now, while the closing moments of “Better Angels” was a long-time coming, it was, nonetheless, heartbreaking to see Shane meet his end.  Rick had no other recourse but to save his own hide.  Getting murdered, as Walking fans are well-aware, doesn’t jive with the zombie apocalypse survival handbook.

Yet, as the knife entered Shane’s chest, the heart of any intention for these two wolf-pack leaders to reconcile their differences, restore their friendship, and work towards a Greater Good burst.  Talk about a “conflict of interest.”  (Interest = Lori.  More on her in a bit, as I have a femur to pick with her).

A small part of me rooted for Shane and Andrea’s (Laurie Holden) seedling machinations to run off together come to fruition; divorcing themselves from a group they’ve increasingly perceived as weak, frayed and, thus, unfit for survival.  Shane nearly discovered a healing balm of peace and reciprocal love through Andrea, one that could have potentially overcome his baffling obsession with Rick’s wife.

Speaking of:  Lori, Lori.  I don’t understand you.  From one poor decision-making act of goodwill to the next, you’ve adroitly uprooted Shane’s heart from underneath his ribcage and placed it on a carousel of mixed signals, and never really knew how to let sleeping dogs lie and lick their wounds.

Am I being too harsh on you?  Let’s cite one example from “Better Angels,” where you approached Shane as he was making a sniper’s scaffold out of planks of wood (he likes to keep busy when he’s frustrated).  Here, you felt it was the best opportunity to add more fuel to his fodder by expressing your deep gratitude for saving you and Carl’s life before Rick arrived.  That what you and Shane shared together was special, but that it was over now.  Newsflash, overzealous amounts of testosterone and unrequited love rarely mix well, especially when you’re reckoning with the sensitive human explosive that Shane was.  As if he hadn’t gotten the message before, countless other times (in both verbal and nonverbal methods of delivery).  As if it weren’t enough for you to move on, you needed to, again, make sure Shane knew (for sure this time), that you were moving on.  Thus indirectly solidifying his resolve to subtract Rick from the equation (once and for all) and reacquire his seat at the head of the table.  Talk about delusions of paterfamiliar grandeur.

Lori knew Shane was a loose hinge.  In fact, she was the very individual that fervently warned Rick about Shane’s growing instability earlier, and that he wanted to lay claim to the offspring in her womb.  She also knew that Rick and Shane had a battle of the titans during their trip to get rid of their hostage.  Didn’t Lori have the foresight to know that any amount of prodding (however well-intentioned it might have been) would set Shane off?

The scene was, perhaps, too distinct of a storytelling contrivance, where I could see the script a bit more than I’d like to, suspension of disbelief notwithstanding.  It was designed to ignite Shane into bald-Marlon-Brando-in-Apocalypse-Now mode, killing Randall (their prisoner from “Judge, Jury, Executioner”) as part of an elaborate scheme to lead Rick into an ominous open field with the obligatory big-ass moon on the horizon.  Talk about killing two repudiated birds with one stone.  Not only that, Carl unexpectedly shows up at the scene of the crime, fallaciously witnessing his father commit a brutal act — whereas before he was on the brink of it.  What is up with this kid and his habit of “wandering off” and finding trouble?  You would think that, circa “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” Carl was grounded and required to stay put.  To me, Carl’s appearance served a glaring narrative purpose, to further the Rick is Becoming a Monster theme.

Speaking of contrivances, let’s look no further than the season finale (“Beside The Dying Fire”), where Lori (by right of her aghast body language) non-verbally reprimanded Rick when he came clean on the events that led up to Shane’s death.  Her reaction was rather perplexing.  Am I alone here?  Apparently not, as it was later acknowledged on the latest run of the Talking Dead, as a highlighted point of confusion.

Why did Lori move away from Rick in revulsion?  Was she beginning to see the shining plates of nobility fall from her husband’s person as she detected what appeared to be the feral glint of a hardened heart in his eye?  Was it that she felt responsible for Shane’s death?  For Rick’s weakening grip on his own humanity?

Perhaps.  The above multiple choice items are certainly worthwhile.

To me, her reaction also hinted at lingering, unresolved feelings for Shane (especially now that he’s dead — because what’s more immortalizing than death?), and a complete and thorough misapprehension of what Rick and had done for her … that is, of what Rick had done for them, and their continuing survival as a family.  Did she miss the part where Shane tried to … err … kill her husband?  I think her character conveniently glossed over that little, pesky fact.

Which, again, leads me back to my grievances with Robert Kirkman and the writing team behind “Beside The Dying Fire.”  Lori’s reaction to Rick’s “confession” served as a convenient means of embittering Rick, which in turn justified his “This Isn’t a Democracy Anymore” tirade by the camp on the side of the highway, where the principal cast barely escaped the zombie raid on Hershel’s current-heath of a farm.

It felt excessively premature to begin pushing Rick as the “monster in the making,” or even as, “Rick becoming the very Shane Monster he fought to protect himself, and his family, from.”  Now, I can understand that such a motif goes hand-in-hand with a zombie apocalypse scenario; it just didn’t seem to transpire as naturally as it could have in season 2.

Narrative grievances aside, however, “Beside The Dying Fire” was exhilarating and (often) rather frightening.  The hell that broke loose on the farm threatened any possible bond viewers might have had with any particular character, or any particular pair of characters.

Because we’ve grown accustomed to the deceptive placidity of the farm, the zombie raid, contrastingly, felt more effectively tachycardic and frenetic.  The accelerated dread and hopelessness in this episode was palpable, as we all knew it was hanging in the wait, like a longstanding death sentence.

Director Ernest R. Dickerson did a fine job of choreographing the vehicular mayhem on the grounds (as the group unloaded what felt like a warehouse of ammo on gaggles upon gaggles of the undead).  It was all brilliantly exacerbated by the manner in which the principals were pulled apart into splintered factions.  Up until now, the group had become one body in of themselves, each a vital organ supplying a vital function to the whole.  As the late Dale had foreshadowed heretofore, “this group is broken.”

It wasn’t until the principal cast found each other by the designated meeting spot on the highway that I finally exhaled a gargantuan sigh of relief (no major losses; only a couple members of the bit cast — I know, that sounds even more awful as I read it back to myself).  I don’t think I was emotionally prepared to lose any other major cast members.

This reluctance is, of course, a testament to the show’s writers, and their willingness to go beyond the norm and build believable characters.

One prime example is Shane’s story arc (movingly played by Bernthal), who could have very easily slid into grinning, cliched villain territory.  Even despite his intermittently homicidal, dog-eat-dog survival instincts, there were other shades to the man that were warmer, which painted his tragic end a starker, more poignant stroke of red.  Like the bruise on your arm you unthinkingly can’t stop pressing, his pain was borne of his infatuation and febrile devotion to Lori and Carl (who, almost unwittingly, discovered a surrogate father in Shane, even after Rick’s advent).

Shane’s broken moral compass brought a material realism to the show that I really appreciated.  His actions in season 2 exhausted an uncommon complexity rarely seen in television.  We’d all like to think we’d remain resolutely noble and courageous when caught between choosing yourself (and those you most love) and choosing the wellbeing of the “republic”.   Love, on the other hand, is a funny thing (however sullied it might have been on Shane’s part).  As a motivating force, it’s as blindly culpable a force as hate is.  The two polarities become interchangeable when measures prove irrevocably dire, as they have often might during an apocalypse.

His characterization begs the icky question:  What would you have done differently, if placed into his combat boots?  Therein lies the true horror of this series.  When you lipo the show of its gelatinous bells and gurgling whistles (which are certainly typical of the genre), you have a very impacting collection of codependent character studies.  As of this post, The Walking Dead stands head and shoulders above any other zombie-themed piece of cinema ever made.  Period.

R.I.P. Shane.

Honorable mention must also go to Laurie Holden in her role as Andrea, who, thanks to Shane’s zombie survival boot camp, has become quite the walker-killing machine.

Andrea’s transformation in this series is not only intriguing, but plausible.  “Beside The Dying Fire’s” greatest strength, in fact, rested on Holden’s performance.  She exuded a visceral and calculated sense of desperation in this episode, and her cunning at evading the hunt of zombie marauders in the woods ratcheted all the right kinds of nerves.  She was the one principal character to have fallen astray in “Beside The Dying Fire.”  Thus, as an actress, her biggest challenge was to convey her desperation without the aid of the remaining cast, and she met it swimmingly.  I vicariously enjoyed seeing the culmination of Shane’s training result in her ability to kick ass, and fight to what would have been her bitter end.

Speaking of:  Who is this mysterious hooded figure that swiftly beheaded the walker that almost had Andrea for breakfast?  How unexpected was that?  How awesome was that?  Why was it chained to two armless, “tamed” walkers?  Is this the Jedi of the zombie apocalypse we’ve all been secretly pining for?  For now, my imagination runs rampant with the implications of this new breed, and how it will expand on the lore of the Walking universe.

What will the craned shot of the prison complex mean for season 3?  Ripe curiosities to be addressed come this Fall!  Minus a few storytelling glitches here and there, season 2 did not disappoint, and I remain excited for what season 3 will bring to the dinner table … you know, besides an assortment of disembodied limbs and viscera.

4.5

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8 Comments

  • Reply cristycarringtonlewis March 20, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Awesome review. I am constantly impressed and amazed by the strength of your writing and overall perceptiveness. Re: Shane – by the time Rick was forced to kill him, I’d really lost any empathy for him. In part, I think I was really turned off by the blood lust he seemed to have, not only for Rick, but for their prisoner. Clicking the gun next to that kid’s head just seemed so unnecessary. It felt as though he had truly deteriorated into the very monsters he hunted. That said, you’re right in that Shane was a fantastic character and he did bring a certain level of complexity to what could have been simply a zombie television show. Question: Was I the only one wondering how much worse Shane’s nose could look right after he bashed his face into the tree trunk? Seriously, they had to kill him because this latest broken nose would have made him completely deformed.

    Overall, I feel that most of the characters have delivered similarly riveting performances, with the exception of the token black character, T-Dog. What’s up with that? Could they have given him less of a role in this past season? His biggest angst moment was whether or not to turn the truck around and drive back to the highway. C’mon! It’s like they’re afraid of making him an “angry black man,” so they’ve made him “boring black man” instead. Throw the dude a line now and then.

    We were hoping Lori would die. She’s so pathetic. You’re absolutely right; she just couldn’t help but pull that scab off of Shane’s heart – over and over and over again. Not a smart thing to do with a loose cannon like Shane. I also agree that the script quickly – too quickly – demonized Rick in the last scene. To me, it seems like the writers achieved it in part by NOT having Rick fully describe exactly what went down between him and Shane. Tacked on and rushed, his explanation felt weak and his hesitation before admitting to killing Shane suggested that he wasn’t being completely honest – even though he was.

    And for kicks, can I just point out that it’s hilarious to me that Daryl had to use his “tracking” skills to determine what really happened between Shane and their hostage. Like that wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone? Should we really believe if Glenn had been out in the woods with T-Dog instead of with Daryl, they wouldn’t have reached the same conclusion?

    Finally, the hooded woman leading the armless, toothless zombies. I immediately was reminded of the jawless and toothless zombies – called Mudo – in Carrie Ryan’s The Dead Tossed Waves. However, since we’ve recently discovered that The Walking Dead zombies have learned how to use their fingers to rip apart the innards of the living, the amputation of their arms makes sense. When I mentioned this to my husband, stating something to the effect of “They stole Carrie’s idea,” his response was, “Maybe Carrie stole the idea from the graphic novels.” To which I nodded my head in silence…because I haven’t read the graphic novels and have no idea if these armless, toothless zombies already existed before Carrie’s post-apocalyptic zombie trilogy came out a few years back. I guess I won’t be coming to Carrie’s defense again until I have done additional zombie literary research.

    Whew! I basically wrote my own blog. Sorry about that, but your ability to break down an episode is on par with the best critics out there, and it inspires me to want to respond and thank you for doing such a fantastic job. The New Yorker needs to hire you, my friend. Though we missed you last week, this post was well worth the wait.

    • Reply Richard Sanchez March 20, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Ms. Lewis! Never feel sorry for the length of your comments on my posts, as they add enormous depth to the “analysis” in my bloggy articles. Thank you kindly for The New Yorker compliment, very flattering coming from someone I truly believe needs to be writing bestselling, brilliant/witty/hilarious existential books that Wes Anderson or David O. Russell should be adapting into films …

      RE: Shane … You know, with the shaven head, broken noses (because he has two), and bad temper, I do feel the writers perhaps laid the Shane Might as Well be a Monster card a bit thick. I agree, a deformed nose would have really NOT helped his chances at “re-attracting” the somehow-unforgettable Lori.

      Sarah Wayne Callies must be doing a damn good job as an actress if her goal is to get us to grit our teeth at Lori. And you’re right about Rick’s weak-sauce explanation of what exactly happened between him and Shane on that field — it was very brief and halfhearted and made him look conveniently suspicious of foul play. If I were in Rick’s cowboy boots, I’d be more than subtly apparent about someone trying to shoot me in cold blood.

      You know what. I didn’t even think about T-Dog, and that’s messed up. While some of that may be rooted in my negligence as a “reviewer,” most of the blame should rest on the writers for not fleshing (err) out his character. He’s human too. He’s a recurring character. What’s HIS story? I’m hoping season 3 will not forget T-Dog. We should start a T-Dog petition. Oh yes, Daryl’s tracking skills. I love his proficiency with a crossbow, but his character occasionally comes across as a bit contradictory. Not that anyone’s all that consistent in reality, but … Do you think there’s a little something something going on betwixt him and Carol, b-t-dubs? Perhaps that’s my inner hopeless romantic.

      I need to check out The Dead Tossed Waves — haven’t heard of that! But I am a guilty fan of post-apocalyptic literature and art (both in prose and graphic-novel form), so it should be a rather swift book order.

  • Reply Jenny March 20, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Oh Richard, oh. Oh how I want to slap Lori upside the head. And I learned about this mysteriously awesome shadowy figure from my coworker who has read the comic books. I can share if you want.

    • Reply Richard Sanchez March 20, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Hello Jenny! While waiting until the next Fall to find out who the hooded character is would be ideal, I think I’d prefer to know now, haha, due to lack of patience. Feel free to share thine knowledge!

  • Reply cristycarringtonlewis March 20, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Yes, Daryl and Carol. The writers have certainly hinted that there may be the stirrings of something there, but they led us down that primrose path with Shane and Andrea – and that didn’t turn out so well. I know, I’m such a materialistic girl for saying this, but I do wish they’d let Carol grow her hair out just a little. Is her character a cancer survivor? When I first saw her, I thought she’d just survived a round of chemo – which is fine if she had, but I don’t remember that being part of her back story. Did I miss that? Anyway, the super short hair coupled with the gray color makes her seem older than she is. I perceive her character to be much older than Daryl’s and I’m not sure why. But I do like her; she’s certainly sympathetic, yet conflicted.

    Re: Carrie Ryan’s books – they are YA, but they’ve have a pretty decent crossover audience from what I’ve read. Her first in the trilogy is The Forest of Hands and Feet. I’d recommend that you begin with that one. I’ve read the first two and I’m part-way through the third. My hubby, on the other hand, enjoyed the first one, but found the protagonist to be “too whiny” in the second book. He’s a big World War Z fan. I think there was a little too much “romance” in Ryan’s sophomore effort for his taste.Thanks for your graciousness about my loquaciousness and for the lovely compliment!

  • Reply Richard Sanchez March 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    I agree about Carol, I think they do make her look older than she is … or that, under different circumstances (circumstances that don’t include a zombie apocalypse) I could see her really accentuating her strengths, her look. There does seem to be something between her and Daryl, hopefully doesn’t go the way of the Shane DoDo. Haha, a cancer survivor … yes, I do get that feel from the look they chose for her, perhaps the writers and makeup artists felt the stress of the apocalypse and everything else discourage working on her appearance, hehe … I have to admit that I rather enjoy short hair on women (not that it works for all the ladies).

    Cool, I’ll check out The Forest of Hands and Feet … thanks for the tip, :).

  • Reply cristycarringtonlewis March 22, 2012 at 1:09 am

    A lover of short hair on women. You are a rare breed. So is my hubby, thank God.

  • Reply Richard Sanchez March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    oh yeah … if a woman can wear short hair proudly, then I’m all for it … not that I don’t appreciate long-wavy or long-silky women’s hair either, but I never understood the stereotypical guy’s aversion to short hair on women.

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