“Did you save a grave for me?” — Jim
It’s been tough to watch the past couple of episodes without keeping an eye on the ticking clock: With only a six-episode first season, virtually every minute of The Walking Dead has to count, has to push the story forward (which is one of the reasons why last week’s detour didn’t exactly agree with me). While “Wildfire” didn’t feel like the penultimate episode — compare it to last night’s Boardwalk Empire, which masterfully positioned its players for the season finale — it was certainly packed with the kind of raw human drama that the series handles so well.
The Walking Dead also tends to nail its opening scenes, and this week is no different as Rick kneels in a field, keeping his promise to radio Morgan every day. If Rick’s posture isn’t a clear enough indication that he’s doing more than fulfilling an obligation, then his rambling monologues are: Between pragmatic, but grim, messages — “Do not enter the city. It belongs to the dead now.” — Rick wrestles with his conscience, using the walkie-talkie as a confessor.
The burden is heavier back at camp, where the survivors grapple with the physical and emotional aftermath of the Walker attack. As Daryl, Glenn and T-Dog separate the bodies of the humans from the zombies, and ensure the dead remain dead, the others fret over Andrea, who’s held her dead sister Amy throughout the night. Their concern isn’t just for their friend’s well-being, of course; the infected Amy is destined to reanimate, further traumatizing and endangering the shell-shocked group. However, Amy, and the armed Andrea, aren’t the only problem: Jim, who dreamed about the attack on the camp, was bitten, leading the survivors to debate his fate and their own. Although Daryl’s solution is more immediate — “I say we put a pickax in his head and in the dead girl’s while we’re at it” — Rick suggests going to the Centers for Disease Control in hopes of finding a cure for Jim. Shane champions traveling 100 miles to Fort Benning to seek military protection, as it’s clear the quarry is no longer safe. The perpetually angry Daryl, who’s quickly becoming a favorite character, helpfully reminds them: “You reap what you sow. You all left my brother for dead — you had this coming!”
The scenes in the devastated camp are filled with layer upon layer of emotion, from grief and guilt to jealousy and rage. As Andrea laments that she didn’t spend more time with her sister, Carol steps in to prevent Daryl from driving the pickax through the head of her dead, abusive husband Ed. “I’ll do it,” she says, “he’s my husband.” But what initially seems fueled by a sense of spousal obligation quickly turns to an avenue for years of pent-up rage as Carol bashes Ed’s skull again and again. Even Daryl appears to wince. Amy, meanwhile, begins to reanimate in Andrea’s arms, twitching and rasping as she comes back to life. It’s a heart-breaking moment as Amy snarls and becomes aware of her craving as Andrea whispers “I love you” before firing the gun into her sister’s head.
Tensions between Rick and Shane escalate, first with finger-pointing in the wake of the attack — did the expedition into Atlanta leave the camp more vulnerable? — and then concerning Rick’s desire to head to the CDC, before exposing Shane’s jealousy over the loss of his “family” with Rick’s return. As the two patrol in the woods, Shane aims his shotgun at an unaware Rick before being interrupted by Dale, who glares at him with accusing eyes. “Gonna have to start wearing reflective vests out here,” Shane says nervously. “Seriously.”
His rage momentarily giving way to guilt, Shane vouches for Rick’s instincts to the group, emphasizing that whatever course they take, the important thing is that they remain together. Alas, that doesn’t happen, as Morales announces he and his family are leaving for Birmingham, where they have relatives. The remaining survivors form a caravan, with a worsening Jim being cared for in Dale’s RV.
When the vehicle breaks down on the road to the CDC, a briefly lucid Jim asks to be left to die. “I want to be with my family,” he tells Rick. Leaving Jim propped against a tree — “I’m good, the breeze feels nice” — the caravan continues on its journey, setting up the show’s most significant deviation to date from the comic: In a twist that’s already drawing comparisons to Lost, we’re introduced to Jenner (White Collar‘s Noah Emmerich), a suicidal scientist who’s holed up in the CDC bunker, testing tissue samples, drinking wine and recording erratic journal entries that he’s unsure anyone will ever see. He also provides the audience with a time line of sorts, revealing that it’s been 194 days since “wildfire” (cryptically) was declared, and 63 days since the disease went global.
The caravan arrives to find the CDC surrounded by countless flyblown corpses, and the complex seemingly deserted. As the other survivors panic at the idea of being out in the open at dark, Rick comes unhinged, banging at the building’s door and screaming at the security camera. Although Jenner appears ready to ignore Rick’s pleas, he quickly changes his mind — Out of scientific curiosity? Necessity after the accidental destruction of tissue samples? A desire for human contact? — and the door opens, basking the survivors in unearthly white light.