'The Walking Dead' Comes Back to Life

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After two uneven episodes this season, this week's show was one of the series' best

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AMC

Now that's more like it.

After two disappointing episodes that did little to advance both plot and character, it was starting to look like The Walking Dead might suffer a sophomore slump. But last night's "Save The Last One"—a tense, gripping hour of television, and the best episode since the series' first-season premiere—showed that there's still plenty of life left in The Walking Dead.

"Save The Last One" defies expectations from its opening scene, which shows Shane shaving his head in the safety of the Greene's bathroom. When we left Shane in last week's "Bloodletting," he was pinned down with Otis as they made a last-ditch attempt to recover medical supplies. In theory, it's a risky narrative strategy, since it removes the tension over whether or not Shane will survive. But it also offers The Walking Dead an opportunity to ask a second, far more interesting question: what will Shane have to do to survive?

The question of survival—how to survive, and whether it's even worth surviving—lies at the heart of "Save The Last One." Carl is still in critical condition, and with the clock ticking down, Rick and Lori need to decide if they'll allow Hershel to operate. This first question leads Lori down a darker path: would it simply be better to allow Carl to die? The Walking Dead occasionally embraces a kind of ghoulish black comedy (see: the numerous zombies shambling around in FEMA jackets), but this is, in concept, an almost unbearably bleak show, and Lori's desire to end all the pain makes a certain kind of sense. So many characters have either killed or contemplated killing themselves that the survivors have adopted Jenner's idiom for suicide: "opting out." In the wake of a zombie apocalypse, how can you keep hope alive?

Daryl Dixon has a crude but effective solution: just don't think about it. Daryl has been the bright spot of The Walking Dead's second season. Unlike most of The Walking Dead's main characters, Daryl has no antecedent in The Walking Dead comic book series, but it's impossible to imagine the TV without him. While everyone else spent the first two episodes arguing, praying, and delivering impassioned monologues, Daryl was glib, efficient, and ruthlessly pragmatic. In "Save The Last One," Daryl tells Andrea about a time he spent nine days lost in the woods as a child without anyone noticing he was gone. For someone who's spent his whole life struggling to survive, a zombie apocalypse is just another hurdle to overcome.

Daryl's best scene in "Save The Last One"—and probably in the series—comes when he and Andrea stumble upon a still-active zombie hanged from the neck in a tree. The zombie is the product of a botched suicide attempt—someone who was bitten but didn't realize that he'd come back as a zombie unless he destroyed his own brain. Daryl resists shooting the hanged zombie in "Save The Last One," despite Andrea's pleas. The scene plays in terrific contrast to the mercy-killing Rick performed in the series premiere, but Daryl isn't unmerciful; he just believes that people are responsible for their own actions. As Daryl sees it, if you're not even smart enough to kill yourself right, why should he waste an arrow to help you out? In a world as horrific as the one depicted in The Walking Dead, there's a lot to be said for intelligent, pragmatic self-sufficiency: one wasted arrow, or one bad decision, could easily mean the difference between life and death. But that kind of survival-minded pragmatism is taken to its darkest, ugliest extreme by Shane at the end of "Save The Last One."

In many ways, Shane has had villainy thrust upon him. Before Rick came along, Shane was the de facto leader of the group, with a new lover and an adopted son. When Rick usurped Shane's leadership position—and reclaimed his wife and son—Shane was pushed to the sidelines. His guilt and anger have been building for weeks, and in "Save The Last One," they finally come to a boil: when it becomes clear that both men won't be able to escape the oncoming zombie horde, Shane shoots Otis, using Otis as zombie bait while he escapes with the medical supplies.

Shane's obligations are complex enough at this point that it's difficult to determine his primary motivation. Is it his paternal feelings for Carl? His love for Lori? His sense of obligation to Rick? Or was it just simple desperation to survive? There's a twisted logic to his betrayal: since it's Otis' fault that Carl is in critical condition, Otis makes the sacrifice that allows Carl to survive. But it's a rationalization that comes, as Shane seems to realize, with a heavy moral price. As Otis and Shane grapple after Shane's betrayal, the two are almost indistinguishable from the zombies they've been fighting. The difference, of course, is that the zombies' immorality is mindless. Shane made a choice.

Was it worth it to save Carl's life? It's impossible to say. But at least at this point in the series, there's no chance that Rick would make the decision Shane did (in fact, Rick would almost certainly sacrifice himself before sacrificing Otis). The series has toyed with the idea that Rick's moral code may eventually become a liability for him, but so far his nobility is more or less intact. But as Shane is learning, to survive in this kind of world, certain sacrifices have to be made. As The Walking Dead continues to expand on its nightmarish premise, its characters will doubtlessly be exposed to countless horrors, and only the strongest will carry on. In the end, who will survive? And—perhaps more importantly—what will they have to do?

Note: For the sake of those who haven't read The Walking Dead comics series, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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