After five episodes, one thing is clear: This season is all about striking a balance between zombie mayhem and character development. Last night offered more evidence of this trend, and played like a tale of two apocalypses. The first half was symbolism and Steinbeck and grim music, with a ton of coughing. Then the walkers went nutso, both inside and outside the prison. And speaking of what lurks beyond the walls, who’s that watching Rick and Carl bond over green beans with his one good eye?
The star of this installment — aside from Henry the Endotracheal Intubated Zombie — is Hershel. As evidenced by his “spaghetti Wednesdays” joke that falls flat, quarantines filled with folks bleeding out of their eyeballs make for a tough crowd. It’s a hopeless gig he’s signed up for — keeping folks from thinking about the fact that they’re hacking up blood and will likely meet a gruesome end, only to reanimate moments later and try to eat their friends. So he keeps the mood light and gives Lizzie a homework assignment (bet the kid misses Carol already — who wants to read Tom Sawyer when you could be learning knife tricks?).
Hershel also finds himself in the unenviable position of having to Carol one of his patients who dies. That’s no problem for Glenn, who doesn’t hesitate to take out the black fellow who turns (we’re told his name was Mr. Jacobs, perhaps to reinforce the notion that randos are people, too). It’s a different story for Hershel. He is the survivor who’s stayed truest to who he was before the shit when down, despite losing his farm, most of his family, and half a leg. When it’s time to put down a dead patient, once again we get some mood music — Ben Howard’s “Oats in the Water,” a somber, foreboding tune that could basically play every five minutes on this grim show and feel right.
There’s also some not-so-subtle symbolism in Hershel’s decision to wheel the dead out of view before the knife does its work. Everyone knows what those bodies will become; what Hershel fears is what the living have become as well. Heavy stuff! And a little heavy-handed, sure. But if you weren’t moved when Hershel finally breaks down, alone in a cell and finding little comfort in his Bible, I submit that you, sir or madam, are deader than Doc Caleb. (Who, like Bob, doesn’t feel like a Caleb. But let’s not speak ill of the twice dead.)
If you’re sicker than Sasha over all the yapping, the episode delivers at the midway point, when the prison’s property value takes a nosedive. First, the fences give way as a massive zombie herd pulls a reverse prison break. Simultaneously, the sick bay is awash with walkers, forcing poor limpin’-ass Hershel to hop up the stairs and save little Lizzie. The kid scores points for luring Intubated Henry away from Glenn, but loses them for not dropping that damn book while she does it. Did she learn nothing from Miss Don’t Call Me Mom?
We learn a few things from the chaos that ensues. Maggie is a great shot, as she takes out Intubated Henry without blasting the air pump in his mouth. Perhaps the only survivor who’s better with guns is Carl, who mows down walkers with an assault rifle and nonchalantly tosses a magazine to his old man. (Quick aside — this week’s Grimes Gaze comes early, when Rick returns and asks Maggie about “Glenn, Hershel, Sasha.” Makes me laugh every time.) Cowboy boots are not the ideal footwear for evading zombies, as Lizzie learned the hard way. Child care in the quarantine is a high-risk job, as that dad finds out when his turned son makes a meal of his face. And Bob Barksdale is apparently not back on the sauce, as he appears sober while tending to Glenn, who was one commercial break away from biting it.
What we didn’t get much of was Michonne, who flashes another smile instead of her sword. (We’ve seen more of her teeth in these five episodes than all of last season combined. Woodbury’s downfall surely has something to do with that. Looks like she won’t be grinning for long, though.) It was also a tough night for all you members of the Daryl Fan Club, considering his late arrival on the scene, as he bestows the title of “Tough Sonvabitch” on Glenn and Hershel. Weirdly in terms of realism but logically from a storytelling standpoint, Daryl doesn’t start asking about Carol until the morning. This sets up one whopper of an awkward conversation with Rick next week.
Now that the fences have been breeched, their stronghold is feeling less like a fortress and more like … well, a prison. It’s not as safe as it once was, and some horrible stuff has gone down there. Relocation seems imminent. After Carl finishes mowing down the undead, he says to Rick, “Everything’s going to be okay.” That prompts a look from Rick that implies, “You trippin’, son.” Yes, Glenn is stable and it appears Sasha and the rest will get those meds in time. But trouble stands just a few feet beyond the fence, and it has a name (and an eye patch) — The Governor has returned. Was the mass murderer we love to hate the one who lured walkers to the prison with rat snacks? What’s he planning next? Will he somehow drive the survivors out? And will Michonne finally get her revenge? Then there’s Carol, who’s out there somewhere and bound to return, perhaps to save the day and make amends. She’d better wait a little while, though. There’s something crazier than zombies watching her old pals.