Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Walking Dead: “Inmates”

Illustration for article titled The Walking Dead: “Inmates”

I saw some criticism last week that “After” suffered by trying to stretch out a minimal amount of plot to cover an entire episode. I get that; it was a very slow, patient hour of television, and if the mood didn’t catch you, that slowness was liable to turn into a chore. But for me, it worked, because the pace allowed for the atmosphere and character conflicts to sink in, so that by the time Carl and Rick managed to patch things up and Michonne found her way back to them, it felt like an actual earned victory, and not just the inevitable machinations of plot and convenience. More stuff actually happens in “Inmates,” but not for the better, I’d say; the script’s anthology-esque approach of spending a few scenes with several different groups of characters results in some stories lasting longer than they need to, while others barely register. Where last week’s episode played like a cohesive unit from beginning to end, an hour in which, whether you liked them or not, every piece was designed to establish the struggle of survival and to answer the question of why it was so necessary to survive in the first place, “Inmates” continues these themes (just about everyone is trying to decide whether or not they should go look for other survivors; just about everyone is strung out with grief and fear and worry), but never becomes more than a collection of modestly interesting moments. That’s always the challenge of serialization on television: trying to make table-setting hours into something like a full meal.

But hey, Carol’s back! So that’s nice, anyway. Also, baby Judith survived, which is the sort of twist that could potentially have been disappointing (in that it’s backing away from a powerful, grim conclusion), but really just comes across as a relief. There is finally a line that, at least for now, The Walking Dead won’t cross. Which isn’t to say the writers aren’t willing to put the infant in danger for cheap thrills. Over the course of “Inmates,” we check in with several of the survivors of the prison collapse, and in one sequence, watch Tyreese struggling to take care of Lizzy, Micah, and Judith, all of whom are in varying degrees of distress. Micah is terrified and jumping at every noise (which, to be fair, is a pretty sane reaction under the circumstances); Lizzy, still trying to take Carol’s lessons to heart, is determined to be tough and unsparing, with mixed results; and Judith, being a baby, cries and screams and needs to be changed occasionally. Tyreese is half out of his mind from the stress, and when he hears someone screaming in the distance, he makes what’s arguably a bad decision, but a completely understandable one: He gives Judith to Lizzy, makes sure Micah has a gun, and tells them both to stand back to back and wait for him. The idea being, he’s about to run into danger to try and save some people, and it’s maybe better to leave the kids in the forest where they maybe won’t get attacked in the five minutes he’ll be gone.

There are problems with this, though, the biggest one being that Lizzy is not an entirely trustworthy caregiver, and these are not ideal circumstances in which to test one’s skills as a babysitter. When Judith won’t stop crying, Lizzy decides the best option is to cover the baby’s mouth with her hand, and, intentionally or not, stop the kid from being able to breathe. It’s a deeply unsettling scene, and the closest I’ve come yet to breaking with the show completely; if Lizzy had smothered Judith to death, I think that would’ve finally ruined what little pleasure I take from the on-going suffering of this group of sweaty grumblers, and knowing that made the whole thing much harder to watch. Thankfully, Carol shows up just in time (off-screen) to save the day, and while that means we’ll have to deal with the fall-out of Tyreese eventually learning how Carol murdered his girlfriend, it’s still a relief to have her back on the show.

Carol’s return (and Judith’s continued existence) is probably the biggest plot development of the hour, but there were a pair of other major events that will inevitably make themselves more pressing in the weeks to come. The end of Tyreese, Carol, and the girls’ story has them finding a sign down the train tracks (after getting some advice from one of the dying men Tyreese was unable to save to follow the tracks) that promises another possible safe place: “Sanctuary for all, community for all, those who arrive survive,” the sign reads, and below it a map with a spot marked “Terminus.” So we have a destination for at least some of our characters, one which presumably will seem welcoming at first, before some horrifying truth is revealed. The other big event? After finally escaping the prison, Glenn and the perpetually self-loathing Tara have an argument on the road; Tara finally tells Glenn (who spent most of the prison fight unconscious) that Hershel is dead, and he demands she help him find Maggie, probably because he’s a nice guy and demanding her help is a better way to deal with rage and grief than just screaming at her would be. Then some zombies show up, Glenn collapses, and we meet a new group of assholes to contend with: a big dude, a smaller dude, and a skinny woman in shorts. Not much to say about them yet, apart from the fact that they do not appear friendly (“You got a damn mouth on you, you know that? What else you got?”), and they pose in their final shot together like they’re supposed to be in a magazine photograph. It’s kind of hilarious.

Apart from that, “Inmates” is mostly concerned with just checking in on the survivors, which means there’s soul-searching, a lot of running around, a lot of zombie killing, and not much else. The show still knows how to milk the most suspense out of the possibility of loss (Maggie needing to search the bus she assumed Glenn was on is a chance for some walker fights and a lot of tortured facial expressions; since the scene happens before we see Glenn again, and since I couldn’t remember if he’d been on the bus or not, there seemed like a decent chance that she might actually find his body), but holy shit, am I tired of scenes in the forest. It seems like we’ve been stuck in the woods for years now, and while there’ve been occasional breaks (the concrete sterility of the prison, Woodbury’s temporarily immaculate streets), at this point, the sight of characters running through a bunch of trees, only to stop and have to stab some monsters coming out from behind another bunch of trees, has lost what little visual appeal it had to begin with.

That feeling of exhaustion pervades a large part of the hour, and not just visually. The opening scenes follow Beth and Daryl as they, well, run through the forest and kill zombies. For counterpoint, we hear Beth reading entries from her diary as narration, only these entries came from before the prison collapsed and Hershel died, so they’re all about how hopeful she is that they’ll be finally able to settle down, and how much she wants to still believe in things and so forth. This is cheap irony, made worse by Beth’s attempt to follow some tracks in the forest—tracks which lead to a bunch of walkers munching on corpses. (The walkers are actually eating the bodies that Tyreese failed to save earlier, which means that Beth and Daryl come fairly close to their friends, and even have a way to follow them. But that hasn’t happened yet.) There’s nothing new in any of this, not the visuals or the gore, or the increasingly tedious reminder that yes, people want to build lives for themselves and be happy, but no, that’s not ever going to be easy in a world full of murderous ambulatory corpses. It’s nice to see where everyone is, and presumably, this is all set-up for future catastrophes and happy reunions (at the very least, it will be nice when Glenn and Maggie see each other again, at for the first 10 seconds before they start talking about how much in love they are), but on its own, “Inmates” is a only intermittently effective, and mostly serves as an unneeded reminder at how uninteresting most of these people are without something trying to kill them.


Stray observations:

  • So is Tara’s sister dead? It sounds like she is, from what Tara said, but I don’t remember seeing much of her after she killed the Governor.
  • Sasha and Bob survived and are with Maggie. I think that’s everyone. (Also, the zombie-filled bus means we’ve finally seen the last of the people Rick “saved” in Woodbury. Good job, Rick!)
  • After all my praise for the show’s “visual storytelling,” this week feels like one of those “be careful what wish for” scenarios. I mean, I get it, Glenn doesn’t have anybody to talk to when he wakes up at the prison, but I don’t think we needed a scene in which he was briefly overcome by exhaustion and despair, only to see a picture of Maggie and decide he has to carry on. Pretty sure we all knew that was coming. (That said, the moment where he decides to come back for Tara was decent.)