From the beginning, one of the most enjoyable and frustrating things about The Walking Dead has been the sense that it doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be. I’ve noted before that Dead sits uneasily in between two very different modern traditions of TV drama — inquisitive, slow-paced, quote-unquote “serious” dramas about the human condition (like The Sopranos) and pulpy entertainments that cheekily throw adult-content thrills in your face (like Spartacus.) Both type of show can be incredible, and some of the best current dramas thread the needle between the two: Think Justified, or Game of Thrones, or even Breaking Bad. Now, Walking Dead has almost always nailed the fun pulpy stuff, mainly because makeup guru Greg Nicotero seems endlessly capable of conjuring new and ever-grosser zombies. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this season has seen the characters asking “deep” questions about the meaning of existence on a boring farm — it feels a little bit like your local community theater performed Our Town and decided to shake things up with occasional zombie attacks.
In the last couple of episodes, though, it feels like the show is beginning to set aside the bargain-Milch dialogue and embrace its pulpy core. At least, that’s the vibe I got from last night’s episode, which brought a pair of long-simmering storylines — the potential danger represented by the captive Randall and the slow-motion downward spiral of Shane — and brought them to a boiling point. The episode kicked off with Rick giving a speech over dear departed Dale’s grave. It was one of those inspiring Deep Blue Sea speeches that seemed intended to chart a new way forward for our gang of survivors — and while Rick was speaking, we kept crosscutting to Shane, T-Dog, Andrea, and Glenn going on a little zombie hunt. (The sequence ended with Shane digging a shovel into a zombie’s head, which I guarantee is not something you’re going to see on Luck anytime soon.)
The Grimes Gang was preparing for winter — moving into the house, establishing a new perimeter, generally trying to plan ahead. Hershel noted happily that he has “fifty head of cattle on the property.” We’ve never seen them, but I assume they’re hiding in the same place that Hershel keeps his twenty wacky step-children. As part of the new way forward for the Grimes Gang, Rick was attempting to limit his interaction with Shane. He was treating Andrea like his new lieutenant, and Daryl was his new away-mission buddy.
But Rick’s attempt to mitigate Shane’s role in the household was undercut by his own son. You see, Carl has been feeling a little bit guilty about his role in Dale’s death. (Personally, I think the kid deserves a medal. Now, if only he could accidentally kill the other annoying characters, we’d really be getting somewhere.) Carl gave Daryl’s gun to Shane and announced, “I’m never touching another gun again.” Just a few minutes later, Rick’s wife also had a meaningful conversation with Shane. She told him how thankful she was for his role in saving their lives; she apologized for just how messed up their lives had become after Rick’s return; she concluded, “I don’t even know whose baby this is. I can’t imagine how hard that is on you.”
This was, I think, Walking Dead at its most emotionally intricate. It’s easy to forget that all of these characters have essentially experienced the end of the world, witnessing the breakdown of everything they have ever understood constituted real life. Unfortunately, scenes like this mixed awkwardly with scenes showing the Grimes Gang moving into Hershel’s home. I’m fascinated by the decision to set this entire season of Walking Dead in the one part of the world that is completely untouched by the end of the world. It literally feels like the cast is at the world’s most boring sleepaway camp. At one point, Hershel offered Lori and Rick his bedroom. T-Dog said, “If you two can’t decide, I’ll take it!” Oh, T-Dog, what a kidder! No, you’ll be sleeping in the refrigerator.
NEXT: The ol’ Jack Bauer neck-twist