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The Walking Dead has been stepping up its game this season, producing episodes, that while not flawless, have shown marked improvement over their predecessors. That trend continued with “Save the Last One,” an episode that was filled with just about everything that's been missing from this series; including a healthy dose of good ol' fashioned zombie killing. Interestingly enough, while this episode's subplots shined, it was the source of those storylines itself in which most of the problems lay.
It may sound odd, but it's actually nice to see some characters fighting for their lives; especially since Hershel's farm is starting to seem like a magical oasis from the undead, fully equipped with hot showers. We have seen a few zombies bite the dust this season, but it hasn't been since last year that the show has given us a true, do-or-die struggle with a couple hundred “walkers” and it was overdue. Otis and Shane's mad dash through the school in the opening moments of the episode in particular stood out. Overlaying Rick's story of his lifelong friend's childhood antics(which was an incredibly well acted scene from Andrew Lincoln) onto the shots of the two men struggling to outrun the pack was not only a crafty directing move, but also just what the writing has needed to sell the bond between those two characters. The other action sequences can be nitpicked(for instance there is no way that Otis would make it from the bleachers to the locker room with how he landed), but even if it wasn't perfect, a few head-shots and some daredeviling to liven things up is always welcome.
Placing Pruitt Taylor Vince(who is actually a skilled character actor when not relegated to “Redshirt” status) in a zombie-infested world is just plain cruel. The guy is pretty much a big piece of bait, so it's only a question of when and how he'll go out. Though the “when” came a little sooner than I would have liked, the “how” may become one of the show's most defining moments. A key feature in many of the works from the Cinema of the Undead, and certainly in the TWD's source material, is that the worst thing about a zombie apocalypse isn't the zombies, it's other people. You always know where you stand with with a flesh-eating monster, but it is in those that we put our faith with whom we have the most to lose. The series has never truly captured that aspect, that is until Shane showed his ruthlessness with a single bullet. The scene itself was in dire need of better execution, mainly because Shane struggling with Otis for five minutes made the very need for a distraction completely moot. We are also apparently meant to forget that Shane was just ready to let himself be the zombie fodder not two minutes earlier when he encouraged Otis to go on without him. Even with those issues, it was the first moment of the series that showed it perhaps does nerve to go down some of the comic's darker roads, or even find some of its own.
You will have to trust that I'm not sadistic when I say that their son getting shot has been the best thing to happen to Rick and Lori, or at least to how the characters' relationship has been portrayed. In these last two episodes the scenes they've shared have been far and away the couple's best. The highlight in “Save the Last One” came with their fear and anxiety induced argument over their reason for living. Though she begins debating on whether it would be better for him if Carl just never woke up, it isn't long before it becomes obvious that Lori is really wondering whether any of them should go on living in a world with no hope. It seems silly to give special focus to a single character(Andrea) questioning her will to survive; given the circumstances, it should be a daily event for all of them. So seeing Lori have her own moment of doubt was all but a necessity, it was also one of Sarah Wayne Callies better performances. While Rick also endeared himself, as it's clear his own resolve didn't need to take another hit.
It's ironic that what spawned these excellent scenes was actually a storyline that went too far in trying to produce it's own dramatic moments. Carl being on the brink of death is an event worth dedicating some screen time to, but his trauma could have been handled better. Though by all accounts the surgery itself should be the longest and most arduous event, it's swept under the table with a simple “all clear” from Hershel. Granted, at that point squeezing anymore heart-wrenching moments out of Carl's injury would have probably only made it worse. After the seizure and stretching out the drama of Rick's blood transfusions draining him dry, it just felt like the show was reaching for suspense that wasn't there. Thankfully though, the effect on Rick and Lori, as well as the quest to fetch the medical supplies that stemmed from Carl taking a bullet more than made up for the melodramatic feeling that permeated his near-death experience.
Though the supporting players didn't add much to this installment -with only a couple budding relationships to speak of and still no sign of Sophia- the main characters went far in creating one of the more well rounded episodes of the series. With one plot wrapping up, it will be interesting to see where this season is heading, and if it will keep building momentum. If The Walking Dead can continue to combine action and emotion as effectively as it did in “Save the Last One,” then the series will be on it's way to reaching its full potential.