So this was the first episode of The Walking Dead in a really long time that I watched from start to finish without ever getting bored once. The only thing that pulled me out of the narrative last night was that part of my brain that realized I hadn't been pulled out of the narrative, which then kept trying to pull me out to ask why this particular episode was so effective.
First of all - we're in the prison. We knew we would be, of course. Last season ended with the tilt to reveal the prison behind the trees, and the premiere of this season had our characters clearing out a bunch of walkers, claiming their own cell block and then ... dun dun DUNNN! ... discovering some prisoners in the cafeteria.
So we knew that we would be in the prison, but what we didn't know is whether the show would be able to make it all somehow super boring again. So far, that doesn't seem to be a problem.
But before we talk about this particular episode and all of the braining that happened, I want to take just a minute to consider what it is we Walking Dead fans all like about the prison. Because while there are a lot of differing opinions on the show and the comic, and while Devin in particular has said that he stopped reading the comic during the prison storyline, for the most part every fan of the comic has been heard saying, "Yeah, I really like the prison arc the best." Why is that? And how will that affect how we like this season of the show?
Don't worry, I'm not going to go into comic book spoilers here or anything. I'll leave that for some Governor of Assholes in the comments.
For my money, the most enjoyable thing about the prison story arc is that it's the first time The Walking Dead really ventures into the "but what would you do if that really happens" part of the zombie apocalypse fun, bringing about a fresh and yet super obvious twist. After all, now that we're all fully grown nerds, we know that the survivors escaped to the mall in Dawn of the Dead because Romero wanted to make a statement about American capitalism. But as pre-teens who first discovered that movie, we thought, "Oh, cool! The mall is so fully stocked with food and weapons and stuff! I wish the zombies would attack our sleepy suburb so we could live at the mall, too!"
I've talked about that Double Dare aspect of fantasy that's prevalent in all zombie apocalypse fiction before, of course, but what works about the prison arc is that holing up in a prison during an apocalyptic event is of course the best choice you can possibly make, but it never fits in with that fantasy aspect like a food court does. So as soon as Kirkman brought his band of survivors there in the comic, it felt like a defining moment, a new generation taking hold of the zombie mythos.
Is there symbolism? Of course. In a "post 9/11 world" you can't have characters choosing to lock themselves in a prison for safety rather than roam the open roads feeling free but at risk without drawing some comparisons to Bush's America.
But do I think Kirkman meant any of that? Fuck no. He wrote the characters into a prison because he had played the "what would you do if..." game in his head, and a prison just makes much more sense than a Wal-Mart, no matter how well stocked the camping section is. And the storyline works so well because Kirkman takes that seemingly perfect plan and then rips it apart. This week we get the first peek at the cracks in the plan when our group of survivors have to deal with the prisoners who have been locked in the cafeteria for the ten months since the zombie outbreak. So how did it measure up?
In a word: great.
I love that the prisoners have no idea what's happened in the world outside. Other than knowing about some cannibals, they thought they were just trapped after a riot, and they were all waiting for someone to come in and save them. Then when they finally see some other living people, it's just Rick and his friends holding down Hershel so Rick can cut off his leg. Awesome.
That set-up lets us enjoy the tension as the prisoners follow the group back to Cell Block C, but it also gives us a great glimpse at our now united band of survivors explaining the whole situation to this new group of totally uninformed people. That works as a great way to bring new fans of the show into the story without having to build in too much exposition, too.
But the best part of introducing us to the new characters is that it gives us a real glimpse at our new Leader Rick dealing with these prisoners, and the scene in the yard when he's negotiating with Asshole Jesus (did we ever get a name for that prisoner?) was the first time I got really excited watching the show.
Meanwhile, Hershel is maybe dying, or maybe just sleeping off the trauma of having his leg cut off. The big question here is whether or not cutting off his leg will save his life, but for me that's more about understanding how the rules of zombies work in this world than it is about caring if Hershel lives or dies. I hope he gets to hang out for a while, though, because I'm looking forward to watching him learn how to deal with his crutches (if they can find any).
For the most part Lori is taking care of Hershel, but she does pull Rick aside at one point to say, "If you need to kill those other dudes who are in this building with us, I'm totally cool with it." Did she mean that, or was she just trying to think like Rick because she wants to heal their marriage?
It doesn't matter. Rick leads the group through another cell block, and after the prisoners run at the first group of zombies and adorably try to kill one of them by stabbing him in the gut repeatedly, he and Daryl teach them all about going for the brain instead. Tiny appears to get a little freaked out by that, and in the next wave of attacks he backs into another room and gets himself bit. There's some talk about how maybe they should cut off his arm, except the bite is on his torso, and they argue a bit about what to do next and then - HOLY SHIT! - Asshole Jesus totally brains the shit out of Tiny over and over and over again. And again I thought to myself, "YES! This is what I thought this show was going to be two years ago."
Then Asshole Jesus tries to kill Rick twice, first swinging his machete dangerously close to Rick's brain in a "follow through" swing, then throwing a zombie with only a chest wound at him. "Damn," I thought to myself. "That Asshole Jesus is one serious asshole." Then he and Rick face each other after all the walkers have been killed.
"Oh, I get it," Rick says. "Shit happens."
And they look at each other.
And Asshole Jesus eyes Rick up and down.
And then Rick FUCKING PUTS HIS MACHETE IN ASSHOLE JESUS' SKULL.
This is the moment where Rick really steps over the line, and it's handled perfectly. In that moment he does exactly what we want him to do. And when he chases down the other kid and leaves him in the zombie cage at the end of the rat maze to get eaten, I think he's doing exactly what all the jerks in the audience are loudly cheering for him to do. It's the right move to survive. But it's also the wrong move if you want to preserve your humanity. So far Rick has at least been able to tell himself that he's one of the good guys, and even with killing Shane he let himself think that for a while. Now he's done with that. And I'm sure that he still thinks he's one of the good guys (he got Lori's permission to kill these dudes, after all), but it's clear that he's on the road to bad and there's no real turning back.
And so, just like that, he became a watchable character again.
And next week... Andrea and Michonne totally meet The Governor! Dizzang!
So what do you guys think? Would you hole up in a prison during the zombie outbreak, or would you go the 28 Days Later route and throw some shopping carts at the bottom of the stairwell so you could hide out in the higher floors of a condo tower?
Is Rick just doing what he should do to protect his own by killing the violent prisoners, or is he becoming exactly what he used to try to defend the world against?
Is Carl still the worst thing ever, or is he just the worst thing that's ever happened on television?
Sound off in the comments, and join us next week as Meredith picks up the TV Talk baton!