The zombies outside and the plague inside join forces on Walking DeadS

For the first time since the pilot, I have legitimately been scared while watching an episode of The Walking Dead. What I thought was going to be a slow, potboiler kind-of-episode — which would have been fine after four strong episodes in a row — slowly transformed into the tensest, most gripping life-or-death battle in all four of TWD's seasons.

But like I said it starts slow. In fact, most of the episode involves Herschel trying to keep the sick from dying, which he does patiently, but with mixed success. At the beginning, he's helped by Sasha and Glenn, who eventually become too sick themselves to do anything other than cough up blood.

Rick returns to the prison after a lengthy quiet car trip (seriously, they could spend four minutes of every episode just showing Andrew Lincoln driving a car, with all the worries of the zombie post-apocalypse etched onto his face, and it would be great) telling Maggie that Carol was the murderer and he sent her away, but she can only tell Herschel, and no one else.

Actually, now that I think about it, like 70% of the episode is just Herschel trying to tend to the sick, while the sick get worse and the worse get dead, including Dr. Caleb. Herschel tries to stay positive. When one of the Woodburyians starts chocking to death on his own blood, he uses a portable resuscitator with a tracheal tube and manually pumps it to keep the guy alive. He makes tea. He tells Maggie Glenn can't see her because he's resting, when in fact Glenn doesn't want her to see how sick he is, because then she'll come in. When people die, he wheels their bodies out of the room so the other sick people don't have to see their own probably fates.

And things start going to hell anyways. Someone dies before he/she can lock themselves in a cell, and another internal zombie breakout is on. More than a few people are lost — including one poor girl who gets shot by friendly fire when a man's shooting arm is bitten into. Lizzy, a.k.a. Carol's disciple, continues to be super-creepy by leading a zombie down the walkway, calling him like a dog; I don't know what her endgame was, but Herschel has to save her when the zombie falls down on top her.

During all the commotion, Maggie and Rick — trying to shore up the fence from the ever-growing pile of zombies outside trying to push it down — hear the aforementioned gunshot; Rick tells Maggie to go check it out, and she runs frantically into the prison, trying to find a way into the infirmary. She bursts into to find Herschel literally wrestling with a zombie, the guy who died with the resuscitator in, and he yells at Maggie not to shoot it, in case she damages the equipment. I honestly thought Herschel was doing something stupid (like he's snapped a bit in trying to save all these people with such little success) until Maggie does shoot the zombie through the head without harming the resuscitator, then Herschel rips it out of the zombie's throat, disinfects it with alcohol, and run-hobbles to Glenn's cell, where he's also choking to death on his own blood. I didn't really think TWD was going to kill Glenn — they prefer their major character deaths to be quick and violent and a surprise — but the show did an excellent job at making him seem in genuine peril.

But while this is going on, Rick has grabbed Carl to help with the fence. They manage to get a few logs up… until the logs break, the fence falls, and the zombies come pouring through in a scene far more terrifying than any of World War Z's ridiculous swarms. Rick and Carl just manage to escape into a small guard post, then back into the second line of defenses, where the survivors apparently keep a giant portable container of assault rifles. Rick teaches Carl how to load and fire one of these things very quickly — like, less than 10 seconds — and the two of them begin mowing down the enormous zombie horde as they pour through into this new fenced corridor.

Look, I know this scene is dumb. 1) Why on Earth would the group keep guns outside? 2) Why would they not use the assault rifles on the giant, massing zombie horde that's been threatening to push over the fence before the zombies push over the fence? I've come up with lots of reasons, actually: they wanted to save the big weaponry in case the Governor came back, they were afraid the noise might attract yet more zombies, they thought they could handle the fence with the posts — but that's not important. What's important is that for the first time in TWD history I have come across a dumb scene and instead of being irritated I'm actually trying to make excuses for the show.

Do you know how big that? That's the clearest sign to me that the show is doing something right — that instead of being bored and having time to pick apart every single flaw, I'm so entertained that when a plothole comes and smacks me in the face I don't even mind. And seriously, this episode was entertaining. The zombie attacks on the prison, both within and without, happen simultaneously, so there's a real element of danger. This is amplified by the participants — it's only Rick and Carl keeping the outside zombies from coming in, and Herschel is alone against the zombies in the infirmary. And thanks to the wonderful work Gimple and crew have done in establishing the prison as a real home to these people, a haven, a benefit — the stakes in The Waking Dead have never been higher.

And it was tense, man. It's chaos outside, it's chaos inside, Maggie can't get in the infirmary, Herschel is all alone, Glenn is basically vomiting all his blood out from his face orifices, and the survival of the prison basically comes down to how quickly Carl can learn how to use an assault rifle (the answer: Pretty goddamn quick, because Carl is still the Angel of Death ). And when both battles are over, it's no coincidence that both scenes become moments of parental bonding — Herschel and Maggie because Maggie had to break into the infirmary and help just like Herschel did, and Rick and Carl because… uh… well, killing a shit-ton of zombies is probably the most efficient way they can emotionally connect.

Daryl, Michonne, Tyreese and Bob finally arrive almost immediately after Rick and Carl have gone through and smashed the heads of any zombies still moving, and the medicine gets dispersed, and soon even Glenn is breathing on his own. They day is saved! …except for all those people that died… and that the fence has partially been torn down… and Daryl asks where Carol is, and Herschel has to tell him to talk to Rick… and Herschel ends up in his cell, alone, crying, finally spent from the days of trying to provide hope amidst so much death and misery. It's a wonderfully chilling and heartbreaking scene, to see how the world's harsh new reality can break even the most hopeful person in the group. It's a powerful final scene…

…or it would have been if the real final scene hadn't been of the Governor staring at the prison from afar. I have to say, after the complete letdown of the season 3 finale that I immediately groaned when I saw him. And thus new showrunner Scott Gimple will face his final and hardest test — can he make the Governor genuinely seem threatening?! We may or may not find out next week, but I think we all know the group's problems are far from over.

The zombies outside and the plague inside join forces on Walking DeadS

Assorted Musings:

• So I guess the Governor was the dude feeding the rats to the zombies to lure them to the fence in the first episode of the season? That seems like exactly the petty, sneaky bullshit the TV Governor would come up with, which is one of the many reasons why the Governor is not scary.

• Which conversation do you think will go worse: Rick telling Daryl that he told Carol to go, or Rick telling Tyreese he let Carol get away?

• Herschel is a tough son of a bitch. No one else could have handled the infirmary for so long and still kept up a positive front like he did.

• If Gimple can somehow make the Governor seem menacing, should 1) be paraded in the streets, 2) elected showrunner for life, and 3) declared the official Saint of Making TV Shows as Good as They're Supposed to Be.