“Life was always a test, Rick.”
Things were sure looking grim at the prison in this week’s instalment of The Walking Dead. As seems to be the style this season, it was a slow-burning plot that built to an action-packed climax; with Daryl’s drug-gathering party still not returned, only Rick, Carl, Maggie and Hershel were well enough to defend the fences against the hordes of slavering undead. And Hershel was unavailable, having quarantined himself in Cell Block A with the sufferers of the mysterious disease.
Just as last week focused on Carol, this ep was very much centred around Hershel. Things were not going well in quarantine, with patients seemingly dropping like flies; but Hershel was keen to keep up the appearance of normality, hastily wheeling the dead away on gurneys for Glenn to do the necessary deed of stabbing their skulls lest they wake up hungry.
It was pretty bleak stuff, but also a little uplifting in portraying Hershel’s unbending dedication to caring for the sick. As a healer, though, he hadn’t – yet – had to deal out the required post-mortem brain impalements. But when Glenn became too ill to help, he found himself having to do so. And unable to keep up with the rate at which the victims were dying.
We’ve never been definitively shown how large the prison community had become with the influx of former Woodbury residents; the seemingly endless supply of ill characters to drop dead implies that there were a lot of them. Nevertheless, with this kind of death rate, you have to wonder whether the show’s new ensemble will be rapidly reduced back to its former level. That’s possibly a good thing, as shows with large casts frequently suffer from giving most of their characters little more depth than extras.
Of course, it all got out of hand, as Hershel is only one man – no one person could keep up with exterminating all the recently risen dead at the rate this lot were dropping. Still, though, their idea of quarantine continued to be rather ineffectual, given the situation. Perhaps it was part of Hershel’s strategy of keeping up the pretence of normality; but surely in a situation where anyone who’s ill could die and come back as a lethal threat, the sensible thing to do would be to keep the sick in their cells with the doors locked.
Still, if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy another well-choreographed Walker attack inside the prison. Even with the threat of an epidemic, The Walking Dead never forgets that it’s basically a zombie story (which Kirkman’s original comic often does). Indeed, the fact that the dead are a threat heightens the tension of the plague plot.
So we got some real tension as the recently deceased began roaming the quarantine block, with Hershel the only one who could – unwillingly – stop them. As the script mentioned, he was quite the hero this week, ministering to the sick, keeping people’s spirits up, and now having to deal with a Walker attack virtually singlehandedly.
The disease had been basically killing people by drowning them in their own blood, forcing Hershel to intubate them with respirator bags. You could tell things were getting bad when he had to do so with Sasha; and while he was thus occupied, undealt-with corpses were getting up behind him. They included Dr Subramanian, who had looked particularly grim even while still alive, stockpiling a shotgun against his inevitable end. That end duly came, with Hershel snapping the undead doctor’s arm against the bars of the cell door then killing him for real. Looks like Dr S was the only one with enough sense to lock his cell door when he was on the way out.
With Glenn close to asphyxiation, we got an almost unbearably tense sequence as Hershel tried to retrieve the breather bag from the mouth of a recently revived Walker. Heroic yes, but surely also foolhardy? Given how quickly Walker bites can kill, you had to wonder at the infective potential of re-using a respirator that had been down one’s throat.
Still, the script didn’t dwell on that, and Hershel pulled it off with a little help from the newly arrived Maggie, who had bust into quarantine by means of smashing the glass in the visitors’ room. Cause for a cheer, but that pretty well screws up the quarantine – especially if the disease is airborne.
Again, the script didn’t dwell on that, which struck me as mightily convenient; as did the unquestioned idea that the antibiotics being retrieved by Daryl’s party would definitely cure the illness. Still, we established last season that any character could die at any time, however prominent. That led to some real tension as to whether the gurgling, wheezing Glenn really might not make it. Or Hershel, for that matter. Dr S had been reasonably well-established, and he was offed with little fanfare, a nicely realistic touch given the scenario.
It wasn’t all about life in quarantine this week though. Rick had returned from his trip alone, leading Maggie and Carl to ask the inevitable questions about Carol. Fair play to him, Rick was utterly up front about what she’d done, what he did and why. Maggie seemed to agree; though the paranoid in me still wonders whether Carol was covering up for someone else. Maggie perhaps… or even Carl? He’s done far worse in the comics.
With everyone ill, and a Walker attack going on in quarantine, Rick and Carl still had their own problems to worry about. The horde of Walkers straining at the increasingly fragile-looking fence were close to actually busting in. And even with wooden bars reinforcing the diamond-wire, their sheer numbers meant that, eventually, they did. This led to an exciting sequence in which Rick and Carl, looking impossibly cool, stood their ground and machine-gunned them one by one as they poured through the narrow gap.
It was undoubtedly a memorable image, though one that made me ponder yet again whether the zombie genre’s fetishisation of guns should be quite so readily accepted. At least in The Walking Dead, the characters have the very real problem that the ammunition is getting scarce by this point; hence the increasing reliance on knives through the skull, and the ever-reliable boot-stomping.
Juts when all looked bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Daryl’s returning party. Not only did they help Rick and Carl put down the Walker incursion, they’d brought the precious drugs whose efficacy never seemed to be in doubt. If the plague storyline is over quite so easily, I’ll be a little disappointed. Usually this show does its best to give its characters the hardest possible time, and it seems odd for them to catch a break.
Gore of the week
Quite a bit, in an ep as concerned with action as character interaction. There was an impressively rotten Walker at the very start of the ep; though perhaps ‘Walker’ is the wrong term for a ghoul so badly damaged it can’t actually walk. The dogs gnawing at its guts were a nice touch.
There were the usual roster of head-impalements at the fence, not to mention Rick and Carl’s machine gun frenzy taking the tops off many a skull. It was notable that one of those, too, was so rotten its face was little more than a skull covered in scraps of flesh. I’ve theorised about it before – could our heroes’ salvation come from the Walkers decomposing so badly they can no longer function?
So, plenty of action this week, and a lot of genuine tension before the cavalry arrived. You really wondered at several points whether some of the regulars might not make it. Particularly including Hershel, who’s already put himself massively in harm’s way by volunteering to work in quarantine.
It was a magnificent performance from Scott Wilson in an episode that really centred on his character. Whether in earnest conversation with Rick, wincing as he put down a Walker, or crumbling in tears at the end when he could finally rest, this ep showed Hershel very much to be the new moral heart of the show – and less of a whiner than the previous occupier of that role, Dale.
All that said, I still have niggles about the plague storyline. Was everyone being genuinely dumb with such an ill-thought-out quarantine? Is it all over, quite so easily? Has no thought been given to how exactly the disease spread – or where it came from?
I’ve speculated about that before, and one of the speculations may be about to bear fruit. This ep had one last killer punch to make that allowed me to forgive it a lot, as the camera pulled slowly back from the prison fence to reveal a previously unsuspected observer, whose eyepatched profile was all too recognisable. Ladies and gentlemen, the Governor is back…