A review of tonight’s “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as I throw a dirty diaper into the forest…
Two episodes in, Scott Gimple and company have been using the back half of this season to experiment with the form and structure of the show. Last week, we got a quiet character piece that only featured Carl, Michonne and the half-dead hamburger helper that is Rick at the moment. With “Inmates,” we catch up with everybody else – including Carol, who was conveniently in the vicinity of the prison when Governor Brian showed up to ruin everything for everyone – but in an episode structured as a series of vignettes, not all in chronological order and each one focusing on one subset of prison escapees.
“Inmates” also continues what appears to be the theme of this half-season: if things are so terrible at this point that the best anyone can hope for is mere survival, who wants to go on living? It’s the fundamental question of the series – and could in theory be a question the audience is asking about whether to keep watching, except that not even the Olympics can derail the ratings by now – and this harrowing diaspora after the relative safety of the prison seems a good time for characters to be asking it. And “Inmates” does offer some hints that hope is still out there, whether it’s the community that Tyreese and Carol hear about, or the military guys(*) who show up to banter with Glenn and Tara (Lily’s would-be cop sister) at the episode’s end.
(*) Their leader is played by Michael Cudlitz, who was so great on TNT’s “Southland.” He’s playing another character from the comics, which means it’s time for an extra warning about not giving away events or information that have yet to occur on the TV show. (See the end of the the review for the full list of rules.) You want to call him Abraham, that’s fine, but beyond that, say nothing til the show reveals it.
But ultimately, “Inmates” felt less like a character spotlight or thematic statement than a more prosaic piece-mover episode, one that fills us in on what the characters we’re meant to care less about than Rick, Carl or Michonne have been up to since the prison fell, and set their stories in motion for the remainder of the season.
On the one hand, “The Walking Dead” has done a poor enough job establishing many of these characters that you can understand the reticence to give any one of them a full spotlight episode, especially since the show doesn’t make enough episodes per season to go for the full “Lost” approach. On the other, if they want me to care about somebody like Beth, or the little girls, they need more time than they’ve gotten, and their respective sequences in “Inmates” didn’t tell us much more about them than we already knew. Even Glenn, who’s been around since the second episode ever, still seems more a character-like substance than an actual character, so watching him sitting in his cell and contemplating the future wasn’t as riveting as perhaps the creative team intended. A character has to demonstrate some kind of distinctive traits when they speak or act for us to be interested when they are simply lost in thought.
(This was also perhaps the most blatantly red-shirty episode of the series to date. With Hershel and the Governor already dead, it turns out that every single remaining character we knew the slightest bit about survived, while all the dead people on the bus, at the train tracks, etc., were completely anonymous. When Bob laments of the bus passengers, “They were good people, all of them,” I stifled a laugh.)
And there remain various logistical and narrative hiccups left over from the end of season 4.0. Judith, as many of you insisted, is indeed alive, and in the care of patient papa Tyreese and Lizzie and Mika – and, once again, it cheapens the emotions generated by the suggestion of her death in “Too Far Gone” (even if only Rick and Carl believed, and you didn’t), and, like Carol’s fake death in season 3, seem like a dumb, time-killing stunt.(**) In part because “Too Far Gone” was such a mess, everything about that period now feels like a jumble. I had forgotten, for instance, that Tyreese hadn’t yet been told about Carol murdering his girlfriend, so I found his embrace of her touching at first – the idea that his circumstance with the girls and the baby were so dire that he would welcome the improbable arrival of even this woman he has good cause to despise – but then was reminded that he doesn’t know, and that this is another shoe waiting to drop. Nor can I entirely make sense of the Glenn timeline, how and when he got off the bus and wound up back on the bridge, etc. The quicker the show stops having to revisit and remind us of the events of that episode, the better off we will all probably be.
(**) Also, because they did a Judith death fake-out once and are now clearly building towards a reunion with Rick and Carl, I didn’t for a second believe Lizzie would actually smother her to death, “M*A*S*H” finale-style, to stop her crying. But it’s yet another clue that Lizzie is trouble, and perhaps the person who was leaving the rats out by the gate.
I liked a few moments and performances here and there (Chad L. Coleman was particularly good in portraying Tyreese’s despair in a terrible situation), but “Inmates” mostly played like “The Walking Dead” trying to get from Point A to Point B while reminding us of various people’s names and locations.
Before we go to the comments, it’s time once again to explain how this blog’s No Spoiler rule applies to this show:
1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.
2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.
3. No talking about anything that’s happened in the comic that hasn’t happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that’s been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org