Season three of The Walking Dead established its larger ambitions pretty early, introducing The Governor, Woodsbury, and a large new cast of characters in rapid succession. Through two episodes, season four’s been the inverse of that, spending all its time at the prison and filling the screen with viscera and in-group dramatics. But there’s just not much to “Infected”, which again executes this new, simpler style in stylish fashion, but does so with a lot of telegraphed plotting and
The most obvious of these is the death of Karen: the moment she gives Tyreese the rain check, it’s pretty damn clear she’s not going to survive the hour (plus: who cares? They’ve shared two scenes together). It’s a microcosm of the first two hours of season four in a nutshell: there’s well-executed opening scenes with Karen creeping back to her room and falling asleep while a massacre begins… and then there’s her final appearance, a burned corpse only recognizable by the bracelet the camera so subtly stared at earlier in the episode. It never reaches beyond the superficial, going through the paces in expensive, well-tailored style, but in a soulless, mindless fashion.
This isn’t to say this kind of surface tension isn’t exploited all over “Infected”: from Rick’s internal ‘journey’ (all experienced through the lens of Rick Grimes Squint) to the obvious fact that “messed up” Lizzie is going to do something horrible with Carol’s life, The Walking Dead stumbles when its not focused on the zombies right in front of our faces: which will forever remain this show’s contradiction, I suppose. The zombies bring in the audience – but at the end of the day, they’re fucking zombies: as an audience, our emotional investment is in the humans of this world, who speak and act without a touch of human subtlety – and in an episode where there’s about a 50/50 split between zombie fun and human emoting, the dichotomy between these two become painfully obvious.
“Infected” really proves which side of the fence this ‘new’ version of the show is sitting on: firmly on undead ground, leaving that deep emotional, symbolic bullshit to the fairies who like to think about stuff. There’s a lot more running around, worrying about zombie and viruses than there are quiet, reflective moments, where dramatic tension and character development is found. It’s too bad, because in the two instances where “Infected” actually does this, it works wonders to give weight to the actions of Rick and Michonne – and the rest of the episode, which is really just another formulaic ‘zombies kill, people lament, here comes the twist while we look at more zombies’ kind of stuff.
The first of these comes with Michonne, who shares a quiet, heartbreaking moment with little Judy after she throws up on Babbling Beth. It’s another moment that’s pretty telegraphed (Michonne’s visceral reaction to the baby’s crying was a pretty big tell, given Michonne’s levelheaded ways in every other circumstance), but it doesn’t speak the words when one would expect it to, lingering in a succession of close-ups and long frames on Beth to silently explain a part of Michonne’s past she may never be able to verbalize. How can you put words to what it feels like to experience the death of a child, especially in a world like this? In ten seconds, “Infected” does more with Michonne than it manages to do with the rest of the cast in 40-something minutes, just by keeping it’s damn mouth shut and the plot and character machinations at bay for a minute. It’s one of the single most honest moments of the series, capturing the heartbreak of a young mother, and the single moment she’s let her guard down since the entire f-in’ world went to hell.
I wouldn’t put Rick’s final scenes in this episode on quite the level of Michonne’s, but symbolically, it works well to personify the thought process Rick goes through in his head in the final minutes. Him slaughtering the pigs is a really goofy, temporary solution to two massive issues (collapsing prison fences, and a “flu-like” virus Herschel magically diagnoses within seconds of seeing Patrick), but metaphorically, it’s pretty solid: one of the reasons Rick feels like such a failure is because of how sideways everything goes when he makes decisions. People have died over the choices he’s made: one might say he feels like he’s sending pigs to a slaughter (womp womp) every time he sends his people or his son out to do something, be it fight crazy motherfuckers like The Governor, or just your average undead pile of rotting flesh.
In the end, Rick’s only got one choice: he’s got the fire of a leader within him (I can keep these terrible puns going all night, folks) and being the star of this dramatic series, by golly he knows it. So he kills the pigs, burns down their home (signaling that Peaceful Rick’s Thinking is bullshit, and all problems can be solved with a lot of stubble and a shiny, loaded revolver) and sets off on his next adventure to chip more pieces off his crumbling humanity.
What might these problems be? Well, The Walking Dead certainly isn’t confident in one answer: there are so many subplots running through “Infected”, it’s clear the writers want to drive audiences with plot rather than character (a perfectly legitimate creative decision, but one that undeniably sells it short). Someone murdered the two coughers, The Governor remains on the loose, zombies are breaking into the prison, The Council is about to meet The Sheriff 2.0, Carol’s fucking up all the children, Lizzie’s got a knife, someone’s feeding rats to zombies (probably Lizzie? It really could be anyone)…. at the end of the day, moments like Rick’s and Michonne’s are going to be the exception, not the rule on this show: something “Infected” unfortunately makes clear with its relentless pursuit of empty zombie spectacle and dramatic plots.
– Carol is so proud of herself…. sigh.
– couple really dumb things: why would Rick light a fire right next to a stack of hay bales (and how was he putting that fire out)? how the fuck did Herschel just walk on into the cell with no cane or crutches in hand? and how do they determine it’s a flu strain in five seconds???
– boy, the whole “let’s get Carol to be surrogate mother of the fucked-up sisters” plot was clumsy, as Bearded Man died in Carol’s care.
– Carl has his gun back, if that’s important to you. No cowboy hat yet, though I guess that will return now that farming’s a dead in-prison industry.