*SOME SPOILERS AHEAD (and walkers too, no doubt)*
The Walking Dead‘s “bubble o’ bliss and happiness”, never a robust creature to begin with, has well and truly burst in “Infected”.
Granted not completely this time, but it is leaking like a disaffected political party member at election time, and listing so badly that it is giving the Titanic a run for its money in the going down fast in deep waters category.
You might well argue that it was foolish for anyone in the prison crew, especially former über-warrior and father-protector, and now pig farmer Rick (Andrew Lincoln), to ever delude themselves that safety and some form of domestic bliss, however tenuous and sickly, could be found in the middle of a civilisation-chomping apocalypse.
Much less in a prison, whose former life was about as far from nurturing and sustaining as you could possibly get.
But they are human beings after all, borne like all of us with an ingrained will to survive against the odds, no matter how decayed and aggressively mindless they might be, so it makes perfect sense they would channel their inner Pollyanna and Martha Stewart, and tell reality to take a great big hike while they played happy families for a while.
When you have been through as much as they have, it is easy to wonder, again and again, whether you can ever come back from all the killing, barbarism and bare-knuckled fights for survival (forming as the theme of season 4 which is so far managing to adroitly meld great existential dilemmas with heart-stopping action … and lots of intestinal goop).
So you can forgive all of them for trying to eke their way back, one plot of land or communal meal at a time, back towards something resembling the life they once knew, in the hope that something worthwhile can be salvaged from the horror they confront daily any time they gaze towards the increasingly rickety prison fences (which let’s face it were never made for aggressively moshing walker hordes who are being attracted to the wire by someone laying rats along its length, a truly unnerving development).
We all know it can’t last but you can’t blame them for trying.
Alas reality cared not for their optimistic Anne of Green Gables-ness and came crashing through everyone’s delicately constructed web of delusion this week with a ferocity every bit as vicious as a walker looking for their next flesh-tearing meal.
In this case that’s exactly what it was like with newly minted flu-created walker Patrick (Vincent Martella), fresh from scaring Karen (Melissa Ponzio) in the shower area (why did she not just run?!), stumbling into Block D where he took a great big scream-squashing bite out of some poor sap’s neck and stomach, setting off a walker incursion from within.
It was messy, brutal, terrifying and as intense and hard edged an action scene as you could want.
Admittedly it lost a smidge of its emotional impact since we we didn’t really know the people, Ensign Fodders all, who were dying, but that was a minor detail as Patrick’s walker creations set about biting into anyone unfortunate to be standing or sleeping nearby (including Lizzie and Mika’s dad but more on them, and their mother-protector Carol, later), ripping to shreds, in one short, sharp, deadly series of events, any semblance of safety and muffin-baking domesticity.
Chief among those forced to confront the end of their Care Bears fantasy was Rick, who not only had to sacrifice his piglets to save the prison fence from collapsing from walkers so numerous, and frighteningly so well coordinated, it’s like they’re operating with a hive mind, but faced strapping on his gun again, ready to resume his role as the great protector of the flock.
It was heartbreaking to watch the new life he has painstakingly put in place for he and Carl, who it seems has been pining for his gun along despite genuinely trying to accommodate his father’s hayseed lifestyle ambitions, come crashing down around them with the unsettling squeals of piglets in mortal peril as its nerve-wracking soundtrack.
It was classic Rick in action, doing what he needed to do to save the group.
But it came at a great cost as he realised that you can’t simply strap on an iPod and till the soil while walkers grimace and growl with guttural ferocity mere metres away, despite Daryl’s assurances he had earned the right to pursue his now-fractured agrarian idyll.
Michonne (Danai Gurira) too faced a temporary, ankle-straining halt to her Governor-hunting expeditions, getting knocked off her horse as she raced back into the compound to respond to the then undefined crisis breaking out in Block D.
Tended to by the newly emerging sage of the community, Beth (Emily Kinney), who wisely noted at one point that “when you care about people, getting hurt is kind of a part of the package”, Michonne, who has taken to uncharacteristically smiling and engaging in almost jocular conversational exchanges lately, had one more painful layer taken away from her emotional armour when she was forced to hold little Judith so Beth could clean some projectile vomit off herself.
Initially stridently resistant to holding Rick’s often-wailing progeny, she reluctantly accepted her, almost looking physically pained to have a child this close to her.
Clearly Michonne must have had a child at some point, her emotional pain so real and visceral and tear-laden that Beth wisely left her alone to confront the demons of her past.
Tyreese (Chad Coleman)on the other hand had to face the fact that his bright, shining hopes for a future with Karen, which included a goofy, off key rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” were not going to come to fruition.
And not for want of trying on his part.
Less than coyly suggesting they spend the night together, he was rebuffed in the nicest possible way by Karen who seem to forget that they’re in an apocalypse and some Carpe Diem-ing never goes astray.
All too soon she was gone (but not in the way you might have expected) and Tyreese, flowers in hand, has his small slice of nirvana ripped to tatters too.
But of course for all the upbeat Chris Traegers (Parks and Recreation) of the shrunken world they now inhabit, there are the Carols, people who never stopped believing life is fragile, easily overcome and everyone must be prepared all the time to fight for their right to keep living.
Sounding like Tony Robbins with knives, she asked Carl not to tell Rick that she was secretly teaching the camp’s children to wield knives like tiny ninjas, which of course, newly honourable Boy Scout guy that he is, he rightly did.
Rick decided not to do anything of course, and so Carol, who is being sent on a character arc I am not entirely comfortable with as the hard, cold Ellen Ripley of The Walking Dead, driven to protect herself, and newly acquired “daughters” Lizzie and Mika, by a combination of a past littered with a failing to do what must be done (including keeping Sofia alive), was allowed to keep going with her “don’t tell the parents” school of knife fighting and general apocalyptic bad-assery.
While I can understand what would drive her to act like this, I don’t entirely like the fact that the writers are doing an Andrea to her, twisting and turning her hitherto reasonably honourable character to fit an arc I am not entirely sure is fitting for her.
Still, given the nightmarish stuff that happens in an episode where everyone realises they can die and be turned by a virulent virus, pretty much overnight, and two of the sufferers, Karen and David are burned alive by persons unknown, perhaps Carol’s approach is the right one.
Be ready to fight for your life, or lose it and cast aside childish innocence, vulnerable emotions and delusions of a happy life is you don’t want to throw it away completely.
That was probably the most disturbing part of an episode crammed full of disturbing moments – that it may well night impossible to come back from the horrors of the new reality no matter how much you might yearn to do so.
And that could well be the greatest tragedy of them all.
*Here’s the promo for next week’s episode “Isolation” ...