Prison Life In The Walking Dead

To survive it is often necessary to fight and to fight you have to dirty yourself.

-George Orwell

 Do whatever you gotta do to keep this group safe…and do it with a clear conscience.

-Lori Grimes, to her husband Rick

The pre-credits scene of episode two of The Walking Dead, “Sick” opens where episode one left off; as Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the survivors in the walker-infested prison are amputating Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) leg, the survivors are surprised by a group of five prisoners who emerge from a side room. Removing the barricades from the door, the survivors kill the approaching walkers and race against time, wheeling Hershel to safety.

Back in the survivors’ safe cell block, while the group struggles in providing Hershel with medical attention, the prisoners followed the survivors and arrive at the cell block’s entrance. In a tense, armed standoff, the two groups communicate for the first time. The dominant prisoner, Tomas (Nick Gomez) – a Latino gangster– demands rights to the survivors’ cell block (“C”); the survivors flatly refuse. Rick, although suspicious, tries to diffuse the tension but learns that the prisoners have been shut away for ten months, and while aware of walkers, they are unaware that society has collapsed (no phones, computers, police, etc.). To make his point, Rick leads the prisoners outside to the yard to view the walkers – both animated and dead. Emerging into the sunlight, the two groups strike an uneasy deal; Rick and the survivors will help the prisoners clear out the prisoners’ cell block from walkers in exchange for half the prisoners’ stored food; in return, the prisoners will stay to themselves and avoid all interactions with the survivors. As Rick, T-Dog (IronE Singleton), and Daryl (Norman Reedus) return with heaping boxes of canned goods, the women struggle without medical supplies in tending to the unconscious and barely alive Hershel. Rick wisely takes no chances; in the event that Hershel dies and is re-animated as a walker, he orders Glenn (Steven Yuen) to handcuff him to his bed.

Off to the side, in a chilling conversation, Rick updates his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). Admitting to her that the prisoners’ pose a possible threat, he calmly reveals he may need to kill them. Lori reacts with approval.

Later, Rick and the others return to the prisoners’ cell block as agreed upon. Rick briefly instructs them on battle tactics (maintain formation, head shots only), but when the action starts, the prisoners, armed with pipes and crowbars, break ranks and go berserk in what can only be described as “prison freestyle”. After Daryl corrects their wild techniques, they kill more efficiently; but one hulking prisoner, Big Tiny (Theodus Crane), edges to safety at a side room and is scratched by walkers. Afterwards, both groups consider what to do before Tomas suddenly bludgeons him to death.

Moving deeper in the prison, the two groups press on, although Daryl and Rick are suspicious of Tomas’ intentions and contemplate killing him. During a battle in the laundry room, their suspicions are confirmed; Tomas ignores Rick’s orders to restrict the walkers’ entrance by opening double doors, and then in the heat of the battle, throws a charging walker onto Rick. Rick is saved but questions Tomas tersely before suddenly whipping out a machete and hacks it into his skull. Another prisoner, Andrew (Markice Moore), tries to intervene, but after Rick blocks his blow, he runs away. Rick chases him to a yard filled with walkers and when he tries to re-enter, Rick closes and locks the gate, effectively sentencing Andrew to death.

Returning to the laundry room, Rick and Daryl question at gunpoint the two remaining prisoners, Oscar (Vincent Ward) and Axel (Lew Temple), who appear to have been uninvolved in Tomas’ actions. Rick grants them clemency, but confines them – as agreed upon – to the cell block. As the two prisoners view the cleared-out cell block for the first time, they are disgusted at the bodies strewn about. Unmoved, T-Dog advises them to collect the bodies and burn them.

Meanwhile, Rick’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), who was on his own, returns to the cell block with a bag of needed medical supplies –he informs them that he found the prison infirmary. The bandages are used to stave off infection, although Lori rebukes Carl for his reckless audacity. Later, to practice for Lori’s impending birth, Carol (Melissa McBride) enlists Glenn’s help in grotesquely practicing a C –section on a dead walker out in the yard; strangely, an unseen figure from afar eyes her in the process. Meanwhile, Hershel stops breathing but is saved by Lori. He later wakes up and although weak, is conscious of his surroundings.

At the end of this episode of The Walking Dead, Lori has a quiet talk with Rick outside.  In a calm reconciliation of their marital problems, the two exhausted survivors show open but somewhat strained communication.

Except for some warm fuzzies between Hershel’s daughters, and a predictable will-Hershel-wake-up shtick, “Sick” was fast-moving, entertaining and overall, it hit the target. The five prisoners are whittled down to only Axel and Oscar, with hillbilly Axel the more likable and talkative of the two. It remains to be seen how they will be integrated into the future narrative. Carl showed some serious cojones on his lone mission, upstaging Glenn as resident scrounger/street rat; was it his first mission? Will there be more?  T-Dog, one of the most underused, and underrated characters on the show, shines through as tough, brave, and dependable. Carol is emerging from her quiet grief as stable, lucid, and ready to take an active role, not to mention possessing an iron stomach (by practicing surgery on a walker).

But the main development in The Walking Dead – or at least the one most talked about – is the emergence of The Dark Rick. Although fans have gone overboard in making it sound as if the ghost of Shane is possessing him – a major exaggeration – Rick is definitely hardening up, a process initiated with the “Rick-tatorship”. The stark reality is that Rick is consumed by an icy will to survive – at all costs – and puts his conscience aside to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.

With much of the action taking place against a bewildering enemy in dark corridors and cramped, claustrophobic inner rooms, “Sick” harkens back to great sci-fi/horror movies such as The Thing and Alien. The prison, as the arena where this season will play out, emerges as an entity unto itself. Full of endless antechambers and grisly surprises, it reminds me of gothic horror novels of spooky castles with endless winding hallways and trapdoors where one enters only with great trepidation. The question is, what else is waiting in the prison?

 Evan Rothfeld, images by Gene Page, courtesy of AMC


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