“It’s so easy to do the wrong thing in this world.”
After three damned good episodes in a row, I’ve been half expecting this much improved Walking Dead to stumble, with a stagey, talky episode like so many last year. I kind of thought this would be the one, with the gang safely ensconced in their new home and the unease about Woodbury still just a background murmur. Instead, this week’s episode served up one of the most unbearably tense, dramatic and emotional hours of television I’ve seen for a long time. Along the way, so many major characters were put in separate situations of jeopardy it was almost impossible to keep track, and by the jaw-dropping, tear-inducing end, we’d unexpectedly seen two of them bite the dust.
Sang Kyu Kim’s expertly structured script started slowly enough, intercutting tense scenes in Woodbury with the relative calm of Rick’s gang at the prison, where the clear up of the felled walkers was continuing apace. But in the precredit sequence, we’d already seen a mysterious figure (presumably the one watching Carol from the woods a couple of weeks ago) unchaining the exercise yard’s penned zombies and setting them a trail of disembowelled deer chunks. Plainly things were going to go wrong for Rick’s group. But I couldn’t have foreseen how frenetically wrong they would go as the episode ratcheted up the tension.
As the gang began their clearup, the mood was jocular; Maggie and Glenn had been off shagging in the guard tower again, prompting guffaws of mirth as a smirking Daryl enquired “You comin’?” Hershel was taking his first stumbling steps on crutches, and things looked good. A slight tension was introduced with the reappearance of convicts Axel and Oscar, who said they couldn’t live in the cell block full of their friends’ corpses and begged to join Rick and the gang.
Some toing and froing about this ensued, with T-Dog surprisingly taking the “group conscience” role left vacant by Dale. But to no avail – Daryl and the new, pragmatic Rick both had experience of these kinds of guys, and neither was prepared to take the risk. So they were penned between the outer fences pending release into the outside world, and things looked stable again. Which was when a horde of walkers showed up, and everything went to hell all at once.
In the chaos, the group were split up into at least four separate parties. Rick, Daryl, and Glenn were rushing to undo the multifarious locks that would get them back through the fences to their friends. Hershel and Beth managed to shut themselves up at the top of a stairwell. Maggie, Lori and Carl dashed for the opposite door leading into the depths of the prison. And Carol was dragged inside too by T-Dog, who in a genuine shock moment had got himself bitten.
In hindsight, I suppose T-Dog’s death was somewhat signposted by the fact that his moral argument with Rick and Daryl gave him seemingly more lines than he’d had in the entirety of the previous season. He’s never been well-used as a character by the writers, which gave him the unfortunate appearance of tokenism as the group’s only non-white character. But for his final episode (too little too late perhaps), he got to step up and be an honest to goodness hero. Having been bitten, it was only a matter of time of course; but even then, he sacrificed what little life he had left to save Carol, literally holding two slavering walkers back so she could escape through a nearby door while they chowed down on him with some really nasty gore.
The stakes just kept ratcheting up as the episode went on. As Rick, Daryl and Glenn reached the yard to put pay to the walkers menacing Beth and Hershel, the prison siren unexpectedly started blaring, basically sounding a dinner bell to any walkers from outside. Then, as a gun-toting Carl led the way through the darkened interior of the prison like the hero of a first person shooter, Lori found the most inconvenient moment possible to go into labour.
Obviously giving birth in a corridor full of zombies wasn’t an option, so Carl led her and Maggie into a nearby machine room conveniently free of walkers. But even then, there was no letup in the tension. We already knew that Lori had had to have Carl by C-section, and would probably have to this time as well. But Hershel and Carol were nowhere nearby. Lori had only Carl and Maggie to help.
And again, things did not go well. Lori wasn’t properly dilated, and the baby couldn’t come out. There was only one option, on which Lori insisted despite the protestations of the tearful Maggie and Carl. They would have to cut her open to get the baby out. And with no anaesthetic, it would kill her.
The death of T-Dog (underused though he was) would have been shock enough for one episode. That the show was prepared to kill off, essentially, its female lead, was a hell of a surprise, and a well-handled one too. Having spent much of the last season whining and setting Rick and Shane at each other’s throats, Lori (through no fault of actor Sarah Wayne Callies) earned more than a share of fans’ ire. But she more than redeemed herself here, with a death scene freighted with emotion.
Stepping up equally well with an amazing performance was Chandler Riggs as Carl. The tearful exchanges of mother and son saying goodbye were almost unbearable to watch. Not to mention the fact that, as Maggie cut deep into Lori’s belly to extract the baby, we couldn’t know if it would survive.
Survive it (she) did, but the ordeal wasn’t over; because Carl had to shoot his mother in the head before she turned. Again, Chandler Riggs’ performance, as he first begged to be spared this then went back into the room to carry out the deed, was nothing short of incredible. The shot happened offscreen, so we might yet see an undead Lori, her guts hanging out, have to be put down properly. But I hope not; to do that would be to undercut the dramatic impact of the scene.
But it was another supposed offscreen death that was to blame for the situation, as Rick and Daryl discovered. Finding the generator running the siren, they also found Andrew, the convict left to die by Rick two weeks ago. Evidently he hadn’t died, and was intent on revenge. The inevitable struggle was less tense than events elsewhere, as it hardly seemed likely that the show would off both its leading roles in the same episode. But it did give Oscar a chance to step up, choosing to shoot his fellow convict rather than side with him against Rick’s group. So the gang has another “token” non-white to replace T-Dog – let’s hope actor Vincent Ward gets a better share of the action.
If all that left you feeling thoroughly wrung out emotionally, it was nothing compared to the final scene as a devastated Carl and Maggie wordlessly handed Rick the baby, and Lori’s fate became clear to him. Andrew Lincoln too gave a gut wrenching performance as the new Ruthless Rick just crumbled, stumbling crying onto the floor. After recent episodes, this had upped the emotional ante by making it clear early on that Rick really did still love his wife. That just made it all the more heartbreaking that she died without them getting to reconcile with each other. And the fate of Carol is still unknown – is she still wandering the innards of the prison, or did the walkers get her?
With all that going on, you’d think it somewhat redundant to keep intercutting such intense action with the slower moving events in Woodbury. Not a bit of it; those scenes functioned as breathers in the action, and also heightened the tension. Each time one of the group in the prison was in mortal jeopardy, the scene cut to the more idyllic setting leaving you gasping with tension.
And those scenes also served to further the narrative of what’s happening in the show’s other setting. Michonne is still highly suspicious of the setup; having found the bullet holes and fresh blood in the newly acquired National Guard vehicles, she sailed perilously close to danger by voicing her suspicions to the Governor himself, who came up with glib but unconvincing excuses.
Andrea, meanwhile, was chatting with the new, mellower Merle, who found common ground with her now that they’d both been ‘abandoned’ by the group. She was also undeniably flirting with the Governor, who revealed his real name to be Philip, as in the comics. And Merle’s newfound eagerness to hunt for his brother led the Governor to comment that he “understood”. Could he have brother issues as well?
David Morrissey and Michael Rooker are well-matched, their scenes together like watching two alpha males head-butting. For the moment, the Governor has the upper hand. But how long will that last against the unpredictable Merle?
This will probably be the pattern of episodes for the foreseeable future, intercutting between the show’s two settings to wring maximum tension out of one, the other or both. This time, the dramatic heart of the episode (and boy, was it dramatic) was at the prison. It was an amazing episode, courtesy of writer Sang Kyu Kim and director Guy Ferland, that has achieved the apparently impossible in continuing to top the previous ones. From last year’s frustratingly stop-start narrative, The Walking Dead has now become one of the most compulsively watchable shows on TV – let’s see if it can carry on with episodes of this kind of quality.