As great of a clinic on zombie killing as the Season 3 premiere of The Walking Dead was, we knew it was just a tease of things to come, like the face is but a mere appetizer to tasty human brains for a zombie. Outta the way, face! But "Sick" was better than brains. It was one of the most complete episodes of The Walking Dead yet because it spilled plenty of blood and zombie guts, added serious threats from non-zombies, and featured family drama without ever losing stride. And dare I say the series is on its way to redeeming Lori (also known as That F*cking Stupid Bitch)? I dare, and I say, I say! This episode may ultimately be lost among the bigger events of the series, but in terms of execution, I'm giving "Sick" two huge severed-thumbs-from-ripping-your-hand-out-of-handcuffs up. Season 3 has started off crazy good.
I had to use the defibrillator on myself a few times while watching "Sick" because The Walking Dead is playing by its own set of twisted "F*ck you, TV!" rules. And it's using its own playbook to its advantage in criminally delightful ways. As a man who watches more television than is healthy for human consumption, one of the best compliments I can bestow upon show is to admit that I have no idea what's coming (Breaking Bad and Homeland are particularly great at this). After two seasons and an episode, The Walking Dead really has lived up to its lofty boasting of "If you're on the show, you may die." Shane, Dale, Jim, Dr. Jenner, Otis, Michael Raymond James, his friend, Randall the hick hostage, Andrea's sister, that one zombie, and even darling little Sophia have all been relieved of the pain of surviving the zombie apocalypse by running into Death's bony arms. And all these deaths have conditioned us to expect death. How many shows on TV do that nowadays? The credits should just read "guest star" for everyone!
That's why when Hershel opened his eyes with life—the real kind, not the breaking-the-rules-of-nature kind—I was surprised! I, along with pretty much everyone else (I suspect), thought Hershel would depart this realm for the big boring farm in the sky where he could drink himself silly and tell strangers to camp outside for eternity, especially when Maggie was saying her goodbye and especially especially when Lori was giving him mouth-to-mouth (Lori, always cheating on Rick!). We expected Hershel to die because The Walking Dead has established that it's absolutely willing to kill off familiar characters, but the show fooled us by letting him live. This is The Walking Dead taking the expectations seared into our minds after years of predictable television and locking them in a closet somewhere. It's a game of deliberate inconsistency perfectly played to keep us off balance, and I'm definitely falling into its trap.
With casualties a regular occurrence, The Walking Dead isn't afraid to twirl the revolving door and introduce new characters. It seems to do this in groups, loading up a few folks with dialogue to put them on a path toward being a major character. I'd argue that technically we met every single major character except Rick this way, with the heartiest parts of each group glomming onto Rick's nucleus to form a super group, while the weak were left behind or eaten by someone's expired science teacher.
So when Rick buried his machete halfway into the basal ganglia of the prisoners' surly de facto leader Tomas—a man who had been puffing his chest and talking up a storm—it was another case of the normal rules of television don't apply to The Walking Dead. Similarly, when Tomas opened up Big Tiny's head like a can of stewed tomatoes, I shouldn't have been surprised. But I was! Big Tiny was likely the televised version of Dexter, a character from the comics with a similar gargantuan girth, who lasted a lot longer in the comics than Big Tiny did on the show. I'm probably making a big deal about this, but this series is purposefully trying to scramble our brains. It saved a character we all thought would die (Hershel), it killed a character we thought was going to be a major foil for Rick for at least a few episodes (Tomas), and it killed two characters (Big Tiny and another comic character, Andrew) that fans of the comic were sure would last a little longer.
But back to Rick murdering Tomas, real quick. Last week we saw Rick as the drill sergeant orchestrating the great prison break IN, and really putting his mind to the task of doing anything that would keep his group alive. Rick has obviously changed since he killed Shane, and killing Tomas raised our understanding of the man he is now. Rick no longer has an "us (humans) against them (zombies)" attitude; he has an "us (my peeps) against everyone else (everyone else) attitude," forged from his experience in the bar last season and strengthened over the winter. Zombies, humans, it don't matter. The only people Rick can trust are those in his group, and frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't trust them all that much, either, and maybe vice versa. I like this Rick. This Rick is almost a little like (pause for dramatic effect) Shane, and you know how much I loved Shane.
But unlike Shane, Rick is no longer interested in humping Lori. Rick and Lori's talk on the prison bridge was probably one of the most earnest moments between the two in the series thus far. And for the first time, it felt like honest-to-goodness traditional passive-aggressive family drama and not just shouting (and whisper-shouting when Carl was around) and overacting. This was well-written and well-performed material. "For the record, I don't think you're a bad mother," Rick backhanded ever so gently across Lori's cheek, like he was wearing a fancy glove. "Well, wife is a different story," conceded Lori. And then she joked about getting lawyers for a divorce, and it was kind of funny? This horrible global event has given her a decent sense of humor?
For once, Lori said something that didn't make me want to put her head through plate glass. In fact, Lori has been pretty great all season long and I can't believe I just typed that either. Even her freakout last week about a zombie baby snacking on her spleen from the inside and begging Hershel to put a screwdriver through her skull without hesitation in case something went wrong was cool. And what she said tonight: "I know I'm a shitty wife and I'm not winning any mother-of-the-year awards," really sounds like dialogue written by writers with a goal of fixing one of the show's weakest points: Lori's standing with the viewers. It's amazing how much your opinion of a character can change when she's not crashing cars, unreasonably guilt-tripping Rick, or unreasonably guilt-tripping Shane. If this season of The Walking Dead can make Lori tolerable, it might just be the greatest thing TV has ever done, way ahead of broadcasting the moon landing and Futurama's "Luck of the Fryrish." Keep it up, Lori! Anyway, I'd love to hear your opinion on Lori in the comments section, because I need to make sure I'm not insane.
Though I'm not the Lori-hater I used to be, Rick has apparently taken my place. He left with a, "We're grateful for what you did," referring to caring for Hershel, but he couldn't even put her in his peripheral vision. That was really cold stuff, maybe even colder than what he did to Tomas. This drama feels real. I'm into post-Shane bad times for Rick Grimes, because now Rick has the upper hand and Lori knows it. But mostly, this is palpable drama that doesn't need to spelled out for us through boring monologues.
There are so many improvements this season I don't even know where to begin. After spending much of its first two seasons as television's "show with the most potential," The Walking Dead is starting to climb up the most important list of all: my current Top 5.
– Lauren Cohan, actress! She's getting better and better as Maggie, and could be moving up the Hollywood escalator.
– Interesting to see the tables turned between Maggie and Beth. In Season 2, it was Beth who was ready to give up. Here, Beth was keeping the faith, while Maggie was telling Hershel to go ahead and croak.
– I've always wanted a walk-in toilet.
– There were a lot of zombies outside the door when last week's episode ended, but there weren't a lot of zombies outside of the door when this week's episode began.
– Who the eff was creeping on Carol outside in the yard? The Guv'nah? A spy of the Guv'nah? And wow, Carol practicing C-section techniques on zombie corpses? I'm with Glenn, it makes sense, but...
– Hey no Andrea or Michonne this week but I didn't notice, and actually this episode was better for it. I would not be opposed to a full episode of Andrea and Michonne (and the Guv'nah) next week, so if you're reading this Glen Mazzara, go ahead. We'll wait.
– One thing this show could do over and over that I'd like to see over and over is Rick breaking the news to people that the world is totally gone, like he did with the prisoners. I never get tired of that, though coming up with believable scenarios will eventually get pretty tough.
– Getting a good on-screen zombie kill count was tough because of tricky editing, but it was another big one. I estimated "Sick" at about 32 kills. That's almost 100 in the first two episodes. I will not complain about this. I will not.
– This week's face-ripping-off-during-riot-mask-removal zombie was an escape-from-handcuffs-by-peeling-arm-bone-out-of-skin-sack zombie. Two words to describe that gore: awesome awesome.
– Episode MVP: Not even close, it's gotta be Rick. But weigh in for yourself below!