This week on TWD, showrunner Glen Mazzara's "throw zombies at the problem" approach to addressing the series' many shortcomings continues to yield less dull but still problematic results. Mazzara and his team have injected a bit of excitement into a series that desperately needed it. Unfortunately, the series continues to be plagued by many of the same problems that have made this season such a chore, and that usually prevent it from rising above merely risible.
In any series of this sort, there needs to be a workable balance between moments of action and tension and moments of character drama. Ideally, the two operate hand-in-glove with one another, and are inseparable. They've never worked together on this season of TWD. For much of this season, the writers simply removed the action-and-tension stuff altogether. At the same time, what they've pawned off as "character drama" is a string of putrid soap storylines, all of which are dependent on every character being written like an utter moron. These are completely uninteresting, built of mind-numbingly repetitive scenes, and actively insult the viewers' intelligence at every turn. They were creatively bankrupt at birth, and as they've been allowed to consume--and waste--much of this season, they've been run into the ground deeper than David Innis's iron mole. When TWD throws some action its viewers' way, it can be entertaining, but it has absolutely nothing to fall back on.
Only three episodes this season have featured extended action sequences--"Save the Last One," last week's "Triggerfinger," and this week's "18 Miles Out"--and all three also illustrate this problem.
"Save The Last One" featured Shane and the ill-fated Otis on a critical mission to fetch medical supplies needed to save Carl's life, and struggling to, themselves, survive in a chase through a pitch-dark high school campus swarming with zombies. It should have been a great, suspenseful, race-against-time story, emphasizing the hopelessness of their plight leading up to Shane's murder of Otis. Instead, the writers bled every ounce of tension out of this scenario by constantly cutting away to dull soap melodrama back on the farm.
The first 20 or so minutes of last week's "Triggerfinger" was quite exciting by TWD standards, but at the mid-point, the writers left the action on a cliffhanger they never resolved, and returned to their dull soap melodrama, bringing the episode--and anything interesting about it--to a dead halt.
With "18 Miles Out," the creators are cross-cutting again, following, on the one hand, a suspenseful Rick/Shane story, and, on the other, another dull, pointless, horrendously written soap storyline back at the farm, this one regarding Beth and her sudden desire to kill herself.
Last week, Rick rescued Randall, a member of a band of marauders who had been left for dead by his comrades with his leg impaled on a fence. Hershel stitched up the fellow's leg, and the plan, this episode, is to take him out to the middle of nowhere and dump him. As the story opens, Rick and Shane are on their way to do that very thing. Rick pulls over and tries to lay down some law to Shane regarding the situation with Lori and Carl. My wife, my son, he tells Shane, and says he'd do anything to keep them safe. It isn't a bad scene, in itself. It threatens to bring on a headache only because this "storyline" has been done absolutely to death by this point.
The two seem to have achieved some sort of understanding, but it falls apart shortly after. In an absurdly contrived twist, Randall reveals, at the last minute, he went to school with Maggie. He knows Hershel, and, unfortunately for him, this also means he knows where the farm is located. The point of dumping him, of course, was that he didn't know, and if he found his way back to the hostile group from which he came, he wouldn't be able to tell them.
Randall has been on the farm for a week, at this point. In the previous episode, Hershel said it would take about a week for him to be up and abouts, and at the beginning of this one, Rick tells Shane he's been "waiting a week" to dump Randall. The writers apparently had Hershel use the same Veterinarian's Magic Healing Potion on Randall as they'd earlier had him use on Carl--Randall's wound was horrendous, and should have taken a very long time to heal, if it ever healed at all, but after a week, he's able to get around with no more than a minor limp, and even breaks the arm of a zombie with the bad leg. Randall is very cooperative, professes to have no allegiance to the marauders who left him for dead, and the fact that his last-minute revelation about having gone to school with Maggie is a revelation suggests they haven't even bothered to question him in all the time he's been at the farm. Questions like, how many are there in the group from which he came? How well armed are they? These aren't just obvious questions; they're ones that would have certainly been asked and, given Randall's cooperativeness, answered. But not on TWD.
Now, Rick and Shane get into it over what to do about him. Rick wants to take the guy back to the farm and figure out what to do with him; Shane wants to immediately liquidate him. It leads to accusations, by Shane, that Rick is placing Lori and Carl in danger via his preferred course of action, and that leads to a fist-fight, which leads to a whole lotta' zombies turning up looking for dinner, which sets everyone to fleeing for their lives.
The zombies move really fast in this episode. They're agile. Some of them even do the equivalent of gymnastics. Like everything else on TWD, these are things that always vary based upon the needs of the plot at the moment. Shane, down to his knife, holes up in a bus, where he wrestles to keep the front folding door closed against the zombie onslaught--the creatures are suddenly strong enough to carry out a credible onslaught against a guy trying to hold a bus door shut (something living people would only be able to do with great difficulty). There is, of course, the emergency exit in the back of the bus. It's the first thing that pops into every viewers' mind--every viewer that has a mind, anyway--and Shane could go out it at any time, and escape the entire herd, but the writers decided it would be more dramatic if he stayed there, wrestling for control over that folding door, until Rick and Randall--the fellow Shane wanted to murder--show up to save him. By having him go out the emergency exit in the back.
Where would TWD be this season without repetition? Rick gives Shane exactly the same extended speech he did at the beginning of the episode. Will it take this time? No. The preview for next week's episode makes it clear Shane has achieved no enlightenment on the matter. When they take Randall back to the farm, they bind him with a hood over his eyes, which they'd previously done to try to conceal the location of the farm, but which doesn't make much sense by the end of the episode, because it's already been established that he probably knows where the farm is anyway.
That's the "A" plot this week.
Intercut with this throughout the episode is a "storyline" back on the farm. Beth has been so isolated from the zombie apocalypse that she bought into her father's insane notion that zombies were merely sick people, yet now, she's so distraught about the fact that there's a zombie apocalypse and that she could die horribly in it that she just wants to do herself in before that can happen. So much so that she totally brushes aside, as insignificant in comparison to this, her lover and family. All of this angst is, once again, offered in a house in the midst of beautiful rural farm country where she has all the luxuries of civilization, and there are no zombies in sight.
The series' usual contempt for the women is front-and-center in these scenes. Beth had kept a knife from her dinner tray with which to slit her wrists. Lori had talked her out of it and had taken the knife back to the kitchen. Andrea jumped down Lori's throat over this, saying suicide was Beth's decision, and that Lori should let Beth make it. Lori countered by complaining that the newly "liberated" Andrea was now doing men's work, when a woman's place should be in the home, making it a fit place to live. Andrea went to see Beth and offered up a few words that veered perilously close to encouraging her to kill herself, if that's what she wanted. And then left her! Such charming creatures are the women of TWD!
This entire Beth "storyline" was, of course, like a stone around the neck of the more exciting Rick/Shane portion of the episode, repeatedly bringing everything to a jarring halt. TWD can be entertaining when it features action, but it can't feature action all the time, or even most of the time. It needs solid writing to hold it up in the moments when there isn't mayhem on the screen. It just doesn't have it in its present creative team.
All of that said, though, the final image of "18 Miles Out" was actually quite striking, a reprise of one glimpsed earlier in the episode. Shane looks out the window of the vehicle, as he and Rick are returning to the farm, and glimpses a lone zombie at a distance, slowly moving through a field adjoining the road. It's a simple moment, haunting in its simplicity. When I mentioned it on the IMDb Walking Dead board, poster HelenBackAgain wrote of it:
"This one great, artistic image, all alone within this cheesy, stupid episode that added absolutely nothing in terms of story. There are within the episode no others like it; it stands apart, a monument and a martyr to the lost possibility of greatness."
Couldn't have said it better myself, and, in fact, didn't.
 One of them was a lot smarter, too--when Rick points his gun at it, the creature actually pushes it away to save itself!
 Zombies suddenly become vampiric and go after blood in this episode, instead of living people. Rick and Shane decide to use their knives to kill zombies when they're able to do so. Their mere presence, however, isn't enough to attract a pair of walkers they come across inside a fence--to bring the critters in, they have to cut their hands so there is visible blood. When the zombies get close, they then drive a knife into the creatures' skulls, causing zombie-infected grue to spew all over the cuts they've opened in themselves. Smart move, guys. So smart that Shane, when he's holed up in that bus, pulls the same trick several times.
 And this "A" plot threw zombies at TWD's problems without advancing the story even an inch. At the end, the Randall situation remains unresolved, stuck at exactly the same point it was at the beginning, and, as the preview for next week makes plain, Rick and Shane failed to come to any resolution of their conflict. One could not only entirely skip this episode without missing a thing; doing so would probably improve the overall series. In the preview for the next ep, it looks as if they're finally interrogating Randall about that group of armed hostiles of which he was a part. It's not credible that they wouldn't have already done this (it is, in fact, ludicrous). Skipping this ep would make that big, gaping hole go away.
[Cross-posted to my comics blog]