Rick Grimes is not a well man. You see it in his face; he’s been sick for a while now, not physically ill but emotionally and morally floundering, and his situation hasn’t improved. The problem he’s having is the same problem every upright optimist faces when their worldview no longer fits their world. From the start, Rick’s been an outsider in the apocalypse. His coma kept him unconscious for the brunt of the destruction and chaos which followed the zombie outbreak, which means there was no transition period. He never had the luxury Shane or Lori had, of living through a madness that made the nightmarish tedium of their current situation tolerable by comparison. He went out in a country with government, law, and a family that more or less made sense; he came back to a place where any centralized form of authority had been demolished, where nearly everyone he’d ever known and worked with was dead, where his wife was half-crazy and shacking up with his so-called best friend. Oh yeah, and where the dead walked and hunted the living. Against all of this, basic decency is going to struggle to keep up. Rick wants to be a good man, he keeps trying to be a good man, but the odds are against him. Instead of taking this in stride, realizing the situation has changed, and learning to adapt, he’s gone colder, more detached, and increasingly obsessed with control.
Also, it’s getting easier for him to kill people. This is, from a pragmatic point of view, a good thing. In “Sick,” after determining that the leader of the group of convicts our heroes found hiding in the cafeteria poses a potential threat, Rick kills him. It’s a brutal, shocking moment which helps elevate an already decent episode up to the level of the premi ère. The stalling and dithering of so much of last season (and, let’s be honest, the middle of season one) made it appear likely that the group of cons would hang around for a while before one of them inevitably stepped over a line, after which Rick would argue with Lori and whomever else was still alive about what to do next. Instead, three of the cons have already been dispatched, and while the remaining two surely have their secrets, the immediate crisis has passed. There’s no question of who is in charge here, and given the circumstances—the external dangers, the emotional turmoil of the main group, the life or death stakes—Rick’s decision looks like the right one. A compromise, or a lot of hand-wringing, probably wasn’t going to cut it. It was a Shane decision, but, once you got beyond his selfishness and growing insanity, Shane may had a point.
Except it’s not that simple, because violence carries a cost. Again: you see it on Rick’s face. He takes out the head con with a machete to the skull (which I’m just going to assume is a Dawn Of The Dead reference), and then chases down another convict who tries to escape. The second convict is where things become sort of uncomfortable; Rick chases the guy into a courtyard full of zombies, then locks the door, and tells him to run. There’s an expediency to his behavior which makes sense—he’s not actually killing the guy, he’s, at worst, giving “nature” a chance to take its course. But it’s a cold, cruel move, and it indicates a growing chill in Rick’s character that belies all his talk about “protecting the group.” This isn’t a pride situation, exactly. Rick’s growing brutality isn’t like Walter White using cancer as an excuse to over-compensate for a lifetime of second-place finishes. This is more the behavior of a desperate man who decides that being the good guy isn’t going to work anymore; he has to make the tough calls, he has to; and if that means killing and maiming and leaving people to die, well, so be it. It must require an immense effort of will to reorient yourself to this kind of thinking, and it can’t be healthy. Necessary or not, this isn’t an upward move for a guy who once devoted his life to upholding law and order. So he struggles and strains to be tougher, to be harder, to avoid mistakes by tightening his grip until his fist bleeds. This isn’t a sustainable approach. At some point, Rick may crack under the pressure, or just lose all concept of humanity. And inevitably, once you decide “murder” is a potential solution to problems, killing quickly becomes the first, last, and best option.
This isn’t a subtle transformation; by the time Lori’s telling Rick that she believes he’s a good man, and that he’ll do the right thing, we’re well aware of the gap between what she says and how he feels. But subtlety is less important now than finding some character arcs to hang the show off of, and Rick’s slide towards self-damnation can give the show some much needed spine. Given some actual acting to do, Andrew Lincoln acquits himself well, especially in a brief exchange between Rick and his wife near the end of the episode. They’re talking awkwardly to each other (this is after Lori’s forced and not entirely convincing pep talk from earlier in the episode—before Rick killed anyone this week, although I’m not sure if Lori knows about this), and Lori is asking, and then begging, for some sign that they’ll be able to work out their marital difficulties. Once again, characters on the show are talking directly about their problems, without any filter of personality or subtext to deal with, but what she’s saying makes sense. Lori is still sort of a mystery to me—I don’t hate her so much as I struggle to figure out just who the hell she is from week to week—but between this episode and the last, the writers and Sarah Wayne Callies have found a way for me to at least feel sorry for her, which helps.
When she finishes speaking, there’s a long, agonizing pause, and then, without looking at her, Rick reaches over and puts his hand on her shoulder. He says, “We’re all grateful for what you did.” Not "I’m." "We’re." And that’s it. However you feel about Lori, that is some brutal shit, and it conveys a lot of loaded, complicated meaning without resorting to bland dialogue. It’s dramatic, but it’s not the sort of big moment the series has always been capable of pulling off, and that’s promising; it indicates that the production team is getting better at telling stories in unexpected and affecting ways.
There are signs in “Sick” that The Walking Dead isn’t completely abandoning the old ways. None of the conversations are as tedious as the worst bits of last season, largely because the stakes were high throughout the episode, but they still dragged a little. While Rick, Daryl, and T-Dog (who still is just “the black guy with that name,” but at least he’s getting more lines) work with the convicts to clear out another cell block, Hershel lies unconscious, minus a leg. Maggie and Glenn talk about what’s going to happen next; Beth fixes her father’s pants so he can use them post-amputation; and Carol tries to get better at doctoring in the face of the possibility that the closest the group has to an actual physician (and he’s still just a veterinarian) might be dying. These scenes are reasonably short and well-acted, and concern for Hershel manages to invest them with some tension; there are nice touches throughout, like Glenn handcuffing Hershel (on Rick’s orders) to the bunk bed in case he turns, or the way Glenn still clearly struggles with disobeying anyone. It’s also not a bad thing that Hershel survives, as it’s good to let the heroes win one occasionally, and the doctor’s wounded state will add one more challenge to face in the months ahead. But for the most part, this episode works because of the conflict with the convicts, and the uncertainty as to how Rick is going to deal with yet another possible threat. It’s doubtful the writers are going to be able to find new dangers this complex every week, and the near certainty of an eventual episode driven entirely by heated conversations and frowning is somewhat depressing.
There is hope, though. Rick’s transformation from a passive nonentity to a screwed-up badass and potential monster is good, but there’s also Carol, who may be getting an honest to God arc of her own. Realizing that Hershel’s odds aren’t good, and realizing that Lori is probably going to need a C-section to deliver her baby, she decides she needs to practice cutting on someone. With Glenn’s help, she gets a walker from outside the prison fence, brings it onto the grounds, and starts slicing. This is swell, because not only is it a clever, and an unexpected way to use the zombie threat, it also gives us one more active character to root for. Carol hasn’t had a whole lot to do since her daughter died (I joke about T-Dog, but one of the show’s biggest problems is a large ensemble in which three-quarters of the characters have nothing to do but not die), but in “Sick,” we see her actually take it on herself to get something done. So far, at least, her actions haven’t even brought about a major catastrophe, although it’s early yet.
The Walking Dead always starts its seasons strong, and it usually takes a few hours for the rot to set in. So we’re not out of the woods yet (in a metaphorical sense, at least), but at least we’re heading in the right direction: straight down.
- The way the head con flat out murdered the con who got bit was a predictable but fun/nasty moment, made even better when Rick one-upped him later with the machete.
- Much as I liked Carol’s storyline, her “Gotta be worried sick about the delivering the baby” when she and Lori were tending to Hershel was a bit forced.
- Carl is determined to be a grown-up now, and it’s definitely making Lori uncomfortable. On the one hand, Carl has turned competent and resourceful, which is cool. On the other hand, Lori lecturing him and him yelling at her like a teenager, could suck.
- I’m sure the remaining prisoners are completely harmless. They said they were harmless—why would they lie?