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My favorite image from the second episode of the season comes as the group of incarcerated survivors steps into the prison yard for the first time in either 252 or 254 days, depending on which inmates’ count you trust. After the obligatory conversation in which the mind-blowing extent of the apocalypse is relayed — “no cellphones, no computers” etc. — the prisoners who had been locked into a cafeteria stride out into the sunlight, and the camera pulls back to give us one of those cliche prison movie shots.
But this is an anti-”Shawshank” moment: the yard is covered in corpses, with a few walkers wandering along the perimeter fence. Still, a couple of the surviving inmates do the upraised-arm gesture despite the grim reality of the ruined world. Good joke.
This episode revisits one of the perennial conundrums of “Walking Dead” and zombie-survival stories in general: What do you with a neighbor you can’t trust? The practicalities of living in post-apocalyptic moral vacuum in which everything is trying to kill you mean that you can’t really tolerate other people you can’t trust.
In the past, racist Merle (brother of Daryl), domestic abuser Ed (husband of Carol), Shane and the youthful member of season two’s predatory posse have all, to some degree, played the role of community member that can’t be trusted. We’ve already seen how difficult it is to keep someone as a prisoner — it’s not a happy option. So what then is to be done with a group of surviving inmates who don’t exactly inspire a sense of good fellowship?
It’s interesting that the keep-no-prisoners dilemma plays out this time inside an actual prison. Rick and Lori cut to the quick of the decision in a pained conversation about the surviving convicts that marks both how strained things have become in their disintegrating marriage and how far the moral center of the show has shifted.
Lori: What are your options?
Rick: Kill them.
Lori: Well, if that’s what you think is best.
Lori tries to exonerate Rick by assuring him that there isn’t malice in his heart, while at the same time giving him permission to do whatever he has to do to keep the group safe “with a clear conscience.” In other words, murder these convicts if you think it will help.
But even as he is contemplating the deaths of these problematic survivors, Rick is outwardly pursuing a compromise made with their leader: In exchange for half the remaining food in the prison kitchen, Rick and company will help clear out another cellblock that will become the new home of the cafeteria convicts. “If I even catch a sniff of you near our people,” Rick assures the prisoners’ leader, “I will kill you.”
The mission to clear the cellblock is preceded by a crash course in how to kill zombies, but the rookies don’t listen. When the first wave of walkers arrives, the inmates attack like a group of inmates (including an archetypal shiv-in-the-stomach maneuver familiar from every prison movie ever — another good joke). “Prison riot crap” is how Rick describes their approach.
The second wave goes better, with the convicts mostly keeping to the formation. Tiny breaks ranks and pays for it with an absolutely disgusting stab wound delivered by sharp arm bone of a zombiefied prisoner. He pleads his evident good health, but even someone as new to the zombie game as the convicts’ leaders can see what needs to be done.
Still, the way he goes about putting Tiny down is unreservedly psychopathic, with a hammer-claw blow to the skull followed by a bloody orgy of unnecessary violence aimed at someone he had just spent most of a year living with. The carnage makes it fairly plain to see that the surviving convicts might not be good neighbors.
By the third wave, we can see that it’s not just a dilemma of bad neighbors. At least some of the inmates have conspired to turn the table on Rick, Daryl and T-Dog during the push to clear out of the cellblock. In a page from Shane’s season two playbook, the inmate leader releases too many penned up walkers and tries to engineer a fatal moment in which it might appear that Rick’s death was just a matter of bad zombie luck. But the wily sheriff sees it coming and escapes death with help from Daryl.
Once the wave is cleared, Rick doesn’t hesitate to stick his machete into the skull of the inmates’ leader. No more waffling in the face of a moral crisis for Rick. Another inmate reveals himself to be in cahoots with the deceased leader, so Rick chases him down and locks him in small holding pen to be devoured by walkers. The look on his face afterwards is not one of man particularly troubled by his conscience.
The two remaining inmates are allowed to take over the cleared out cellblock, which evidently saw an episode of summary executions by prison guards during the throes of the outbreak. It’s a messed up scene, but Daryl notes that it can’t compare to the horror beyond the prison walls. With that, they leave to two remaining inmates to fend for themselves.
A few plot threads from the episode’s other storylines:
Hershel appears to have survived the amputation of his zombie-mauled leg, following Rick’s hasty hack job. He made it through, in part, thanks to Carl’s unauthorized solo mission to ransack the prison infirmary, which turned up some sterile bandages, disinfectant and two walkers that had to be killed in the process. His mom didn’t approve.
During the bedside vigil for Hershel, Glen was tasked with the unfortunate responsibility of killing his girlfriend’s father if he should return from death as a zombie. Glen also helped Carol prepare for the worst: In case of Hershel’s demise, she would become the group’s medic — and the person responsible for performing a likely C-section during Lori’s labor and delivery. In a decision Glen took repeated pains to describe as “not crazy,” Carol practiced her surgical technique on a female zombie.
Oh yeah, and someone was watching that practice surgery. I bet it was Michonne spying from the woods — and if I was going under the knife, I’d rather have the incision made with her steady-handed samurai sword than Carol’s blunt-looking pocket knife.