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There’s a temptation to dismiss “Nebraska,” the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, as simply more of the same — more unfocused anger, more self-pity, more marching in place, more inexplicable behavior designed only to advance the plot. And, yes, there’s still plenty of that: Shane struts around fuming, Dale glares, Rick gets fitted for his metaphorical hairshirt, and a grieving Beth, better known as the Greene Girl Who’s Not Maggie, falls into a convenient, and vague, catatonic state.
But at some point, somewhere in the final act, “Nebraska” stops being about hope and hopelessness, grief and blame — all of those things that had fueled, if only barely, the first half of the season — and starts being about something else: transformation.
Picking up mere seconds after the slaughter at the barn in the midseason finale “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the survivors are left with the realization that Sophia, for whom they’ve oh-so-casually searched, has been a walker, corralled in the barn since before Otis’ death (I’ve lost track of time, but that couldn’t have been more than a week ago, right?). The Greene clan, meanwhile, must deal with witnessing the deaths, a second time, of their friends, neighbors and family, including Hershel’s wife and stepson — an emotional gutting that nearly becomes physical when the Greene Girl Who’s Not Maggie goes to cradle the body of her mother-walker, only to find that Ma Greene’s still kicking … and hungry.
Hershel, who had overseen the gentle wrangling and feeding of the undead as he clung to the belief that some day, some how, a cure would be found and he could resume life as it was before the apocalypse, is hit particularly hard by the events. His wide-eyed, silent weeping gives way to a disconcerting calm as he denies Shane’s accusations that he knew about Sophia all along, then orders Rick’s group off the farm before, in a particularly poignant scene, he begins boxing up his wife’s clothing and jewelry. In a series that’s produced a lot of one-note performances — Jon Bernthal as Shane, Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori and Laurie Holden as Andrea jump immediately to mind — veteran actor Scott Wilson’s nuanced portrayal of Hershel Greene really stands out; if anyone on The Walking Dead deserves an Emmy nomination, it’s him.
As the Greenes grieve and Carol withdraws, distancing herself and her daughter from the revenant lying on the ground, the others deal with more practical matters like the burial of Sophia and Hershel’s wife and stepson, and the burning of the other bodies. Following the brief, awkward service, Hershel disappears into town to take up the drinking habit he’d given up when Maggie was born. Had Beth not collapsed, he might’ve been left to drown his sorrows. However, Rick and Glenn volunteer to retrieve him, sparking exaggerated protests from Lori, who acts as if her husband is charging back into Atlanta, and Maggie, who seems more concerned for her boyfriend’s welfare than that of either her drunken father or her catatonic stepsister.
Rick has barely pulled out of the driveway when Lori, after being waylaid by an always-glaring Dale and his suspicions about Shane’s hand in Otis’ death, decides someone needs to go after Rick and Hershel. (Sure, Beth has developed a fever since Rick left, but it’s not as if he was planning to take Hershel to dinner and a movie once he found him.) That someone is Daryl, who not only risked his life to search for Sophia — as thanks, he was mistaken for a walker and shot by trigger-happy Andrea — but toward the end was the only one of the group making an effort. Needless to say, after the incident at the barn, he’s not mood to help, and lashes out at Lori, and in hilarious Sawyer-like fashion, dubs her “Olive Oyl.” Presumably that makes Rick Popeye and Shane Bluto.
And so Lori, who only minutes before lectured Rick about endangering his life for others when their son Carl needs him, sets off in a car in pursuit of her husband and their drunken host. Hitting the pavement, she takes her eyes off the road to consult a map and looks up in time to plow into a walker, which somehow makes the car flip. That’s right, there are now two women in peril: the catatonic Greene daughter, and a pregnant Lori trapped within an upside-down vehicle with a walker nearby.
Rick and Glenn, meanwhile, have a heart to heart about love — Maggie told Glenn she loves him, but Glenn didn’t return the sentiment because he wasn’t sure whether the meant it — before finding a drunken Hershel exactly where they thought they would: the dusty corner bar. The once-hopeful country vet is a broken man, defeated by the realization that he was living a lie and foolishly caring for rotting corpses, not friends and family, and endangering the lives of the people he loved. Rick, instead of wallowing with Hershel, convinces him that he has to hold onto hope not for himself, but for the people who need him.
Then, as two more unexpected patrons enter the bar, the scene abruptly shifts from hopeful to menacing. Dave and Tony, refugees from Philadelphia — the former is played by Michael Raymond-James of True Blood and Terriers fame — pop by, scouting for a larger group of survivors heading to Florida after stories of safe havens in Washington, D.C., and Fort Benning and trains to Nebraska didn’t pan out. However, it quickly becomes clear that Dave and Tony aren’t there for conversation and a drink: They’re searching for a home, and pounce on the mere hint that Rick & Co. have a farm nearby.
Rick rebuffs their “friendly” suggestions that they join with his group, saying he doesn’t know them and that the farm can’t sustain them all. A striking contrast emerges between Rick and the band represented by Dave and Tony, and Hershel and Rick’s group. Faced with armed strangers in need of help, Hershel cautiously opened his home, only to later regret it (moments before Dave and Tony darkened the door of the bar, Hershel shouted at Rick, “You people are like a plague. I do the Christian thing and give you shelter — and you destroy it all!”).
But here Rick, his hand always near his holster, is suspicious of Dave and Tony, and rightfully so; there’s something wild and predatory about the duo, an element made even more clear when Tony urinates on the floor. Despite the smiles and reassurances, Rick knows they represent danger to the farm, more so than the walkers and Shane do. So as tension builds, Wild West-style — a lawman facing two desperadoes in a dusty saloon — Rick makes a split-second decision and guns them both down. It’s in that moment he shifts from the role of Hershel, kindly if stern guardian, to that of Shane, rash and brutal defender.
It’s a shining moment for Rick, who for so long had played a reactive, secondary role in his own story. While Shane and Daryl acted, Rick has talked and moped and talked some more, too busy anguishing over his own missteps — Carl’s accidental shooting, the loss of Sophia, etc. — to actually do what needs to be done, proving the criticisms of him correct. Here, though, he takes charge, and he’s badass.
Take that, Shane.