Since the writers of The Walking Dead have hardly distinguished Beth (Emily Kinney) from other seemingly zombie-bait supporting characters over the past three seasons (the lone difference being that she’s survived over that stretch), her opening monologue that kicks off “Inmates” is somewhat of a surprise. Her voiceover, from a diary entry written before the prison’s destruction, expresses her mild hope in the stability the survivor group has achieved at the compound. This kind of emphasis on a relatively minor character typically hints at his or her demise. And as if that weren’t enough, the accompanying imagery of her and Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) exhausting tribulations in the walker-infested forest is strikingly ominous. However, the episode doesn’t deliver on its portent. In fact, the last time we see Beth, she’s weeping over several mutilated corpses next to a railroad track. The episode returns to this location again, but Beth and Daryl’s journey will likely pick up in coming episodes, as “Inmates” takes shape rather unexpectedly, with four short, open-ended vignettes following different groupings of characters that made it out of the prison.
After its initial focus on Beth and Daryl, the episode switches over to young Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and her fearful, less hardened younger sister, Mika (Kyla Kenedy), both being protected by Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) as they all wander aimlessly through the woods. Making survival more difficult for them is baby Judith, who’s also revealed to be under his care. The dialogue in this section is rough, but the frantic stress of the scenario is believable, as director Tricia Block goes to some length to show the immense difficulty of managing the needs of an infant. And in a chilling moment when Lizzie begins to suffocate Judith so as to not draw the attention of walkers, one is reminded of the survival instincts that these children have honed in this post-apocalyptic world. It’s a skill she might have picked up at the prison from Carol (Melissa McBride), who appears out of the blue to join their group. She remains one of the show’s few fully realized characters, but given that she admitted to Rick that she killed Karen, a fact still unbeknownst to Tyreese, her reappearance feels like a transparent means of setting the stage for an inevitable blowout between the two.
Aside from appeasing the audience’s uncertainty over whether Judith and Carol were still alive, “Inmates” remains notable for how its elliptical framing intimates the characters’ sense of unease following the destruction of the prison. Since most of the groups come across the same location markers, we gradually learn that they’re not only in close proximity, but that the episode’s order of presenting their stories doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which they occurred. There are similarities to the stories themselves as well. Like the first two storylines, the remaining two—the first involving Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), and the second featuring Glen (Steven Yeun) and Tara (Alanna Masterson)—likewise illustrate the varied ways in which each of the characters draws motivation to survive, which becomes a thematic focus of the episode. As Beth explains in her diary entry, “I’ve been starting to get afraid that it’s easier just to be afraid. But this morning, Daddy said something. ‘If you don’t have hope, what’s the point of living?’” In the wake of Hershel’s death, Beth resigns herself to hope, simply because she knows she needs to have it. Or else, why keep her tired legs moving?
This motif comes up elsewhere, such as in an exchange between Bob and Sasha, when Sasha questions why they should follow Maggie on her apparently hopeless pursuit of Glen. After Sasha explains that their time would be better spent looking for food and shelter, Bob asks her, “Then what?” He goes on, “Maybe you didn’t survive to keep on surviving,” to which Sasha responds, “Shit happens. Not everything has to mean something.” The tension over surviving for surviving’s sake and surviving for a purpose is not exactly subtle, but the episode’s strength lies in how it visualizes the sheer difficulty of enduring in this world in the face of bleak prospects. Exacerbation has never been more palpable on these characters’ faces and in their expressions, nor has their resolution to push through despair and sadness over having just recently lost so much.
Together, the episode’s divergent threads comprise a more satisfying spin on The Walking Dead‘s teased-out brand of storytelling. Whether the series itself is surviving to survive is still very much in question, but “Inmates” imparts some hope that it may just find its purpose in season four, even if its characters don’t.
For more recaps of The Walking Dead, click here.