And it turns out last week's complete reinvention of THE WALKING DEAD--outright revolutionary when placed next to the last two seasons--wasn't just a fluke. It does, indeed, seem to be a new direction, and I'm rather pleased about it. This week's installment, "Infected," was a real test. Angela Kang, who drew the writing chores, is the writer-of-record of some extremely unfortunate past episodes, and of no good ones. She seemed to be one to whom prior showrunner Glen Mazzara turned when there was an inane filler episode on the docket. I don't know if Kang's stunningly bad previous episodes merely reflected the poisonous influence of Mazzara or if new showrunner Scott Gimple is exercising a heavy hand or if she's just coming into her own on TWD, but whatever it is, this was a very good episode, and she and the rest of the Gimple Gang have earned some applause.
TWD is supposed to be "an ongoing tale of survival horror," Mazzara's
TWD shied away from--and, for long periods, banished entirely--the
horror elements, and, as I've often complained, actively demonized
survivalist concerns, putting them in contexts intended to make them
seem inappropriate or wrong. Gimple's TWD continues to right the ship
tonight, throwing in some horror-flick suspense right in the cold
opening. The tale that follows establishes an atmosphere of menace
within an increasingly claustrophobic space, as the hungry dead appear
inside the prison walls, relentlessly besiege it from without, and a
mysterious killer virus comes to light, one capable of rapidly striking
down the healthy and leaving them a flesh-eating menace to their former comrades. And there's a human enemy within
the prison, too, maybe more than one. Someone feeding rats to the dead
and drawing them to the gates in vast and dangerous numbers--possibly a
demented child who has developed an affinity for the ghouls--and there's a killer who murdered and burned two people.
The Gimple Gang's take on survivalist sentiment again
offered up a scenario that seemed blatantly intended to flip the finger
at Mazzara's TWD. Last season, Carl had become a get-things-down kid,
hardened to the realities of the now-zombified world. This came to a
head in the season 3 ender, of which I wrote at the time:
"The episode did feature one really striking moment that hit at the
heart of one of TWD's many shortcomings. During the prison attack, Carl
guns down a surrendering Woodburian. Rick confronts him about this, and
Carl thoroughly dresses down his father, noting that their failure to
deal with potential threats in a responsible manner is what results in
their people being killed over and over again. He failed to kill the
walker that killed Dale; Rick failed to kill Andrew, which resulted in
Lori and T-Dog dying; Rick didn't shoot GINO when he had the chance,
resulting in the attack that had just happened. And so on. At someone
finally speaking this hard, frank, nowhere-to-run-or-hide truth, this
viewer and vociferous critic of the series felt like cheering. Even
more so when Rick looked as if he'd been slapped, then took on the
countenance of a rapidly deflating balloon. Unfortunately, TWD has never
had the stomach for this kind of matter-of-fact sentiment, and Mazzara,
its now-fired showrunner and the writer of record on this episode,
double-stacked the deck against Carl's brutally frank words by having
the incident that led to it be Carl shooting a surrendering teenager,
then, in the end, having Rick take in the remaining Woodburians, mostly
kids and old people (nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but it was presented as a direct and total repudiation of what Carl had said)."
week, Carl seemed to have been suddenly radically devolved from this
characterization (one of my only big reservations about the ep), but
tonight it was revealed that Rick, in reaction against what Carl was
becoming, has infantilized his son, taking away his guns and keeping him
out of action, reading comics and farming. Michonne asks him why he
doesn't wear his hat anymore. "It's not a farming hat." Carl still feels
the call, though. TWD's newfound "show, don't tell" philosophy puts it
on his face and in his mannerisms. It turns out Rick has put Carl under a
great deal of pressure not to be the person he'd become; to just be a
kid again. Tonight, he uses a gun to save Michonne from zombies, and his
initial reaction is to profusely apologize to his father. Last week, he
observed Carol teaching the young children about the use of bladed
weapons. Season 3 Carl would have approved, but kiddified Carl seemed
shocked, and Carol was afraid he'd tell Rick, and that Rick would put a
stop to it. The suggestion that she was doing something entirely
inappropriate felt very much like Mazzara's TWD. As it turns out, the
Gimple Gang seems to have set this up only to once again repudiate one
of the cornerstone's of that unfortunate era. Rick had given up his own
gun for a while and taken a break from the action. When Carl tells him
of the knife training, Carl argues it should be allowed to continue. The
episode's events having convinced Rick it was time to take up his own
gun again, he agrees, opens his toolbox, hands a pistol to the boy and
straps on his own.
Perhaps an even more vivid illustration is found in Carol's interaction with two girls who, in the course of the episode, lose their father. The man dies, the victim of zombie bites, leaving his children in her charge. His body has to
be brain-staked before he returns. The girls think they should be the
ones to do it. The first is too horrified by the idea, but the other
thinks she can. At the moment of truth, though, she gets cold feet, and
Carol takes care of it. A little later, Carol scolds the grieving child for being weak, telling her that kind of weakness can get her killed.
Definitely not your Mazzara's TWD.
And it only gets better, because it turns out the girl isn't just mourning her father; she's mourning zombies! Last week's ep had established that she didn't think the dead to be monsters, just "different." She'd named one, and seemed to regard him as a pet. Now, he's been killed, and she's heartbroken. Her sister tells Carol the girl isn't weak; she's twisted. Which is wonderfully twisted.
The treasures in tonight's ep are many--Michonne's remembrance of a lost child, an exciting,
well-played action sequence at the prison fence, an effects sequence--a zombie with its guts pouring out as it sits up--done as an homage to DAY OF THE DEAD (on which TWD's make-up wiz Greg Nicotero worked). The Gimple Gang's TWD isn't just
repudiating the last two seasons and putting the series back on course;
the rich, multi-layered storytelling and psychological depth they're
bringing to the project has never been present in the television incarnation of TWD, not even in its season 1 prime. I
can't help but be cautious in my optimism when dealing with this
particular subject, but I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new TWD prime. For the second time in as many eps, I find myself looking forward to next week's installment.
 In Mazzara's TWD, the dead were virtually written out of the series in season 2, then mostly treated as background noise in season 3. Here, they're returned to their proper station, the ferocious and extremely dangerous monsters who have overrun humanity.
 This can be read, if one is so inclined, as a bit of metatextual satire on the Mazzara TWD's treatment of the dead (see footnote #1).
 An element of the last two eps that, in the larger context of TWD, is remarkable in and of itself is that they each featured a full episode worth of plot. Tonight's ep was packed to the gills--not a moment wasted. This, too, overturns the Mazzara-era TWD's practice of writing a single ep worth of plot and stretching it to fill several eps, with most of the running-time devoted to pointless filler.
 The kind of storytelling one finds in the comic, which Gimple, unlike Mazzara, seems to respect.
A personal note: I had a really, really bad day today, so bad I'm foolishly allowing it to imperil my health, and TWD offered some little bit of relief. I always appreciate solid work, and I was grateful to have my mind taken off my troubles for a while.