Just when Rick thinks he’s out, they pull him back in. That seems to be the overwhelming them of “Infected,” tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead on AMC. The former sheriff, played by Andrew Lincoln, is trying to step back from being the leader, from being the one who has to make—or more often than not in the last three seasons, not make—the tough decisions. He almost lost his own humanity, and sanity, and that of his mop-haired son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), so nowadays he’s just a simple farmer man, digging in the dirt, hanging out with pigs, not even carrying his signature revolver. Does this tranquility last long? No. We’ll get that out of the way up front—you didn’t really expect it to, did you—but we can dig into the specifics after the jump.
It should go without saying but SPOILERS LURK AHEAD
The Walking Dead left off last episode with a dead kid in the showers, and picks up this week with an unseen prison denizen tempting the walkers with delicious, delicious rats, teaching them to gather in a single spot and press against the already weakening fence. That’s not good. And things get even worse in short order as Patrick, the dead kid, comes back to life, hungry for flesh. If you were paying attention building up to this season, you probably saw multiple clips with Glen (Steven Yeun) running and yelling, “Walkers in D.” So as soon as you see someone walk past a sign for cellblock D, you know that D is about to get pretty F’d.
This is where Rick first gets pulled back in. No matter how much his rational mind wants to stay out of the thick of things, he’s a man, damn it, a man of action. He can’t sit this one out. That makes Daryl (Norman Reedus) happy, he misses his platonic man friend, but everyone else has one hell of a crappy morning after Patrick shows up and starts to chow down on folks. By the end, they’ve lost a good number of people, though it’s all newbies, so you won’t miss anyone.
Right out of the gates, “Infected” accomplishes a couple of things. First, any lingering sense of security, normalcy, and safety the survivors felt in the prison is gone, poof, evaporated like nothing. We learn more about that new threat we’ve been hearing so much about. See, Patrick didn’t get bitten, he contracted some sort of fast acting sickness that killed him without a bite, and when he dies, that latent, lingering zombie virus that is inside everyone kicks in and he develops that peculiar hunger. Add that to the fact that someone inside is trying to sabotage their stronghold (any bets? Maybe we should get a pool going), and things are taking serious downward turn. Fans of the gore on The Walking Dead will have a field day with this episode, as Greg Nicotero is going bananas here. My favorite bit is the walker getting pushed through a chain link fence.
However, the most important thing you’ll walk away from “Infected” with is, Carol (Melissa McBride) got kind of badass. We saw last week that she was teaching kids how to use knives and defend themselves, but that gets cranked up even a more this week. Out of everyone on the show, she has easily made the greatest strides and developed the most as a character over a short span. Not only is she sneaking around giving combat lessons, we see her being strong, but also caring and compassionate, like when deals with those annoying little girls who lost their father. Over the course of two episodes, she all of a sudden became the deepest, most complex character on The Walking Dead. Who saw that one coming?
“Infected” also continues the trend of peeling back the layers on another character that’s been a tough nut to crack, Michonne (Danai Gurira). Last season she was just a functional mute, with nothing but scowls and an inability to communicate anything to anyone at anytime. Last week she said actual words and even cracked a smile; this week, she had an honest to god emotional reaction to something. When Judy, the baby, pukes on Beth (Emily Kinney), she dumps the kid on Michonne. They set it up like she just doesn’t want this gross little thing anywhere near her, but by the end, as she’s in tears, you’re fairly certain that she lost a child along the line. Maybe not even to the zombies, but somewhere, once, she was a mother.
Because he can’t stay away, Rick develops a plan to lure the walkers away, kind of a two-birds-one-stone situation. Because no one knows what causes the mysterious sickness, and because like half the prison has already been exposed—there is talk of quarantining themselves, but no one ever stays more than a few feet away from anyone that wasn’t exposed—one of their working theories is that it came from the pigs. Remember swine flu? So Rick and Daryl take the remaining pigs out and use them as bait to pull the horde of zombies off the fence long enough that they can reinforce the supports.
At the end, Rick realizes that he can’t stay away, that he has to be part of the action to keep himself, his family, and his people safe. Every reluctant hero has that moment, usually as they stare into a mirror, when they recognize and accept what they have to do. This is Rick’s. Now hopefully he’ll be less wishy-washy and indecisive. And one vital fact you take away from “Infected,” after he takes off and burns his pig-blood-soaked shirt, is that Rick apparently prefers to go commando. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
“Infected” isn’t a great episode, but like “30 Days Without an Accident” last week, it is a solid offering, and shows signs that The Walking Dead is moving in a positive direction. The biggest example of that is the mystery illness. You don’t know exactly what it is, and as the council of elders, or council of long-time cast members, sits around trying to decide on a course of action, you’ll have flashbacks to the group sitting around Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) living room, endlessly rehashing whatever topic was in front of them. This tedious inability to make decisions, to spend multiple episodes yammering on, has always been the most frustrating part of the show. While you expect that to happen here, they actually do something for a change and move forward. It’s refreshing, and feels like new showrunner Scott Gimple and the producing crew is finally getting it. You feel like there’s hope for the series, and that’s a nice change of pace after three seasons of banging your head against the wall.
And the episode ends on a legitimate cliffhanger, one that makes you want to tune in to see what happens. In that spirit, check out the promo video for next week’s episode, “Isolated.”