There was a lot of incident in this week’s episode of "The Walking Dead"– a high zombie-count, several off-screen killings, an amputation– but not a whole lot of story. If anything, the narrative developments actually drive the series backwards.
It turns out that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) really was responding last week to someone’s “drawing down” on him. Neither Hershel (Scott Wilson) nor Glenn (Steven Yeun) so much as questions his actions. That puts Rick back in the unambiguous good-guy, heroic role, a very strange choice given the out-of-control, revenge-seeking guy of the comics, not to mention the fact that the show is on a network that celebrates leads like Don Draper and Walter White.
With an audience that trusts and loves it (myself very much included), “The Walking Dead” could go anywhere. That was the promise of the fall mini-season, as well as last week’s winter opener.
Instead, this week seems like a scramble back to shore. Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) not only survives her ill-motivated car wreck, but does so unhurt and unchanged. Hershel has become a second Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), unhappy with the state of things, but resigned to the continued presence of the regulars on his farm. Daryl (Norman Reedus) — who had flourished in the fall — is once again a redneck outsider. Someone even flat-out says that Glenn is a “good guy.” (This episode has a lot of on-the-nose dialogue.)
The new human antagonists are even more faceless than the zombies. They’re not only off-screen and not individualized as they’re killed off, but the one member they leave behind has no say in his fate.
Worst of all, by episode’s end, we’re pretty much left with good Rick and bad Shane.
That’s a pity because Shane’s (John Bernthal) most significant action – heading out to find Lori – could have been a head-spinning moment. Here was Rick, having killed the living, and there was Shane performing the kind of heedless heroics that he’s criticized Rick for previously.
There’s not a single moment when Lori even considers that it’s Shane and not Rick who has put her first. (Defending Shane is left to Andrea (Laurie Holden), who is far outside this episode’s drama.)
Indeed, by episode’s end, Lori is telling Rick how dangerous Shane is (just as Dale has told the audience). And there is saintly Rick, accepting Lori’s baby as his, whether or not it carries his genes.
"The Walking Dead" is so much better than this. Let’s hope tonight was a simple misstep and not a significant change in direction.