Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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The signs of new showrunner Glen Mazzara’s alterations are all over “18 Miles Out,” the third episode since AMC’s The Walking Dead made its midseason return. And the best part about that: “18 Miles Out” is one of the series’ best episodes thus far, proving that The Walking Dead is in great hands, moving forward with the second season’s three remaining episodes and next season’s already announced, whopping 16 hours.

What Mazzara seems to get, and original show-overseer Frank Darabont wasn’t fully able to grasp, is that The Walking Dead doesn’t have to be all about quieter character moments with zombies at the outskirts of the narrative—both the character development and the undead action can coexist, and share the spotlight. Last week’s knockout episode, “Triggerfinger,” hinted at this truth; “18 Miles Out,” with its trimmed down cast, artistic flourishes, and balls-out gore, epitomized it.

“You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live. Not anymore.”

In the past, The Walking Dead would introduce a conflict, distract from it with various other subplots, and then dangle it before viewers’ eyes for weeks on end—that’s no longer the case, apparently. “18 Miles Out,” co-written by Mazzara, jumps right into the drama that closed out “Triggerfinger,” when a suddenly manipulative Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) tried to seal Shane’s (Jon Bernthal) death sentence by telling Rick (Andrew Lincoln) that Shane doesn’t think he’s fit to protect her and Carl (Chandler Riggs), and that Rick needs to protect what’s his by any means necessary.

As “18 Miles Out” begins, after a frantic, zombie-filled pre-credits teaser, Rick and Shane have driven, yes, 18 miles away from Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) farm, with their quasi-prisoner Randall (Michael Zegen) in the car’s trunk. The plan is simple: Find somewhere remote to dump Randall that’s far enough from their farm that, if he or any friends want to seek vengeance against Rick and the others, they won’t be able to locate Hershel’s rural sanctuary. Before it’s time to get rid of Randall, though, whose arms and legs are tied with rope, Rick interrupts the drop-off mission to confront Shane about everything that Lori told him. That’s right, there’s no more tension prolonging, a la last fall’s whole Sophia saga—The Walking Dead is handling its business in timely, to-the-point fashion.

Shane, who’s hardly able to make eye contact with an assertive, no-bullshit Rick, gets called out for killing Otis, which he readily admits to, reasoning, “One of us had to make it out… Wasn’t gonna be him.” Sticking to his usual script, Shane then questions Rick’s heroic fortitude, telling him that good guys are basically useless in their zombie-ridden world; Rick, stone-faced and finally intimidating, responds coldly with, simply, “I’m not the good guy anymore.” And then he trivializes Shane’s feelings toward Lori, pointing out that, nope, he doesn’t “love her,” though he may think he does. By the end of their heated heart-to-heart, Shane’s hardened, me-against-the-world exterior crumbles a bit, and he admits, “Brother, if I could take it all back, I would.” Is he a changed man? One ready to abandon his troublemaking ways and follow Rick’s lead?

“The right choice is the one that keeps us alive.”

Not quite. After a nicely metaphorical shot of Shane standing smack-dab in the middle of a crossroads, the guys hop back in their vehicle and stop at a secluded factory yard, where Rick suggests that they start killing walkers with knives instead of bullets, to conserve their precious ammunition. To display his new strategy, Rick cuts his hand and uses the oozing blood to attract a walker to a fence; once the moving corpse is within striking distance, Rick forcefully inserts the blade into its skull. Inside the yard’s gates, Rick and Shane, once cops themselves, see a pair of dead police officers’ bodies on the ground, and Shane notices that neither one has any bite marks, at least not any visible ones. “Gotta be scratches then, huh?” We don’t get the answer by episode’s end, but don’t be surprised if the explanation connects to Beth (Emily Kinney), Hershel’s daughter who’s sick back at the farm (more on her later).

Rick and Shane walk Randall, who has a black bag over his head, into the yard, drop a knife on the ground, and start heading back to the whip; Randall, pleading for his life, yells out that he went to high school with Maggie (Lauren Cohan), also known as Glenn’s (Steven Yuen) new hottie girlfriend. Unexpectedly, Rick and Shane start panicking, realizing that this could mean that Randall knows where the farm is, and that the whole driving-18-miles-out plan is ultimately useless if so. Shane, reverting back to his old ways, opens fire on Randall, missing the kid and causing Rick to step in and once again try to set Shane straight. And by “setting him straight,” we mean tackling him and initiating a brutal round of fisticuffs, with body blows, knuckles to the head, employment of random, foreign objects, and bloodletting. Meanwhile, as Rick and Shane are going at it, Randall inches his way toward the knife and begins cutting his ropes.

And then Shane grabs a large wrench and hurls it at Rick, though he misses and breaks open a window that unleashes a horde of zombies. Rick kills the first one that steps out and lays it across his body as the rest of the walkers emerge and chase after Shane, who makes his way into a bus. Unfortunately for him the door doesn’t close all the way. Remembering Rick’s cut-the-hand baiting tactic, he uses it to drive his knife into one walker’s head—the second one he tries doing this too, however, keeps the blade in its head as it slumps to the ground. In other words, Shane’s all kinds of fucked, without any weapon.

As it turns out, Randall is quite adept at protecting himself. A female walker approaches him as he’s cutting the ropes, and, cleverly, Randall kicks its arm, snapping the zombie’s elbow and disabling it enough to allow Randall to poke the back of its head with a knife—“18 Miles Out” certainly doesn’t have a shortage of zombie knifings. Nor does it lack any incredibly badass moments, one of which shows Rick blowing a hole through a zombie’s mouth and, at the same time, killing another one that’s lying atop two others and Rick, as well. Or wheels crushing a zombie’s head like a Gallagher hammer to a watermelon. The latter bit comes after Shane sees Rick and Randall fleeing the premises in what appears to be Rick’s fuck-you abandonment of his old friend (complete with a “He did this; we’re goin’” indictment), who’s still trapped inside the bus. Of course, Rick is still, despite his earlier claim, a “good guy,” and he comes to Shane’s rescue. It’s a good thing for Shane that Rick caught another glimpse of those two deceased cops and reminded himself of his moral obligation to do the right thing.

The pair of bite-less cadavers that looked a hell of a lot like walkers. Were they turned through blood transfusions of some kind? The kind that could very well happen to Shane, since he cut his hand with the same knife he, seconds earlier, used to Ginsu a zombie’s head? Ponder that, Walking Dead heads.

Back on the open road, Randall gets shoved back into the trunk, shortly before Rick gives Shane a listen-to-me-or-kick-rocks ultimatum. “It’s time for you to come back,” he tells Shane. The way Shane looks at a lonely walker, strutting across a vast field without any companions, all but confirms that their joy ride hasn’t made him feel like any less of an outcast.

“I wish I could promise you that it will be all right in the end, but I can’t.”

And, ironically enough, he’s not alone. On the farm, while Rick and Shane are out and dangerously about, Andrea (Laurie Holden) is further establishing herself as the female Shane. It all starts when the aforementioned, ill Beth lets her hopeless views be known, first asking Lori how she could be pregnant in such a damned world and then trying to talk Maggie into committing double suicide with her. This comes after Lori discovers that Beth held onto the knife that was included in her meal tray, a move that doesn’t sit too well with Andrea.

If you recall, Andrea once wanted to kill herself, back when the CDC building was about to blow sky-high at the end of The Walking Dead’s first season finale; at that time, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) wouldn’t let her hang around inside the building when it erupted. And now, seeing a bit of herself in Beth, Andrea chastises Lori for taking the knife away and making that Beth’s life-or-death decision herself. In a very Rick/Shane moment, Lori and Andrea go at it verbally, with the former essentially calling Andrea “useless” and telling her that she should be doing dishes and leaving the zombie-killing up to the men. Which doesn’t stop Andrea from relieving Maggie of her duties watching over Beth, and hardly comforting the suicidal girl with such perky sentiments as, “The pain doesn’t go away—you just make room for it.”

And, really, how could such warm thoughts not inspire Beth to give self-murder the old college try? Locking herself in a bathroom, she cuts her wrists, though unsuccessfully, as Lori and Maggie find out when Lori breaks down the door and sees Beth with crimson-covered arms. In a fit of justifiable rage, Maggie exiles Andrea from their home, much like how Hershel tried sending Shane away not too long ago, before Rick stood up for his hotheaded boy.

Shane and Andrea now have something else in common: an enemy in Lori.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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