While The Walking Dead certainly puts the “popular” in popular culture, the greatest work of apocalyptic art so far this century is undoubtedly Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There is love at the very center of that tale — a father’s desire to teach his son the lessons he will need to keep going after his own death, despite the unlikelihood that long-term survival is at all possible — but overall, McCarthy’s world is one where any other surviving human is presumed an enemy or at least a competitor, where the weak are kept as slaves or consumed as food. As the character played by Alexander Skarsgard in the Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill put it, “All religious stuff aside, the fact is people who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.”
The Walking Dead has not exactly ignored the idea that even in the midst of the existential threat posed by the walkers, the real enemy is still our fellow man. Intergroup tension has been a part of the show since Merle Dixon was left on that Atlanta rooftop in Season One. The surviving inmates at the prison had the opportunity to show that their convictions were not exactly unmerited. Rick and Hershel came across some scary characters at the bar in Season 2, in what proved to be a kill-or-be-killed situation. And of course, while the Governor might have started out with the sincere intention of finding a cure for the zombie plague in order to bring his daughter back, at some point he turned into a tyrant.
“Claimed” hinted at an intriguing new direction for the show: the idea that in the zombie apocalypse, the more ruthless you are, the greater your chance of surviving. Or another way of saying the same thing, that those who treasure the notion of goodwill toward one’s fellow man will face the choice between living up to those ideals and dying, or learning how to kill those who aren’t dead yet.
The hour begins with the sight of walkers trying to reach for a snagged piece of fabric on top of a sign reading “Crook Rd.” The camo truck we saw at the end of last week is motoring along. Inside the bed of the truck, Tara is writing the street name on her hand with a Sharpie — why she had a Sharpie with her, considering her day began with the Governor’s raid on thee prison, is anyone’s guess. There are more things written, so she’s been at this for a little while. It’s also left up in the air whether she is along for the ride willingly, or a prisoner — the guy who addressed her last week sounding a little ominous.
On the opposite side of the road, Tara sees an abandoned truck that had run into another vehicle and pinned a walker in the process. There are other walkers on the road, attracted by the noise. The truck pulls to a stop, which seems to alarm Tara a bit. As a trio of the undead grasp the back of the truck in a vain effort to pull it open, Tara prepares her rifle … when the Fu Manchu-wearing leader of the pack orders her not to fire. He gets out of the driver’s seat, chuckles at the sight, and takes a crowbar to the walkers, one by one. “Oh honey, look at you,” he laughs a female walker. “You’re a damn mess, ” he says as he finishes her off, with a little difficulty this time.
By now, Tara has gotten out of the truck bed, and the man asks for her rifle, so he can bash the woman and another walker already on the ground with its butt. Fu Manchi tosses it back to Tara with instructions on where to find rags to wipe it off. She just stares at him, and he asks what’s the matter. “I’ve never seen that before,” Tara says, which the man doesn’t buy, considering he came upon her in the process of beating a walker’s brains in. She clarifies: she has never seen anyone smiling as they took down the walkers (recall Rick in the pilot telling the doomed woman in the park “I’m sorry this happened to you” before shooting her in the head). The man laughs one more time and explains himself: “Well, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.” He then asks for help clearing the cars away from their current roadblock.
So. Villain? Hero? Off-kilter survivalist type like Daryl? I guess we’ll see soon enough!
The action now shifts to the house where we left Rick , Carl, and the newly arrived Michonne two weeks back,. Carl is eating cereal, and Michonne presents him with a couple of bottles of water to wash it down with, milk being in scarce supply in this day and age. She is wearing a white shirt that has apparently been liberated from someone’s closet, and he seems to find her appearance amusing. Michoone pours out a little cereal for herself — Carl didn’t leave much — and muses that she’d really like a little soy milk. Carl can’t believe it. He talks about a friend of his who had a dairy allergy and brought soy milk to school — he had tried it and nearly thrown up. He and Michonne are laughing as he recounts all the things that aren’t as gross as soy milk — powdered milk, Judith’s formula — oops. At the mention of his sister, who he believes is dead though she isn’t, all the laughter stops. and he abruptly gets up from the table.
Michonne walks into the kitchen, where Rick, no longer looking half-dead, seems to be rummaging through drawers. He thanks her, acknowledging her role in making Csrl laugh again. He tells her that he can’t be both a father and a friend to Carl, so he’s going to rely on her for that part. When Rick says she can let him know if she needs a break from that kind of responsibility, she sets her jaw and responds, “I’m done taking breaks.” That’s the Michonne we know!
Michonne now asks a pertinent question: is Rick thinking this house might make a new semi-permanent home, or is it just a short stop on the way to … something? Rick, looking a little shaky, says he figures they can stay until they “figure it out.” She decides against asking for more specifics, and says she will take Carl on a hunt for supplies. Rick volunteers to go too, and Michonne demurs, reminding him on his state just the previous day (answering our question about how much time has passed). You need to get your strength back, she insists. At least for one more day.
The two of them set out with a couple of empty canvas bags. Michonne says their canvassing shouldn’t take long. Rick hands his gun over to Carl — it looks like he can barely lift it — and reminds him to do what he’s told. Noticing Carl still seems down, Rick asks if he’s OK, and Carl responds that he’s just tired. They head out. Once back inside, Rick pushes the couch back into place behind the front door, which is about as much effort as he can exert. He goes upstairs to rebandage his wounds, and lays down with a book, ready to nap.
Michonne and Carl leave a house, both with bulging bags. As they walk down a woodsy path, she asks if he founds anything good: “Candy bars? Comic books? Crazy cheese?” She pulls out a can of aerosol cheese and agrees to let him have “first pull,” be the still sullen Carl turns it down. She wants to know what’s wrong, and he says he’s just tired. Her response is to fill up her mouth with the cheese and moan like a walker — the first time we’ve ever seen her do anything that could remotely be described as silly. Carl is not amused.
As they approach the door of the next house, she apologizes, saying that she isn’t good at making boys his age laugh. He claims that he was laughing, on the inside. Michonne, who has been rapping on the door as a zombie-check, informs Carl that toddlers find her funny, a reference that puzzles him since he can’t recall her interacting with kids that age. This is where she tells him that she had a three-year-old son, and he found her extremely funny. This revelation puts them on a similar level — he’s lost a sister, but she’s lost a son — and that’s something she can use.
Michonne cautiously enters the house, reminding Carl of the need for food, batteries, and water. She starts going through drawers, but Carl just wants to talk about this toddler: Why hasn’t she mentioned this before? What was his name? Was she married? Were there other children too? She makes a deal: she can ask him one question at a time, one per room, and only when the room has been cleared.
Back at the temp home, Rick is fast asleep with the book on his chest (Jack London’s short stories), and we hear the sound of unfamiliar voices. There are at least three, making the sorts of rambunctious noises young men on the loose will make. Rick’s eyes twitch as if he’s trying to wake up, but the sound of someone falling and others laughing (as if they had caused the fall) finally jolts him into alertness. Who the hell are these people?
Rick knows he won’t have much time. He reaches for his gun, before remembering it’s with Carl. He grabs his watch instead, though it’s hard to guess what good he thinks it will do. To the clomp of footsteps ascending the stairs, he rolls off the bed and peers around the entrance to the room. A man holding an automatic weapon opens the door to another bedroom. Breathing very heavily, Rick runs back to the bed, grabs the book, and crawls underneath — the bed, not the book. He begins to make a move back out, but then scurries underneath again when he hears Machine Gun Guy back in the hallway. The man enters another room, and we then see what Rick had tried to do earlier, as he grabs his half-consumed water bottle off the dresser.
Footsteps. The man enters, pauses in front of the bed. He kicks Rick’s stuff away from the closet door, opens it, then seems to pause and think some more. Rick is trying to hold his breath. The intruder seems to stand right in front of Rick for the longest time, then finally drops down onto the bed. Rick remains undiscovered, but he ain’t goin’ anywhere.
Back at the house where we know the intruders aren’t maniacs, Michonne stares at a painting of cute bunnies on a wall. Carl pops in and abruptly asks what her son’s name was. She tries to put him off, saying the room hasn’t been cleared, but he informs her that he fulfilled the bargain in the room next door. So she spills: his name was Andre Anthony. Michonne then tells Carl to look for cookies in the drawer before she heads out, refusing to answer his question about whether she had any other kids until after he’s done with that drawer, and by extension the room. Out in the hall, she tells him that no, she had decided that one child was enough, “and Andre was a handful, like you.”
He wants to know if clearing the hallway counts as a room, and she says sure, if he finds something useful. But all he finds is a painting that’s been wrapped up. He brings it over to Michonne anyway, and she accepts it, since one senses she’s been looking for an opening to talk about this with someone. Carl asks her how long it’s been (euphemism), and she answers indirectly as well: “It happened … after everything happened.” In response to the next question — she’s slipping! — she tells Carl that she hasn’t told Rick about this, or anyone else. Carl promises to keep her secret, and she denies that it really has been a secret. In a sense that’s true: till very recently she hasn’t had much to say about anything at all.
Carl enters another room, with weapon drawn just in case, and Michonne decides to unwrap the painting he had given her. She is startled to see the portrait of a young woman that has been defaced with stains that look like blood, and what may have been an attempt to make it look like a walker. She stares back down the hall at the closed door the painting had been sitting in front of, and starts walking towards it. She puts one hand on her sword, and opens the door with the other. Michonne enters a bathroom, walks through the door at the other end, and sees a child’s bedroom, seemingly undisturbed. There’s another door inside this room, and she walks into another bedroom, this one all in pink.
The sight here is less cheerful. There are four corpses on two beds, laid out as if the deaths had been prearranged. It’s hard to tell if all the dead were children, though it appears so. Michonne fights back tears, and then sees another body in a chair facing the beds, with a telltale bullet hole through the back of its skull. The sight of a family that died together, presumably in a murder-suicide, is more than she can take, and she backs out of the room just as Carl enters the adjoining bedroom looking for her. Noticing she’s agitated, he asks/states, “There’s a baby in there.” Michonne says no, it’s just a dog. Carl looks down — you can tell he’s not buying it — and has a secret of his own to reveal. “My dad let me name her,” he says of Judith, adding, “maybe her and Andre are — are together somewhere.” She composes herself, then hustles him out of the room, saying that it’s almost noon, the time they had originally agreed to return to home base.
That home base is still looking a little precarious from Rick’s point of view, which remains under a bed, atop which a man with a big gun is snoring away. He makes a move to scoot out, when once again, footsteps are heard coming up the stairs. A new man enters, sarcaastically asking, “Yo! Comfy?” The man in bed, annoyed, asks if he woke him up just for that question. The newcomer says he’d like to lie down himself, and the first man directs his attention to the other rooms. “Them’s kids’ beds. I want this one,” the intruder says, to which the awoken responds, really surly this time, “It’s claimed” (episode title!).
Inevitably I suppose, a scuffle breaks out; both Rick, and us, can see only feet scooting about, One of the men is dropped, then slugged in the jaw, then put in a chokehold in what has now become a fight to the death — we’re getting an idea of how these folks have been living since the apocalypse came. The man being choked has had his head turned towards the underside of the bed, and he sees Rick — but doesn’t have the breath to say anything. Rick merely watches with wide eyes. It was the second man in the room who wins the fight, and he hops onto the newly claimed bed, while Rick’s problems have just multiplied — if the guy on the floor dies, he’ll be a walker before long; and if he wakes up …
Glenn! We hadn’t seen him during the opening to the episode, but he’s been riding along in the back of the truck with Tara all along, after having been passed out when the one-truck convoy showed up. He comes to, notices he’s in a moving vehicle. Tara sees he’s awakened and offers him a little water. Glenn asks what the hell is up, and it answers one big question: whether or not she came willingly or was somehow captured. “The back of the truck’s a little safer than the side of the road,” she tells him. Glenn, of course, had been on a mission to reunite with Maggie, and has been assuming she got on to the bus, which we know didn’t happen.
He asks if she saw the bus, and when she answers yes, she hesitates when he demands to know what she saw. Finally, she admits that everyone she saw there was dead. Glenn wonders how long ago that was, and she says three hours (how long is this day, anyway? I thought all this was happening the same day as the attack on the prison). Glenn bangs on the window to the cab and starts yelling, and gets a middle finger from the driver as a response. He bangs some more, now joined by Tara, as they demand to stop. Finally, Glenn gives the window a rap with the butt of the rifle, cracking the glass. THAT gets their attention.
The truck finally stops, with an annoyed looking Fu Manchu and his compatriots getting out. Even though the effort of hitting the glass just about exhausted Glenn again, his first reaction is to climb out the back, grab his gear and his rifle, and start walking in the direction they just came from. Fu Manchu calls after him; when ignored, he gets out in front and roadblocks Glenn, stating that this “mission” is time-sensitive, and he needs to get back in that truck NOW. Glenn demands he step aside.
Fu Manchu is about out of patience now: “It seems like neither one of you has been paying close enough attention to the hell on earth we’ve been living in. So let me tell you how to best avoid winding up just another dead-alive prick. You find some strong, like-minded comrades and you stay stuck together like wet on water.” The woman watches with interest, while the beefy dude with the mullet is keeping to himself. He says they need each other — that even though Glenn thinks he’s well-equipped, he won’t last the night alone. Glenn disagrees, and now Fu Manchu says he’s not going to let him leave, because “the fate of the whole damn human race might depend on it.”
Now Glenn is interested. He asks Tara who these folks are, and Fu Manchi introduces himself to Glenn, and to us. He is Sgt. Abraham Ford, the young woman in the come-hither shorts is Rosita Espinosa, and the guy with the mullet is Dr. Eugene Porter. The three of them are headed to Washington, because Eugene, a scientist, allegedly knows what caused the zombie apocalypse.
Glenn, naturally, wants to know what is, and Eugene says that it’s classified. Sgt. Ford adds that they had been in contact with the “muckety mucks” in the nation’s capital via satellite phone, but that no one has been on the other end for a couple of weeks, which doesn’t sound too promising. If true, this is the first indication we’ve had that there might be some sort of functioning government still — the CDC sure looked abandoned way back in Season One. Abraham says that they noticed how the two of them handled the walkers earlier, and that they will come in handy. Glenn seems to think about it briefly, then simply says “Sorry” and begins walking away.
Tara follows, finally getting a chance to explain how they wound up in the truck. She says the road was too dangerous, especially since he was passed out and they were out of bullets. She says she wrote down directions on how to get back to the bus, and he says he’s going to go looking for Maggie “where she’d go to find me” — that is, on the bus (of course, we know she has already been there). Abraham and Rosita have been following, not ready yet to give up on these two, and the sarge tells Glenn that Tara had informed them what happened, and that he’ll never see Maggie again, alive or dead. Glenn stops, and Abraham tells him that there’s no need for him to die too — “get back in the truck; do something with your life.”
Michael Cudlitz is about twice the size of Steven Yuen. So it’s a little surprising, if not the most implausible thing to ever happen on a show that features dead people walking about, that he turns and decks the sarge with one punch.
“She’s alive, and I’m gonna find her,” says Glenn, gathering his things again. Abraham obviously isn’t going to let things lie; he chases after him and tackles him. Tara rushes to Glenn’s aid, and abraham tosses her aside like a dishrag. Rosita is trying to break it up too, unsuccessfully. Abraham soon gets the upper hand and puts Glenn in a chokehold. Eugene, still back at the truck, looks on with mild concern, which turns to mild alarm when a walker, attracted by all the noise, comes out of the woods. He yells to get the attention of the folks in the melee, but he’s unheard.
Tara finally manages to get Abraham to back off, but Glenn charges him yet again, suicidally. Meanwhile, Eugene, who is on his own here, has grabbed a rifle out of the truck, and fumbles with it like he’s either very nervous, or has never used it before, or both. As Abraham continues to whale on Glenn, more walkers emerge from the cornfield, and Eugene is just about surrounded before long. It’s amazing these people aren’t more savvy at this point, a good two years after all this began. The be-mulleted one finally figures out how to fire the gun, but he ends up spraying bullets everywhere — at the ground, at the truck, and very occasionally, at the zombies.
So much for the fight. everyone rushes back, with Abraham yelling at him to stop wasting their precious ammo. But given the numbers, there isn’t time for him to get his crowbar, or for anybody to do anything except grab their gun of choice and clear the area of the undead. Soon enough, the threat is extinguished. And there’s another casualty too: as Abraham discovers that in his panic, Eugene shot a hole in the truck’s gas tank. “Son of a dick!” he mutters, and I can’t say as I blame him,
In more immediate trouble is Rick Grimes, still hiding under that bed. Hearing the man in bed snoring above him, he scoots out oh-so-gingerly, nearly bumping into the shoe dangling over the side. Besides the sleeping man and the loser of the fight on the floor, there are other folks in the house as well; their conversation and random banging can be heard as Rick finally gets to his knees and then to his feet. He looks down at the man in bed, a young, bearded fellow. When a voice calls up from downstairs to alert the other guys, Rick scoots into the hallway. The banging sound is being made by a guy tossing a tennis ball against the wall, and he’s heading up the stairs, wondering why the others aren’t heeding his call.
Rick heads into one of the kids’ bedrooms, then backs around the corner into the room next to it as Tennis Ball Guy approaches. He throws his ball against the outer wall while he stands in the doorway, just barely unable to see Rick standing there. The man moves off, and Rick exhales. He heads to the windows, but is unable to budge any of them. A voice calls out “I’m trying to sleep!” at the man who has just come upstairs, and who has made a discovery: there’s a woman living in the house. The other men are on the move upon hearing that news, but the voice says that the woman isn’t actually there; he just found the shirt she had washed earlier in the morning. Rick has grabbed a trophy off a dresser, which might be able to knock out anyone who comes in the room.
Two men walk downstairs; the man who had originally been in bed is still lying on the floor, and there’s a rifle in the now-vacated bed. One voice says that the woman wouldn’t have bothered washing a shirt she was going to abandon, and someone else “calls first” for when she gets back. Rick makes a move for the gun, but a man is coming back upstairs, and he barely has time to back out and duck into the bathroom before being discovered. He closes the bathroom door, turns … and sees a middle-aged man sitting on the toilet. A lot of good that’s gonna do, pal — it’s not like the plumbing works.
Rick has no time to think. He slugs the guy in the gut with the trophy he’s still holding. The man leaps up — I guess he was using the bathroom with dropping his pants? — and pushes Rick against the sink. Rick is able to wriggle out of that and tighten the belt holding the man’s machine gun around his neck. They struggle, bang against the wall, knock crap all over the floors, and generally make a LOT of noise that no one notices. The man tries to reach for a pair of scissors, but it’s in vain, and soon, Rick has one gun he didn’t have a minute before, and a new answer to his famous question, “How many people have you killed?” Here’s my question: how does a man who was basically in a coma the previous day win this fight? It’s not like he’s Jack Bauer.
Rick manages to open the bathroom window, though he cracks the door again before leaving. He throws his jacket onto the roof — awfully convenient it was in the bathroom all along — and crawls out with his gun. The mission now: getting down. He dangles briefly from the gutter before landing on the back porch. Realizing no one heard him land, he scrambles down the stairs and edges around towards the front of the house, gun at the ready. He’s just below the front porch, keeping one eye on the road for any sign of Michonne and Carl coming back, when the door opens. It’s the guy bouncing the tennis ball again.
Before we see how this all plays out, we have to find out what becomes of Glenn, Tara, and their new friends. Abraham is under the truck trying to mend it, telling old war stories about a boy and his vehicle, as everyone else tries not to look annoyed. Rosita, in particular, looks like she’s heard all this before, many times. The point of Abraham’s story is that this truck has been to hell and back, so how could Eugene have managed to render it a hunk of metal? “A fully amped-up state and an ignorance of rapid-firing weapons,” Eugene says, unhelpfully.
Rosita hands Glenn the photo he took of himself and Maggie, which fell on the ground in all the hubbub. Glenn hands the rifle back to Abraham, says he’s sorry about the truck, and that he hopes the mission to Washington is successful. He walks away, like he tried to do before. Tara likewise hands her gun back and calls after Glenn to wait up. Rosita considers the situation for a second, and makes the part of two a threesome. “Well, what the hell else are we gonna do?” she asks with annoyance. Abraham, losing the battle, yells after her, “Go to Washington! Fix the whole damn world!”
Eugene finally takes some initiative that doesn’t involve killing the truck, pointing out that they know the way they just came is clear, so they might as well follow, at least until they can find a new vehicle. Abraham looks unsure, and Eugene responds with extreme confidence, “Trust me. I’m smarter than you.” Big words for a man who is the entire reason they’re all on foot now. Methinks Eugene is hiding something about his true nature, but we’ll see soon enough. The men grab their gear, and the five of them head back down the lonesome road.
Rick is still waiting for the potential future rapist with the tennis ball to get the hell off the front porch. He keeps taking anxious glances, knowing Michonne and Carl are if anything now a little overdue. The guy (who we can now see is played by Jeff Kober, who has been in all sorts of things but will always be a Chian Beach alum for me) spits over the rail and parks himself on the rail of the porch, as he eats out of a can. Rick looks like he’s contemplating having to shoot the man, especially when he notices the others coming down the road at last. But just as he’s about to spring up with his gun, he and Tennis Ball hear a walker, shouts, and a gunshot. “Son of a bitch!” the man mutters, as he goes after whatever it is that has caused the commotion (presumably, it’s the man Rick killed, who is now un-killed). Rick takes advantage of the coast being clear to race across the lawn and mutter “Go!: to the other two. Michonne, Carl, and Rick retreat, laving behind some bad guys wondering what the hell happened.
Ther other group on the road has changed its configuration a little bit, with Rosita now walking just behins Glenn, Eugene in he middie, and Tara hanging back with the sergeant. “Gotta hand it to him — he’s a persistent sumbitch,” Abraham tells her. He says he knows she’s the loyal type, and he likes that, but the mission he is on is simply more important. And even if he does find Maggie, nothing matters in the long run unless Eugene gets to Washington, he adds.
Tara asks if he can tell she’s good just because she’s following Glenn, and he chuckles and says he knows she’s good. Tara insists he can’t know that, just like she knows nothing about him. She knows why Eugene wants to go to Washington, and she knows that Rosita will follow him anywhere, but what’s in it for him? Abraham seems surprised Tara would question his eagerness to save the world, but she’s about had it with self-appointed Good Guys after the Governor. “You don’t have to tell me why. Just don’t like to me,” she tells him.
Finally, we see Michonne, Carl, and Rick walking the railroad tracks, apparently heading out of town. Carl offers Michonne some of the “crazy cheese,” but Rick’s attention is drawn elsewhere,. The three of them all look at something, and Michonne asks what he thinks about it. “Let’s go, ” says Rick, as they walk down the tracks and away from a sign proclaiming the existence of Terminus, hanging from an abandoned boxcar.
So! Everything seems to be heading towards an eventual meetup in Terminus again, with perhaps a slightly smaller main cast (every transition on this show is accompanied by a death or three). The fleshing out of personalities, especially Michonne’s, is welcome; but is this show’s massive audience going to hang around for character development devoid of the threat of zombies munching on people? This was one of the most walker-free episodes of The Walking Dead ever; the “attack” on Abraham, Glenn and co. wasn’t really very threatening.
But ramping up the human threat — not via the cliched “Big Bad” but via the type of criminal gang that almost certainly would flourish in a civilization-free world — has some real promise.