By Harry Markov
“Better Angels” sprints in comparison to last week’s “Judge, Jury and Executioner” because, as a warm-up to the finale, it has to tie the loose ends. The episode sweeps through as many characters as possible as they deal with Dale’s death, though it does a better job than all previous episodes with this storytelling approach. Even though the accent of the episode falls onto an action-oriented plot, “Better Angels” ripens with character symbolism.
The episode begins with Rick’s commemoration of Dale’s life philosophy. Aside from Rick indulging in a moment of self-importance, I thought the sentiment to be sweet. I interpreted it, at first, as a decision to adopt an outsider in the Atlanta group. Rick would ‘fix’ the ‘broken group’, restore the viewers’ faith in our ability to remain human. Such an intent would have played off the themes from “Judge, Jury and Executioner” and open the door to a new set of themes, such as social integration and overcoming the ‘us vs. the other’. So, what does Rick do?
Rick announces that, in honour of Dale’s memory, he’ll drop Randall in the middle of the forest, because leaving a single human in an extremely hostile environment is the best possible way to honour a compassionate, pro-life character. Not only is this a completely misguided attempt to demonstrate humanity, but Rick’s decision exemplifies poor plotting. I can’t help but consider the characters as some props that the writers play around with to achieve needed results.
Randall’s story arc quickly becomes a slight variation of Sophia’s story arc. Do we have Rick waste valuable time on making up his mind? Check. Do we have people injured? Check. Do we have Rick being a total prick as the leader of the survivors? Check. Do we have Shane resolve both story arcs? Check. Does it follow a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ structure? Double check. How The Walking Dead manages to squeeze in a few moments of genius, when the plotting overall feels stilted and forced, is beyond me. A show simply can’t survive with two very similar story arcs in one season. My one hope is that Shane’s death will make it really hard for the writers to play ping pong off Shane and Rick.
What I found delectable was Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of psychological meltdown. Shane as a character has reached his point of saturation. He harbours an insane amount of guilt, the weight of being rejected by Lori, owing his life to Rick, and being judged by the other survivors. He cracks and his actions lead him to killing Randall. Randall’s death seals his fate as Shane crosses the point where he could be redeemed for his actions. Though I have to say Shane’s death has a lot less to do with Randall’s death. Rick’s plan for Randall leaves no doubt about the outcome for this character. No. Shane dies because he disobeyed Rick’s orders, which again shows how weak the show is in its misguided efforts to characterise.
“Better Angels” takes some time to address character inheritance after Dale and Shane are no longer among the survivors. I’m going to look at Glenn and Dale as well as Shane and Carl. Glenn has been under Dale’s wing for the whole of the two seasons – plus, both characters have much in common. Glenn matches Dale in morality. As a meek male character, Glenn has been about moral high ground rather than the physical strength of a survivor. Ample examples are his complete inability to lie in the episode “Secrets” or the self-sacrifice of his happiness with Maggie ever since “Triggerfinger”. The scene where Glenn fixes the RV, with Andrea as his helper, is rich in character symbolism. Glenn isn’t just inheriting Dale’s RV or hat, he’s now the group’s new moral compass – or so the scene suggest. I could be reading this the wrong way completely.
Something similar, but darker, happens between Shane and Carl. Carl confesses his guilt to the worst person in the group: Shane. This choice is interesting on two levels. The scene offers at least some hope that Shane will be able to avoid his end by acting out his paternal instincts. I do still hold the view that Shane is a better father to Carl that Rick has been. Both characters are cut from the same cloth and Carl softens Shane down. Through their interactions, viewers can see some genuine human affection from Shane.
Carl will inherit Shane as far as guilt is concerned. I do believe Carl to be responsible for Dale’s death. He decided to test his manhood, so, directly or not, Dale’s blood is on his hands. For Carl to confide in Shane, who killed Otis, suggests that Carl will inherit Shane. This notion is further strengthened as Carl shoots the zombified Shane. When push comes to shove, Carl has no qualms about doing what is necessary, no matter the cost. As a character, Carl has become the bearer of guilt for the group.
But let’s step away from the plot and character, and talk about the zombies. The Walking Dead has a fairly uncomplicated mythology. The dead have risen. To kill them, you need to shoot them in the head. You get infected when they bite you. They have superb hearing and a sense of smell. This is it – not that a zombie apocalypse needs to get any more complicated than this. However, The Walking Dead now introduces a new twist to the virus. Up until this point, the virus has been transmitted through bites, which had us all believing that the virus thrived inside corpses. Now, with both Shane and Randall resurrecting without bites, we have the suggestion that the virus has been latent all along. Perhaps everyone in the world has been contaminated and, since the survivors have witnessed only unnatural deaths at the hands of the zombies, nobody suspected that every single individual would be infected. The implications of this theory being the true one are dire.
If the virus is latent, then the apocalypse will never end. Yes, perhaps most of the hordes will be eliminated and the survivors will be able to manage the smaller numbers of zombies. Yes, maybe people will be able to form settlements again, restore the cities and get power running. Then our instinct to gather as social creatures is bound to doom us again. It will take only a single accident to resurrect the dead and start this all over again. Every illness and fever will raise our hairs. Ever death in the family will be a reason to desecrate the corpses of our closest people. I know that we will probably not see these implications become true for the series, but as a writer, I’m excited about the potential.
In conclusion, “Better Angels” does what The Walking Dead does best – combine maddening moments of incompetent storytelling with some of the best TV moments I’ve seen. Off to the finale, then!