"You're completely in over your head, aren't you?" -- Lori
"Ma'am, aren't we all?" -- Hershel
If you didn't already realize The Walking Dead has four problem characters, Lori, Shane, Andrea and T-Dog -- five, if you count Carol, but nobody does -- this week's episode "Bloodletting" makes it painfully clear, even as it expands the cast with the much-anticipated arrival at Hershel's farm.
Shane (Jon Bernthal) has become a favorite plaything for the writers, who seem to relish making him as despicable as possible -- an affair with his best friend's wife, the sort-of lie about his best friend's death, the near-rape of the aforementioned wife -- only so they can redeem him then tear him down again. In one moment Shane is resentful, covetous and ready to set off on his own, and in the next he's compassionate, wiping blood from Rick's face and volunteering to march into a swarm of walkers to retrieve medical supplies. He's a yo-yo, that man. But maybe that's the price television Shane pays for outliving comic-book Shane.
Somehow Andrea (Laurie Holden), within the course of just two episodes, lurched away from being a sympathetic character who reconnected with her younger sister Amy only to be forced to shoot her after the devastating attack on the survivors' camp. What should have been the beginning of a riveting character arc has instead become a train wreck, with Andrea turning suicidal -- an expert shot in the comics, here she can't be trusted with a gun -- antagonistic (to Dale in particular), and just plain unlikable. How terrible is she? During the interminable search for Sophia, when Carol says, "I just keep hoping and praying she don't end up like Amy," I laughed at the inadvertent blow to Andrea.
And then there's Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), who, despite the title and the screen time devoted to Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) expressions of grief, guilt and helplessness, is at the center of this episode. We know this from the opening moments, as she stars in her own flat and unnecessary flashback to the day of Rick's shooting. In a scene that mirrors the Episode 1 conversation between Rick and Shane, Lori confides her marital problems to a friend as they wait for their children outside of the school, revealing that her husband is just too darned good and too darned patient. No, seriously. As if hearing the groans of the audience, Lori acknowledges it's a silly complaint, just in time for Shane to arrive and tell her about Rick's shooting.
While the flashback does provide another excellent crying showcase for Chandler Riggs -- that kid is a world-class crier -- it accomplishes little else. We're left wondering why writer (and recently anointed showrunner) Glen Mazzara thought this would reveal something previously unknown about Lori's character or give context to the episode. It does neither of those, unfortunately. Instead it provides an unfortunate reminder of Lori's two-dimensional role as resident haranguer and Rick's PR flack. Although sometimes those duties overlap, as in last week's episode, when she chastised the survivors doubting Rick's leadership, Lori typically devotes her time to stinging criticism and silent disapproval (of Rick, of Shane, of Carol, of whomever falls into her unblinking gaze), or to reminding everyone, and perhaps herself, just how lucky they are that her salt-of-the-earth husband is around.
Fortunately the talky scene, one of many in "Bloodletting," soon ends, giving way to the present, where an exhausted yet adrenalin-fueled Rick carries Carl's limp body, with Shane close behind prodding the portly hunter Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince). They arrive at a picturesque farmhouse where, after ensuring the boy isn't bitten, kindly country doctor Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and their clan spring into action, making it clear this isn't the first time the wounded or the dying have arrived on their doorstep.
It doesn't look good for young Carl: The deer slowed the bullet, saving the child's life, but the bullet broke up into fragments, which have to be removed. Between blaming himself for the accident -- "It should be me in there" -- Rick gives blood, gets woozy and frets that Lori doesn't know Carl's been shot. Redeeming himself yet again, Shane shares how strong Lori remained during Rick's coma, revealing more about her character than the earlier flashback did, then volunteers with Otis to raid the walker-riddled FEMA camp at the nearby high school for a respirator and other medical supplies Hershel needs to operate on Carl.
Meanwhile, the other survivors traipse through the woods in their futile quest for young Sophia. Lori hears the distant gunshot and wants to turn back, before they all decide to trudge on toward the highway. (The search has been built up so much that, when Sophia is found, she'd better be, I don't know, the leader of a group of tamed walkers. For her to turn up in a clearing or in a hollow tree trunk will be a letdown.) The mechanical Andrea attempts to connect with a distraught Carol (Melissa McBride), saying, "We're all hoping and praying with you, for what it's worth," setting up Daryl (Norman Reedus) for the best lines of the episode: "I'll tell you what it's worth, not a damn thing. It's a waste of time, all this hopin' and prayin'. We're gonna locate that lil' girl, and she's gonna be just fine." As we walks away, he adds, "Am I the only one zen around here? Good lord.”
Back at the RV, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and T-Dog (IronE Singleton) -- did you think I'd forgotten him? -- begin an equally fruitless hunt among the abandoned vehicles for antibiotics to treat the latter's infected arm. This leads to the most perplexing scene in "Bloodletting," as T-Dog, suddenly realizing he's the only black guy in a group with two gun-toting cowboys and a racist, hog-riding hunter, suggests he and 64-year-old Dale head out on their own. Don't worry, though, it's just fever-induced crazy-talk, making the whole paranoid exchange tedious and unnecessary. Once again, a weak scene amplifies a weak, or at least undeveloped, character. T-Dog served a purpose in the earliest episodes, helping to set up racial tension with the Dixon brothers, and of course abandoning meth-addicted Merle handcuffed on an Atlanta rooftop. But now he mostly haunts the backgrounds of scenes, looking for something to do. Eight episodes into The Walking Dead, the only thing we know about him is that he doubts his usefulness to the group.
In the woods a muttering Andrea strays just far enough from the search party to wander into the path of a walker, who's about to make a quick meal of her until Maggie sweeps in on horseback, swinging a baseball bat, before rattling off directions to the farm and whisking Lori away. Back at the RV, the events are explained to an incredulous Dale as the group decides to remain on the highway one more night and Daryl again saves the day by delving into his brother's drug stash -- meth, ecstasy, painkillers, doxycycline -- to dig up the antibiotics T-Dog so desperately needs.
After a tearful reunion with Rick, and a heart-breaking scene in which Lori crawls into bed with an unconscious Carl and reaches back for her husband's hand -- another solid, revealing moment -- she gets down to business, quickly ferreting out that Hershel's not a physician but a veterinarian who's only performed such surgeries on animals. He's their only option, though; post-apocalypse, there aren't many doctors making house calls.
Outside the high school (is it just me or was it dark there while it was still light at the farm, five miles away?) Shane and Otis distract the hundreds of walkers with road flares they've taken from the back of a police cruiser, then make for the FEMA trailer, where they load up on supplies. Unfortunately, Shane didn't plan an exit strategy, so they're met by a horde of zombies and chased -- poor, heavy-breathing Otis -- into the entryway of the school, where the only thing separating them from clawing, gnashing throng is a flimsy metal gate.
Will they escape in time to save Carl, whose blood pressure is rapidly dropping? Of course they will. And that's probably part of the problem with "Bloodletting": There's no sense that anyone is in real danger. Carl will recover, T-Dog already has his antibiotics, and Sophia -- eh, she'll turn up sooner or later.