After three seasons of The Walking Dead, we’d seen a lot, and we knew what we liked and what we didn’t want. We knew what we wanted. We wanted consistency, and intelligent decision making, and better characters — particularly for women and minorities. We wanted better writing.
If the first two episodes of Season Three are any indication, we are getting all of those things — whether we want them or not. For make no mistake, my friends. The writing and characterization is superb so far, but it absolutely devastating. One of the advantages — and I use the term very loosely — of the increased numbers at the prison is that the carnage can now take place of a much larger scale, and the effects, when utilized properly, can be that much more devastating. And that’s what happened this week — flat-out devastation struck the prison, from within and without, literally and figuratively. Chaos was king this week, and each time the group thought they could stop to take a breath and decide their next steps, the next disaster would rear its head.
As before, we start off gently, the show lulling us with the softer side of Tyrese and his relationship with Karen, a genuine and sweet little moment that at this point should have set off warning bells. And it did, as she wandered through the prison’s darkened halls in a masterfully suspenseful opening, where the darkness itself almost seemed like its own menacing character. Yet we were fooled, weren’t we. More on this later.
It’s only minutes later that chaos takes control, and the prison becomes just that — a prison, with hell exploding from within and nowhere to go. The battle in the prison block is a spectacularly vicious one, something the likes of which we haven’t quite seen since season one. The sheer numbers of survivors makes it an exercise in claustrophobic terror, as the dead lurch to and fro and people and children desperately try to claw their way to safety. In the midst of it, Rick finally begins to regain that sense of purpose, of necessary violence, and emerges with blood to the elbows and what probably feel like fresh cuts on his soul.
However, the carnage in the prison isn’t the worst of it. Not even the absolutely heartbreaking scene with Carol and Ryan Samuels, one that makes me once again sing the praises of Melissa McBride, is the worst of it. And that scene is fairly brutal, from Carol’s terrible serenity when she’s about to amputate*, to her steely sympathies when she knows its too late. But worst of all was the desperate pleas as the girls tried not to witness the cruelest of possible fates. I’ll be hearing little girls cry, “look at the flowers!” in my nightmares for a little while.
Yet the worst was still to come. Something is attacking them from the inside. Some things, if we want to get technical. Something is plaguing the people and animals of the prison, and we can only wait and witness the inevitable paranoia and fear that it will foster. What’s almost worse is the other unseen nemesis, the one that feeds rats to walkers, the one that is slowly trying to kill them all each night. But that particular terror is for another day, I suppose.
One of this season’s greatest successes has been its unflinching focus on the fragile, flawed humanity of its denizens. Michonne’s startlingly affecting, emotionally heavy scene with Beth and the baby brought a whole new light to her — one that was needed, actually. Much as I love Michonne, in particular now that actress Danai Gurira has been allowed to spread her wings a bit, there was a certain one-note aspect to her that has been injected with a new life, a new sense of realness. By the same token, Carl has become a real person, and Chandler Riggs has finally turned the corner for me, leaving behind the insolent, teeth-grindingly frustrating brat that drove people batty for the first three seasons.
Yet Andrew Lincoln’s Rick was perhaps the most interesting and affecting character this week. There was this remarkable feeling through this episode that was almost an homage to the great old western films. That image of the tired, broken, aging gunslinger, who has given up his guns to live a simpler life with a family was a powerful part of ‘Infected,’ and Lincoln’s weary, disheveled face made you feel every pang of regret and fear. And as he tore through the walkers in the prison, as he took charge of the battle to save their weakening fortifications, and as he finally took up arms once more, you could sense doors opening ahead and closing behind him. There was a redemptive feel to the whole endeavor, and that final moment, as he burned his bloodstained clothes and stood there with guns on his hips, felt like — for better or worse — a rebirth.
We ended how we began — with Tyrese and Karen, but in a terrible, grisly, tragic parody of that opening. Instead of love, we have heartbreak, instead of affection, there’s tragedy. Instead of the heat of intimacy, there’s the blistering heat of burning corpses and the fire of fury and anguish in Tyrese’s eyes. ‘Infected’ was a terrific episode, but also an exhausting one. They may not be characters that we’ve known for long, but the new showrunners and writers and directors have found ways of giving every death a weight, and after seemingly relentless onslaught of this episode, that weight felt almost crushing. The Walking Dead has never been easy on its viewers, but they’re mining new depths this season, and the show is — thus far, at least — better for it.
.* Postscript: OK, at some point we have to discuss one of the glaring problems here — if everyone is infected, why does amputation make any difference? If everyone is infected, why is a zombie bite — as long as it’s nonlethal — any worse than, say, a cat bite? Or put differently, why does it seem like every zombie bite is lethal? Someone please tell me if I’m missing something.