This episode had one of the most haunting opening sequences in the history of The Walking Dead. First, we had a mostly silent examination of Rick’s drive away from where he’d abandoned Carol, watching a walker being torn apart by stray dogs outside his car window. This image could’ve been gratuitous gore, but it startled me in a way that went deeper than gross-out. A sharp cut brought us back into the prison, as Hershel, Glenn and Sasha – the latter two both horrendously ill – dealt with a dying plague victim, giving him brief moments of comfort before wheeling him out of the plague cellblock and killing him (after he turns) out of public view. For me, at least, these minutes were another echo of the power that this series can exhibit when it hunkers down and locks into its groove.
That groove, despite what the show’s more narrow-minded fans might think, is not endless zombie carnage – it’s the weight of that carnage’s collateral damage on the characters and how it manifests itself in atmosphere and pervasive dread. But the show has spent so much time out of that intriguing lane that these baby steps back into quality have been suspicious – I’ve been wondering when the other shoe would drop.
So far, it hasn’t hit the floor, even though there have been some rough moments. That said, this episode did a lot to alleviate even more of my tension because it was fucking gangbusters. While action-packed through and through, its emotional beats made sense and were thoroughly affecting.
Much of this week’s installment focused on Hershel’s work in the cellblock with the infected. He was basically the main character here, and as we’ve seen, this iteration of The Walking Dead under new showrunner Scott M. Gimple works well when it zeroes in on individual figures within the show. Hershel is an anomaly of a character – he began as a whipping boy of fans and critics due to the general awfulness of the farm stuff on season 2, but evolved considerably in season 3 to be a voice of understated wisdom and prudent counsel. The problems in season 3 were not the fault of the updated version of that character or the actor playing him, Scott Wilson.
Wilson rocked the shit here, showing that he could operate on a middle ground between the extremes most of these characters occupy. So many of them are either extremely ruthless or not hard enough for the zombie-infested world, and can’t work with two or three dimensions. Hershel’s unique combination of experiences makes him hardened enough to bravely do what needs to be done – killing the infected doctor and fighting a live walker to get valuable medical supplies, among other acts – but he has enough empathy to know that the mercy killings of plague victims can’t just be treated as walker kills. They need to be done away from the eyes of the general population. As he explains, those in the prison know well what’s going on, but they need to not have it rubbed in their faces.
Oh, and his dumb jokes about spaghetti were hysterical and reminded me of my dad. (Hi Dad.)
The way Hershel cares for the dying is heartening without being sappy. It’s emblematic of how the show is (finally! Thank fucking Christ!) moving away from the poles of either pitch-black nihilism or dodgy moralizing that it has often operated on without flexibility and starting to enter a new landscape of nuance and dimension. If it keeps going in this direction, it might even become truly complex and powerful, as its early hours seemed to indicate. I suppose the last thing I’d praise Wilson’s performance for would be his reaction to hearing about everything Carol did from Rick. He limps out of the room, seemingly beaten down by despair, and then rights himself and goes back to being a caregiver. He knows that’s the best thing he can do, and that the surrounding drama isn’t relevant.
The Walking Dead has never had a problem with creating thrilling action sequences, but sometimes they are little more than, “Oh, look at that exploding head, WHOA SHIT HIS FACIAL FLESH IS TEARING OFF, THOSE ENTRAILS ARE SURPRISINGLY DETAILED AND LOOK KINDA LIKE HOT ITALIAN SAUSAGE.” (If anyone’s eating breakfast or lunch or a snack right now, I apologize, sort of, #sorrynotsorry.) Point being, when they go beyond that they get even better, and the sudden succession of plague deaths and the lives that were at risk during the subsequent walker attacks made for stakes that felt legitimately high. There was plenty of splatter but you felt it, because the way the episode played out you felt for all involved as people, not things or plot mechanisms.
For example, it was entirely plausible that the series would let Hershel or Glenn die in this episode – Hershel while trying to save an infected patient, Glenn from the flu itself. And it still might. Although the finally-delivered antibiotics will probably save their lives for now, I was like, “Well, goddamn, this will be their major character death or deaths for the first eight episodes.” It wasn’t, though, and I was glad – I cared about Hershel and Glenn in a way that I hadn’t for quite some time.
It was also interesting to see Rick and sociopath-in-slow-development Carl be relegated to B-plot characters for an hour. They simply work as cogs in the prison society machine, working efficiently to deal with a threat – a horde of walkers that breaks one of the prison walls – without any corny bullshit. Just a lot of full-automatic rifle fire. It was a nice chunk of dumb zombie slaughter to relieve us from the actual terror within the plague ward, and served as an effective juxtaposition to it.
Honestly, there were only two things I think I’d complain about for this episode, which was almost entirely excellent. Number one would be NO DARYL. Nah, just kidding – he’s the greatest but it was fine to take a break from him. Problem #1 is this show’s inability to do something truly effective with Maggie (Lauren Cohan). On the surface, she seems like a balanced blend of warrior woman and loving partner to Glenn. But she’s not, not really. She does fine as a zombie killer, having proven her bona fides, but her serious scenes generally fall flat. This could merely by the fault of Cohan, who, while certainly not a bad actor, could stand to be better. Most of them seemed especially ineffective this hour – she didn’t play a major role but her scenes seemed uneven.
The other problem is The Governor, who was revealed to be on his way back – or something – in the hour’s final seconds, looking toward the prison perimeter with rage in his eyes. David Morrissey had barely any screen time here, but I’m already flashing back to how godawful most of his scenes were in the final half of season 3. Under Glen Mazzara, the TV creative team initially prevented him from being the cartoonish, Grand Guignol psychopath he was in Robert Kirkman’s comic books. (Yeah nerds, I’m still shitting all over Kirkman. WHAT OF IT.) However, either an overall creative failure or a dramatic swing toward fan service caused them to turn him evil too quickly and make it so the transition just didn’t quite work. He ended season 3 a cartoon – albeit still a more subtle one than his creator made him into on paper, which is saying a lot – wandering off in the woods after slaughtering a third of Woodbury’s population.
It’s not that it doesn’t make sense for The Governor to come back so much as I’m already having nightmares about how atrociously Morrissey is going to overact. That said, Scott Gimple has managed to steer the deranged, blood-soaked ship that is The Walking Dead fairly well so far – definitely better than expected. So I’m hoping that in his hands, The Governor will rise to his potential as a truly chilling villain. We’ll find out next week.
Liam can be reached via Twitter (@liamchgreen) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org)