Shane makes a difficult decision, while Rick tries to convince Lori that life is still worth living. (Hint: The deer is a symbol.)

By Darren Franich
Updated February 27, 2015 at 08:04 PM EST
Credit: Bob Mahoney/AMC

I don’t want to talk too much about the Walking Dead comic book in these recaps. For one thing, there’s the potential for spoilers. (Which, by the way, please mark any comic-related comments with an all-caps SPOILER ALERT down in the comment boards.) But more importantly, nobody likes a pedantic know-it-all, and talking about the original Dead will inevitably lead us down the road to pedantry: “That actor is all wrong for the character, the zombies don’t look decomposed enough, THE COMIC WAS BETTER!!!, etc.

Still, in light of the shocking event that rounded out last night’s episode, I think it’s important to highlight one major difference emerging between the two versions of Dead. And this is only a Spoiler if you haven’t read the very first volume of Dead: Shane is still alive. Narratively speaking, Shane served two very basic purposes. In the first story arc, he was a vision of the Shape of Things to Come: An early indication that the zombies were less dangerous than the humans left behind. After his death, he was a taunting specter of the past: Whenever Rick had to make a difficult decision to keep people alive, the ghost of Shane was there, reminding him of the moral depths to which a man can sink when he no longer has to follow any moral force besides himself

Compare that to last night’s episode, which started with Shane running through the empty halls of an abandoned high school. Shane and Otis fled to the gym, where they unloaded a couple dozen rounds of ammunition on some undead FEMA employees. They put together a makeshift escape plan: Shane would cover Otis’ escape through the back entrance, and then break through one of the gym’s windows. Shane merrily hopped off the bleachers, and shot one zombie backwards into another one, and dangled precipitously from the window, and when a deadite shock-grabbed him, he had to shoot the thing in the head and then tumble two stories to the ground. Shane, in short, is a man of action.

Compare that to Rick, who spent the episode doing the same thing he did last week: Sitting by Carl’s bedside and talking. His wife Lori threw an idea at him: “Maybe this isn’t a world for children anymore.” She mapped out Carl’s two possible future: Death-by-zombie, or a life lived in fear. If Carl reaches adulthood, he’ll be a dude with a fourth-grade education with a trail of corpses behind him. (He’ll basically be Daryl Dixon.) Lori didn’t want her son to live with a knife at his throat every day. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just gave up?” Rick didn’t have an easy answer for her.

Understand something: This was an extremely existential episode of television. Besides the Lori/Rick debate, you also had Glenn and Maggie meet-cuting with a conversation about the probably non-existence of God, and Andrea telling Daryl that she wasn’t sure why she was still living. You could say that there are two fundamental sides to The Walking Dead: On one hand, it’s a show about staying alive in a world of zombies — a show about difficult moral decisions and also about mashing zombie-skulls. On the other hand, it’s a show that dares to ask whether it’s even worth it to try staying alive in a world of zombies.

In the comic books, Rick becomes the focal character for both of those distinctive story strands. If last night’s episode is any indication, though, Comic-Rick has now essentially been split into two characters: TV-Rick is now the passively emotional intellectual who has to justify living in a dead world, while TV-Shane is the guy who actually has to make the tough decisions to keep his people alive.

This is an interesting development. It also means TV-Rick is in danger of becoming extremely, extremely boring.

NEXT: No, maaaaan, that Deer symbolizes life, maaaaan.There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, but it works best when you don’t call an incredible amount of attention to it. The ideal symbol should lurk in the background, deepening the themes and emotions of a story without overpowering it. Take, for instance, one of the most famous literary symbols in high-school-appropriate American literature: The Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, which hover on an advertising billboard over some of the most important events in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Eyes are most precisely meant to symbolize some sort of higher power — at one point, one character compares Eckleburg to God. It’s a sideways comparison in a throwaway line of dialogue: Fitzgerald left it to future generations of sophomore English students to analyze the deeper implications.

Compare that to The Walking Dead‘s deer. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt deeply stirred by the sequence that closed the season premiere, when Carl quietly approached the deer with a smile on his face. It felt like a vision of life in an otherwise dead world — a vision that became more complex when the Deer was almost immediately cut down by a bullet. Last night, Carl woke up just long enough to mumble this line of dialogue to his mom: “The deer…it was so pretty, mom…I’ve never…been…” He trailed off into a seizure.

But Rick realized that he now had a vehicle for his pro-life argument. “The deer, Lori,” he explained, “It just planted itself there and looked Carl right in the eye. That’s what he was talking about when he woke up. He talked about something beautiful. Something living.” Rick concluded: “He talked about the deer, Lori! HE TALKED ABOUT THE DEER!!!

By comparison, imagine if midway through The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby stopped at George Wilson’s auto repair shop, and stared up at Eckleburg’s billboard and had this conversation:

Nick: Hey JG, did you ever stop to think about how Eckleburg’s eyes are kind of like an all-seeing omniscient deity that observes everything we do, sitting in quiet moral judgment?

Gatsby: Yeah, but I’m gonna go you one better. Allow me to totally blow your mind, Neko: Those eyes also represent you. Or at least they will represent you if you ever decide to write a book about this summer, for some reason.

Wilson [yelling from underneath a car he’s fixing]: Dudes, don’t forget that T. J. Eckleburg sounds a bit like T.S. Eliot, a famous contemporary author who wrote a lot about existentialism and wore glasses, just like Eckleburg!

Nick: Good call, George. BT-dubs, my cousin’s husband is banging your wife.

Gatsby: And the American Dream is a lie!

You get my point: Instead of really engaging with Lori’s argument in an interesting way, Rick just held up a beautiful Deer as proof that life is still worth living. It’s especially disappointing because The Walking Dead is capable of far more complex storytelling — as the other two main storylines of the episodes handily proved.

NEXT: Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper{C}Daryl Dixon couldn’t sleep, mostly because every woman around him was acting insane. At least Carol had a reason, crying for her lost daughter. Andrea was just loading and unloading a clip. Daryl decided to engage in his new favorite hobby: Searching for Sophia. Andrea tagged along, possibly because she was bored, possibly because Daryl is a rugged Thoreauvian man of the wilderness with perfect stubble and a Doom Crossbow. Certainly, Andrea didn’t actually think they’d find Sophia. Daryl disagreed. Daryl, you see, first got lost in the forest when he was nine. “Nine days or eating berries and wiping my ass with poison oak,” he reminisced.

They found yet another Suicide Tent. This time, the preferred exit strategy was the noose, not the shotgun. Which led to one of my favorite TV visuals ever: A zombie hanging from a tree, his arms grasping in the air, his legs eaten down to the bone. The man left a concise suicide note: “Got bit, fever hit, world gone to s—, might as well quit.” (Since that sounds like the chorus to a badass country song, we can only draw one conclusion: That zombie was actually Kenny Chesney.) Andrea asked Daryl to talk about something else so that she wouldn’t puke. “Them other geeks came and ate all the flesh off his legs!” said Daryl. Andrea vommed gracefully.

The Hanging Zombie captured everything that’s great about The Walking Dead: It was horrifying, it was sad, and it was actually kind of hilarious. Andrea asked Daryl to put the deadite out of her misery, and in return, she offered a Theory of Life in a Post-Apocalyptic World that was as convincing as Rick’s was ham-handed: “I dunno if I want to live. Or if I have to. Or if it’s just a habit.”

That confusion was also key to the night’s big surprise ending. We saw Shane arrive back at the house just in time, carrying all the necessary medical supplies. He told a tale of woe and heroism: Otis bravely gave his life, said Shane, so that Carl could live. “He said I should keep going,” said Shane. “He wanted to make it right.” No one seemed to notice the glazed, distant expression on Shane’s face — or if they did, they chalked it up to Zombie Stress.

Thus, Carl was saved. Thus, the goodness of existence was confirmed. Thus, Shane stared at his best friend’s son, and his former mistress told him, “Stay.” A grieving Maggie handed him new clothes — big clothes, belonging to Otis. Shane stepped into the washroom to take a shower. He looked in the mirror…and for the first time, we noticed a patch of hair missing. Flashback: Shane and Otis running away from the undead mob, both of them down to their last bullet. Like a lot of people, I had imagined that the title of the episode — “Save the Last One” — referred to the shared promise all the survivors have made to themselves: “I will save one final bullet for myself.”

I was wrong. Shane and Otis were both down to their last bullet. Shane did some mental math…and shot Otis in the foot. He reached down to grab Otis’ backpack. The big man reacted with terror and pain, grasping the man who had just condemned him, pulling hard on his hair, firing his last bullet pointlessly into the sky. Shane said he was sorry, and left him to be devoured.

The moral calculus of Shane’s decision is tricky. You could argue that he was just balancing the scales: Otis’ mistake would have killed Carl, and his death fixed that mistake. You could argue that killing anyone is wrong: Otis would have been accused of accidental manslaughter, but Shane committed decidedly-less-accidental manslaughter. If you’re a cynic, you could note that Otis was an EMT, which is useful, whereas Carl is a kid who needs food to grow, which isn’t useful.

Regardless, Shane made a difficult moral choice — and, like his brethren on AMC’s Breaking Bad, he decided to reflect that choice by shaving his head down to the skull. I’m not averse to characters having long conversations about the meaning of life, but Shane’s storyline felt more bracing and immediate than anything we’ve seen so far this season. He made a sacrifice for a boy he loves like a son. And Shane’s only reward was getting to watch Rick — the better, purer version of Shane — sit happily with his family, while Shane went upstairs to wash a dead man’s blood off his hands.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Shane’s dangling-out-of-the-window shot-to-the-head. I was secretly hoping that he’d injure his foot so badly that it would have to be amputated, just because Shane would look badass with a peg leg.

Viewers, what did you think about last night’s episode? Are you liking the pace of the season so far? Do you think they will ever find Sophia, or is she The Walking Dead‘s version of The Russian?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich


Episode Recaps

The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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