As anyone who’s read these reviews has probably guessed (if it ever crossed your mind at all), I’m not much of a tactics guy. Some viewers approach The Walking Dead as a chance to debate the appropriate strategies and defenses for surviving in a post-apocalyptic world; I like zombies and occasional stabs at characterization. But even I’m somewhat taken aback at how poorly our heroes have fortified their prison home. Last season, there was a lot going on, so it made sense that preparations were slow and a bit ramshackle. But since the Woodbury crisis has passed, you’d think they would’ve sat down and taken a look at that damn chain-link fence. Rick and various others have been struggling to keep it standing since the start of the season, and whether or not the push of walkers is due to bad luck or sabotage, the fight hasn’t been going very well. Surely there had to have been some way to make those walls stronger that wasn’t just stabbing the endless hordes in the head and hoping for the best? By the time “Internment” begins, any long term strategy is a moot point: The fence is coming down despite Rick, Maggie, and Carl’s best efforts, and the only immediate necessity is killing what needs to be killed. But it’s odd that even with such a good location and time to settle in, our heroes aren’t better at this.
Then again, if they were better, maybe we wouldn’t have climaxes like the highlight of this week’s episode, as the shit hits a number of fans simultaneously, leaving everyone to scramble to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Just like wordless scenes in which characters stare grimly into an unknown future (it took Rick a whole week to get back to the prison, I guess), shit-hitting is something The Walking Dead has done and continues to do quite well. There are downsides to setting a series in a world where death by necro-cannibalism is a constant, terrifying threat—namely the way that threat tends to dominate all conversations, to the point of reducing characters to ambulatory Speak ‘n’ Spells that only know the words “sorrow” and “hope.” But the upside is, whatever narrative bog you’ve wandered into, whatever plot cul-de-sac or philosophical vacuum, it’s always possible to liven things up with a sudden, catastrophic explosion of horror and death. That’s the major appeal of the show: Even at its worst, there’s always a 50/50 chance the dying will start soon, and who doesn’t love that?
There’s a lot of dying in “Internment,” so much so that at first, the hour bordered on being too grim. That’s a line The Walking Dead has crossed before, and often. When your surest, easiest way to elicit an audience reaction is agonizing murder, even great writers have a hard time resisting the urge to keep going back to that particular poisoned well. The start of the episode has Herschel tending to the sick, an increasingly Sisyphean task where what looks like the only possible conclusion is his own gruesome death. Nearly all of the newcomers from Woodbury are sick and dying, and the good doctor’s willingness to do everything in his power to save them, up to and including intubating one of the almost gone, is both touching and more than a little quixotic. The plague is a crisis that has been building since the first episode, which means that it has more dramatic weight behind it than, say, a random infestation of walkers would. Yet some of that weight is lost by the sheer number of victims we never got a chance to know. Herschel’s efforts illuminate his character, but so many of the rest remain vague, impressionistic forms. Here’s a dad who refuses to let Herschel see his son because his son has died and Dad doesn’t want to lose him! He dies as you’d expect, and that’s a potentially heartbreaking short story that barely merits a sentence. Here’s—someone else! And now they’re wormfood.
It’s unfortunate that the episode’s climax serves as much as a way to winnow down the cast as it does a thrilling set piece, but thankfully, it’s a good set piece. Mainly for Herschel’s sake; watching Rick and Carl have a team up and bond over first failing to brace the fence successfully, and then going full Rambo on a crowd of walkers (Carl is frighteningly good with a machine gun), is fine, but doesn’t really show us much we don’t know. Technically, Herschel’s efforts don’t either, but combine his success here with his earlier speech about trying to do some good in the world, and there’s something surprisingly optimistic going on under the surface. Well, maybe “optimism” is a little much—a lot of people still die, and, again, the fact that we know hardly any of them makes those deaths both easier (who cares!) and harder (but shouldn’t we care?) to take. But the fact of the matter is, Herschel makes a conscious choice not to give in to despair, the sort of choice this show so often devours like sweet, fleshy candy, and he makes it through okay. He loses a friend (goodbye, Dr. Caleb) and most of his patients, but not everyone dies. Lizzy survivies to fight another day, as does Sasha, and while the odds were against Glenn dying, it really did look touch and go for a few minutes with him.
There are the usual run of vaguely portentous conversations in the episode’s first half: Rick explaining himself to Maggie about Carol (the best part is him telling her they can’t second guess themselves mere seconds after he asks her what she would’ve done in his place); Rick once again struggling with Carl over his desire to protect his son, struggles which seem more pointless with each passing week. What, exactly, is he trying to keep Carl from at this point? The kid watched his mom die and then had to shoot her corpse in the head. He doesn’t have any innocence left to lose. Rick’s constant moral turmoil is, I think, intended to make him complex, but it mostly just makes him look like a putz. At least Herschel’s efforts to keep the fates of the dead plague victims hidden from those who were still alive sort of made sense, although even then, it’s a moral choice so slight it seems hardly worth the effort. In its best moments, the show is able to find some dignity in characters’ efforts to maintain their humanity in the face of chaos, but the priorities are all out of whack. Carol’s attempts to teach the children the wonderful world of knives suddenly make a lot more sense.
The conversations are hit and miss (mostly miss, to be honest), but the overall arc of the story, and how Herschel’s efforts are rewarded by the thin victory of not everyone dying, worked. There aren’t any other shows I can think of that could have a scene with an old man struggling to remove an intubator from a zombie’s mouth, so there’s points for that, too. It’s not just enough to have a crisis; the crisis needs to have stakes more important than “do we live to die horribly another day.” “Internment” achieved this by making Herschel’s arc not just about life or death, but about how you choose to live. It’s a small, but important, distinction.
- So, the Governor, huh? Given how last season panned out, and given what a mess the writers made of the character, this development was both inevitable and not hugely promising. Still, that last shot of him standing outside the fences was well done, and now that the plague is over, we need something to ruin everyone’s day. Fingers crossed he’s scarier this time around.
- Daryl doesn’t know about Carol yet. That’s going to be a fun conversation.
- Dr. Caleb tells Herschel there’s a stage of the disease that, once you’re that far gone, you’re doomed. But nobody’s survived the sickness yet, so that seems like a meaningless distinction.
- “Dad, you can’t keep me from it.” “From what?” “From what always happens.” “Maybe. But I think it’s my job to try.” I can’t tell if Carl and Rick are chatting, or rehearsing lines from their production of Waiting For Godot.
- Daryl: “You’re a tough son of a bitch.” Herschel: “I am.”