Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Walking Dead: 4.02 "Infected"

And with death, mayhem, Tom Waits, and poor slaughtered pigs, we welcome (I think) another week’s episode of The Walking Dead! As always, I’m joined by Josh Winstead. Let’s jump right in.

Nikki: And the grim just keeps getting grimmer. I’ll be honest, after this week’s episode my husband and I had a discussion about whether or not we’re still enjoying watching The Walking Dead, given how terribly bleak it’s become. There’s not an ounce of humour or lightness to be found on the show. Sure, there’s hope — Tyreese finds love, Carol and Daryl possibly get together, Beth has a new boyfriend, Glen and Maggie get married, Rick finds inner peace and builds a garden, they fortify the prison and begin to live real organized lives — but we see NONE of that. All we see is when their worlds begin to fall apart, when Tyreese and Beth lose their loved ones, when Rick loses all hope and his inner peace is destroyed, when the farm is burned, when parents lose their children, when children lose their parents.

I’d like to talk about the mothering aspect first. As we know, Carol lost her abusive husband, and then lost her beloved daughter, looked for her for most of a season, and then discovered she’d been turned into a walker when Sophia came lumbering out of Hershel’s barn in what is still the saddest moment of the series for me. She almost went into a sort of denial, didn’t seem to be in mourning for very long, and ended up joking and an even happier version of her normal self soon after. Now she’s taken on the mother bear role of the group, teaching all the children how to wield weapons and protect themselves when in harm.

When the two little girls lose their father in this episode and moments later, Carol, their surrogate mother, is telling the eldest girl how weak she was for not staring her dead daddy in the face and sticking a knife through it, I immediately thought she could take the prize for most ineffective mothering ever. Couldn’t we give these girls 24 hours to mourn before giving them the whole, “YOU ARE WEAK AND WILL NEVER SURVIVE” speech? But then I realized no, this is a new world. A world where Beth no longer cries when someone dies, because people dying is as common as going out to fill up the car with gas once was. It’s a world where you can’t let the girls mourn for 24 hours, because in 24 hours they could be dead. She needs to teach them that this world is a harsh, terrible one, where the corpse they saw is no longer their father, but a shell that will momentarily house a demon that will rise up and kill them with no remorse. It’s no longer their father. She needs to instill this in them because for all she knows, the little one will be dead tomorrow and the older girl will need to stick a knife in her forehead.

Like I said, grim.

Josh, what did you think of this episode?

Josh: I'd say 'grim' sums it up quite well. The events of “Infected” served to accelerate us directly into the oncoming train of contagion we glimpsed at the end of last week's premiere, and it did so very effectively, killing off perhaps a dozen denizens of the expanded prison colony in very short order. And no, that's never going to be fun. Unless you place bets, or maybe turn it into some kind of predictive drinking game. But assuming you watch the show for entertainment instead of an excuse to gamble and/or imbibe hard liquor (not that you can't do both), I'll admit that season 4 thus far has been short on optimism.

Of course, no one watches this show for its levity. Still, I think it's reasonable to wish a finer balance could be struck, some way to temper all that darkness with a bit more light than is offered by brief, glancing instances like Beth singing the baby her a cappella rendition of “I Don't Want To Grow Up.” In fact, I was faced with a similar situation last year when, after almost ten years of being a steady fan, I elected to stop reading the “Walking Dead” comics for just the same reasons. Any ongoing series with a premise so dark runs the risk of overwhelming its audience at some point – of crossing the line from dour to unpleasant – just by the nature of its own frequency, if nothing else. The ideas and situations that logically carry such a narrative forward are not cheery ones, by and large; something needs to happen, and it probably wouldn't be the whole gang throwing an old fashioned hoedown in the prison gym. It's a slippery slope for a writer, finding something for the audience to cling to in a story where everything is so tenuous by default. I think in this instance, things will get worse before they get better, and mileage will surely vary on where the line falls for the viewer.

A big part of what keeps me engaged and invested is the way each character's history continues to inform their behavior, and how well that plays into my emotional response, strumming my empathy like a virtuoso. Episodes like this deliver their hits with such regularity and precision that afterward, I'm left reeling. And sure, I'm basically a big teddy bear, but those moments of poignant relativity are the reason I love movies and tv in the first place. I watch because I want to feel something, and from the pain on Rick's face as he throws that last runty pig to the walkers, to the gentle way Carol tucks that flower behind the little girl's ear after the harshness of her instruction, to the cathartic release of Michonne's breakdown as she finally takes Judith in her arms, “Infected” delivered throughout.

One of my favorite aspects of these first two episodes has been the continuing evolution of Rick and Carl's relationship. I loved the way their scenes played out this week. In particular, Carl's decision to tell Rick the truth about Carol's covert weapons training not as instigation but ingress, as a way to prompt a deeper discussion about their own rapport and their place within the larger group, indicates a much deeper respect and maturity than I would have expected. I'm curious to hear what you think so far.

Nikki: Well put. Hope is something I can’t get rid of, no matter how dire the circumstance, and it’s been what I’ve clung to the entire series. Hope that they’ll stay together, hope that Sophia is still alive, hope that they’ll be able to get on top of the zombie apocalypse. Then we lose people, Sophia is dead, and not only do the zombies keep coming, but now we know THEY will all turn into zombies, too. In the book World War Z (spoiler ahead): they eventually find an end to the zombie plague, but only after the world’s population has been decreased exponentially. But that’s because it’s a different kind of plague, not one they all contain within them. It’s a dark but brilliant metaphor, that in some sort of Hobbesian way, man is essentially evil at his core, and contains a darkness within that he cannot escape no matter what.

I laughed out loud (see? There WAS some levity after all!) when Rick said, “Carl, don’t ask questions, just go to the tower with Maggie,” and I wondered if that would be the new meme: Rick says, “Carl, get in the fucking tower!” Carl’s not in the tower… But Carl really has matured. There’s a moment where we all go, “CARL!” when he tells Rick exactly what Carol made him promise not to tell him: that she’s training the children to use weaponry. But then he immediately stands by her, telling Rick she’s doing the right thing. Of course, there’s a self-serving aspect of it — he wants his damn gun back — but Carl doesn’t want the gun just to shoot things; he wants the gun to protect people. And he proves that when he grabs the gun and instinctively kills the zombie who’s grabbing Michonne, when 95% of the people who would have grabbed that gun would have instead accidentally killed Michonne. He knows how to use the gun, and he’s old enough to be a protector. His dad wants him to be a peaceful farmer, but that’s not what this society demands or needs as much as a protector.

And let’s move over to Michonne for a moment. That last scene with her was extraordinary. We know very little about Michonne pre-plague, and now there’s a suggestion that she lost a child. Which, of course, puts a whole new spin on that scene from last season in the Governor’s secret room. He was “protecting” his daughter, hoping he could find a cure for what ailed her, and was failing to see that she was long gone, and instead her body had simply been reanimated by this monster within it. Michonne, on the other hand, knew the hard truth, and shoved a sword through the child. Did she have to kill her own child? Or is she just remembering her two pets, which we’ve strongly assumed could have been brothers of hers? Were they kid brothers? Did she raise them when they were little babies, and then just killed them outright without a second thought? Did she keep them close to harden herself against them, knowing they weren’t her brothers anymore?

Usually episodes of The Walking Dead have a common thread running through the stories, and there was definitely a parenting one in this one: how does a father say goodbye to his girls? How do the girls look upon the body of their father and believe it’s not him? How must one be a parent and a child in an apocalypse? Can a parent allow his/her child to take up weaponry? Can you be as callous-seeming as Carol, knowing that through her tough love she’s actually being the better parent?

Rick and Carl are forging a new relationship, trying to find their way from being a father and son in the world they once knew to equals in a fight against monsters. Glen and Maggie are newly married, but the possibility of a pregnancy terrifies them, rather than being the happy news it should have been. Carol has mourned Sophia, and now will raise these two girls very differently. Sophia was her daughter in the world before the plague, but she will convey completely different parenting techniques in this new world. Michonne has been the hardest of them all, but she doesn’t want to be anywhere near Lil’ Ass Kicker, and when she’s forced to, she breaks down. Perhaps that hardened exterior is all a show, hiding a devastated mother underneath it all. No wonder she took to Carl over all of them. In the now-infected cell block, parents are burying their children, and children are burying their parents, and they’re trying to do it without tears, blocking the emotions they once reserved for occasions like this.

Joshua: I want to take a moment and make special mention of the actor who played the girls' father. Dealing with so many new characters among an established cast always opens up the possibility of these big emotional beats landing flat when they relate to people with whom the audience has no history. Save the writing, there's probably no more significant aspect of keeping things compelling than the cast chosen to illustrate it, and that guy was fantastic. His performance was the primary reason I got wrapped up in their story, and as it undoubtedly progresses in the future, the idea that his delivery of two or three simple lines of dialogue will be enough to keep his memory clear in my head is remarkable.

Speaking of bit players, this week saw the death of Karen, who I thought would wind up playing a larger part in the season after how prominently she figured into these first episodes. Her horrible end, and the circumstances thereof, service the larger mystery introduced in the opening – namely, that someone inside the prison has been sabotaging its defenses. Details are scant at this point, but we know a person (or persons) has been feeding the walkers at the fence, presumably in an effort to compromise the perimeter, as we saw with the almost-breach foiled by Rick's clever porcine diversion. Less clear are the reasons for the burning of the flu patients; we aren't even certain they were dead when they were burned. At first, I thought that it might have been done in an effort to eradicate evidence, to render the bodies unsuitable for investigation and/or testing that might illuminate the details of the contagion and maybe allow for the beginnings of protection against it. Then again, such tests could easily be impossible to perform under the circumstances, so I don't know. Right now, we have nothing but questions. Is the illness a deliberate creation or merely bad luck? Is it just the rats at the fence, or are there other methods of treachery we don't yet know about? Is the culprit someone we've already met or an entirely new character that won't be revealed until later? We know that Michonne's systematic combing of the countryside in search of the Governor has yielded nothing, so it is conceivable he's hiding out somewhere in the bowels of the prison, creeping out under cover of night to wreak his twisted havoc on both Rick's team and the Woodbury emigrants he no doubt views as having betrayed him. It remains to be seen how long we'll have to wait for solid answers, but right now, pretty much anything's possible.

Meanwhile, poor Cutty is in a bad place. We've been led to believe that Tyreese has been having a hard time incorporating into the group; we know he doesn't like working the fence or going on supply runs, and we haven't seen him close with anyone except Karen and Sasha. Now his meager support system is halved, and with the remaining half serving as part of the council, he's left with a lot of anger and no ear to bend, much less a quiet method of diversion. The longer this situation drags on without resolve, the angrier he's going to get. And I don't believe the answers are coming soon.

Nikki: They won’t be coming soon at all, you’re right; this is clearly the mystery that will be drawn out throughout the season. Poor Cutty… I hope Sasha doesn’t get sick, because I’m not sure he’d be able to go on after that. At first, I think we’re supposed to believe when we see the blood in the bed that Karen died like Patrick, with blood coming out of every orifice of her face, and then dragged herself along the ground to the outside (at least, that’s what I was thinking was happening at first). But then we see the charred bodies outside and it was far more sinister than that. It looks more like she was hit in the head or something, or shot, then dragged outside and incinerated. God, I hope she was dead first (shudder at the thought she wasn’t).

My immediate reaction at the end of the episode is that the rat feedings and burnings were being done by the same person. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t see a connection at all. He didn’t think the rat feedings were being done to hurt the fence on purpose, but that the little girl — who referred to the zombie as “Nate” — saw the walkers as some sort of pets that she needed to take care of. I disagree with that notion. For one, I’m pretty sure we see the rats dangling far above the zombies’ heads at first, and the little girl simply isn’t that tall. I think there’s something far more purposeful at work here.

As grim as this show is, I think it’s brilliantly done. In a world where zombies are everywhere and you’re running to stand still, you simply can’t get on top of the carnage. There’s no way to get ahead, no way to find a light. Now that they’re all possibly infected, the only way they can sleep at night is to lock themselves into the cells the way that one guy did. But do they have keys to all the cells? If so, they’ll have to each go to their own cell, lock the door, and pray that they’ll be human the next morning and able to open it. The prison was created to lock inmates in. Then it became a place to lock the zombies out. Now it serves both purposes simultaneously. It’s starting to make Woodbury look like a haven again…

Any last thoughts, Josh?

Joshua: As much as “The Walking Dead” is a show about survival, it is also a story about home: what it is, what it means to have one, and, in absentia, what it costs. This season began by reintroducing us to these characters' present homes, both physical and emotional, and then began to systematically break them all apart, piece by piece. I hope these relentless attacks don't eventually serve to drive them out of the prison altogether, because as vulnerable as it's been made to seem – and aside from tenacity and togetherness – it's pretty much all they've got.

Bits & Bobs:

•  Noted during the D Block attack that all the usual running and screaming, but with the addition of children into the mix, was infinitely more upsetting. Not a fan of kids in jeopardy.

•  During the council meeting scene, I thought the matchstick lamp on the table was a particularly brilliant touch. Prison arts & crafts for the win.

•  “You see mistakes. I see when the shit hits, you're standing there with a shovel.”

•  Michonne, again. That scene with Beth and the baby was just goosebumpy, heartbreaking perfection.

•  The walker getting squeezed through the chain link fence made me think the show should investigate the possibilities of a Play Doh playset cross-promotion. I swear they'd make a fortune.

•  Props to the venerable Bear McCreary, whose score for this entry was outstanding, particularly during the pig slaughter sequence. That music coupled with Andrew Lincoln's extraordinary silent performance was so good as to rival even the stuff with Michonne. Almost.

•  “I know you're gonna say it's not up to you. But it can be.”

•  From my notes, when Rick strips down and throws his bloody shirt in the fire: “Fan service, ladies! Next week, Daryl spills motor oil aaaaaaall over himself!”

See you then.


B. said...

I hope you're right about that motor oil scene next week!

Anonymous said...

It's gotta be D'Angelo Barksdale as the inside man right? Maybe Avon is out there pulling the strings!

They really don't have anyone standing guard at night? Really?

This is a rare show (like Parks and Recreation) that has gotten better as it goes on.

Thanks for the recap!

-Tim Alan

Efthymia said...

Coming from a person who really hates it when there's no humour/levity in a TV show (I'm looking at you, BSG), it really doesn't bother me in The Walking Dead, which goes to show how incredibly written and acted it is that I eagerly anticipate the bleakness every week.

I felt so bad when Rick had to sacrifice the pigs (not for Rick but for the pigs) and I couldn't even watch the scene, and then I felt really bad about myself because all the human slaughter and people's intestines dangling and girls becoming orphans, yeah, I'm fine watching that but God forbid they fictionally kill off animals I actually eat! I am a horrible, horrible person.

Maybe I feel like this about the show because so far in the entire series only one of my favourite characters died (you're still missed, Dale). I don't know if I'll even be willing to keep up with the show if Glenn or Michonne dies.

And speaking of Michonne, I want a backstory NOW!!! And I still want to see some of her time with Andrea, because I still want some redemption for Andrea.