The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 3–Isolation

“Everything we’ve been working so hard to keep out – it found its way in.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Things are looking grim indeed for the plucky band of survivors in another excellent ep of The Walking Dead. Scripted by original comic creator Robert Kirkman, if anything this outdid the previous two in terms of pacing, starting slow but building up the intensity and drama to a satisfying climax.

Given that we’re now into a plotline that never featured in the original comic, it’s a testament to Kirkman’s skill as a TV dramatist that he adapts so well to a different medium with an all new story. That’s not to say there’s nothing here from the source material though; the previously rather cardboard Tyreese finally got to show off his volatile personality in an impressive Walker massacre mirroring his solo clearout of the prison gym in the comic.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The majority of this week’s ep focused on two strands – the increasingly widespread and mysterious epidemic, and the worrying prospect that someone in the community is prepared to kill to protect it.

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That the second of these strands would lead to someone we knew and cared about was perhaps the only predictable aspect of a script that, initially at least, was prepared to be contemplative about the nightmarish situation in the prison. Since last week, it seems that almost everyone in the community has come down with the sickness and been isolated in Cell Block A. Leaving, a little conveniently, only the longstanding major characters uninfected.

A sacrifice had to be made to give us a little more emotional investment in a situation that, thus far, was only affecting characters of whom we had little knowledge. At first I thought that sacrifice was Tyreese’s sister Sasha, coughing valiantly before making her feverish way into the makeshift isolation ward. But then, even if she is a major character, we’ve only known Sasha since halfway through the last season, and with the best will in the world she hasn’t been given much in the way of depth yet.

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Step up then, Glenn, to break our hearts by becoming the first major character we actually care about to become infected. The sense of jeopardy became that bit more real when he started coughing, to Maggie’s horror. And remember, the show has already demonstrated many times that no major character is safe, however longstanding in the comics. From what we’ve seen of the mysterious illness, nobody has so far been immune, or recovered once showing symptoms. Glenn might indeed be on the way out (though I hope not).

I was glad to see that, in at least one case, the gang had finally figured out that it might be a good idea to lock the infected in their cells, as a slavering Walker lunged through the bars at Sasha. Most of them, though, still seem to be coughing their lungs out in cells of which the doors are unwisely left open.

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There’s also the inconvenience that, having finally acquired a doctor, he’s ended up getting infected trying to treat the victims. That at least is believable – in any such epidemic situation, medics put themselves at greater risk than anyone else simply by doing their jobs. Still, it would be a shame to lose Dr Subramanian – though as Indian names go, his doesn’t seem so complex that it has to constantly be diminutised as “Dr S”.

Medicine is what’s lacking here – as Hershel pointed out, antibiotics are the obvious thing to try. Trouble is, all the local pharmacies have already been picked clean. But Hershel had an idea – as a vet, he knew of a veterinary college that should have all the requisite drugs. Trouble was, it was 50 miles away. Time then, for another peril-laden trip outside the fences, undertaken as ever by Daryl, unsurprisingly accompanied by Michonne. Also along for the trip were former medic Bob, looking visibly uncomfortable at riding in a car that had belonged to Zach, who he indirectly got killed; and Tyreese, still boiling with rage at the murder of his girlfriend.

As other reviewers have pointed out, with the show now having amassed enough runtime to make 19 or so actual zombie movies, it’s getting increasingly difficult to come up with new and inventive ways to make a Walker attack surprising and suspenseful; the same is true of those dangerous trips to get supplies, which never end well.

The show has admirably avoided getting stale in these regards, as exemplified a couple of weeks ago with the whole set piece of Walkers falling from a supermarket ceiling. This week, inventiveness was substituted with sheer scale, as Daryl, distracted by a tantalising voice on the car’s radio, nearly crashed into an errant Walker in the road. Then another. And another. Until the camera, panning back, revealed them to be heading into the biggest herd of Walkers yet seen in the show.

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What were they all doing there? Who knows, but we’ve seen their ‘flocking’ behaviour before. Whatever the reason, the slow pan back to reveal the thousands of them clogging the road ahead was an excellent visual touch from director Dan Sackheim, and one of many; on a more restrained scale, we’d earlier seen the deceased Patrick’s glasses nicely foregrounded hanging from a grave. The direction in this show is consistently impressive.

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With all the drama and threat from the plague, the show could have been forgiven for backgrounding the Walkers a little this week, and initially I thought that was what had happened. Kirkman’s script started off focusing on the characters. Hershel got some nice scenes with the increasingly earnest Carl as he ventured into the woods in search of herbal remedies, then later turned all Florence Nightingale as he voluntarily walked into the disease-ridden cell block to administer them, virtually guaranteeing his own infection. And even Beth finally seems to be getting a personality, in an affecting quiet chat from either side of a locked door with her sister Maggie.

But the Walkers were far from forgotten. The slow build meant that when they did start putting in appearances, it was all the more effective. Aside from the one locked in the sick ward, Hershel and Carl encountered a seemingly harmless pair in the woods; then Carol, fearlessly out getting water from the creek beyond the fence, had to be helped out by Rick when a mini-horde descended on her. And just when I thought that was it, Daryl and co encountered them in numbers we’d never seen before.

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Gore of the week

At first it didn’t seem like there’d be much. Obviously coughing up blood, as the plague victims are wont to do, isn’t very nice, but it’s not exactly on the level of head-squelching gore this show normally displays. Still, the massively decomposed Walker Carl and Hershel stumbled over (almost literally) in the woods was impressive – the most rotten specimen we’ve encountered since Bicycle Girl in the very first ep.

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Later on, Carol showed that she’s still no slouch at dealing with the Walkers, cleaving a head in two in a shot that was surely a tribute to the original Dawn of the Dead’s head/machete interface:

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But aside from the spectacle of their numbers, the herd encountered by the supply-searching party gave the best opportunities for gore. Backing frantically away from the shambling masses, Daryl was probably wishing for a four wheel drive rather than a Dodge Charger as stacks of Walkers accumulated under the back wheels leading to some very red-tinged wheelspin:

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And as the guys fought their way out, Tyreese finally found a sensible outlet for his rage as he stove in head after head without a thought for his own safety:

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It was nice to see Tyreese finally getting a character beyond “stoic but decent”, and for that we have the character’s creator to thank. But the biggest character shock of the ep (and, fittingly, the cliffhanger) was the revelation of just who had killed and burned the unfortunate Karen and David, sending Tyreese into a frenzy of rage in the process.

Having been reminded (reasonably I thought) that whatever else he was, Rick used to be a cop, he did a little investigating. Well, actually not all that much; I guess his cop instincts still work well enough to get hunches. As he pondered over the surprisingly small bloody handprint at the scene of the crime, I wondered if the (inevitably familiar) culprit would turn out to be Carl. He’s done worse in the comics, though always with the best of intentions.

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But no, as Rick sussed, the most fiercely protective one in the community (who presumably also has small hands) is Carol. As a character, she’s convincingly developed from a timid beaten wife to a survivor capable of doing whatever is necessary for the community – like a mother protecting her children, perhaps to replace the child she lost in season two. It was entirely in character that, when Rick asked her straight out if she’d killed Karen and David, she simply said, “yes”.

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So that’s going to put the cat among the pigeons. It was a nice touch, that, even in an ep filled with the jeopardy of a plague epidemic, various Walker attacks and a mysterious radio transmission, it was a moment of character drama that provided the climax. While the show doesn’t always do too well in this regard (take a bow, T-Dog), it’s good to see that in the hands of its creator it can still get the balance right.