This post contains spoilers through the October 23 episode of The Walking Dead.
I wrote in the Atlantic last week that I thought the most frightening thing about The Walking Dead wasn’t necessarily the zombies themselves, but the obstacle they present to things that ought to be normal and routine. That was certainly the case last night, where the two biggest risks are ones that wouldn’t have been a problem in the apocalypse: T-Dog’s infected cut and the possibility that Carl won’t survive surgery.
T-Dog gets most directly at the irony of it all. “Wouldn’t that be the thing,” he tells Dale as they wait by the RV for the rest of the group to return from hunting for Sophia. “The world gone to hell. The dead rose up to eat the living. Theodore Duggs get done in by a cut on his arm.” This is what’s really scary about living through a zombie apocalypse. What if you safeguard your humanity, and it turns out not to matter in the slightest because your humanity isn’t of any use to you? Rick may be willing to give all the blood in the world, but in the absence of anesthetics or a proper surgical theater, it may not save his son, and it may weaken him to a point of extreme danger.
And there’s more than one way to lose your humanity. T-Dog’s raging infection is getting him a little paranoid. “I’m the one black guy. Do you realize how precarious that makes my situation?” he speculates darkly. “Who do you think is going to be the first to get lynched?” He may not be wrong in the broad spectrum of things: his fears would accord both with horror tropes about the early deaths of black characters, and with the constant apocalyptic risk that the group could tear itself apart in the cycle of blame. If he was attacked, it would represent a breakdown in the group and in the values that keep them tentatively together. If he’s wrong, it represents a breakdown in his ability to trust and read other people. Both of those things are frightening. In this case, Dale’s correct when he asks T-Dog “Are you serious? Am I missing something?…That redneck went out his way to save your life.” And he’s right. Daryl comes through to save T-Dog’s life again, this time by revealing Merle’s secret stash which, correct me if I’m wrong, but seems to contain a call-out to Breaking Bad in the presence of a lot of blue-tinted meth.
Meanwhile back at the farm, Lori’s grappling with a different set of norms, the fact that the man about to operate on her gravely injured son is a veterinarian. “You’re completely in over your head,” she tells him, receiving a courtly “Ma’am, aren’t we all?” in response. Knowing when to adjust and what to let go of are critical survival skills in an apocalypse.
And it’s an interesting question whether Lori ought to, or can, let Shane go. She can’t really resist him, and in the episode’s opening scene, we see how they came together, how Rick was shot at a moment of her frustration with his bland kindness. “He was trying so hard to be reasonable it just pushed my buttons all the more,” Lori complains to a playground mother. She’s addicted, it seems, to the possibility of actual pushback from Shane. And the competition for her seems to be setting up a suicidal contest between the two men, even if they’re not aware of it, over who can sacrifice more for Carl, be it blood or a run through a zombie herd to get him medical supplies. I agree with observers who find Carl kind of irritating. The only meaning he has is that which Lori, Rick and Shane invest in him. But right now, that investment is considerable.