The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 2–Sick

“We took out these walkers, this prison is ours.”

WDRickTomas

Warning – contains spoilers!

Having presumably learned a lesson from last year’s fitful pace, this second episode of The Walking Dead’s third season kept up the level of intense action established last week. There was plenty of gore and, importantly, plenty of zombies; but as in all the best zombie stories, the most dangerous threat wasn’t from the shambling dead, but from the greedy, self-interested living.

Readers of the comics will not have been too surprised at last week’s end-of-episode reveal that some of the prisoners had survived, barricaded into the prison cafeteria for nearly a year. But as usual for the show, it looks like their interactions with the heroes (if you can call them that) are taking a very different path from that in the comics. For a start, in the course of only one episode, most of them have now been killed.

The prisoners’ plight, expecting Rick and co to be a rescue team and not comprehending the scale of what’s happened to the world, was an interesting take on the whole post-apocalypse thing. Imagine if you had managed to wait it out, thought you were being rescued, and found out that the whole of civilisation had fallen.

Even then, they scarcely seemed able to grasp it, which was perfectly credible; wanting to borrow cellphones to call their loved ones rather than panicking. It was only when the group’s de facto leader, the aggressive and hyper-macho Tomas (Nick Gomez) pointed out how bad things would have to be outside for people to break into a prison that the reality seemed to sink in.

Tomas was obviously going to be a problem from the start, with he and Rick squaring off to each other as two alpha males vying for territory – if the show had been in smell-o-vision, you could probably have smelled the testosterone. But Tomas was taking his hard man status a little too seriously; as evidenced at the close of the last season, this is a new Rick, more hardened to Shane’s pragmatic view of needing to do anything in order to survive, and unhampered by moral objections from the group now that Dale is gone.

Fairly early in the episode, he had a cold, matter-of-fact discussion with Lori about whether to just kill the prisoners rather than take any risks, which Lori accepted meekly enough. As it turned out, Rick didn’t even leave it to the last resort. Shane may be dead, but it seems his philosophy lives on in his best friend, who was right to doubt the safety of cohabiting with the prison’s former inmates. That confrontational, “we took it. It’s ours” is virtually a quote from the original Dawn of the Dead, and there, as here, we’re perhaps not meant to sympathise with the man expressing such possessive sentiments. Given the alternative, you see his point; but if Dale had still been around, he might have seen the inmates’ point of view too.

These guys are hardened prisoners, and no clue was given as to why they were incarcerated; it could just as easily have been multiple murder as accounting fraud. The former seemed more likely as evidenced by the ferocity of their attack on the zombies. Completely undisciplined, they went at it violently but stupidly, viciously stabbing at anywhere but the head, contrary to Rick’s instructions. No surprise that, in one of the week’s more inventive gory moments, one of them ended up stabbed in the back by the arm bones of a zombie that had torn off its own hand to escape from a pair of cuffs.

Neither was there much surprise, given what we’d established about him, that Tomas chose to end the debate about trying to save his life by brutally smashing his head to a pulp. It was a surprise, though, quite how much Rick had changed towards Shane’s worldview when presented with Tomas’ sly but unconvincing attempt to kill him by shoving a zombie at him after ‘accidentally’ nearly clouting him with a baseball bat. For a few heart-stopping moments, the two men stared at each other coldly as they’d been doing every couple of minutes since the episode started. Then with nary a change of expression, Rick simply clove Tomas’ head in two with a cleaver. Bet he wasn’t expecting that.

But if viewers were shocked by this display of Rick’s new ruthlessness, it was nothing compared to what happened next. Tomas’ compatriot Andrew (who seemed so upset about Tomas’ death that the implication was they were lovers) made a run for it, with Rick in hot pursuit. And when Andrew stumbled into an exercise yard full of walkers, Rick simply locked him in to be torn apart, listening dispassionately to the screaming.

This is indeed a new Rick, hardening to his situation just as he did in the comics. It makes sense, pragmatically, if he’s to ensure his own survival and that of his group; but it also makes him harder to like as a character. I’m betting that this newfound ruthlessness will be a major plot point in the coming episodes.

It is at least (for now) tempered with a certain sense of fairplay, as he kept to his word in allowing surviving prisoners Oscar and Axel to settle in to the newly cleared adjacent cell block to the gang’s own. This may be a mistake. In the comic, it leads to a very gruesome subplot which looks unlikely in the show as it depends on additional characters not included in the TV scripts. Nonetheless, I can’t see showrunner Glen Mazzara leaving the plot thread of the group’s neighbours simply dangling. Custer-bearded whiner Axel (Lew Temple) seems amenable enough (but is he?), but his compatriot Oscar (Vincent Ward), stubborn enough not to beg for his life with a gun pointed at his head, looks like trouble. Still, my guess is that the show will subvert expectations by showing us that Oscar’s the one who can truly be trusted.

Amid all that action, there was still plenty of time for character moments and development, mostly centring on the rest of the group holding vigil for the unconscious Hershel while Rick, Daryl and T-Dog went off a-hunting. Refreshingly though, the character moments sprang as much from their actions as from sitting around listlessly talking, which seemed to be the main format of season two. Carol, in particular, has become much more self-reliant, partly trained by Hershel in medical techniques. After her mostly passive role in previous seasons, as beaten wife and grieving mother, it was good to see Melissa McBride taking charge here, binding Hershel’s stump and experimenting on a downed walker as practice for Lori’s potential upcoming C-section.

Lori, for her part, seemed to be curbing her tendency to whine at every moment, and even gaining a bit of self-aware humour. And it was she who took charge when Hershel stopped breathing, bravely giving mouth to mouth to a man who might rise from the dead and try to eat her face off. Indeed, it was a genuine shock moment that made me jump when he seemed to lunge for her to do just that; but as it turned out, he was back in the land of the living. This surprised me, as Scott Wilson’s absence from the main cast list, together with daughter Maggie’s heartfelt farewell speech to him, made me fairly certain he was on the way out. The fact that he isn’t is a good example of the show playing with your expectations.

It was a measure of how much better this year’s balance between action and character development seems to be that this week’s cliffhanger centred not on the prisoners, or any threat from the walkers, but on Rick’s ambivalence about his cheating wife, and her eagerness to be forgiven. Rick was at least able to reassure her that she was a good mother, after her earlier shouting match with the increasingly self-reliant Carl; like any good son, Carl seems to be following his dad’s example by hardening his worldview towards ruthlessness in order to survive.

But when it came to talking about where their marriage stood, after some wry discussion on the absence of divorce lawyers after the end of civilisation, the best Rick could offer was “we’re all grateful for what you did”, ie saving Hershel. So much left unspoken and nothing resolved – even amidst the thrills and the gore, it was a quietly powerful moment.

Thus far, I’m loving this new season, which seems to have truly taken the criticisms of last year on board. It’s worth noting that the pace of the previous season flagged as early as halfway through its first episode; here, it’s been breathlessly exciting for two already. Thankfully, though, the writers haven’t tacked to the other side of the balance by giving us nothing but action, gore and zombies; there’s still enough depth and development of character to make these people interesting enough to care about. Because without that, they might as well be the walking dead themselves.

My only disappointment this week was the complete absence of Andrea and Michonne, last seen wandering off towards an unspecified destination. I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more of them next week, as the season’s other major plot thread and location begin to get properly established…