The latest episode of The Walking Dead, "Killer Within," opens on a hazy morning at the prison where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of survivors have settled down. The serene atmosphere is offset when a lurking figure opens the gates and baits walkers into the facility. With its dreamlike, foggy setting and a conspicuously waist-down perspective of the saboteur, a peculiar sense of disconnect underlines the implications of what's being depicted. The scene ends with a single close-up of a heart placed on the cold cement. It's a foreboding image that gains magnitude as "Killer Within" gives way to a sudden strike of tragedy. Moreover, the pre-credit sequence lends insight into how the episode amounts to a particularly poignant, if also problematic, entry in the show's run.
I'll return to the significance of the opening scene in a moment. First, let's take a look at how the episode builds to its ultimate disaster through stark tonal contrasts. With apocalyptic shows like this, moments of levity are few and far between. "Killer Within," however, goes so far as to offer something resembling a sustained cheerful mood as it gets going. Now having fortified the prison, Rick guides the crew about the mundane tasks of building a home. Small character moments are peppered along the way and gel nicely together as mini-portraits. Hershel (Scott Wilson) shows progress walking on crutches; Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) get busy in the watchtower; even Rick and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) share a brief hopeful exchange from a distance. After a tense encounter with the surviving inmates and a conversation among themselves about whether to allow the prisoners to join their operation, the group is still in better spirits and apparently in control.
Though these scenes are clearly engineered to all but tee up catastrophe, they nevertheless produce a lighter air that the characters are so rarely afforded. To see interplay among members of the group without the weight of the apocalypse is an especially welcome touch. The positive vibes soon disappear, however, when a horde of walkers catches everyone by surprise and exposes their vulnerabilities. What follows marks some of the most intense passages on the series to date, partially due to the veneer of security that everyone was beginning to feel. The group is fractured and forced into different directions, each as dangerous as the next. Somewhat resembling the group's escape from Hershel's farm in last season's finale, the action benefits from a higher level of tension and stakes. This is a credit to how well the third season thus far has articulated the inner turmoil of everyone even as they have united in strategy and mission.
"Killer Within" also takes us back to Woodbury, where Andrea (Laurie Holden) continues her dance with the Governor (David Morrissey), while Merle (Michael Rooker) gains hope and expresses his desire to go looking for his brother. None of these threads results in anything groundbreaking, other than the opportunity to further study the Governor's subtle manipulations. Otherwise these scenes provide little beyond relief from the dramatic events at the prison, which are permeated by helplessness and dread.
The group suffers great losses amid the battle, but the episode's strong emotional undercurrents are more a result of the sacrifice in both T-Dog's (IronE Singleton) final stand and Lori's decision to give birth despite the certainty that she won't survive the delivery. As always, the writers could perhaps have smoothed out some of the more obvious lines of dialogue. By and large, though, the last half of the episode contains some of The Walking Dead's most affecting material, sealed by the devastating off-screen gunshot Carl (Chandler Riggs) delivers toward the end.
There's usually a caveat to The Walking Dead's success, and it rears itself again in "Killer Within." It takes me back to the opening segments of the episode, which establish the origins for the ensuing chaos while going to painstaking lengths to conceal the identity of the man that caused it. Manipulation is inherent to storytelling, but the best narratives don't thrive on it the way The Walking Dead often does for its effect. "Killer Within" turns all the right knobs to upset viewers, and while it mostly works, the calculation behind it is all too apparent.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.