Cheese and crackers, Walking Dead, do you know how to kick off a season. Tonight's installment of T-Dog Mystery Theater (presented by Shop Rite's Can Can Sale) — "Sick" — introduced us to some new friends and saw alpha male Rick Grimes deal with some hilariously ineffectual maximum security peacocking. We're finally getting a sense of how those months in the wilderness changed our fearless leader, and the results are intriguing. Spoilers way on.
"Sick" swung the camera entirely away from last week's adventures with Michonne and Andrea to focus on the two big cliffhangers: Hershel's loss of a leg and the discovery of five confused inmates, trapped deep in the bowels of the penitentiary. And I say "bowels" rather pointedly, as the survivors discover five guys who have been relieving themselves in the same unventilated room for ten months. God, that's worse than the zombies. From here on out, they could base the entire series around this. I can see it now — the cure to the zombie plague is discovered by the end of Season Three, and Season Four is just an ongoing series of Rube Goldbergesque pratfalls that always end with somebody getting locked in the Trots Chamber. Or the Fart Dungeon. Or "The Poopliette." Or something, AMC will let market research sort out the nomenclature.
Yes, between all the ambling carcasses and the prisoners' stinky safe haven, The Walking Dead is probably the most fragrant show on television. Anyway, Hershel's plot line was perfectly sufficient — he survives thanks to Lori's medical improv and Carl's lack of supervision ("No big deal, I killed two walkers!") — but not before Farmer Greene has a "HEY I'M A ZOMBIE PSYCH I'M A VETERINARIAN" freakout. He lives, and his miraculous recovery doesn't eat up too much screen time. It's a flip-flop of the opening of Season Two, so let's tally up another point for inverse thematic symmetry, Walking Dead.
The real fun this episode was A.) the doe-eyed prisoners coming to grips with the fact that civilization has fallen apart, like marooned Japanese soldiers post-World War II; and B.) watching their ringleader Tomas (actor Nick Gomez, who played one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's pals in Looper) fruitlessly establish himself as the prison's head honcho. Seriously, it was some dark comedy whenever he tried to boss Rick around or lay on the braggadocio. As the audience, we're in the privileged position of knowing the horrors that lay out there in post-apocalyptic Georgia. Cue Tomas, trying to crown himself The King of the Wasteland fifteen minutes fresh out the Feces Cabinet. It's totally sad.
There's a telling line at the beginning of the episode. After Daryl explains that everyone's destined to come back as a walker, Tomas blurts out incredulously "Ain't no way this Robin Hood cat's responsible for all these freaks!"¹ Oh, dumb, naïve, outgunned Tomas. Your ignorance would be charming if only you weren't an arrogant loon. Indeed, Tomas isn't even resurrected as a walker after an expedition to carve out a cell block space for the inmates goes to pot.
The first to die is "Big Tiny," who is marked for a rapid, ignominious demise because his nickname² is worse than T-Dog's. Tomas beats Big Tiny into man-borscht after the (maybe lovable, we'll never know) oaf suffers a zombie scratch. Again, it's pathetic and creepy when Tomas kills Tiny to show up Rick in the "hard moral choices" department. You can see the exact moment when the mental moonshine mill in Daryl Dixon's brain sends out the employee memo to his appendages saying, "Let's kick this buffoon down the stairs in 15 minutes." We'd expect such street justice from Daryl, who's a bit of a rogue himself, but what about Rick?
Tomas isn't attempting to earn Rick's respect, as he immediately tries to murder Rick and make it look like an accident. I guess this is an attempt to coerce everybody else into some tremendously ill-advised coup. What did he think, that T-Dog and Daryl would shrug at Rick's passing and join Tomas' chain gang? Did he even consider the rest of the Grimes Family Caravan? This was a stupid plan, and when you're stupid in the zombie apocalypse, the punishment tends to be death. And it's fitting that Rick gave Tomas a surprise blade to the head because — to paraphrase Rick in the Season Two finale — there can be only one (group leader, post-Shane).
But Rick killing Tomas wasn't even the most shocking visual of "Sick." No, that goes to the sequence of Rick chasing Tomas' henchman down the prison halls with a machete like he was possessed by the goddamn Quickening.³ I repeat, THE HERO OF THE SHOW JUST CHASED AN UNARMED GUY LIKE A SERIAL KILLER.
It's unclear if Rick even knows what he's going to do to Andrew when he catches him, but he falls back on post-apocalyptic pragmatism and just dooms the dude in a pen full of zombies. Remember, this was the protagonist who was willing to play zombie rodeo with Hershel a few months ago. Shane's betrayal obviously scarred him, but this is the most unforgiving we've seen Sheriff Grimes. Did something even worse happen during those winter months? Or has his heart just gradually hardened into a century-old pecan? I want to find out, as I haven't enjoyed an episode this much since the pilot.
With Tomas dead, we're left with the two most likable prisoners bumbling around (hello, Oscar and Axel), somebody spying on Carol's DIY anatomy lesson (yay for giving Carol something to do), and Rick at his most unhinged. The show's doing record ratings, we're seeing tons of zombies, the plotting is zippy, and every character seems important again. Let's keep this up.
¹ The meta commentary is coming hard and heavy, what with Lori's laments about being a bad mom and how she has no idea where Carl is most of the time.
² On the other hand, if Wanda Sykes' character from Pootie Tang was on The Walking Dead, I'd be super-okay with her replacing Rick as the main protagonist.
³ Someone may have rewatched Highlander last night.