If last week's season premiere of The Walking Dead teased the promise of a rebound from the choppy second season, this week's episode pivots forward into more fruitful dramatic terrain. It articulates the growing anxieties of the weary-minded members of the group, homing in on their struggle to retain control in the midst of rising threats. This plays out in two central scenarios amid the claustrophobic surroundings of the prison, where conditions are graver and Hershel's (Scott Wilson) life is in jeopardy after being bit by a walker. While Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Carol (Melissa McBride), and Glen (Steven Yeun) attend to Hershel with the dimming hope that he'll survive the wound, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and T-Dog (IronE Singleton) jostle with four prison inmates who've been cocooned from the outside world and now lay claim to the facility.
The former thread consists mostly of the standard “hope and reminisce” dialoguing between characters that's earned The Walking Dead some negative criticism. However, Rick's encounter with the four inmates takes the series into dangerous new territory. The inmates' intentions aren't quite clear, though their ringleader openly engages Rick in an alpha-male battle of wills that intensifies through the episode. Despite the threat of outsiders to the group, Rick is forced to negotiate a compromise with the prison survivors because they have access to food and also possess a better knowledge of the facility.
Compared to Rick's gritty leadership, the inmates' lack of experience at surviving in this world is almost comical, evidenced by the brawler's mentality with which they take on walkers. More than anything, their presence in the episode articulates the ruthless precision with which Rick leads the group. He's molded Daryl and T-Dog into efficient fighters who function as his own personal attack dogs. All the while he maintains a cool distance from everyone as the unquestioned leader within the survivor circle; he's even become so estranged from his wife that he shuts down her attempts to rekindle a relationship.
Given the show's continued emphasis on Rick's isolation, Lincoln's performance warrants deeper consideration. Widely criticized for his overreaching performances in previous seasons, here he exhibits restraint in bringing the character's hardening resolve to light. Lincoln likely won't ever exude the liveliness that Jon Bernthal brought to his unhinged portrayal of Shane in previous seasons. In past episodes, he mostly worked off of his co-star's energy, but with Shane's character gone, Lincoln will need to carry the series (for at least the time being), and “Sick” is a good indication that he can accomplish that task.
Arguably of greater significance than Lincoln's increased self-assurance is that the series itself appears to be running along a parallel track with the actor. Even more than last week, there's an understated confidence wafting through the proceedings. It's channeled in the performances and the general demeanor of the writing and direction, which are sharper in drawing out conflict. The intermittent sluggishness and perfunctory dialogue that have long beset The Walking Dead remain a problem, but given how much the series has improved in these and other areas, any flaws it exhibits are notably less glaring.
“Sick” keys in on where the characters' fragile inner states give way to their coldly strategic actions. This is echoed in various elements of the episode, from dialogue to the acute desperation of each breath projected against the prison's dark corridors. Interestingly, the series plays down most of its characters to focus on Rick, whose decisive use of a machete all but erases any remaining doubts about his willingness to do what's necessary to maintain control of the group. Based on the ad campaign touting the phrase “Fight the Dead, Fear the Living,” it's reasonable to expect that Rick's sour encounter with the inmates is just the beginning of his larger struggle to preserve not only the power he's worked so hard to mold, but his own humanity. It may not hold much dramatic depth, but this angle has an instinctive quality that The Walking Dead so far in its third season is better equipped to express.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the recently published book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.