It’s never easy settling into a new home, and it’s especially not easy when the neighbors are the cannibalistic undead. Or when a guy you thought you’d left to a horrible fate somehow survives and manages to lure a bunch of those neighbors into your backyard. “Killer Within” splits its time between Rick and the prison, and the good people of Woodbury. Watching Andrea talk things over with the Governor before deciding to stay one more day in Woodbury, much to Michonne’s disgust, can’t really compare with the all out carnage in Rick’s world—carnage that costs us two main characters, even while bringing new life into the world. It’s a big, bold, vicious move on the part of the writers, because at this point in the season, everyone should be relatively safe. Big changes happen in the première, or near the end, or right in the middle. Not in this strange no-man’s-land, which on most other serialized dramas would have a lot of piece moving and table-setting. There’s a bit of that here (Merle’s chat with the Governor is pretty much a “let’s introduce a wee bit of tension between these two” moment, and not a lot else), but, well, dear lord. At this rate, I’ll be amazed if anyone’s left standing by Christmas.
So: T-Dog and Lori. It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, the chaos that ends up taking both their lives is well-staged and exciting. It isn’t subtle, of course. Everyone’s hanging around outside as Rick, Glenn, and Daryl work on getting wood to burn the mass of bodies they’ve cleared out of the prison. Hershel’s hopping about on a new pair of crutches, and it’s all smiles and sunshine until Glenn shouts something, and Daryl tells him to keep quiet so as not to attract any walkers. Glenn says something like, “Can’t we have just one good day?” and in case that wasn’t too blatant, everything falls apart almost immediately after. Someone (it turns out to be the convict Rick had locked up in the courtyard; the lesson is, if you’re going to kill someone, kill them) set up a trap to get revenge on Rick, and the group is quickly separated. Hershel and Beth get behind a fence, where they spend the rest of the hour; T-Dog gets bitten, and lives long enough to sacrifice himself to save Carol; Rick, Glenn, Daryl, and the two “good guy” convicts go to hunt down the generator that is sending out zombie-attracting alarms; and Maggie, Carl, and Lori are stuck in a utility room, where Lori goes into labor, tells her son she loves him, and begs Maggie to cut open her stomach to save her baby. The baby lives, Lori doesn’t, and Carl shoots his mom in the head (offscreen, which, considering how much we saw of the impromptu C-section, is a surprise).
All right, I’m being glib. Much of this was shocking, and everything with Maggie, Lori, and Carl was incredibly tense. Lori’s death wasn’t something I saw coming at all, and its immediate impact is visceral and horrifying, not to mention the fact that Carl had to pull the trigger on her corpse to make sure she didn’t come back as a zombie. (I suppose it’s possible he didn’t and that walker Lori will show up later in the season, but for right now, I’ll assume he went through with it.) It’s a huge gamble for the series, because it eliminates a major character, and it also risks toeing the line between horror-thriller and flat-out misery porn. Yes, Lori wasn’t the most beloved figure on the series, but she was important to Rick and Carl (no matter how they pretended otherwise), and her absence is going to affect the group dynamic in very serious ways, ways I’m not completely convinced the writers will be able to handle. I have more faith in them these days, but the more awfulness and ugliness you pile onto a story, the more graceful and balanced that story has to be to carry it. This is a huge risk, and I don’t know how it’s going to work in the weeks to come.
Or, to put it another way, The Walking Dead has to be about more than just a bunch of people getting chased by zombies and eventually dying. It doesn’t need to be some brilliant dissection of social themes, and it doesn’t need heavy symbolism or commentary on the America we are now, but it can’t just be a matter of checking in every week to see who’s going to die horribly. As exciting as that can be at first, it gets old, because it’s never building to anything. Sooner or later, you find yourself asking, “What’s the point of all of this, anyway?” That’s narrative death right there.
Killing T-Dog and Lori earned the show an immediate thrill, but it also meant crossing off two potential sources of drama, people who had a history on the series, however thin or poorly developed that history might have been. Sure, T-Dog was a hollow, personality-free guy who got thrown the occasional line, and was never much more. But his death added nothing to what we knew about him, and didn’t provide more than a brief “Whoa” moment. He didn’t get a tearful monologue, he didn’t say good-bye to anyone, and, while he did manage to save Carol, it still didn’t feel like there was any art to what happened. Either he died because the writers realized they have no fucking clue what to do with him (and hey, now that Oscar is probably sticking around, it’s not like we need two black guys, right? Ugh.), or because someone threw a dart at board and hit his name. One of those options is more plausible; neither are all that satisfying. The best thing you can say is that he’s gone, and that’s one less loose end.
As for Lori, well, she gets a lot more screen time, a lot more crying, and a final scene that’s one of the more gruesome moments on the series. This is fitting; she’s more integral to the series than poor One-Line T, and her expiration is going to have a lot more impact. Purely on the level of memorable TV-moments, this one earns points, as having to gut a pregnant woman at her command isn’t something I remember having seen on TV before. The actors all look wrung out; it was hard to watch (most gore doesn’t bother me, but the fake belly getting sliced open was tough); and it was very, very dark by the end. I’m just not sure it was earned, or necessary. Simply inspiring a knee-jerk, physical reaction in your audience isn’t enough for an ongoing story. There needs to be follow through, and I’m wondering if the writers understand that. Lori was going to go into labor at the worst possible time, no doubt about it, and the pregnancy was going to have complications; and sure, it’s not even a bad choice that she’d die from those complications. This is a brutal world, as the characters keep reminding us, right before the rug gets pulled out from underneath them. But if brutal is the only card this show has, it’s going to start losing its power sooner or later, and then the writers will have to up the ante even more—who can we sacrifice next? What limbs can we wrench off? Who do we maul, mutilate, eviscerate, impale, drawn and quarter, just to get people to keep watching? Just to get those gasps?
This may sound melodramatic. I hope it is. I’ve liked this season a lot up until now, and I still enjoyed much of this episode. But it stumbles, and those stumbles aren’t just in the fact that the scenes in Woodbury are reruns of what we already know. (Michonne has suspicions, Andrea wants to stay, the Governor is good at talking people into giving him what he wants.) T-Dog’s gone, because whatever, right? Who cares. Lori is dead, but her baby is alive, which is something, I guess. These are deaths that should matter more than just losing a name off the credits. Someone’s telling us a story, and at its best, The Walking Dead has been able to horrify both in the moment and the long term. Lori’s death doesn’t really work that way. Carl’s presence lends the scene some meaning, and the surprise factor is impressive. But it makes Carol’s efforts at zombie dissection less interesting (although at least her instincts on the baby being the wrong way were right), and despite all of Lori’s debates about whether or not she wanted to have a baby, what happens in the end is simple, brutal math: The writers want the baby, they don’t want her, adios. If anything, this just confirms she was right all along. Better she never got pregnant; better she’d taken those pills and been selfish. Now she’s just another corpse in a back room with a hole in her head.
- T-Dog does get credit for having the Dale Memorial Character Arc in the span of about 20 minutes: He goes from arguing for compassion in regards to the convicts to getting bit to getting eaten in less time than it would take Dale to yell at Shane for being a creep.
- That whole argument about the cons gave me a bad feeling. The writers still aren’t very good at making discussions like that exciting or interesting to watch. And really, is there any reason that T-Dog should suddenly be such a softie?
- Merle hitting on Andrea is really uncomfortable.