“Bet you’ve got more food than you’ve got choices.” — Rick
This week The Walking Dead picked up at the same “holy shit” moment “Seed” left off. This episode left behind much of the momentum and excitement of the season premiere to instead focus on character-driven moments as we waited to discover the fate of Hershel and the living prisoners.
Here’s where we start off in “Sick”: Hershel has lost a leg after Rick amputated it following a zombie bite, and there’s a group of men that survived for the 10 months of the zombie apocalypse by being locked up in the prison’s cafeteria. I didn’t catch all of their names because, by the end of the episode, it’s clear the only two we really need to pay attention to are Axel (Lew Temple) and Oscar (Vincent M. Ward).
It’s clear from the get-go we aren’t supposed to be sure whether these new prison characters are enemies or allies to our group. Rick certainly doesn’t seem out to make friends, which proves to be the right move after their leader tries to usurp his authority. His group was there first, the man reasons, so the prison should be theirs by rights. But as Rick, Daryl and T-Dog soon explain, this is a much different world than the one the prisoners left 10 months before.
While the scenes with the new characters are frequently fraught with tension and even a fair share of action, it sometimes felt like the interaction between Rick & Co. and the prisoners was serving as catch-up for the audience. The world is overrun by walkers, government and society don’t exist anymore, half of civilization has been killed, and it’s stupid to use guns over blunt weapons because you’ll alert everyone to your location. Yes, these are lessons we learned we’ve already learned, but it’s interesting to see the main characters interacting with others who are unaware of the show’s premise now that we’re three seasons in.
It doesn’t take long for the leader of these men to show his true colors. After Rick, Daryl and T-Dog offer to help the inmates clear out a cell block where they can live in exchange for half the remaining cafeteria food (compromise!), the group’s leader makes several attempts to kill Rick — once even pushing a walker at him — before they clear the onslaught of zombies. Rick’s response? A machete to the head. This is just one of several instances of our new, more brutal Rick this episode — partially goaded on by Lori’s non-judgmental support — and while it’s easy to get excited about how badass he is, his hardness still gives me pause.
This scene with the prison leader’s murder comes not long after Rick and Lori had one of several interesting conversations this episode. She, Maggie, Glenn, Carol and Beth are in charge of trying to keep Hershel alive following his impromptu amputation while the other trio deals with the prisoners. Before Rick goes off to clear the cell block, Lori pulls him aside and it almost feels as if they’re working as a team again, trying to resolve the crisis before them. “I need you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart,” Lori tells him.
I’m not so sure about that claim. There’s a lot of darkness in Rick, and while we do see him smile at one point in “Sick” (I’ll get to that later), he still is about as closed off from his wife as can be. And judging by his quick thinking with cutting off Hershel’s leg and killing the prison leader, it’s clear he’s finished waiting for discussions. But his decision later to lock one of the “bad” prison survivors outside with a group of walkers (only Axel and Oscar are left alive by the end of the episode) is as close to pure evil as we’ve seen Rick come.
Meanwhile, the plot surrounding Hershel’s recovery is surprisingly as taut as the prisoner storyline. Carol manages to bind Hershel’s stump, and his wound isn’t infected, but he shows no signs of recovery other than his labored breathing. Maggie gives a heartfelt goodbye to her father where she tells him he should find peace if it’s time for him, while Rick tells Glenn it’s his responsibility to put Hershel down if he dies and reanimates as a walker. Fortunately, neither of those two things has to happen because Hershel awakes at the end of the episode, thanks largely to Lori performing an impromptu and terrifyingly risky CPR session when Hershel stops breathing momentarily. It’s Rick whom Hershel first reaches out to during his brief moment of lucidity, and it’s that acknowledgment of his actions that causes Rick to have his one smile this episode.
During this sequence of events, it’s both Carol and Carl — two previously underused characters — who came to the forefront. Carol used the medicinal knowledge that Hershel taught her to take care of him following his amputation, showing a serious amount of strength that’s a welcome change for her character. Later she admits to Glenn privately that she believes she’ll have to perform a C-section on Lori because Rick’s wife is overdue. So how is she going to prepare for that? By performing practice runs on female walkers, of course.
Big Question of the week: Just who’s watching Carol from a distance while she cuts up the zombie she picks to begin her C-section trial runs? My guess is someone from Woodbury, but we’ll have to wait to find out.
It’s Carl, in the meantime, who becomes the surprise savior this week. Although he spends much of his time in the background, we learn that’s because he went off on his own, found and raided the infirmary for medicine for Hershel and his mother, and killed two walkers. That insanely risky yet awesome act earns him an honorary MVP/idiot of the week award.
Following Hershel coming back to life and Rick choosing to let Axel and Oscar live by locking them in their new prison-cell homes, we’re left with a sad scene between Rick and Lori. I’m far from a Lori defender (in fact, I was actively hoping she’d get killed off last season), but we can only see so much of her being emotionally battered down by her estranged husband.
One final thought: Noticeably missing from this episode were Michonne and Andrea. After a few short scenes in “Seed,” we didn’t get any sense of where they were in “Sick” or what happened after they left their safe haven. It looks as though we’re going to have to wait one more week to find out, as the promo for Episode 3, “Walk With Me,” which implies it will be entirely centered on them. The promo also revealed we’ll get to go to Woodbury, meet the Governor and see Merle. Finally.