After last week’s episode of The Walking Dead pulled the proverbial carpet out from underneath our feet, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) effectively banishing Carol (Melissa McBride) from the prison community, this week’s surprise is who gets to stay. With the focus honed squarely on the ever-worsening quarantined area back at the prison, Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) tireless efforts to keep optimism alive seemed to signal his inevitable demise. After all, the series has a long tradition of giving characters heroic moments before feeding them to walkers. By that logic, with a mounting body count of nameless characters spelling an uprising of walkers that proves too much for Hershel to manage in the isolated cell block, everything seemed to be setting up for old man’s final stand. As is becoming a pattern this season, though, the series dodges the quick emotional punch of losing a major character, apparently in favor of preparing for a more devastating release down the road.
In addition to returning The Walking Dead to its nail-biting roots of suspense narrative, “Internment” reintroduces the familiar, overt philosophical musings of its earlier seasons. Hitting on the old beat of the difficulty of preserving humanity, the episode finds some resonance with the raised stakes of the situation. With Glen’s (Steven Yeun) health declining fast, Hershel quickly finds himself overwhelmed with trying to keep as many people alive as possible. “If you’re not willing to lose one, you’ll lose them all,” the dying doctor Caleb (Sunkrish Bala) tells him. Hershel nonetheless pushes on. When he’s not actively helping people to breathe, he’s wheeling a gurney around the prison, escorting bodies away so as to prevent the others from losing hope. In a brief conversation with Rick, Hershel reemphasizes his belief that everything is by design and that a defeated spirit is worse than any disease. But Hershel’s belief seems less driven by deep conviction than by an acceptance that without hope there’s nothing left. He’s not blind to the circumstances, but he never allows hopelessness to set in.
Rick seems to have a harder time maintaining hope, especially with prison about to be breached by walkers from outside. With Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) attention drawn to Hershel and Glen, Rick enlists Carl (Chandler Riggs) to help him fortify the fence surrounding the prison. Late in the episode, the two share a most uncommon form of bonding when a section of the fence collapses. As the two fall back, Rick instructs Carl on using weapons, and as they mow down rows of walkers Rick seems almost as upset by Carl’s ease with pulling the trigger as by the fact walkers have invaded the prison. It’s a virtuoso scene that not only plays on an unspoken emotional dynamic, but allows the walkers to be genuinely scary again. There’s an almost Romero-esque quality to the way they come pouring through the fence with fury and drive, as opposed to the aimless stumbling around we’re used to seeing.
The scene is hindered only by the ease with which the danger subsides, as the writers opt to give closure to both of the episode’s main conflicts. While the eventual return of Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) with medication makes for a decent cap to the Hershel/Glen thread and potentially the flu plotline altogether, the conclusion to Rick and Carl’s dangerous encounter is underwhelming and borderline nonsensical, with the walker threat coming to an abrupt halt. Despite the disappointing resolution, the undercurrents pointing toward the emphasis of Rick and Carl’s relationship going forward are a potentially positive sign in the wake of the show’s on-the-nose plotting. Moreover, with Rick now recognizing that he can’t control Carl’s future any more than he can will the prison back to its protected state, the episode’s portrait of Hershel as the last remaining connection to a time when driving a knife through a skull was a hard thing is all the more effective. While the season’s emotional center will be Rick and Carl’s relationship and how it’s likely to be tested in coming episodes, Hershel’s “never give up attitude” may come to play an important role in how this unfolds.
Alas, “Internment” walks back from the edge of the cliff just before hurdling over, but not without a good tease in the form of a silhouetted vision of the Governor (David Morrissey) in the episode’s closing shot. One threat falls, another rises. Yet, excusing the schematic nature of writing, the underlying feeling of the episode has less to do with the threat of disease or human foes. The demise of the prison has long been foreshadowed and now seems to be on the threshold, but it’s the subtle exchanges between Rick and Carl that spell a more unsettling reality that’s beginning to take shape.
For more recaps of The Walking Dead, click here.