A review of tonight's "The Walking Dead" coming up just as soon as I eat birthday cake and listen to "The Lord of the Rings" book on tape...

"There are no rules, man! We're lost!" -Rick

"18 Miles Out" has a title that's very similar to "4 Days Out," one of the most memorable episodes of "Breaking Bad," and a structure that's relatively similar: our two leads go on a long drive together for what should be a routine bit of business, have a lot of conversations about where they are at this point, and then hit a major obstacle that might keep them from driving home alive. 

I don't know for sure if the homage was intentional, but when I interviewed Veena Sud at the end of "The Killing" season 1, she did say that the "Missing" episode — again, the two leads driving around and talking (albeit with much less violence or danger than these other two) — was very much inspired by "4 Days Out" (and by "The Suitcase" on "Mad Men"), and there's almost a sense of AMC tradition to doing a largely self-contained episode like this each season. ("Breaking Bad" did it again the following year with "Fly," but didn't have room for one in the most recent season.)

And whether it was an homage to "Breaking Bad," or another instance of Glen Mazzara (who co-wrote this one with Scott Gimple) taking his inspiration from "Lost" — which helped make viewers learn and care about its characters early on by building each episode around only one or two of them at a time — the approach worked. There have been other episodes this season that have had fantastic individual sequences, like the barn massacre in the mid-season finale, or Tony and Dave wandering into the bar a couple of weeks ago, but this was the show's strongest overall episode going back at least to the season premiere, if not to last season.

So what made "18 Miles Out" so effective? For starters, it kept things simple: just Rick and Shane on the road (with a bit of Randall now and again), and a handful of the female characters back on the farm. I think, in fact, they probably could have gotten away with devoting the entire hour to the road trip, though the farm story surprised me with how well it worked, given how little I cared (and, frankly, continue to care) about Beth (whose name I only learned last week).

I still don't care an awful lot about the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle, and I still worry that the show has made Shane out to be too blatantly the villain when there should be more moral ambiguity about his position versus Rick's. But Shane was more reasonable this week until the big brawl — when he and Rick were both losing their minds and being stupid (more on that in a minute) — and I appreciated them just talking through so much of what's been left unsaid for so long. The first scene after the opening credits was just two guys having a pointed conversation about their history and their differences, and it was the most compelling moment the show's done in a long time that didn't have the threat of violence underlining it.

By leaving Dale, Daryl, Glen, Carol, T-Dog, Herschel and the rest on the sidelines for a week, "18 Miles Out" was able to focus more on specifics for the characters who were onscreen. Rick got to talk about plans for winter — the first time anyone on this show has demonstrated any real interest in long-term survival — and to demonstrate quieter, more creative methods of walker-killing.(*) With fewer characters to service, there was time to properly set up the two zombified security guards (or were they cops?), whose side-by-side corpses reminded Rick of when he and Shane used to wear similar uniforms, and inspired him to change his mind and give his partner a chance to live. A more traditionally-structured episode would have had to rush that kind of thing, if not skip it altogether.

(*) The gag of stabbing them through a fence is from the comic book, albeit at a different point in the story. And I realize that I've neglected to add the usual reminder the last couple of weeks that commenters aren't supposed to talk about events in the comic book that have yet to happen on the TV show, so let me do that right here. On Friday, for instance, there was a casting announcement about a character from the comics who has yet to appear on the show, and we're not going to discuss him in these reviews until he's actually on camera next season. Got it?   

Similarly, the scenes back on the farm finally gave Andrea a chance to talk about what she's been through emotionally since she didn't get to kill herself at the CDC, when in previous episodes, all we got was her being snippy with Dale. And while I'm not invested in anything to do with Beth, her dilemma also gave the show a long-overdue opportunity for someone to call out Lori for all her irritating, self-righteous, hypocritical behavior. I don't even like Andrea all that much (again, she's been written in a shrill key for far too long), but I practically cheered as she tore into Lori for telling her to act like a '50s housewife and let the men — both her men, specifically, as Andrea pointedly notes with the "boyfriend" comment — take care of the important stuff.

"18 Miles Out" wasn't perfect. I think, for instance, that the in media res opening did more harm than good, because we knew roughly when and where the walkers were going to cause trouble, and instead of adding tension to Rick and Shane's argument/brawl, it instead made them seem like idiots to viewers who knew more than they did. And it ultimately made no sense that the walkers wouldn't be woken up by Randall screaming for his life, or the sound of the stray gunshot, or any of the other ruckus being raised by those two(**), while the shattering of the window suddenly woke them all up.

(**) Though I did like that, the longer the fight went on, the more Rick and Shane began to sound like zombies themselves. A very thin line separates walkers and what they used to be.

But on the whole, the character work was much better, the various arguments more clearly articulated, the sense of atmosphere made stronger because we didn't have to move from character to character, story beat to story beat.

I don't know if Mazzara, Kirkman and company are ready to shift even more into a "Lost" model, where every episode is told from one character's point of view. (Though that approach might do wonders for relative non-entities like Carol or T-Dog.)  But if nothing else, hopefully this episode suggests that the writers have realized that with this show, less can be much, much more.

What did everybody else think?