It takes an episode like “Internment” to make me realize again that The Walking Dead has many different narrative approaches at its disposal. Oftentimes I get caught up in the cast of characters so much that I want the show to cut between every plotline as it progresses in equal measure, but that’s not as valuable of a tool. This is a cross-cutting technique that I remember best from watching Lost, when plots would drift in and out of significance, or the show would leave on a cliffhanger and cut away to something else in a different location occurring in parallel to other events for an episode, such as catching up with another group of survivors.
Last week’s episode focused entirely on events far away from the prison: Carol and Rick’s morality play over her attempts to stop the spread of illness, and the other group’s search for medical supplies. This week, it’s the reverse, taking place almost entirely within the fences, and mostly in the dark crevices of the unlit prison, with sick people-turned-walkers going bump in the night. Rick, Maggie, and Carl are around, but mostly the episode is confined to Herschel patrolling the sick ward, trying to maintain a baseline level of health so that the medical supplies can save as many people as possible.
The Walking Dead doesn’t appear interested in providing the kind of narrative structure that always moves plots along at the same time, which is both a strength and a weakness because of why the show does it. It’s not entirely predictable—though I bet I can guess at least a part of what next week will entail. But what is frustrating about the style is that is instigates drama at one moment and then presumes total safety the next. Two weeks ago Daryl, Michonne, Tyreese and Bob set out for the veterinary college, and came across an insurmountable hoard of walkers, before hightailing it into the brush and making it to the college. They found all the medicine on the list and another car—after avoiding being trapped by walkers inside and overcoming Bob’s stupidity trying to savor some hooch—but there was still the matter of getting gas, avoiding that same giant swath of walkers, and making it back to the prison without incident when every other step along the way offered massive complications.
At the end of this episode, they drive up to prison without so much as a whiff that anything went wrong on the way back. That’s not really jumping the gun, because once the episode focuses on Herschel among the sick, the time clock imposed on the episode becomes whether Herschel and the rest will survive in time for the medicine to arrive. Still, this isn’t a flashy action episode, it’s Herschel’s turn to shine. “Internment” is all about how he copes with his changing surroundings, how he finds the strength to keep on living, helping, and fighting in a world like this, trying to save Glenn’s life and keep his daughter in good spirits. And how sometimes even saving someone you love isn’t enough to keep the pain and sadness away when you lose others. The episode doesn’t tout spectacular storytelling or overwhelming visuals mastery, but on the scale of Herschel’s personal struggle with the way he views the world and how that has been forced to change in light of everything since the outbreak, this is affecting.
Herschel has his tea, he’s using the doctor’s last IV bags, and there’s a stashed gun just in case. Herchel doesn’t think they’ll need it—he ardently believes that he will be able to keep everyone at a bare minimum level to survive until medicine arrives. But of course, it’s only a matter of time until the conditions slip out of Herschel’s control. There are too many people; the illness progresses too fast; he doesn’t have enough supplies.
This is a scene The Walking Dead excels at. First there’s the reveal of a dead woman in her cell, out of Herschel’s control because he can’t close the cells quickly enough. Then he happens upon Sasha passed out, and needs to take time to revive her. And in excruciating fashion, seconds tick by as Herschel tends to Sasha, waits with her, talks with her, before casually moving on to other patients. The doctor is gone, others have turned, a sick man eaten, and a man previously intubated and kept alive by the kindness and determination of a fading Glenn and Sasha turns and bears down on one of the fan-favorite characters on the show.
Whenever The Walking Dead sets up a contraption like the infected block breakdown, it’s working against scenes like the store setpiece in the season premiere, which featured the visually dynamic stylistic stroke of having the walkers perforate the roof as they fell through, creating shafts of daylight. There’s no such inventiveness here, even with Maggie shooting through one of the glass dividing windows or Herschel struggling on the horizontal chain link fence separating the floors to grab the bag needed to help intubate Glenn and keep him alive.
Outside, Rick and Carl are defending the prison fence—after Rick sends Maggie inside to repond to the initial gunshot. It’s a father/son moment, one Rick thinks will be of reinforcing bonds within a lightly dangerous scenario. But then it shifts violently, as the wood beams against the fence begin to splinter under the weight, and they’re forced to run for their lives back within the inner fence. They head for the arsenal and Rick grabs two semiautomatic rifles—honestly they could automatic and I would have no idea, having never fired a gun—before giving Carl a hasty and unplanned crash course in the proper firing technique that will stem the unrelenting flow of walkers into the compound.
This is the other kind of sequence The Walking Dead excels at, the rail-shooter, where characters mow down as many walkers as possible in a given time until the onslaught stops. There’s not much lingering on Carl’s well-being afterwards, checking to see if he’s all right or relishing in killing so many at once. But the next morning, Rick gets to sample some beans, and hand a few to Carl. It’s the fruit of their labors, and it is becoming increasingly clear that they won’t be able to stay and enjoy them.
It popped into my mind earlier that perhaps the best way to protect the prison would have been to start digging a giant moat around the fence, something to delay the walkers further, before their numbers got so overwhelming that they could storm defenses and pressure the fence to the breaking point. But the worst part about the survivalist line of thinking is that I’m not entirely sure I want the group to figure out some ironclad way to make the prison safe. I want them to be in danger, to be on the run, to be forced to adapt again and again, to push the limits of resolve and compassion and sympathy and survival. I’m frustrated that the show moves in fits and starts, and that the shift from one plot line to the next episode-to-episode isn’t smoother.
But getting down to what this show is reliable for: This is five episodes in, and getting ever closer to the midpoint of the season and a few months off, and nobody emotionally significant has died. That’s usually the hallmark of The Walking Dead, mercilessly killing off characters the audience has spent time with. There are a lot of corpses, yes, but only Karen so far has been emotionally resonant, and a lot of that has been Tyreese’s unhinged reaction to it. Carol’s departure will certainly have big ramifications, but that’s a showdown between Rick and Daryl that will push to next week—for now it’s just some significant glances from Herschel and the advice that he talk to Rick.
And now we come to the final shot, as the camera takes in the prison, and slowly tracks down to reveal The Governor, out of nowhere, at the prison gates. There’s no indication of anyone or anything with him, but if “Walk With Me” from last season is any guideline, the show may divert into another parallel plot and show what The Governor’s been up to this whole time. (It’s mildly annoying that the show needs to bring him back, since it’s a reminder that last season didn’t really have a sense of turning the page.) Or perhaps I’m totally wrong about the other group not running into trouble on the way back, and they somehow led The Governor back, even as Michonne was looking at her map to Macon as the next search option. This season needs a jolt to really shake the group loose. This internal struggle yielded a lot of capital-S Significant conversations between Herschel and other characters about survival, hope, or belief, but at the end it just shows again how difficult life is under these circumstances, just from a different facet. The Walking Dead keeps pouring more darkness on to blot out that hopeful season premiere, and now that the major villain so far has reappeared—maybe it can surge to a bloody closure and instigate some real movement. There’s more doom on the horizon, but we already knew that from the start.
• Melissa McBride is still in the opening credits scrawl, and there are a bunch of interview bits that imply she won’t be gone forever, and that’s a good thing.
• The song featured prominently twice during the episode is “Oats In The Water” by Ben Howard.