When we last left Rick (Andrew Lincoln), he was digging through a zombie's intestines looking for what remained of his wife. It was a grim moment and another illustration of The Walking Dead's increasingly despairing outlook. At IndieWire earlier this week, Alison Willmore wondered whether the series is presenting an argument for the end of humanity. Given the trajectory it's taken thus far, that's not a far-reaching notion. That the writers continue to delve deeper into human despondency and ax more members of the cast in the process quite frankly makes it difficult to see any redeeming future for the characters, and perhaps the series itself. Nevertheless, every so often an episode gives us a fleeting moment of stillness and humanity that cuts through the surrounding gloom. Such a moment arrives late in "Hounded" just when you think Rick might be headed for a total breakdown. For much of the episode, he's away from the group and preoccupied with strange phone conversations with unknown callers. His desperate pleas for help initially suggest that he may be losing it, but this thread evolves into an unexpected moment of catharsis that the series needed as much as its protagonist.
Rick's storyline is one of several in which characters strike up or rekindle a connection. Daryl (Norman Reedus) also experiences a similarly heartening event after he discovers that Carol (Melissa McBride) is still alive, a scene that's intercut with Rick's return to the group. These developments are why "Hounded" may represent The Walking Dead's most significant attempt to revive a sense of hopefulness. But the cruel joke of the episode is that these tender brushstrokes are threaded into a more cynical view that comes into focus through other plot circumstances. Namely, this episode places events in motion that will lead to an eventual collision between the Woodbury community and the prison survivors.
The key between the two main plotlines, to some surprise, is Merle (Michael Rooker). One thing "Hounded" shows us that hasn't been evident so far this season is Merle's vileness, a side of the character that viewers will remember from his brief stint in the first season. So far this season we've seen a mellower Merle, evidenced by his "gee whiz" act with Andrea. Here, however, he reveals his cruel nature through a con job on Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) in order to capture them, and also more pointedly with his abrupt killing of the doubtful boy accompanying him on his hunt for Michonne (Danai Gurira). These acts prove that behind the loyal-lapdog routine he puts on for the Governor (David Morrissey) is a vengeful sadist looking to unload. Fans no doubt will welcome the spotlight on Merle, which the writers are likely using to heighten the contrast between him and his increasingly gentle brother, Daryl, before they inevitably meet again.
Amid its advance of various plot threads that will at some point manifest in a clash between Rick and the Governor (presumably by the mid-season finale two weeks from now), Rick's storyline remains the center of the series. Despite outreach from Hershel (Scott Wilson), Rick's defiance intensifies as he holes up in the control room nervously waiting for the phone to ring again. The episode's best touch is Rick's conversations with the unknown callers later revealed to be imagined. As the conversations progress, he expresses a wish to be relieved of the burden of leadership, something he hasn't done since the series began. It's a rare instance of total vulnerability for Rick. Yet the quietly devastating moment when he discovers that he's talking to Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) is also tinged with hope. Rather than sealing Rick's fate as a man lost, it allows him to have closure and pick himself up. It's unknown whether Rick ever registers that these conversations are a coping mechanism, but the growing static obscuring Lori's voice before he hangs up might suggest either an awareness or simply a decision to let go on his part. His return to the group and first encounter with his newborn provides the show's first real positive emotional release in what seems like ages. It's a moment that Lincoln could easily have overplayed, but, coupled with Bear McCreary's soulful score, instead turns it into something simple and beautiful.
"Hounded" balances the promise of the moment with the dread of what's to come. The future may indeed be hopeless for these characters. If their struggles against the undead aren't too great to surmount, then certainly their skirmishes within and among themselves will spell their end. But when those moments of humanity and connection occur, however rare and transient, they leave behind remnants of a dream in which a better future may be possible. This idea may also serve as a good analogy for the series as a whole. The Walking Dead remains a glaringly imperfect show, but the moments it gets right are enough to keep up hope that someday it will rise above its flaws.
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.