We used to be barbarians. Whether you believe the first humans evolved from apes, inventing clubs to bash in rivals’ heads, or that one of Adam and Eve’s sons killed his own brother, our past is filled with a brutality seldom seen in America’s decent neighborhoods. We’re cultured, and our baser instincts are kept mostly in check by social pressures, legal consequences, and religious and humanistic beliefs.
But post-apocalyptic stories quickly tear through that thin veil of civilization. Amidst the devastated landscape is the breakdown of society, and it’s a fascinating way to explore the true nature of man in both its sinfulness and self-sacrifice. Moral choices become more honest in the vacuum of Armageddon, and the danger posed by other survivors is as often as big a threat as the zombies, aliens, robots or disease that’s wiped out most the population.
One of the best things about the first season of The Walking Dead was the space Frank Darabont had to explore the moral choices Robert Kirkman’s characters had to make instead of focusing solely on the zombie chase scenes and headshots of a two-hour film. But evil reared its head largest through the most two-dimensional character, Merle—a racist, backwoods redneck who never fit into society in the first place.
The moral choices were mostly heroic: Morgan and Duane nurse Rick back to health. Glenn risks his life to rescue Rick when he’s trapped in the tank. Rick and several others try to rescue Merle from the rooftop. Even the Latino gang who kidnapped Glenn turns out to be protecting a nursing home full of elderly residents. Really only the wife-beater Ed reveals moral shortcomings that were probably already on display before the plague began.
This season has so far seen more of the mostly saintly same. T-Dog’s plan to abandon the other survivors was merely a fever-induced delusion, and even Merle’s brother Daryl has turned out to be a grump with a heart of gold. The survivors’ main goal is to protect the children, one shot and one missing. So even though every episode has ended with either a right hook or a sucker punch, I didn’t see the final scene of “Save The Last One” coming.
Shane has had his weak moments. He’d been sleeping with his best friend’s wife, lying to her about the certainty of Rick’s death. He’s planning to abandon his friends and go it alone rather than watch Lori reunited with her husband. But the episode opens with him risking his life to save Lori’s son. He and Otis, who’s volunteered even though he doesn’t know the child, are trapped in a zombie-infested high school, and it’s Otis who lures the zombies away so Rick can escape through a window.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Lori and Rick, Glenn and Maggie, and Andrea and Dale all wrestle with what it means to be a survivor, whether it would be better to be dead and where God is in all this. The irreligious Glenn tries praying for the first time, while the formerly devout Maggie has abandoned the deity that seems to have abandoned his people. Still, they stand by one another, a benevolence best seen in the farmhouse’s patriarch Hershel, a veterinarian who has welcomed the strangers in his home and healed their wounds.
But Shane returns alone with the medical supplies to save Carl. Predictably the zombies have eaten the overweight new guy. But it’s not until the final scene, as Shane turns on the shower, examines his wounds and shaves his head, that we see how he escaped. With the zombies gaining ground, he saves his last bullet for Otis, the ultimate cold-hearted diversionary tactic.
The veil has finally torn, as the murderer returns to the home of his victim, welcomed by Otis’ family who even give Shane the dead man’s clothes. Shane’s true character has revealed itself in a way that even he probably never knew. We’re back in the fields of Adam, and Cain has struck down Abel. The barbarian has returned. Shane has devolved. And The Walking Dead just got more interesting.