At some point in the last few years, AMC decided both Walking Dead and Mad Men should be, oh, I dunno…less cryptic? Let’s just lay it all out there for the audience, guys. I imagine this happening about three years ago as follows: Matt Weiner sits primly as some exec tells him, “Sure, you all can have your raises, and you get to keep the same cast. But. You’ve gotta speed it all up, buddy. You’ve got to make it so the viewer doesn’t have to sit through three episodes to understand what’s happening!” In the next room, Frank Darabont, arms crossed, sits silently as a different power-suited dude tells him something similar – “We’re just going to massacre your budget and double the length of your seasons – no big!” …and then Darabont shakes his head slowly. And then Darabont had no job at AMC.
Point being, this season of The Walking Dead is lacking subtlety, and it’s beginning to wear on me. This is the point in the season at which things begin to slow down – the writers are taking it a little easy before the mid-season climax, and then they’ll throw a final punch around episode 11. The sluggishness brings the show’s flaws to the forefront. There were so many Big Important Speeches About the State of Things in Sunday’s episode that it feels like the writers are patting us on the head, smiling condescendingly.
In “Isolation,” the prison crew is wrestling with the knowledge that one of their own has murdered and burned two sick people – and that still didn’t stop the spread of the flu. Everybody’s at risk, and there’s not much to do about it. Picking up exactly where last week left off, Tyreese, Rick, Daryl, and Carol examine the smoldering remains of Karen and David. This scene is the first indicator that Tyreese may not be entirely sane; in his rage and grief, he attacks first Daryl (who holds off, because with Merle as a brother Daryl learned good peacekeeping), then Rick (whose own impotence and fury surfaces as he beats the hell out of Tyreese). Luckily, Hershel pops up in the next scene to tell us exactly what’s up! “Everything we’ve been working so hard to keep out, it’s found its way in,” he intones, explaining the situation for us. In a line that I could’ve written, Rick answers, “No, it’s always been there.” See, guys? Our demons are always there. Our emotions are always there. Also, this is the zombie apocalypse and you can’t just be a farmer for the rest of your long, happy life.
As more and more of the prison population fall ill, the Council decides to send Daryl, Michonne, Bob, and Tyreese (the latter two late additions) to a vet school fifty miles away to find antibiotics. Bob visibly balks when he realizes the car they’ll take belonged to Zach, for whose death he still feels responsible. (Give us more Bob backstory, already!) Tyreese shakily asks Carol to look in on desperately sick Sasha, telling her, “I know how you are. You care.”
After the foursome leave in Zach’s car, Carol has a minor freakout of her own, knocking over the last of the water, maybe on purpose. She leaves the prison by herself to clear a clog out of the homemade water pump, and nearly gets herself killed, maybe on purpose. Rick to the rescue, of course; “We decided to do this tomorrow,” he growls. She replies, “We don’t know if we get a tomorrow.” Despite this unnecessary “we could all die!” remark, Carol is one of the series’ most interesting characters. They can’t kill her yet.
The prison cadre decide to isolate the very young and the very old, which means Beth hides away with Little Ass-Kicker, and Rick instructs Hershel and Carl to separate themselves from the sick. Neither of those guys is terribly prone to taking orders, though – and Hershel knows there are elderberries just outside the fence. Elderberries, evidently, are a natural flu remedy. Carl accompanies him on the clandestine mission to gather berries, and in the end nobody can stop Hershel from taking the berry tea to the sick. The unfortunate part is that Hershel once again makes a big important speech about it. In the zombie apocalypse, everything you do is risking your life. “Now,” Hershel tells Maggie and Rick, “You don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” WE GET IT.
The medicine mission doesn’t go as planned (does it ever?). In the car, Daryl hears what could be a voice on the radio, and completely forgets to drive the car. He then makes completely stupid decisions (it’s reminiscent of Lori’s driving mistakes a few seasons ago, which pissed me off then, too) and they end up spinning their wheels on top of a pile of zombies, splattering blood and brains everywhere. It’s a great, disgusting image, but it is unbelievably frustrating that he’d drive so badly. Bob, Daryl, and Michonne jump out of the car and make a run for it, but Tyreese sits still, perhaps waiting for the walkers to get him. After Bob screams for him twice, he finally jumps out and finds himself surrounded. The others have to make a run for it, but of course Tyreese is too badass to be overrun by twenty-five walkers.
Meanwhile, back at the prison, Rick realizes suddenly why Carol was doing penance. She admits, straight-faced, that she murdered and burned Karen and David. She was trying to save the prison. It didn’t work. Glenn and Sasha are sick, and one of the little girls in Carol’s charge is also ill. The cell block containing the infected is now like a combination insane asylum, tuberculosis ward, and zombie cage. But, as Beth says, “We aren’t allowed to get upset. We all have jobs to do.” (I’m still skeptical of her sudden wisdom, and her character’s insistence on telling everybody else what to do and how to do it is pissing me off.)
Hershel, laying a wet washcloth on Glenn’s sweaty forehead, tells him Glenn’s job is just to have faith. You’ve gotta have faith, guys. There’s no other way to get through this. True fact – but we all know it, you don’t have to repeat it.
Basically, we have four people out in the woods, trying to find a possibly-mythical stash of animal antibiotics. We have Hershel in the sick ward, feeding the sick elderberry tea and hoping against hope no more of them die. We have Carol, who’s proved once again that she’s one of the series’ best characters by committing a horrible act in an attempt to save lives. We still don’t know who’s been dangling rats at night – and how the fences have been mended, at least for the time being.
This is the point in each season when I begin to lose interest. To maintain allure, the writers should back off on the speechifying and let the audience drink in the fact of the post-apocalypse. We don’t need the metaphor of Rick’s Sherriff hat’ we don’t need Hershel to point out unnecessarily that you’re risking your life every moment. We definitely don’t need Beth telling everybody what to do. In order for the season to keep moving along, something’s gotta give.