Spoilers for everything.
The series opener of Walking Dead, Days Gone Bye, starts with our hero, Rick Grimes waking up in a hospital in Atlanta approximately 28 days after the zombie apocalypse. (See what I did there?) He’s the fish out of water, exploring the new normal of the world he inhabits, a normal that unfortunately includes walking cannibal corpses. Beginning in medias res allows the narrative to leapfrog over the action movie histrionics of First Night – histrionics I often enjoy, I’ll have you know – and get down the the dirty business of survival. The boat has sunk. Here’s the raft. Watch him try to patch the leaks.
Rick missed out on the 24 hour news cycles debating, then crying doom, then cutting out, the slowly dawning realization and then adaption to this new environment, watching friends turn, having the electricity cut out, packing the car, running and running and killing and running. He was just thrust into it, and the scene where he pats the floor with his hand, muttering, is this real? Is this real? is the posture d’être for Rick for the next two seasons. Over the next two seasons, he clings to his uniform, to often ineffectual or dangerous senses of order and authority, but it makes a kind of sense. He never got the call that the Twin Towers had fallen and that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
In Sick, the uniform has come off. I’ve noticed our merry band of Rickocrats (I know the fanterm is Ricktatorship, but Rickocrats works better for everyone who isn’t Rick) have been elbows deep in grime (Rick grime?) for the season so far. They don’t bother even to wash off the blood anymore, making bloody handprints just like the walkers as they go through their now almost rote survival. It’s a sharp contrast with all the damn bisquit-making and down-home folky farmin’ that was going on last season, clean pretty white curtains fluttering in the breeze. I bitched a fair amount about that, but I’m getting punished for my desire to see Rick Shane up just a little and acknowledge he’s living in a world that demands quick, hard moral choices. It works when he lops off Hershel’s leg, saving his life, but he’s hardened so much that, Rick, man, loosen up.
In a pretty neat parallelism, Rick & crew find a group of prisoners as ignorant as Rick was at the beginning of the season one. They’ve been locked in a cafeteria for 10 months (28 weeks later, maybe?) and are fully ignorant of the walking dead or the world as it is now. Rick’s short explanation of all they have lost – no phones, no hospitals, no government – is pretty stark, and lays out the stakes in a way I thought was missing in season two. But the prisoners’ ignorance is different from Rick’s – they are not boy scouts – and the way they cling to past methods of survival is going to be different. Much of this is played for both comedy and bathos, which is pretty refreshing in a series with as grim (Rick grim?) a set-up as this one. I didn’t catch his name – that I didn’t catch any name other than Big Tiny, which is a serious bullseye in my book, was a sign I shouldn’t worry too much about these characters’ continued survival – but the way the long-haired leader psycho keeps shiving walkers in the gut was pretty funny. T-Dog and Daryl’s get a load of these idiots looks are priceless.
But long-haired psycho keeps pulling all this prison yard puffery, going at Rick in a zombie melee in a way that is clumsy and obvious. Shane would never have done something so bald – shit happens, indeed – because he wouldn’t assume that there was an authority other than Rick’s machete in his skull to end that conflict. There’s no guards, no law, nothing to break this conflict up. I’ve had my reservations about Lincoln’s acting, although mostly it was centered in his questionable Southern dialect, but he’s really kicking ass here. You can see him make the decision to kill long-haired psycho, and it’s well before the dude takes a sloppy swipe at Rick. His reaction to leaving the one prisoner out to be eaten by walkers is effective as well, but the choice itself is awful, a total Shane-move that is nowhere near as justified as his killing of long-haired psycho.
The sparse dialogue, in addition to not treating the secondary (and therefore largely female) characters like completely irrational idiots, continues to be as effective as the season opener, Seed. Which is so encouraging. Lori is our biggest improvement, with her tete a tete with Rick about how fucked their marriage is actually wringing some sympathy for her from me. Her “you should just go out there and murder folk with a clear conscience” speech is maybe more a throwback to old Lori, because it casts her as this big dumb girl, lol, whose conceptualization of how the menfolk are managing their ethical choices is quaint and outmoded. It’s not about ethics, lady. Maybe that’s okay, but Walking Dead has always had a problem writing some seriously regressive shit into the mouths of its ladies. I broke my heel. Carry me! But other ladies are improving as well, with Carol pulling a decidedly not insane (Glenn’s monologue is hilarious) vivisection of a walker to ready her for the coming c-section. Hard choices, you makes ’em, gurrrl. (Ooo, also, who is watching from the tree??)
By the end of Sick, we’re down to two prisoners – and I’m way hoping for more screen time with pointy mustache prisoner – and Hershel’s up and not a walker, despite some cheap scares. Rick says to Lori that tomorrow they’re going to start cleaning, and I hope that once they wash the blood off, they don’t fall into the farm quagmire of last season. It’s tough in a show predicated on action to take a break and do the character work that it needs to make the action pay off, but given the strength of the first two episodes, I continue to be cautiously optimistic. Oh, and more Michonne, please. Remember Michonne? I sure as hell do.