The thing that sets The Walking Dead apart from any other show on television is that it moves in a consistent downward spiral. It may take brief pauses to allay full-on misery at every possible turn, but the arc of the zombie universe bends toward death and suffering. There is a persistent sense of dread, but it's not always employed effectively. For every tense, drawn-out sequence of everyone going about the morning complacent as a growing threat looms in D Block, there's a character nobody cares about spurring on non-starter of an arc for Carol. And I'm starting to wonder—not for the first time—what this oscillation offers besides passive lulls interrupted by increasingly dramatic and contrived attacks.
In a macro sense, by chipping away at the sense of complacency and calm within the prison walls, The Walking Dead emphasizes that one little mistake, or any slip up in vigilance—say, for example, not posting wholly unnecessary guards in the cell blocks at night—can trigger devastating consequences. Patrick drops dead of an apparent flu-like illness and turns, the first domino in a chain reaction that claims more than 10 lives. In addition to the growing number of walkers clawing at the fences daily, now there's a realistic fear of death from an illness possibly carried by livestock and incubated in close quarters like a prison. The unceasingly cruel world attacks the survivors from within and without.
Rick is trying desperately to put away his badge, gun, and leadership role and take up a passive life tending pigs and crops. He has even somewhat transferred that approach to Carl, who tells Michonne he no longer wears his father's hat because it's "not a farming hat." But Carl wants to know when he can have his gun back, acknowledging the danger of the internal threat before Rick wants to address it.
The surprise attack from within on D Block unfolds in such a sustained, suspenseful manner that it's almost more unsettling than the big action sequences. Over the course of the morning any number of people could discover Patrick—or even Karen during the night, who is certainly lucky to escape at that time. And the terrifying violence within the prison, supposedly the group's stronghold, underscores just how tenuous their existence has become. It's not just the threat outside the walls, but now the shift away from modern technology and medicine has made the remaining population more vulnerable to the fact that everyone turns after death no matter what.
Darryl insists that despite Rick flying off the handle last season, and only barely coming back from the brink, he knows what to do when the walkers threaten everything. And, with a gun in his hand and a walker down the barrel, he sure does. But this is something The Walking Dead has done before, leading Rick out to one extreme before yanking him back to the front of the group making the tough decisions. Last season he went insane with rage and grief before pulling back. Now, he's become so reserved and peaceful, trying to avoid falling into that leadership role again. But the walkers keep pushing on the fence, so many that it begins to collapse, and the danger of the situation forces the new farmer into action once again.
That leads Rick to a tough decision, sacrificing the pigs. It's an awful scene to watch, personally, because of the squealing. There's a suspension of disbelief in watching the walkers turn and rip out guts because there's so much behind-the-scenes footage competing for eyeballs that it's impossible for me not to think of anyone outside the main core of characters as anything but actors. That goes double for the featured extras, who make it onto the show by audition with a jerky walk, then going through an extensively catalogued makeup process for maximum recognition.
But those pigs are unwitting innocents to the situation, and that terrified squealing really captured the lost cause of the moment. Rick knows now that the ideal paradise has crested at its maximum height, and that there is truly no place safe enough for permanent survival, only locations suitable for longer habitation than others. Woodbury seemed to have more impressive fortifications, less openly visible space behind fences, and a more comfortable, established community, but the prison feel like home because the group found, cleared, and defended it.
The goal here seems to be making Rick realize that he can't sit on the sidelines and let the Council make every decision. Sure, they can figure out that they need to separate out sick people like Karen until something more can be ascertained, but the kind of quick, pressured decision-making that keeps the group alive seems to fall to Rick by default, even when he doesn't want to be the one making the decision. At some point there's going to be another major death that send the group running from safe haven again, and as if to prepare for the oncoming inevitable storm, Rick gives Carl a gun again, and (more symbolically) straps on his own holster for security. Threats will continue unabated—from the relentless zombie hordes outside to the vigilante (my money is on D'Angelo, pardon me, Bob) who disposes of the infected but still-human survivors, including Karen—and though it would be infinitely more interesting to see someone other than Rick take the lead, the oppressive dread of the circumstances keep signaling that any sign of positive civilized progress like an oligarchical council will quickly be rendered moot by a larger approaching hoard of the dead.
"Infected" does feel a lot like a second helping of window dressing before there's something substantial to grapple with. And the preview for next week—mostly Tyreese's reaction to his discovery—suggests that we're in for a lot of hand wringing over the potential spread of the sickness and whether the prison can hold any longer. The second season stretched out the time on Herschel's farm long beyond what was sustainable—but it did yield the overrun sequence, which was grandly terrifying on an epic scale in a rural setting. If that's the kind of scene this is building toward, I question whether it's just more of the same kind of up-the-ante repetition the show has done before. But maybe after the strides the show made last season to make more of the arcs count, this will lead to something more rewarding than the seemingly endless wait to move beyond the farm.
• Michonne holding Judith will be significant in some fashion, but that moment underscores how interesting Michonne is as a character while being frustratingly distant.
• I wonder how Carol will take to being a surrogate mother now that she has many other survival skills to teach as a battle-weary warrior.
• The polaroid camera Glenn lifted from the store last week makes an appearance in the oppressively cute couple's morning. That omen just suggests an equally bad moment to balance out all of the collective good their pairing provides.
More episode recaps in Boing Boing's "The Walking Dead" archives.