While watching “Four Walls And A Roof,” I found myself thinking of Hannibal—and not for the most obvious reason. (The most obvious reason being “people getting eaten.”) In “Coquilles,” an episode from Hannibal’s first season, the show introduced Jack Crawford’s wife, Bella (Gina Torres). Bella has a secret: She’s dying from cancer, and hasn’t told her husband yet. In a show full of gorgeous and grotesque violence, this revelation has a remarkable power to it, partly because Torres and Laurence Fishburne (a couple in real life) are terrific actors, and partly because it serves to recontextualize everything else about the show. All the grand guignol gore, all the brilliant psychopaths and Machiavellian plotting, and yet here’s a woman, dying in a way that can’t be solved, avenged, or stopped. For a few moments, the show willingly reminds us that death isn’t an enemy to investigated, profiled, and ultimately defeated. Death is just what happens. Sooner or later, whatever you do, it happens.

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The Walking Dead doesn’t generally operate on these terms. It’s an introspective show, but only to a point; a big part of the appeal is the fundamental escapism of the premise, in that (by and large) no matter how shitty your life is, it’s going to look better in comparison to a bunch of people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse. You can enjoy the fantasy of a world with no jobs or laws, while relaxing in the comfort of your own home with all its electricity and running water and not-being-murdered. That sort of escapism doesn’t work well if the writers keep reminding the audience that, walkers or not, everyone dies eventually.

And yet, I’d argue that’s sort of what happened tonight. Last week’s episode ended with the discovery that Gareth had survived Terminus, along with a few other fine young cannibals. They’d tracked Rick and the group, and taken advantage of Bob’s solo trip outside to kidnap him, bring him back to their camp, cut off his leg and bandage the wound, and then cook the leg for supper. (Given that this all seemed to happen over the course of a couple hours, that’s some impressive time management. Bob’s stump didn’t even appear to be bleeding that much.) It made for a creepy, striking visual, and Gareth is a terrific enemy—smug, monstrous, but with just enough determination and charisma that he’s fun to root against. No pretense of decency or waffling from this guy. Just pure, committed nastiness.

So the direction for this week seemed clear enough: Our heroes were going to have to figure out a way to take care of Gareth once and for all. The fight would be vicious and ugly, and would most likely end with some casualties on both sides, and, well, that would be that. And that’s what happens more or less. Except things are a bit different than past Walking Dead confrontations. It suggests a new direction for the show going forward; nothing drastic or anything—I’m sure we’ll still spend a lot of time with sweaty people being sad about all those ambulatory corpses. But it establishes a different tone.

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The reason I mentioned “Coquilles” above is because Bob had already been bitten when Gareth and the others took him. Bob was a dead man (miss him miss him), and while losing the lower part of one leg definitely didn’t make his last day on Earth any more pleasant, it also didn’t do him any significant, lingering harm. The Walking Dead may not have much cancer, but it does have one single, undeniable reminder of mortality, and it’s right there in the title. Which isn’t to say the show has been subtle about its main attraction up until now, or even that zombies have all that much impact on the this week’s plot. More that it changes how Bob’s kidnapping and Gareth’s assault on the church play out. Without that bite, the suspense would be simple and immediate: Bad guys are here, oh no, I hope they don’t hurt anyone. But while that’s still a concern, knowing that Bob’s fate is already sealed takes away some of the concern about what happens to him next, and makes Gareth and the others look that less fearsome.

This is confirmed when the Terminus group makes their play against Rick, and fail miserably. This isn’t a story about a group of bastards who survived our heroes’ escape and come back to repay their suffering with vengeance. This is a story about a group of bastards who aren’t anywhere near as bastardly as they thought they were. And it’s a story of how the show has finally found a way to run with the “What kind of monster do you have to be to survive?” theme. That’s been a question that’s come up pretty routinely on the series; one might argue it’s the question that’s been there since the beginning. Sometimes it’s been interesting, but a lot of the time it’s been an empty rhetorical gesture, a pointless gloss to fill the silence shocks. Now, though, there’s some teeth in it. Because our heroes aren’t fumbling dopes any more. They aren’t well-meaning survivors who keep fucking up because the writers can’t think of another way to generate plot. They’re hardcore, and that means they’re simultaneously more interesting watch, and a lot easier to worry about.

Like the death of Gareth and the others. It’s a nifty moment. Those bastards probably need to die. No, they definitely need to, and even Gareth’s promise that they’d leave and never come back rings false. The execution is arguably necessary, and it means avoiding a nightmare like when the Governor came back to the prison. At the same time, this is violence in (comparatively) cold blood, and there’s a viciousness to Rick and the others that’s troubling. Not troubling in a definitive way, or a way that you could argue against. It’s definitely bad-ass to watch, and there’s no small satisfaction in watching Rick pull out that machete. In the past, the show’s attempts to find some moral lesson in all this have resulted in a constant seesawing between aspirations and the inevitable horrible outcome of those aspirations. Rick wants to be a farmer! But now is no time to be a farmer. Hershel wants people to survive! Bye-bye, Hershel. Now, though, things are murkier. There’s no clear right answer. You can think Rick is going too far, or you can think Tyreese is a fool (and to be fair, he definitely lied about killing the Asshole), but the show isn’t actually going to make it easy for you to decide; even better, it’s not going to be tedious to watch while you try and make the decision.

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I’m not going to argue that all of that comes back to poor Bob and his shoulder bite, but I think that’s important, just as it’s important that his death happens after Gareth and the others are taken care of, without any major drama. There’s other drama in the episode: Abraham and Rick get into a pissing contest about who leads who, which ultimately results in Abraham taking a separate group (including Tara, Glenn, and Maggie) ahead to Washington while Rick and the others wait behind for Carol and Daryl (it’s okay, though, Abraham and Rick are still buds); and we finally learned the real secret behind all of Father Gabriel’s guilt, which turned out to be pretty much what you would’ve expected. But all of these problems get more or less resolved. Glenn convinces Abraham and Rick to compromise, and no one seems too interested in punishing Gabriel for his sins. Everyone is too busy carrying their own.

There’s still Bob, though, and he still dies, in as much peace as one could hope for under the circumstances. He goes out an optimist, telling right that “Nightmare’s end. They shouldn’t end who you are.” Which is a lovely sentiment. But again: He still dies. Rick and the others can be clever and quick and fast and strong. They can stay together and build new families and do everything right. And in the end, they will still die. For once, that seems less like a threat, and more like a fact that’s going to have to dealt with, whether we like it or not. Which sounds grim, but honestly? There are worse things to build a show around.

Stray observations:

  • Big thanks to Kate Kulzick for covering for me last week.
  • Goodbye, Gareth! On the downside, you were only in a few episodes; on the up side, you had more dialogue in them than all of Rosita’s lines combined.
  • “I like women better. Most of us do.”
  • “I’m tainted meat.”
  • I’m a little leary about the whole “group splitting up” thing. I’m sure that’s easier for the writers than having everyone travel together, but episodes that keep checking in on various people all stuck in different storylines don’t always go so great. We’ll see, though.
  • Abrupt ending, huh? I don’t know if the aired version has a post-credits tag; the screener did not. But I’m sure we’ll get the story of Carol & Daryl(and Beth?)’s big adventure next week.

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