Are you watching The Walking Dead? I love the show and the reason I love it is the characters. As I’ve always said when it comes to my own fiction: If you come away talking about something other than the characters, then I’ve failed you.
Great characters are the core of great fiction. Always. And The Walking Dead has them in spades.
So, then, Shane (played wonderfully by Jon Bernthal).
Shane is one of the finest examples of characterization I’ve seen on television, and this in only a season-and-a-half (maybe Mal Reynolds from Firefly and Al Swearengen from Deadwood are equally well done in such a short time).
SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU ARE WARNED.
When we first meet Shane in Season One, he’s the leader of the survivors. He seems heroic. He saved his friend Rick’s wife (Lori) and son (Carl), then fell in love with Lori, and the love clearly is genuine. He’s become a father figure to Carl. He’s a good man, it seems. We get a sense that the band has survived, in large part, due to him being at the helm. Still, he does seem to have this barely controlled aggression brewing under the surface. It comes out from time to time in his conversations with others — short, abrupt orders, that kind of thing.
Ah, but then Rick returns. It goes unspoken, but Shane cedes leadership to Rick. Worse, he has to surrender his relationship with Lori (which they keep secret from Rick and everyone else). His latent anger grows over this, and the aggressive side of him gets more play. At one point, he and Rick are searching the woods for walkers and Shane puts Rick in his rifle sights, thinking hard about pulling the trigger. He doesn’t, but we get a sense right there of what he might be capable of. Nicely foreshadowed, writers. And the anger in him just sits there, builds, festers. Eventually it explodes violently when he beats Ed senseless for mistreating his wife. Why does he beat Ed right then? Ed’s always been an abusive husband and all around dick. He does it because he’s not pissed at Ed; he’s pissed at Rick, he’s pissed over his loss of Lori, and that anger gets displaced onto Ed. It’s never expressly framed as such by the writers, but it’s clearly the intent. Very nicely done.
As the season progresses, Rick’s return and rise to leadership is negatively mirrored by Shane’s loss of leadership and descent into quiet savagery. This culminates in season one when he more or less tries to rape Lori at the CDC. Later, when she confronts him about it, he self-justifies: “What do you think that was, Lori? What?” She answers, “I think we both know what that was.” And in that exchange you get the core of Shane’s character. He is a man of controlled violence, filled with aggression, but when he loses control of himself and hurts someone to get what he wants, he rationalizes the loss of control.
And yet (and here again is excellent writing and acting) despite the rationalization, it’s clear that he despises himself for the violence. You can see it in his face (well acted, Jon Bernthal) during that exchange with Lori over the attempted rape. He wants to see himself as a hero, the good man (like Rick) but he knows, deep down, that he’s lying to himself, that he does not live up to his own expectations for himself. He’s not going to be the hero, and his arc is all about facing this fact.
This aspect of his character is wonderfully, awfully highlighted in the episode with Otis. He and Otis, to save Carl, infiltrate a school and FEMA camp, seeking surgical tools and medicines. The place is crawling with walkers. As they’re making their escape, pursued by a horde of walkers, Shane, wounded, says “I’m sorry,” to Otis, and shoots him in the leg. While the walkers feast on the disabled and screaming Otis, Shane makes his escape with the tools and meds.
When he returns, he lies about what happened. You can seem him trying hard to reconcile his image of himself with what he’s actually done, but he can’t, not this time. He tries to wash the deed from him with a shower, tries to make himself anew by shaving his head, but he still has to stare at himself and face who he is. The mirror scene is profoundly haunting. And now he’s walked even further down a dark path. You can tell he’s turned a corner. No going back.
And all of this comes out, brilliantly, in last night’s episode, which represents some of the best, most subtle writing I’ve seen on TV. In last night’s episode, Shane and Rick have it out in mild fashion. Shane accuses of Rick of risking lives for idealism, to save a little girl they both know (or think) can’t be saved. “That math don’t work,” he says. “You’ve gotta make the hard calls.”
But the beauty of this scene is that he’s not talking to Rick. He’s talking to himself, still self-rationalizing his murder of Otis. And he’s desperate in his way for Rick to validate his choice, for Rick also to make “hard calls” that sacrifice others (Shane sacrificed Otis; he wants Rick to concede that Sophia is gone and sacrifice her). In short, he’s facing what he is, but instead of retreating from it, admitting that he’s done something monstrous, he’s instead trying to get his friend, a man he respects (but also loathes), to make the same choice. The world made him do it, see, and if Rick would just do the same thing then maybe Shane, like Rick, can still be a good man. It’s just a brilliant psychological deep dive into the character, wonderfully realized by the writers.
Anyway, if you’re not watching, you should be.