For anyone who felt the first episode of Season 4 disappointed at all in its slow burn building towards a compressed but climactic second act, tonight’s episode, “Infected,” certainly picked up where we left off last week with zero down time before all hell breaks loose in the prison. And we remain hooked, to say the least, for the remainder of the episode. Let me reiterate: for precisely one whole hour, I was sitting quite literally at the edge of my seat, feeling fear, suspense, joy, and despair, sometimes all at once.
This show, with every passing week, proves to me the sophistication behind all that blood and gore, the carefully layered themes and nuanced moments of tension both between and within characters never ceasing to hit every emotional chord in its viewers.
So, with that claim in mind, let me indulge myself by shambling through my overwhelmed and awe-struck afterthoughts.
First, cell block D is compromised. This is stressful enough on its own (again making use of how much we see and know and the anticipation that comes with waiting for characters to know and see just as much as we have, before it is too late), and things only get worse. For me, the most nerve-jangling aspect of the episode wasn’t any one single event. Rather, it is the knowledge that whatever we previously thought was a walker virus is actually just a super flu that Nicotero (on tonight’s Talking Dead) even compared explicitly to the devastating 1918 influenza epidemic: it spreads, and kills, fast. So now, we have an issue of infectious disease within a post-epidemic/apocalyptic world, taking hold in an already easily fragile microcosm of that world via a prison whose fences are barely holding back said world.
Two scenes in particular though really broke me. The first was Michonne’s heartbreaking embrace of baby Judith. My hunch is that in her back story, which I hope to see sometime this season, she had a child, but I could easily be wrong. All I know is, it was a show of vulnerability on Michonne’s part that proves not only the caliber of acting on the show but the range and depth of each character, and the mediated way we are given glimpses into their pasts. The second scene was, of course, the fence: finally, we are not the only ones with knowledge of the rats being fed to the walkers, but there is too much happening in this moment for the characters to dwell on this for too long. Rick’s take-charge plan, which by the way calls to mind his conversation from earlier in the episode with Daryl and foreshadowing that which he has with Carl later in the episode, to slice and sacrifice the probably-infected pigs was equally dramatic, on so many levels.
The very fact, for example, that we don’t know if the pigs made the humans sick or vice versa is chilling; the two episodes of this season so far have done so well with carefully planting certain seeds of evidence, like Daryl licking his fingers after tasting Carol’s cooking and proceeding to shake Patrick’s hand in last week’s, that support theories and apprehensions concerning the highly exposed and therefore compromised nature of their environment. Either way, the pigs had to be killed: to save the camp itself and its people, and to reinstate Rick’s masculinity, in a way, another layer here of course being the meaningful and coded way Rick hands Carl the gun and straps his own to his waist where it once belonged.
I was ever-so-slightly less intrigued this week by Carol’s tough-love-mother-figure-with-knife-skills routine, but even aspects of this story line in tonight’s episode were undeniably and painfully raw and surprisingly strange; when we find the little girl is mourning the death of Nick the walker more than that of her own father whom she couldn’t kill when Carol expected her to, our response is undoubtedly a combination of confusion, sympathy, shock and horror.
I give this episode 5 sacrificial pigs out of 5 formerly-meant-to-be-food pigs: that level of action, emotion and terror can be exhausting for any series to sustain and for any audience to endure without feeling brutalized down to our very psyches, but it is so worth it.