S2E10: Talk about a slow burn and a big finish. Last week, I said The Walking Dead was taking it slow just to take us into some seriously heavy territory, and man, was I right. This week delivered blood and guts, extreme danger, heroism, philosophical discussions, and the cumlination of almost two seasons of conflict between Shane and Rick. It was, in a word, epic. I'm tempted to criticize the episode for packing far too much into one hour, but I can't.
The mark of a great television drama is its ability to elicit a visceral reaction from its viewers. By keeping us in this relatively safe bubble with our heroes safe on Hershel's farm and no major characters left in real, inescapable jeopardy until now, the series' sudden onslaught of danger, big questions, and violence had an immeasurable impact this week. It's all about dynamics - the longer we wait for the action to build, the more intense it is when we finally reach our destination. TV dramas have acquired an arsenal of techniques (or cheats) to get us invested in storylines as quickly as possible, allowing us to move through emotional turmoil at what would be an alarming rate in the real world. However, The Walking Dead opts for a more organic trajectory, allowing the emotional components to weasel their way into the deeper regions of our hearts and when they finally hit, the effect is incapacitating. And now that I've made it through "18 Miles Out," consider me immobilized. "Rick, you can't be the good guy and survive." -Shane "I'm not the good guy anymore." -Rick We start in medias res (literary technique meaning to start in the middle of things) with Shane trapped in a school bus by walkers, Rick being chased by a sizable zombie, and Randall (the kid Rick saved last episode) reaching for a knife so he can cut of his restraints. Almost every time a Walking Dead episode starts this way, it's a great one and "18 Miles Out" keeps with that tradition. We return to the events before the walker onslaught, when Rick and Shane are taking Randall out from the farm so they can release him into the wild, but first Rick needs to have a chat with his former partner. Rick asks Shane why he sacrificed Otis - was it really to save himself and Carl? Was there another way? Shane insists he had no choice, but Rick soon explains why he needs to know so much about that night: Lori says Shane is dangerous. Rick puts Shane in his place, staking his claim over his family and his wife, and mentioning the one thing that signifies the ways in which Rick is actually much stronger than Shane: he was able to resist killing Shane when he learned of his tryst with Lori. Shane returns Rick's irrefutable argument with some backpeddaling about how his relationship with Lori wasn't premeditated - Rick didn't say anything about that, which only makes us more suspicious of Shane's true intentions - but the bottom line is pretty clear: it's Rick's way or the highway. And with his ability to take control in this scene - emotionally and logically - you'd be hard-pressed to find an argument against him. So, when Rick roughs Randall up, but tells Shane they need to find a place to give him "his fair shot," we know Rick truly has been darkened by this new landscape, but he hasn't lost his superhuman strength of character. Shane and Rick find the school from the opening scene and there's a roaming walker, but Rick cautions the trigger-happy Shane against using his firearm, touting the fact that there's always another way - Rick's theme of the night. Rick lures a walker to the fence by cutting his finger and the walker runs over so Rick can stab him in the forehead. They find signs of former life: blankets, baby seats, and burned bodies (a practice to keep the virus from infecting other survivors). These signals should be enough to tell them that school is anything but safe, yet they stay anyway and use it a setting for the culmination of their season-long philosophical wrestling. Randall claims he went to school with Maggie, but that she never noticed him, as a way of evoking their empathy. Shane's reaction is to pull a gun on the kid. He fires, but Rick takes him down, leading the duo into the most heated argument they've ever had as Rick says he wants to take the kid back and think about whether or not killing him is the answer. Their arument escalates until Shane comes out with it: he thinks Rick can't take care of his family. We finally see Rick unravel and he throws a punch at Shane, igniting the fight that's been brewing since Season One. It seems Shane is fighting for the chance to kill Randall, but when he throws a massive wrench at Rick's head, we know he's out for blood. Unfortunately for the whole trio, Shane's murderous attempt wakes a legion of walkers in the schoolhouse and suddenly, we're caught up to the episode's opening scene. "You've gotta stay strong for them...We can make now alright - and we have to." -Lori The ladies back at the farm work through two huge issues in this single episode: the woman's place in this new primitive world and suicide. Maggie's discussion with Glenn has her worried - was it really her fault that he froze in the bar last episode? Lori tells her that it's their place (the women's place) to be the back bone for the men - "Tell him to man up and pull himself together - just don's say 'man up.'" Lori sees the women as a support system of people who simply know better than the brutes. It treads a thin line between empowerment and old world ideals.
Later, when Beth tries to kill herself with her breakfast knife, this strikes a chord with Andrea who was prevented from taking her own life when Dale caught her. But instead of having a real argument about Beth, Lori and Andrea lay out it all out. Part of their disagreement seems to stem from Andrea's jealousy - her comment about Lori's "boyfriend" is the classic move of a jealous woman. Shane only slept with Andrea, but he thinks he's in love with Lori; that has to infuriate Andrea. Lori criticizes Andrea for trying to play along with the boys keeping watch with her rifle, but Andrea sees Lori's dedication to housework as pointless. It's an interesting question: should they accept the military state at hand, or should they try to maintain as many elements of their old lives as possible? It's a lighter version of Beth's ultimate question: should they fight to live when they'll likely be eaten alive eventually, or should they just accept that death is on its way and beat it to the punch? Beth opens the topic when she asks Lori if she thinks not aborting her baby will make a difference - it's just going to have to fight for its life and likely eventually lose when its finally born. This question is nothing new - Andrea delt with it after her sister's death and Lori wrestled with it when she first found out she was pregnant - but its importance in this world is immeasurable. This question can't get an answer and then be done. It's an ongoing issue. Maggie tries to talk some sense into her sister, but Beth says they can't avoid loss and they should both committ suicide so that death is comfortable and their choice. She's raving and begging Maggie to take the leap with her. Just then, Andrea sits with Beth so Maggie can take a break. But instead of watching Beth, Andrea leaves her so she can make her own decision. Minutes later Maggie finds her sister locked in the bathroom and crying; she attempted to slash her wrists, but ultimately decides to live. As Hershel sews his daughter up, Maggie banishes a smiling Andrea from the house. Andrea is beaming because she gave Beth a real chance to choose: she's going to live and she chose that fate on her own. I'm with Lori - it's a great thing that Beth resolutely chose to live, but at the same time, it wasn't fair to Beth's family for Andrea to leave her alone after they trusted her with the girl's life. "If you want to kill me, you're gonna have to do better than a wrench." -Rick Back at the school, things are looking pretty dire. Rick is taken down by walkers, but because he's just that much of a badass, he manages to shoot all three of the walkers hungrily piled on top of him. Watching him shoot one walker by shoving his gun in the first one's head has to make up for the lack of action for the past few episodes. Shane is trapped in the bus, like we saw in the beginning, and he's using his blood as bait and stabbing walkers in the head - still, he's looking pretty hopeless. Rick and Randall come together and they have a chance to escape while the walkers go after Shane. Rick hesitates but ultimately uses Shane's own logic against him and they run to the car, but not before staring at the two slain walker security guards. Just as we're all sitting with our jaws scraping along the ground thinking, "Did Rick really pull a Shane?" he comes riding back onto the campus in his SUV like the Lone Ranger on his steed, crushing walkers'heads under the wheels like so many diseased grapes. He whips around the back of the bus and picks up Shane. The image of the dead guards must have triggered affection for his former partner on the police force - a throwback to the good ol' days. But this image of the dead law enforcement duo takes him even further. On the road, they stop again to put Randall in the trunk and Rick delivers another speech: he acknowledges that Shane tried to kill him, but he saved him anyway. If this episode does anything, it confirm's Rick's incredible strength. All that talk about his inability to make the tough decisions is moot: he makes the toughest decisions of all. He does the right thing and administers mercy even when it seems impossible. Rick needs the night to make up his mind about Randall, "it can't be that easy killing someone." This experience has solved it for viewers, and as Rick sees it, for Shane as well. Rick won the philosophical argument with his selfless actions. He lays down the law: "That is my wife, that is my son, that is my child. If you're gonna be with us, you gotta follow my lead. You gotta trust me." He ends his speech by asking his former best friend to "come back" - not to the farm, but back from the dark place to which this apocalyptic world has banished him. Still, as they drive back to the farm, Shane looks agitated and exhausted as he watches a lone walker trudging through a field. I can't help but think back to the moment when Rick and Shane examined the security guards' biteless bodies: "it could be scratches." With all Shane's ominous staring, could he have sustained one of those scratches? Does this moment signify something greater? Let us know in the comments or get me on Twitter @KelseaStahler.