“Damn you for making me do this, Shane! This is not me! Not me!” – Rick
Between an occasionally belief-defying escalation of tensions, an L.A. Noir casting report and a slip-up on the AMC website, it’s been clear for some time that Shane Walsh wasn’t long for this world. So it’s a testament to the writers of The Walking Dead, who have shambled, walker-like, through much of the second season, that they were still able to make the character’s death shocking, capping off an episode filled with drama.
Written by showrunner Glen Mazzara and Rescue Me alum Evan T. Reilly (who was responsible for “Cherokee Rose” and “Nebraska”), “Better Angels” is easily the best episode of the season, buoyed by the gravity of Dale’s death and the sudden realization that the growing zombie encroachment poses an imminent threat to the survivors (“With 50 head of cattle on the property, we might as well ring the damned dinner bell,” Maggie observes). Rick’s graveside eulogy, in which he pledges to honor Dale’s memory and do better, is intercut with shots of Shane, Andrea, Daryl and T-Dog wailing on walkers that have wandered onto the farm, juxtaposing the group’s feelings of sorrow and rage.
Realizing he should’ve made the offer earlier, Hershel invites the group to move into the house, tight quarters to be sure – he gives Rick, Lori and Carl his bedroom and claims the sofa for himself – but much safer than their exposed campsite. While the others pack and unpack, and fortify the farm as best they can, Rick plans to set Randall free, a final tribute to Dale. Shane, as is his nature, objects, making it clear their road trip did nothing to mend their rift. But just as it seems Shane might resign himself to being shut out of the prisoner release – Rick’s taking Daryl with him this time – and his opinion ignored by his longtime friend, he’s thrust once again into the father-figure role as a guilt-ridden Carl gives him Daryl’s stolen pistol and admits to his encounter with the walker that killed Dale.
If that weren’t enough, Shane’s approached by Lori, who’s abruptly sheds her Lady Macbeth guise in exchange for a mask of contrition. It’s maybe not the most believable scene, but it permits Lori to make the biggest understatement of the entire series as she admits, “I made a mess of things, I put you and Rick at odds.” Thanking Shane for all he did for her and Carl in those early days, Lori puts the metaphorical stake through his heart by saying she’s sorry for whatever happened between them. While only days before, Lori wanted Shane dead, now she simply wants peace, if maybe an uneasy one.
Presumably it’s this conversation, and the realization that Lori has made her choice, that finally pushes Shane to act against the man who took from him not just the group but his “family.” Or maybe it’s the strange exchange between Shane and Rick about Carl, the stolen gun and the boy’s guilt over Dale’s death. (We’re really expected to believe Rick was going to put the release of Randall ahead of his son’s welfare? Of course, given what happens, maybe he should’ve.) In any case, Shane makes his move, even if it’s not entirely clear what that move is: He heads to the shed intent on killing Randall, then suddenly shifts gears and instead takes him into the swamp, feeding the prisoner the unlikely story that he wants to join his larger group, where he’s told he’ll “fit in good.” Snapping the boy’s neck, Shane bashes his own face into a tree, setting up the tale of Randall’s “escape.” Obviously Shane parted company with clear thought long ago, perhaps as early as Rick’s surprise appearance at the quarry outside Atlanta, but his plan his half-assed at best, as he not only left the door to the shed padlocked behind them, but did nothing to disguise their trail.
Returning to the farm even as the others notice Randall’s disappearance, Shane offers up his fable about an ambush and a stolen gun before pairing up with Rick to search in one direction while Daryl and Glenn head out in another. Was Shane plotting from the beginning to get Rick alone so he could kill him, or was he merely hoping to discredit him with the group, demonstrating how their leader’s dithering once again put everyone at risk? Probably the former, but it’s unclear whether the holes in the plan are the fault of an irrational man or sloppy writers accustomed to leaps of logic. Whomever’s to blame, everything seems to come together, with a wary Rick probing Shane’s shaky story even as they stumble through the darkening woods, farther and farther away from the others.
Just as the skeptical Daryl stumbles upon clues that don’t match Shane’s tale – blood on the tree, the discarded blindfold, sets of footprints walking in tandem – he and Glenn are attacked by an undead Randall, who they soon realize has a broken neck but no bite marks. It’s a callback to “18 Miles Out,” where the zombified security guards showed no signs of bites or scratches, and probably further, to the Season 1 finale, when Dr. Jenner whispered something to Rick. It’s beginning to look that, as in the comic series, everyone is infected.
That reinforcement is a crucial setup for the tense, and beautifully filmed, showdown between Rick and Shane that, in a disappointing backslide into one of the show’s most annoying habits, takes place in a field just a stone’s throw from the farmhouse -- because the story requires it to. (Seriously, after traipsing through the woods, Shane waits until they’ve circled back around to the farm to pull his gun on Rick?) In a dramatic back and forth that serves as a CliffsNotes version of their two-season conflict – “I’m a better father,” “I’m a better man than you” – Rick tries to convince his friend that there’s still a way to work things out, before handing Shane his pistol so he’ll be forced to shoot an unarmed man. Drawing Shane in close, Rick, the man we’ve been repeatedly been told can’t make the tough decisions, can’t do what needs to be done … does what needs to be done: He stabs and kills his childhood friend.
As Rick cries over his friend’s body, a shaken Carl appears – now you see why the writers needed them to make their way back to the farm – drawing the stolen pistol his father had returned to him only hours before. Seemingly aiming at Rick, who pleads that it isn’t what it looks like, Carl fires, downing a reanimated Shane, making father and son culpable in his death. It’s a little hard to swallow, frankly. The writers obviously want to exploit one of the most memorable moments from the comic series by having Carl “kill” Shane while also enjoying the payoff of Rick so brutally stabbing his friend and rival through the heart. (Heck, why stop there? Carl could’ve merely wounded zombie-Shane, giving Lori an opening to swoop in for the kill!) It’s another dramatic cheat that, thankfully, triggers immediate ramifications as the gunshot stirs a herd of walkers lurking just inside the tree line -- yet somehow avoided by Rick and Shane in their search -- setting up what’s sure to be an Alamo-like battle in the season finale.
Grade = A