A great deal of horror is atmosphere. You can throw as many blood-spurting zombies at your characters as you want, but the show has to have the right feel to it. It has to give you the sense of tension and horror in the quieter moments between zombie action.
The show is succeeding in that now, in ways it hadn’t in previous seasons. The Walking Dead is a lot darker than when Shane and Rick faced off against each other.
In the Walking Dead universe, zombies come from the same place they did in the original Night of the Living Dead: The recently dead come back to life. That’s all it takes, really. Just be dead, and have died recently enough to be infected. The bite doesn’t turn you into a zombie; the bite just kills you. This makes the prospect of dying even scarier. But it’s a different animal to be in the process of taking care of a loved one who is likely to die. Rick’s handcuffs were an important symbol in Sick: They represented him caring about Hershel and balancing that with sane precautions. The caretaking process was a lot of what gave this episode the bleak, depressed atmosphere that bothered me so much last week. You know what’s probably going to happen but you try to hold on to hope, because it’s better than giving up. Unless you’re Maggie.
I wonder what’s going on with Maggie, that she takes the attitude she does. She and Glenn have an ease with each other, the actors’ chemistry with each other being a big part of why their romance is my favorite storyline of the show. The little touches and their physical presence with each other are done very well, and more so this season. Clearly their relationship is working out, in spite of the world around them. In fact, they’re the only two in this bunch with a happy relationship. (Except possibly the disappointingly absent-this-episode Michonne and Andrea, but I’ll leave that to fanfiction writers for now.) In spite of this, Maggie is the only person giving in to fatalism with Hershel’s condition. It makes me want to know more about what she’s gone through. I hope we’ll get an answer to that in future episodes. I wonder if she’s been affected by seeing her dad struggle along in the life they’ve been living: An old man trying to keep up in a war zone. I wonder how many nights she’s held close to Glenn’s chest and worried how long her dad will be able to make it in this hostile world. And I wonder if she wants to give up herself, but knows she can’t. When she asks for a moment alone, instead of telling Hershel he’s strong and stubborn and will make it through, she does the opposite. She gives him permission to give up. It’s like she’s wanted to say this for a long time but hasn’t been given opportunity or permission from herself.
I get her point, about trying to be realistic. But this isn’t a world where you survive by being realistic. In the post-apocalypse, you stay sane and alive by preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. You need both. Without a reason to keep going, you become like Jenner at the CDC (Season 1 finale, for new viewers). Drinking while your world burns and waiting for the fire to take you over.
In contrast to Maggie and Glenn, Lori and Rick aren’t exactly working out. Their chemistry is there too, though. The talk between them at the end was so moving, so intense, and so tragic. They clearly still love each other, but are hurting over what they’ve each done, unable to forgive themselves or each other. Shane’s death has hurt them; both probably blame themselves and the other for it. The beautiful, heartbreaking gesture of Lori putting her face on her shoulder after Rick takes his hand away is for me, the most lasting image of the episode.
That, and Tomas with his head split by Rick’s blade.
See, if Rick and Lori didn’t still deeply love each other, she would have never said what she did, giving Rick permission to kill the living to save his own. And her words wouldn’t have given him the strength to go through with it. It was because of Lori’s speech that Rick was able to do what needed to be done in response to Tomas. And while it still hurt Rick to make that choice, Tomas killed Big Tiny with glee. Why did that matter? Big Tiny was soft, a gentle giant who backed away from the fighting when it got intense. His was a death the audience cared about in a way we wouldn’t have if that was another prisoner. I mean, not cared about. He was only around for half an episode. But it wasn’t just the brutality of his murder that showed us Tomas was evil; it was his gentleness. Yes, he would turn. But he could have lived a little while longer. And could have been given time to come to terms with it, to accept his fate the way Jim did in Season 1. But Tomas just wanted blood. And we saw him get plenty of it—not even on his hands the way Lori did with Hershel, which was an act of healing rather than harm.
So while Rick didn’t want to kill Tomas, it didn’t bother him the way it did killing, uh, guy with the baseball bat… Andrew. Tomas sought an opportunity to try and kill Rick. Andrew was just reacting to Rick killing Tomas, then he ran. Rick had to follow, even though he didn’t know Andrew would come back for revenge—just that he might. And not knowing what Andrew might do, Rick fed him to the walkers. Ironically, it was the obviously evil one who got the humane death. Andrew’s death took a bigger toll on Rick.
Not so big a toll that Rick wasn’t willing to kill the rest if he had to. But creepy old guy… Uh, Axel, was clearly not a dangerous one to begin with. As for Oscar, I think his honor in the face of death was what kept Rick from killing him in good conscience, not Axel’s rambling monologue. This is the balance Rick is trying to strike, between good and evil, except… It’s not good and evil. It’s justice and mercy, and finding where the right thing lies between the two.
Oscar wasn’t given any real character development except for being a badass with a blade at his throat. But I like the guy. Although I wonder why he kept shaving his head during those ten months in the cafeteria. I wonder a lot about why these people bother with haircuts in the post-apocalypse. Why do they all look, except for things like Rick’s beard and Hershel’s whole face, like they take grooming so seriously? Why does T-Dog…
Ahem. I like how the writing team, even though they still don’t really know what to do with T-Dog, are at least making an effort to keep him in the cast for a reason other than “we can’t kill off the only black character in the group.” I like how he gets moments, like his word of advice to the surviving prisoners, or Rick calling him T and showing the audience that he’s a respected fighter and group member. I just want him to have a multiple episode-spanning subplot for crying out loud. He and Glenn are my favorite characters, and I base that largely on the strength of their acting in what roles they do have. There’s a larger discussion to be had here about race, and racism, in the casting and writing of characters, but others have written about that already and better than I could, so I’ll defer to them. Search around if you’re interested.
That being said, Glenn is definitely given enough to do in this episode, unlike T-Dog. Rick wants Glenn by Hershel’s side because he trusts Glenn to be the one to kill Hershel if he turns. And that’s a whole lot of trust. There is so much in that. Rick, if you recall, was the one with the strength to kill Sophia after they found her turned last season. He’s trusting Glenn with a very similar responsibility, to do for Maggie what Rick did for Carol. And Glenn, like Rick and like Dale, has that strong moral code Rick values so much. Glenn stuck to his promise to watch Hershel as best he could, and was there for Maggie in her despair. It was also Glenn that Carol trusted on her mission, with his perfectly in-character (Go writing team!) reaction to her idea.
And that’s an idea I have to pick apart, in fact. Carol wants to know how to do a C-section. Well okay. Let’s set aside for a minute that all the cadaver practice in the world isn’t going to make her know what she’s doing if she’s self-training on that stuff. Let’s also set aside for a minute how nearly impossible a surgery like that is to keep sterile in that environment. Boiling water takes a while to set up, even if they have readily available fuel for a fire and a pit already set up and lit when Lori goes into labor. C-sections are simply overused in modern medicine. They are done in situations when all the doctor has to do is wait a minute, or do something else with less risk of infection, to avoid the slightest risk to the mother or fetus—not counting the risks associated with performing a C-section. Even experienced surgeons who know what they’re doing and do it right have patients with complications from simple surgeries. Carol’s plan is to have some half-assed idea of how to do a surgery that might not even be necessary, creating more risk. Because now she might try a C-section instead of figuring out a way around it, putting Lori and the baby in greater danger than they’d be in otherwise. What’s the worst that could happen? I mean, besides the fact that she’s being watched as she practices while eerie music plays. And not counting the high likelihood, this being TVland, that they’ll be under attack by walkers or humans while Lori is in labor.
A few scattered end thoughts: It is interesting to see Tomas (who I called Mr. Haircut in my notes) being so opportunistic, asserting that the prison is his territory minutes after hearing the world ended. Suddenly, he’s thinking his situation is a good one and he’s prepared to take advantage of it. It’s fascinating to see our group encounter people who don’t know the world has ended, although it probably helps new viewers catch up too. And it’s hilarious to see the prisoners attack the walkers in exactly the ways that kill humans but not walkers. Lol, n00bs. We also get an exact timescale: It’s been ten months since the world ended. Less than a year. This whole show has happened in those ten months. Having Maggie point out how stupid it was to let Hershel go with the group to clear out the area doesn’t absolve the writers of blame for that stupidity.
Speaking of stupidity, has anyone seen Carl? He’s not in his cell.