Because so much of the second season of The Walking Dead has resembled a cul-de-sac, it was downright refreshing, if a bit bowie-knife-to-the-brainpain obvious, to see an episode begin at a crossroads.
(Actually, “18 Miles Out” began a little bit before that or, more accurately, a little bit after: the pre-credits teaser was a disorienting, thrilling glimpse at the episode’s high point, a confusing tsunami of blood spatter and zombie flash mobs overwhelming Rick, Shane and the tied-up new kid. This was a pretty invigorating break from the show’s traditional “start every episode the millisecond the last one ended” approach and, for a moment, I was hoping that we’d just fast-forwarded a year or two: Hershel and Lori were kibble for the undead and the show from here on out would be about the stabby misadventures of three crazy alpha males locked in a never-ending apocalypse of testosterone and guts. But, no. It was really new showrunner Glen Mazarra’s clever attempt to serve dessert first and thereby trick us into eating our argumentative arugula later.)
So, right, the crossroads. Rick and Shane are driving that sparkling new Hyundai “18 miles out” from Hershel’s farm to drop off the injured kid from last week. (Can we pause and give some credit to Hershel’s magic medicine here? I don’t know many vets who can remove bullet fragments from a ten-year-old with nothing but an Exacto knife and a butter churn, then patch up a gaping hole in a human leg in less than a week. It’s no wonder Rick wants him delivering his new foal baby. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lori is up doing jumping jacks before the umbilical cord is even cut.) But before they arbitrarily abandon their charge to die, screaming and alone, they pull over into a visual metaphor so obvious I’m surprised Rick didn’t start dropping cutlery on the pavement and quoting Robert Frost. Taking Lori’s advice, Rick scolds his former amigo for being a threat: “You’re not gonna be dangerous anymore.” Shane pouts and counters with, “Rick, you can’t just be the good guy and expect to live. Not anymore.”
It’s the “anymore” part that sticks – and the part that gets you hammered if you’re playing the same “drink anytime someone talks about how the world has changed” game that I am. A show about a changed world in which people wedded to the old ways and those easily adapted to harsh new realities are in conflict is interesting. A show in which the two sides merely argue about the idea of the conflict, instead of showing it in action, is tedious. And a show in which the avatars for both sides are flimsy skeletons – Rick is “old-fashioned” because he does wildly confusing things like rescuing and surgically repairing a teenager only to kick him overboard at the first opportunity, and Shane is “dangerous” because he sacrificed a complete stranger in order to save both himself and a child – is something else entirely. At this point, I’m more interested in seeing how The Walking Dead will change than the world it inhabits.
And, to give credit where credit is due, it just might have started changing for the better. Once the overheated jawing died down and the undead started pepping back up, the episode improved immeasurably. Shane and Rick’s inevitable slugging match may not have made much sense (the tension between these two lunks hasn’t been simmering, it’s been as flat as a day old Dr. Pepper) but it’s rare to see a fistfight where I’m rooting for damage equally to both sides. The visceral pleasure of seeing something actually happening on The Walking Dead also, as ever, helps elide the logical lacunae that leave the show riddled with holes like the Bushwood Country Club post-gopher. To wit: If the kid (who, disappointingly, isn’t from Philadelphia after all) knew Maggie and Hershel, why didn’t he mention this during the week he was locked in a house with both of them? It seems like the kind of thing that would come up, even under the influence of Hershel’s best horse tranquilizers. It’s all rendered irrelevant soon enough as Shane and Rick clobber each other with the non-bonebreaking ferocity of a good Sawyer/Jack tussle on Lost. The noise of their squabble – and Shane’s coup de grace of a giant wrench through a plate glass window – attracts a regulation cricket match’s worth of walkers. The ensuing gore is both excessive and impressive (especially when Rick becomes the bottom plank in a game of monster Jenga, only escaping by shooting one geek through the twice-dead mouth of another). Director Ernest Dickerson once again keeps the camera moving expertly, making us feel the nervy terror in Shane’s school bus entrapment, not the inevitability of his escape out the back emergency door.
Best of all, it’s clear that what happened 28.9 kilometers from Hershel’s farm will have real and lasting repercussions. It doesn’t matter how clumsily Rick and Shane’s dueling worldviews were articulated in the past. What matters is that Shane found himself in a hopeless place, doomed to be abandoned by his own unsentimental logic. That he was saved by Rick and his more stubbornly humanist POV is an irony so rich even a former Canadian child star could articulate it. Better still, no one needed to say a word. Shane’s deflated mug staring out the SUV window and taking in the horrifyingly beautiful sight of a single walker staggering through an endless cornfield said volumes more than his pinched drawl ever could.
If only the drastic changes in society (and, hopefully, in the show itself) had managed to penetrate the termite-infested walls of the insufferable farmhouse. Out on the road, morals, priorities and even adult opinions about cutting are in flux. But back in Hershel’s old-timey fiefdom, women are stuck in roles as creaky as the house itself. “Men have to do certain things, you know that,” says Lori as she dutifully slices cucumbers. “What happens out there happens out there. And we just try to get it together until they get back.” Cool gender politics, bro! Just when you think we’ve hit the bottom of this character’s awfulness, it turns out there’s always further to fall. It was established last week that Lori can’t drive. Now we learn she’s happiest when literally pregnant and in the kitchen. As if the hoariest of gender roles couldn’t have also fallen right alongside civilization, as if Dale or T-Dog couldn’t learn how to fold a duvet. (Honestly, why can’t Dale wash some tomatoes? It’s not as if he’d be useful when the walkers arrive. You have to shoot them in the brain, not judge them to death.) It’s bad enough that Lori’s been reduced to a hissing Judith Iscariot, whispering traitorous nothings into her cuckolded husband’s ear. But now the writers actually have the gall to saddle her with this retrograde nonsense, having her hector Andrea for not pitching in with the laundry and chicken cookery like the rest of the grateful, powerless women, suggesting that she’s merely working on a tan in lieu of working on her marksmanship. Andrea may be a tedious pill, but at least she’s making an effort to become something other than terrible in the new reality. It’s a shame that the lady walker shot three times in the head by the new kid showed more spunk and agency last night than the show’s nominal female lead.
As for suicidal Beth, well, it’s hard to get too invested in a character who spoke for the first time in an episode devoted to her jeopardy. But her decision to live, scarred but hopeful, mirrors those of us in the audience. We’ve been damaged and we’ve considered giving up. But a few flickerings of improvement (and, in my case, an editorial mandate) demand that we see this thing through. When she isn’t burning back issues of Ms. Magazine, even Lori agrees. “I wish I could say it’ll be all right in the end,” she counsels. “We can make now all right. We have to.” Is that Mrs. Grimes talking? Or a humbled Glen Mazzara?