10/20/13, 9:00PM, AMC
The Walking Dead has been overstuffed with people from the beginning. In its more uninspired moments, the abundance of characters has weakened the presences of their counterparts. There are so many people for whom we’re supposed to care deeply, as they’re ever a wrong door or inattentive turn around a corner from catering themselves to zombies. After settling into this dilemma in season one, the show used the following two seasons to exhibition possible solutions.
First, in the second season, the narrative slowed down and then altogether halted on Hershel’s farm. When we did land the occasional payoff, the result was typically intense. Unfortunately, those moments came sporadically and after prolonged dullness. By season’s end, the characters literally set fire to the whole damn thing. AMC acted similarly with the writing staff. Season three unsheathed a different sword. The Walking Dead ditched some of the philosophy and moralizing in favor of grim action. Rather than provoking or unearthing the most instable corners of the main cast’s psychology, the characters became simpler iterations. The Governor’s a bad man. Rick’s a tortured man. Hershel, the wise old sage. Merle, the bigot with a semblance of a heart, way, way down there. On an on. As a result, the show swiftened. Though the emotional potential suffered (save, particularly, for the wonderful “Clear”), the show embraced “fun” again.
What The Walking Dead does though, at its very best, is narrow in on one character and go to work. It’s tough to do with a show clearly dedicated to maintaining a central character. For better or worse, the show goes as Rick goes. What kind of series would it be if every couple weeks Daryl or Maggie or Carol compelled the story? It’d be a vastly different show, at the very least. So far, season four has been all Rick. The premiere was effective, but a bit stilted in jumping between Rick’s lingering encounter with a nutbag and the empty entertainment elsewhere. “Infected,” though, is real-deal The Walking Dead. Guy Ferland’s endlessly foreboding atmosphere renders a well-staged narrative moving—in that cold-to-the-touch, where’d-my-soul-go kind of way we so adore about The Walking Dead—and Andrew Lincoln gets the uncommon chance to internalize Rick instead of belting him out.
It’s good we’ve brought up “Clear.” There seems to be something like resolution for Rick in “Infected” and the trajectory toward it began in season three’s touchstone episode. Rick gave everything to help Morgan parse out the insanity of his state. Morgan rebuffed him try after try. Rick could never with certainty counter Morgan’s systematized hopelessness. Rick saw the truth in it. Unlike Morgan, though, Rick still had things and people to believe in, namely Carl, who by the day faded further. Rick had two paths ahead of him, but he had Governor business to take care of first. Afterward, he resigned his leadership.
It’s the inverse here; business first, Rick second. Patrick’s a zombie. He turned in the showers on his way to bed at the end of the last episode. When he and his midnight snack fan out the next morning, carnage covers the prison floors. Many people go, none of them important. Outside, Rick and Carl are tending the garden. Carl takes notice of the growing number of walkers congregating at the fence, which he uses as a platform to inquire about his gun. Just as he asks, we cut to a close-up of Rick’s handful of wormed soil. It looks rotten, unseemly. We delay a beat. Carl had adopted a less in-cold-blood attitude this season, presumably for the sake of his father. But the return of Carl’s enthusiasm for violence and butchery hits Rick hard, no matter how matter-of-factly he plays it.
The main crew clears out the zombies and does what needs done with the dead. Carol prepares a man for an arm amputation, but the back of his neck’s been scratched. She retrieves his young daughters for their goodbyes. The father passes. Carol readies her knife. The older of the daughters, both of whom are attendees of Carol’s killing keystone, volunteers but folds. Though her retreat and the daughters’ fear seems reasonable to us, Carol’s efficiency with the procedure sparks the most intrigue. The Walking Dead has invested many a-shot in world-building—some more obligatory, but plenty displayed genuine imagination. Think of the strange things we already do to our corpses, or the now grotesque practices of some more ancient civilizations. How peculiar should stabbing a corpse in the head really be? It’s uncomplicated, relatively tidy, and harms no one. Sure it’s jarring, but it’s ceremony now in these walker days. The writers do well to juxtapose Carol with the children. It’s the sort of scene that visually stages what it’s like to watch this show.
The governing committee enacts quarantines until they better understand the nature of the illness that originally killed Patrick. As of now, it’s flu-like, not zombie-like, but it all leads to the same place. A new sickness isn’t the prison’s only problem. The reinforced fences are giving way to the walkers’ pressure. Rick has to sacrifice all the camp’s pigs, like zombie Easter eggs, in order to keep the fences up for the time being. It’s an unsettling moment, Rick on the tailgate of Daryl’s truck, opening the pigs’ veins, leaving them as live treats. The last sprays blood onto Rick’s face, and as the truck drives, we see Rick seeming as simply and fully revolted by this world as we’ve seen him in a long while.
That’s not to say he’s no longer a part of it. After the reminders of just how ever nearby the threat of death is, Rick meets Carl’s request. And in a reminder to us of The Walking Dead’s ever reliable production value, Rick returning Carl his gun is framed as anything but a concession. Ferland positions Lincoln right in the center of the frame, profiling the father and son, the camera at knee-level. Carl, who at times over the last two seasons has been the show’s bluntest and most forceful “good guy,” shrinks in comparison to his father. Carl’s brutal nomenclature and willingness to forgo human warmth is no victor. The show’s never suggested otherwise, but it has shown Rick’s code to be weak to his son’s. Consider this notice serviced. The writers and Ferland go further still. “Infected” ends with Rick burning the old pigpen. After he hands Carl his gun and straps on his own holster, he removes his shirt covered in the blood of the pigs and infected, and tosses that into the fire as well. He stands with his bare back to his like some fabled vagrant hero. Imperfect and irresolute, but firm and reliable. He sheds these notes of pretense he’d been clinging to—that he could protect Carl’s psyche (that’ll be up to Carl), or that if he could reconfigure the code of a past to fit into whatever you call his present. All of it, gone. Though episode three may pull back on Rick’s directive, there’s direction, and there’s promise.
- It’s the mark of a good episode when we care more about the individual, small-scale stakes at hand than the overall makeup of the season. Over time, those small pieces add up to a rich longform narrative. That’s good TV.
- Don’t look now, but we have real, careworn Michone development. I can only imagine Danai Gurira’s excitement. Until now, Michone’s been a mix of cool and zombie-slaying convenience. But after the group exterminates Patrick’s Undead Brigade, Beth asks Michone to hold Judith while she cleans her shirt of the infant’s regurgitated carrots; the others cower to walkers, Michone cowers to tiny children. Beth steps out and Michone regards the baby. And then it happens. Her mouth pricks a smile. She brings Judith closer. The smile quivers. Finally, silently, she loses it. She swaths Judith in a hug so desperate for that very sort of touch. She cries. She rocks soothingly, for her, for the formerly crying baby, and for what could very well be dead children of her own. Gurira nails it.
- Bets on who’s sabotaging the camp and, assuming there aren’t two psychopaths in this mix of a couple dozen, murdering people? Maybe Blank-face Beth?
- No one should ever go anywhere with a flashlight without backup batteries. [notification type=star] 81/100 ~ GREAT. “Infected” is real-deal The Walking Dead.[/notification]