‘It’s been a long time since the cameras stopped rolling,’ Rick Grimes tells Hershel Greene during the last episode before the mid-season break, Pretty Much Dead Already – and although production continues on the concluding half of this magnificent series, it’s going be a hellishly bitter winter of waiting for February, when the show finally resumes.
Hershel, the veteran veterinarian who has been kindly hosting the group of survivors for the last few weeks, has finally had enough. He wants them off his ranch for good, and it seems nothing Rick can say (even though the erstwhile sheriff has finally exchanged his standing-up-on-its-own shirt for something cleaner) will change the God-fearing old fella’s mind – not even an earnest debate about the zombies he has locked in the barn or a spot of the most gruesome kind of fishing from a pond out in the woods.
‘My farm, my barn, my rules,’ Hershel insists in what sounds like a lunatic misquoting of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Scott Wilson’s restrained, dignified portrayal has been one of the highlights of the season so far, and when he finally betrays some powerful emotions at the climactic end of the episode, his tears are so authentically heartrending it’s easy to understand the compassion which has led him to keep his undead family and friends in the outhouse alive for so long.
Somebody who would have difficulty grasping this – in fact, difficulty grasping anything except a gun or perhaps a megaphone, to make his enraged bellowing even louder – is Shane, whose idea of a tender feeling is probably slapping a barman around the face.
When he finds out what’s in the barn (Glen having blabbed to his chums precisely 78 seconds into the episode, telling Maggie: ‘I hate to blow your dad’s big secret, but I’m sick of secrets; secrets get you killed’) the gauge on his barometer of battiness goes up another notch – particularly when Rick refuses to let him storm in like Mr T at the beginning of The A-Team and smash the … er … death out of them.
The loyal, likeable bloke for whom we felt compunction throughout the last season, even – after a fashion – when he drunkenly tried to crack back on with Lori, is long gone. All that’s left is someone with only the most vestigial traces of humanity left, someone whose kindly castigation of Carl for saying ‘Bullshit!’ is only the final pretence at being a person.
Shane really isn’t much better than a walker, despite – or maybe even because of – his self-justification that his behaviour is all because he loves Lori and Carl, and there’s a gloomy inevitability about his actions at the end.
That doesn’t mean it’s predictable, though. The Walking Dead might occasionally contain elements where you just know what’s coming next – there’s a perfect example early on in this episode when Shane is watching the walkers in the barn through a crack in the door – but only because such things are integral signatures of the genre.
You can hazard a guess at what Dale is going to do when he points his rifle at another member of the group, but Maggie’s actions with Glenn’s baseball cap are unforeseeable. Similarly, the finale might not be a complete surprise, but the shocking coda is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
Having to hang on for one week to find out what happens next would be bad enough; having to wait ten is going to be torture.
Aired at 9/8c on Sunday 27th November 2011 on AMC in the US.
Airs at 10pm on Friday 2nd December 2011 on FX in the UK.
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