S2E3: This was probably most trying episode of The Walking Dead to date. It’s not just about witnessing two children’s lives on the line or one of our heroes trapped in a sticky situation. We witness a plethora of psychological and spiritual issues froth over as the events of the survivors’ struggle for existence place them in situations where their “big” questions aren’t forced or contrived, but completely necessary. The result is an episode that delivers a severe emotional beating, but in an incredibly visceral, stunning way. It seems a bit odd to say that I enjoyed this episode, but it’s one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. And we’re only three episodes into Season Two.
“They don’t get back here soon, we’re going to have a decision to make.” –Hershel
The episode frames its main conflict with a flash forward at the onset. We see Shane shaving his head while cleaning himself up at Hershel’s, and though we can see he’s emotionally distraught, there’s no real indication as to why. This lets us wonder if he didn’t make it back in time and Carl passed as a result; or if Lori denounced his feelings yet again; or if he had to leave a man behind during the walker onslaught at the high school. Before we get our answer, we find Lori and Rick unable to sleep or eat while staying at their ailing son’s side. Lori’s worried about Shane’s safety and whether or not he’ll make it back in time to help Carl, but Rick’s tale of High School antics – which is cleverly laid over Shane’s attempted escape from the walker-infested high school – calms her momentarily. Just as Rick is convincing Lori everything is going to be fine, we get the bad news: if Hershel doesn’t get the equipment soon, they’ll have to decide to let Carl go or let the doc do the surgery without the meds.
At the high school, Otis risks his life to distract the walkers so Shane can escape. While there are plenty of great zombie kills in this scene, the best has to be the last one. Shane hesitates to jump from the gym window because it’s so far off the ground and a walker grabs him before he make up his mind. When he finally shoots the bastard in the face, he’s forced to take the fall to the ground. It’s a great kill in that it holds more weight than just a simple bullet to the head from yards away; Shane’s fear of heights is quickly thrown out in the face of a flesh-eating walker.
As it looks less and less likely that Shane will return – we see him looking helpless and backed into a corner as walkers come from every direction – Lori is starting to feel helpless too. She’s starting to wonder if Jenner was right. Should they have ended it all when they had the chance? Is it worth all the pain and hardship, especially for a child, to keep fighting for survival? What are they even fighting for? This has come up time and again on this show, but between the emotional catalyst for this particular instance and the incredible performances by both Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies, this is by far the most haunting and moving example.
And to add fuel to Lori’s fire, she and Rick go into visit with Carl and he starts speaking, telling them about the deer before he goes silent and suddenly has a seizure. The sight of his parents standing by horrified, heartbroken and completely helpless as their son experiences so much pain is one of the most heartwrenching things I’ve ever seen on television. It’s a testament to the depth of the characters on this series – and of course the acting as well. At this point, we can feel like we’re alongside Rick and Lori emotionally in an almost uncomfortably real way, and this scene is confirmation of that.
“He talked about the deer.” –Rick
Rick finally has an answer to Lori’s difficult question about whether or not it’s worth it to try to stay alive: Carl talked about the deer. In the brief moments the boy was awake, he wasn't talking about the walkers from the church or the fact that he has bullet shards in his stomach. All he could focus on was the beautiful thing he’d been lucky enough to witness. This ability to find the beauty and life in their existence is enough for Rick – it’s enough to signal that there is still life left to keep fighting for.
While Rick comes to a conclusion, T-Dog and Glenn have just arrived at the farm and immediately deal with demons of their own. T-Dog is rather uncomfortable knowing that Merle, the man he practically sentenced to death, is the reason he has life-saving medication. Meanwhile, Glenn shares a scene full of romantic potential with Maggie and deals with a bit of a spiritual conundrum about the existence of God. This is the only struggle this week that seemed a bit too rushed. It’s a big question and it finds a simple answer in Maggie, which is fine, but it would be worth making it part of Glenn’s larger story arc as the season progresses.
Finally, it’s time. They need to make a decision: let Carl go or Hershel does the surgery without the drugs. Rick turns to Lori to make the decision and it seems Rick’s speech about the deer worked because she chooses to give her son a sliver of a chance with the surgery. Luckily, Shane arrives just then with the equipment and Hershel is able to bring Carl into stable condition and remove the shards. But we’ve got another issue on our hands: Otis didn’t make it.
Shane tells everyone he fell behind and we watch Hershel tell his wife the bad news. It’s obvious that the guilt weighs on Shane and Lori since her son lived and Otis died. After Lori asks Shane to stay with the group, he goes upstairs to shower and we find out what really happened: he shot Otis down so he could get away and save Carl. The reveal here was slow and superb. When we first see the cut on his scalp, it seems that it could be a bite, but we soon find it’s a wound from the struggle that occurred when he left Otis as zombie bait. It’s a decision that’s destroying him, but if he hadn’t done it, they’d likely both be goners and Carl wouldn’t have received the assistance he needed. Shane’s decision falls in this moral grey area. Is it okay to do something so wrong in the name of saving someone you love? Should he have let himself and Otis be taken over or was it right of him to make sure at least one of them made it?
The episode leaves us with this thought and this struggle, which is both refreshing in that we’re getting a new dilemma brought to the forefront and incredibly harrowing in the fact that there is no resolute answer to a question like that. And that’s the landscape our survivors are living in. Not only is the world upside down, but their normal definitions of right and wrong are losing their distinctions. It was a bit much to deal with in one episode, but none of it was out of place. It all makes sense for the story, and so as emotionally-exhausting as the episode is, it’s relevant. I only fear that if this is just episode three, we’re in for one hell of a journey for the next nine episodes.