Blink, and suddenly, The Walking Dead is not only television’s highest rated television show, but it’s easily one of the best. Over 20 million people saw last week’s season premiere — the most watched, non-sports program in cable history. Think about that (and take note, NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox): A bloody, violent, and heavy serialized drama with dark adult themes is dominating the television landscape. When 10 million people watched the Breaking Bad finale, that was a huge win for quality, scripted television. But The Walking Dead premiere doubled that, and shouted at everyone else: F*ck your procedurals, your cases of the week, your tepid family sitcoms, your cops and lawyers, and even your fake nerd comedy. The viewers have spoken, and they want tension, blood, terror, and devastation.
After last night’s episode, “Infected” I get the feeling that The Walking Dead is just warming up.
Influenza, Zombie-Apocalypse Style — To say that “Infected,” was one of the best episodes of the series is an understatement. We’re at a point in the series where most or all of the characters with whom we were annoyed are gone, and instead of looking forward to major character deaths, we are terrified by the prospect. That even extends now to relatively new characters, like Tyrese, and even Tyrese’s girlfriend, Karen, who we like by association. The quiet opening scenes with Tyrese singing to Karen carried with them a sense of dread. We knew ZOMBIE PHINEAS was on the prowl, and when Karen ditched Tyrese — because she’s not ready yet for a sleepover (Thank God), those scenes were as effective as any we see in horror films. Any second, it felt like, ZOMBIE PHINEAS was going to pop out of the dark and take a chunk out of Karen’s neck. But that would’ve been too easy for Scott Gimple. He wanted to make his audience suffer.
So, it came as a huge relief, actually, when ZOMBIE PHINEAS devoured BEARDED RANDO and snacked upon his guts, before the two spread out in the D-Cell block, inflicted numerous casualties, and more importantly, reintroduced the fear that Norman Reedus suggested would arrive in season four. That was absolute madness, all the more so because the threat came from the inside. The prison can no longer keep out the walkers, because they are rolling off the assembly line from the inside.
Daddy’s Dead, Zed. Daddy’s Dead — Bringing kids into the prison was a cruel season four twist, because there is little more heartbreaking than 8 and 10-year-old girls being not only forced to see their father die, but potentially have to snuff out their Daddy’s zombie light before he steals their Barbies and yanks their intestines through their navel with his teeth. I didn’t catch his name (Wayne?), but I’m pretty sure that the father with the beard was Fargo’s John Carroll Lynch, and he was effective with his three minutes of screen time, though not as effective as his daughters, who blubbered at losing their father, and then chickened out when forced to put the knife in Daddy’s head, not that I blame them. That, however, was a rough sequence, and demonstrated how effective Scott Gimple (and director Guy Ferland) can be in extracting devastation out of characters we don’t even know.
Carol, too, is taking the tough love approach, calling the oldest daughter “weak” for her inability to snuff out Zombie Norm Gunderson. In these tough times, when your own zombie parents can turn on you, it’s the only practical approach.
The West Georgia Prison Blues — It didn’t take them long, however, to isolate the cause of the prison uprising, which was actually something of a relief. In an episode already as intense as it was, I’m not sure it could’ve contained that mystery. It’s a virus of some kind. A fast-spreading flu with symptoms that include pleurisy, as well as your brain exploding out of your eyes, ears, and nose. So, you know: GOOD TIMES. The origin isn’t completely known: It could’ve been the pig. It could’ve been the walkers. It might have something to do with the mice that are being fed to the walkers. Or it might be the water supply. All we know now is that it is contagious, but how contagious and who it affects we do not know yet.
Is Your Fence Zombie Proof? — Meanwhile, the issue with zombies overriding the fence has returned, and quite frankly, I don’t know why it’s taken this long to be an issue, nor do I understand what happens to all the dead walker bodies that are snuffed out in front of the fence. In either respect, the important things to note are 1) the walkers are dangerously close to getting through, 2) Sasha spotted the dead rats, and knows someone is feeding them? (the Governor?), and 3) Rick had to lure them away with pigs he thought were infected. It’s amazing how powerful the sequence with the pigs was, too: After watching characters drop for three years, and seeing hundreds of zombie deaths, the death of pigs was still difficult to stomach.
Zombie Kill of the Week — Like Play-Doh through a fence, y’all.
Johnny Got His Gun — The six months of relative peace have allowed Carl some time to mature, and hopefully, move past his bratty streak. After the unnecessary civilian kill last year, Rick still has some reservations, but Carl — especially after taking the initiative and saving Michonne from a walker and later, ratting Carol out to Rick — earned back Rick’s trust enough to have his gun returned to him.
If Lil Ass Kicker Dies, We Riot — But nothing is as hard to stomach as the thought of Judith dying. Lil Ass Kicker is one cute little baby, and honestly, zombie baby would be too much for me to handle. The thing about the virus going around, too, is that it places an imminent threat on everyone, so when Judith cried a little louder in the presence of Michonne, I could feel my heart leap at the thought of her succumbing to the sickness.
But the moment with Michonne crying was incredibly powerful. Without saying a word, that scene told us all we needed to know about the loss Michonne must have suffered before the zombie apocalypse. Along with Michonne’s relationship with Carl, and the smile she shared with Rick last week, it also establishes a potential romance blossoming. Michonne would be one fantastic, katana-wielding step-mom. With Michonne laid up, and unable to continue tracking down the Governor, there’s plenty of time for her and Rick to get to know each other better.
Rick might make a nice husband, too.
You Light My Morning Sky with Burning Love — Oh. Oh. Poor f**king Tyrese. What could possibly be worse than bringing flowers to your girlfriend, only to see that she’s not only succumbed to an illness, but apparently, self-immolated. That was a crushing scene, although Karen at least spared us from the more devastating one: That of Tyrese having to kill his own transformed girlfriend.
All in all, a fantastic, devastating episode. At no point during the course of the series have I felt closer to the characters that remain, so their triumphs and failures suddenly feel so much more personal. I feel like this season is likely to see at least one major character death, and right now, my hunch is Glenn. That’s going to hurt. But if Lil Ass Kicker dies, I won’t know what to do with myself.
(Thanks, as always, to Chet Manley for the killer GIF work)