Roughly halfway through “Infected,” Carol tries to teach a valuable lesson to a girl who recently failed to cut the throat of her zombie-infected dad. “You’re weak,” Carol tells the girl. She might as well be speaking to Rick, Tyreese, Glenn, or anyone in the prison who’s made the mistake of softening, letting their guard down, thinking this is a world that still has room for mercy; she might as well be speaking directly to the audience. Again and again, the show drives its message home. Caring, compassion, and empathy, traits which in a sane and decent reality are among the highest a human can possess, have all become bitter, dangerous flaws in the wake of the apocalypse. Love will help you get through the day, but it can also get you killed, and building new relationships is like playing Russian Roulette with a hand grenade. And yet despite all this, people keep trying to reach out. We’re social creatures, after all; it’s hardwired. So every morning, our heroes can get up and tell themselves to stay vigilant, to hold others at arm’s length, and to kill the moment a situation becomes threatening. And every night, they will be cold, alone, and looking for some reason to keep going.
It’s a tension that’s been driving the show from the start. And so far this season, without an obvious villain to root against, it’s the biggest source of tension, with mixed results. Watching Carol lead a man’s children into his room so he can say goodbye, only to turn the whole thing into a hideous teachable moment; seeing Rick struggle to hold onto his nonviolent farming life, only to have to sacrifice the surviving pigs to save the fence; seeing Tyreese cuddling with his lady; seeing Karen survive Patrick’s attack, only to find that she’s been immolated by… someone; all of these scenes have a certain fundamental power to them. The bleakness, and the logic of that bleakness, is hard to argue against. Even Rick realizes it. When Carl tells him about Carol’s secret knife lessons with the kids, Rick promises he won’t try and stop her, because that’s how life is now, and so on and so forth.
“Infected” brings the first major threat out into the open. After dying of some sort of flu (or something) in the showers, the zombified Patrick decides to make a meal out of a sleeping survivor in a wince-inducing sequence that ends with the freshly made corpse rising from the dead, his intestines sliding to the floor. The two walkers then do what walkers do, and it’s a while before anyone realizes what’s happening. The sequence has a sickening plausibility to it, if you’re willing to accept that this group of what should be incredibly paranoid people are sound sleepers. It’s a bit suspect that no one thought to institute some kind of guard duty indoors, but then, that fits in with the show’s major theme. The prison folk have a home, and because they have a home, they’re starting to feel secure again, and because they feel secure again, people are going to die. The zombies are, at their most basic level, a threat which turns any mistake into a fatal one. You can’t protect yourself forever. Sooner or later, entropy wins.
After some chaos inside the Cell Block, with now standard levels of gore, screaming, and gore (Michonne also injures her leg outside when she makes the mistake turning back when she hears the shouts; symbolism, anyone?), relative peace is restored, and the ruling council (which very definitely does not include Rick) starts talking about options. A fatal illness is bad enough, but in a situation where a corpse immediately becomes a murderer, the response needs to be swift and sure. So the talk turns to splitting up the group between those who’re showing signs of an illness, and those who aren’t. It’s a necessary task which also comes across as almost entirely useless; with no way of knowing what the disease is, or how it spreads, any form of quarantine is going to be mostly guesswork. And while everyone is pretty reasonable about the whole thing right now, that guesswork is going to turn into shouting and begging and screaming.
As a plot mechanic, it’s credible, but not exactly thrilling. There’s only so much excitement you can generate from watching nice people turn mean as they die slow. The clues that point to someone inside the prison is working against the group are promising, because they suggest an actual villain is going to show up soon, rather than an invisible menace like the plague. As frustrating as the Governor was, at his best, the character provided an energy and focus this show sorely needs to remain watchable. Right now, that theme, that central dynamic that the writers keep returning to again and again—there’s not a lot of life left in it, so to speak. Television series like this one require conflict to sustain themselves. There’s never just going to be a season about folks hanging out, growing crops, and occasionally reminiscing over electricity. But given the open nature of the premise, and the fact that there’s never going to be a cure to the walker infestation (or an end to it), the conflict is always going to come back to that tension between survival instinct and decency. And again and again, anyone who ends up on the “decency” side of the equation is going to be meat for the grinder.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with “dark” shows. My all time favorite show of ever, Breaking Bad? Pretty fucking dark. But what made Breaking Bad so great was that it balanced its incredibly tense plotting and often bleak character work with a wicked sense of humor—and even a rare moment or two of grace. The Walking Dead doesn’t really have that. It tries for grace on occasion, and there have been times where it succeeds, but those moments are almost entirely separate from the characters inside them. And there’s virtually no humor to this show whatsoever, so that when the occasional joke does pop up, it seems unnatural, like whistling at a wake. For the most part, everything is incredibly serious, as if the people behind the show believe they are teaching us important lessons, just like Carol teaching the girls. (It seems like most of the joy and creativity on the show comes, strangely enough, in the walker designs and the gore.) Watching “Infected,” it’s possible to respect the developing storylines, and even admire the writers for the evil bait-and-switch they pull with Karen. The grimness, in its way, will always satisfy a certain itch, because it caters to the darkest suspicions: that the worst is coming, news is always bad, and life is a lie between corpses. But dramatically speaking, when the best outcome to root for is a few more days breathing before the inevitable collapse, how long before all of this loses what savor it has left? Rick’s journey from pacifist back to sheriff is an okay arc on the microcosm, but when viewed in the larger context of the show as a whole, it feels like a journey we’ve already taken far too many times. And really, what other choice did he have?
- Yeah, yeah, like the world needed another Breaking Bad reference.
- “Why don’t you wear your hat anymore?” “It’s not a farming hat.” FEEL THE SYMBOLISM.
- Michonne gets super intense around babies.
- I bizarrely misinterpreted Karen's death in the original draft of this review—can't really blame the show, either, since they made it a point to show us the bloody trail on the floor. Apologies; and hey, burnt corpses are way more exciting than dead rats, so maybe this will lead somewhere fun!
- So, who do you think is dropping rats outside the compound? Also, they should probably do regular walkarounds of the fences every morning and, y’know, check for stuff like that.