Rick and Shane set off on a road trip, while Lori and Andrea try to counsel Hershel's wacky (and suicidal) daughter
Credit: AMC

It’s impossible to screw up a road-trip episode. Put a few of your main characters in a car — with nothing to do but talk about their issues– is an immediately compelling situation even on the worst shows. It shakes up the status quo — the Simpsons are going to Delaware! — but it can also bring the characters into sharper focus. Removed from their usual context, we learn more about who they really are. The Sopranos pulled this trick a few times — its first road-trip episode, “College,” is still considered one of the series’ best. Battlestar Galactica was really just one long, gloriously miserable road-trip episode. And who can forget that one Beverly Hills, 90210 when Brandon and Dylan hopped on motorcycles, got in trouble at an Indian reservation, and wound up sharing a moment in a sweat lodge?

Last night’s Walking Dead focused mainly on a day-long road trip taken by hateful BFFs Rick and Shane. They agreed to drive Randall the captive eighteen miles away from the farm. But first, Rick had something to say to Shane. He stopped the car at a crossroads — I believe it was at crossing of Metaphor Avenue and Thematic-Significance Lane. He told Shane that he knew what really happened to Otis. Shane explained the situation — either Otis died or Carl died. Rick seemed to accept that reasoning, possibly just because the Otis thing was just a prologue to the real revelation: He knew about Shane and Lori.

At certain points of this season, Shane has seemed a little bit like a mustache-twirling villain. (Example: Pretty much every conversation Shane has with Dale.) So it was nice to see the guy look genuinely ashamed. He swore that he’d never looked at Lori before the Zombie Apocalypse. Rick accepted that, too. But he told Shane straightaway: “You don’t love her. You think you do. But you don’t.”

This is brave new territory for Walking Dead: Characters are actually confronting each other with dramatic situations, instead of just sitting around in a pass-aggro depressive haze. Even better: Because of the episode’s road-trip plotline, this was the first episode of Walking Dead since the series premiere that focused on just a few key characters. (Which is to say: This is the first episode this season that featured zero scenes with T-Dog, Carol, and Andrea hanging around in the background.)

NEXT: School’s! Out! For! Ever!

Rick seemed satisfied with their conversation. He started talking plans. He told Shane his big idea about using knives instead of guns to take down the walkers. He noted that the arrival of winter might make their life easier, freezing the undead in their tracks. Shane wasn’t listening. He’s not a man who’s built for the brutal banality of governing. He’s a soldier. He looked out the window and saw a lonely walker ambling through the tall grass.

Rick and Shane took Randal to a schoolyard, because apparently the only buildings in this particular corner of the world are farms, taverns, and schools. They left him tied up, dropping a knife a few crawls away. He begged them not to leave him on his own, and dropped a bombshell: He went to school with Maggie. Which means he knows how to find the farm. Shane said, and I quote, “Kill kill kill kill!.” Rick said, and I quote, “Bwuh bwuh bwuh, um, waffle waffle waffle, [sad trombone sound].” Like all good schoolyard debates, it ended in a fight.

Walking Dead has an mix track record when it comes to staging action scenes. The freeway zombie-herd that kickstarted this season was awesome, but the Shane-Otis gym escape looked exactly like a bad Syfy movie — Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, but without the poignance. But I gotta give the show props: The Shane/Rick fight was great, a brilliantly extended scuffle that started out with an air of boys-will-be-boys pettiness but quickly escalated into something genuinely homicidal.

At one point, Shane threw a wrench at Rick, who narrowly dodged it. The wrench broke a window, and in the reflection, Shane saw himself. Blood pouring from his mouth, dead eyes staring blankly — he looked like a zombie. Now, you might argue that the only way to make that shot less subtle would have been for Shane to exclaim, “Holy crap, I’ve symbolically become a zombie!” But Walking Dead is at its best when it’s unsubtle — a fact that was immediately proven when a flood of walkers emerged out of the window, chomping for blood.

Rick killed one walker with a knife and then hid underneath it. Shane fled into a nearby school bus, slicing off the fingers of the grasping deadites. Randall took down one zombie with both his hands tied. There was a lot of impressive zombie-cide. Without question, though, Rick snagged the Zombie Kill of the Week prize when he put his gun in the mouth of a fallen walker and shot another walker through the first one’s head — all this while he was pinned down by the two walkers. It was sort of like a ménage a trois, except less awkward.

Rick grabbed Randall. He saw Shane in the school bus, hopelessly surrounded. He made a decision to leave Shane. This seemed to validate what Rick has been saying lately about being able to make the tough decisions to keep the peace. But no, good ol’ Rick had an instant change of heart: He drove back into the schoolyard and grabbed Shane off the bus. Status quo: Maintained!

NEXT: Meanwhile, back in the zone of mediocrityOn the ride back home, Rick and Shane had a frank conversation. Shane told him, quietly, that they’d probably have to kill Randall. Rick agreed, but said that killing shouldn’t be easy. To his credit, Rick is the last man left on the farm who thinks that Shane is redeemable. He told his old friend: “It’s time for you to come back.” Shane looked out the window and once again saw a walker in the field. Ignore, for a second, the curious fact that the walker — if it was the same walker — is apparently walking in a circle, since Shane saw him outside of the passenger-side window on both ends of the trip.

It was a striking visual, rife with implications. Some people have theorized that Shane might get killed off in these last few episodes — actor Jon Bernthal has secured a role in Frank Darabont’s new TNT show, which I believe is titled AMC Should Die of Gonorrhea and Rot in Hell. But given how central Shane has become for the show — and keeping in mind that Walking Dead has thus far shown a profound willingness to kill any of its main characters — I’d personally wager that Shane will strike out on his own, doing penance by helping the fearful citizens of Zombie America.

If last night’s episode had just been about the Shane-Rick road trip, it might have been the show’s flat-out best episode yet. Unfortunately, we kept on cutting back to everyone’s least favorite setting: the Cut-Rate Farm, which is currently in the midst of a bumper crop of existentialism. Stop me if you’ve heard this plotline before: “A character on Walking Dead spends the entire episode talking about how there is no hope, before magically deciding that they actually do believe in hope/rainbows at the end of the episode.”

This time, the character in question was Hershel’s wacky daughter or stepdaughter or niece or whatever. You know who I’m talking about — she’s the blonde girl who keeps on experiencing dramatically inconvenient plotlines. First she fell into one of those panic-attack comas that never happens in real life. This week, she wanted to kill herself. At this rate, she’ll spend the season finale getting pregnant, losing her memory, and shooting Ryan’s brother while Imogen Heap plays on the soundtrack.

Anyhow, Lori talked a lot about how life is worth living, because that’s what she believes this week, and Andrea talked a lot about how you should give people the choice to kill themselves, because that’s what she talks about every week. Actually, the outskirts of this plotline provided an intriguing look at the curiously evolving gender politics of Walking Dead. Lori was angry at Andrea for dodging out on “work,” by which she meant classically domestic activities: Cooking, cleaning, laundry. She summed up Andrea’s role: “You sit up on that RV working on your tan with a shotgun on your lap.” Heck, Lori flat-out said a line that seemed to come out of Mad Men: “The men can handle this on their own.”

NEXT: Andrea tries to help out around the house, leading immediately to a suicide attemptIn general, the TV version of Walking Dead hasn’t seemed very interested in exploring the day-to-day difficulty of creating a new society — a particularly striking departure from the comic book series, which regularly dealt with those thorny, Lord of the Flies-ish questions.

But I’d be interested to see this explored a little bit more. Lori’s conversation with Andrea was, in a sense, a particularly heightened conversation between a stay-at-home mom and a single, childless career woman — a pretty accurate description of what Lori and Andrea were pre-Zombacalypse. (Zombacalypse? Does that sound good? Whatev, I’m rolling with it.) At the same time, the conversation served as a reminder that, in Walking Dead, everyone has to contribute somehow. (Debate topic: Is the society at Hershel’s Farm socialist? And if so, does this prove that socialism is actually very efficient and very boring?)

Anyhow, Suicide Girl cut into one of her wrists. But she didn’t kill herself. Status Quo: Maintained!

I’m being cruel to be kind. Three episodes into the regime of new showrunner Glen Mazzara, Walking Dead is beginning to feel like a different show. Instead of letting plotlines simmer slowly, the show is ratcheting up the tension. (At the end of the last episode, Lori told Rick Shane was dangerous, and he immediately acted on that information in this episode.) Additionally, it’s starting to seem like the show is trying to move back towards the plot of the comic book. Rick’s fence/knife innovation comes from the book. And this week, the producers grumpily announced that they will finally make a nation of Deadheads’ dreams come true by introducing The Governor in season 3.

It doesn’t seem like Mazzara is in the mood for sweeping changes — they’re still on the farm, after all. But last night’s episode was fast, fun, and featured zero monologues about flowers. What did you think of it, fellow viewers? Are you as bored as I am with any plotline that features one of Hershel’s seventeen wacky children? Were you sad that the episode didn’t feature an appearance by Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon? And when it comes time for Shane to make his final decision about his role in the Grimes Gang, will he stand for goodness…or badness?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

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

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