Last week’s episode established a new sense of normalcy among the survivors — farming, barbecues, story time (with bonus knife lessons for the kiddies). The aim of this week’s episode was to tear all of that down and plunge the prison into chaos. That’s bad news for the gang, but great news for us. Remember season two, when things got way too cozy at Hershel’s farm? That feels like a lifetime ago. Now, when life becomes remotely comfortable, there’s something terrible lurking around the corner. So when Karen and Tyreese are snuggling and the big fella’s singing Sinatra and suggesting they “crash at her place,” you just know their romance won’t end well. (One lesson that Maggie and Glenn learned a while back: never put off getting laid during a zombie apocalypse.) Though it’s early in the season, there seems to be a new emphasis on striking a balance between action and emotion. So far, it’s working.
As suggested by Patrick’s swift death and grisly reanimation in the showers, there’s a new threat — a nasty superflu that’s turning healthy folks into flesh-eaters overnight. (Karen probably shouldn’t have washed up with the water that Patrick spewed all over.) There also seems to be a new commitment to gore this season, and right away, we’re treated to Patrick’s sloppy chowdown on one of the randos in cell block D. Like any hungry zombie, he starts with the neck and digs into that carotid. But then he really goes to town, digging in with both hands; when Patrick’s meal rises, the guy’s entrails spill out. This is next-level gruesome. Later, while the walkers nearly break down the fence, one of them presses so hard against the chain link that his face begins to split. It’s good, gross fun, but also raises the visual stakes. Life is uglier than ever before.
Patrick’s rampage sets off a full-blown attack in block D that has far-reaching consequences. For starters, a bunch of folks die, including the father of those two little girls, Lizzie and Mika, who were rapping with Carl last week. Their dad asks Carol to care for them once he’s gone; her first move as surrogate mom is to encourage the girls to drive a knife through his skull (think of it as homework, kids). Mika wisely tells Carol hells to the no and older sis Lizzie can’t bring herself to do it, either. Carol — who’s particularly annoying with the girls and while grilling Carl about keeping her secret — tells Lizzie she’s weak. Mika fires back, wisely: “She’s messed up. She’s not weak.” There’s a difference, Carol! And really, who’s the adult here?
Thankfully, there’s a doctor in the house who isn’t a veterinarian. (But he is, of course, Indian.) Everyone who rushed to save block D has been exposed, including Rick, who begins the process of shedding his farmer persona like a snakeskin. Before the slaughter, he was firm with Carl — we don’t kill zombies anymore and we don’t use guns. When the prison goes haywire, though, Rick gets back into killing mode pretty quickly, much to Daryl’s relief: “When the shit hits, you’re standing there with a shovel.” (Rick, by the way, is standing there, with a shovel.) Daryl, fittingly, was the one who put Patrick down. The kid would have been so honored.
Then there’s the matter of zombies piling up outside the gates. Someone, we see in the opener, has been feeding rats to them at night, hence the herding. (All signs point to Lizzie, who was oddly attached to “Nick” and his undead pals.) Michonne tweaks her leg trying to help during the D block massacre, and besides her love of stale M&Ms, we learn she has a soft spot for babies. The scene when she reluctantly holds Judith was a little obvious, but it makes sense from a character standpoint — Michonne won’t allow herself to be vulnerable, even with an infant. But it’s Beth’s line about people who’ve lost kids that hits home; when Michonne pulls Judy in close, she breaks down, leaving us to wonder about the family she’s lost.
As with last week, Rick’s struggle to retain his humanity — and that of his son — is the heart of this episode. First, he kills a walker in block D. Then he helps with the fence cleaning, again with his knife. As the herd begins to force its way inside, Rick stands in a no-man’s land of sorts, with his farm on one side and the frenzied hordes on the other. It’s symbolic of the man he wants to be — at peace, raising his kids to be more than cold-blooded survivalists — and his old self. In case we miss the gravity of his plan to disperse the herd, Very Dramatic Music plays as he sacrifices the hogs he nurtured, using them for walker bait. With each pig he slices, Farmer Rick slips away. (It’s also probably not good that the swine blood — possibly infected with the Zombie Flu — splattered all over his face.)
In the end, Rick makes it clear he’s trading agriculture for ass-kicking. Carl gets his piece back (only a matter of time before he’s rocking the sheriff’s hat again) and Rick dusts off his trusty .357 Magnum and holster. (Again, in case you weren’t sure he was changing, Rick burns his shirt. Symbolism alert!) As we all expected, Tyreese’s romance ends in tragedy, made even more excruciating by the poor guy’s flowers and that look of teenage excitement on his face as he searches for Karen. She’d been quarantined with “David from Decatur,” since they both came down with a nasty cough. What Tyreese finds stuns him and us — not a growling, inhuman version of his girlfriend, but two charred corpses and gas cans, victims of what appears to be a double murder. It’s grisly, heartbreaking stuff; we’re guessing the one body is the Decatur dude, and we’re sure, thanks to her “Rocks Paper Scissors” bracelet, the other is Karen. But even if they were about to turn, why would someone kill them that way? And who’s the prime suspect? (Bob, a.k.a. D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire?) Could there be a connection to the mysterious fence feeder? It’s a good thing Rick is back. And he’s gonna need a bigger shovel.