Since George A. Romero's seminal 1978 film Dawn of the Dead presented a satire of consumer culture, the zombie genre has provided fertile ground for social commentary. Although it was criticized for its slow pace and an abundance of dialogue about emotions and feelings, the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead continued this tradition by featuring episodes that dealt with larger social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. In the same vein, the topic behind this week's "Hounded" was suicide, as it focused on Rick's struggle over whether to take his own life or to go on and try to make the best of a seemingly hopeless situation following the death of his wife Lori. This internal dialogue was achieved through the mysterious phone calls Rick received throughout the hour, beginning at the end of last week's episode. After the initial female caller claims to be part of a group living in a safe place where nobody gets bitten and nobody dies, Rick begs her to tell him where they are and allow him and his group to join them. During another call, Rick confesses the four murders he has committed and explains the circumstances behind them, cleansing his soul and his conscience. In the final telephone conversation, Rick realizes that none of the calls were real when he discovers he's talking to Lori, who wonders if he recognized the previous callers: Amy, Jim, and Jacqui, all characters who had died in the first season. The voice of Lori encourages Rick to stay strong and live for the new baby and Carl, while a train can be heard in the background, perhaps signaling Lori's passage to the afterlife.
As a form of therapy and a way to present Rick's internal dialogue to viewers, the telephone calls made sense because he didn't have a chance to say goodbye to Lori or talk to her one last time. Rick's mental state has been on a steady decline since last season, particularly after the search for Sophia ended in horror and sadness, and the death of his wife after giving her the cold shoulder this season was the event that finally cracked him. By the end of the episode, Rick had cleaned himself up and returned to the group to hold his daughter for the first time, relieved of much of the guilt that was plaguing him and finding hope in his newborn child. It might be a bit heavy-handed, but Hope would be an appropriate name for the baby. At one point, I thought the phone calls might lead to a crazed Rick trying to convince the group to leave the prison in search of this mythical "safe place," necessitating a group intervention led by Hershel to stop Rick from completely losing his mind. The phone calls from Lori were ripped straight out of the original comic book series, so that seemed like a good way to put a different spin on it, but the faithful adaptation made for compelling television and a convincing performance from Andrew Lincoln as a decent man on the edge of insanity. When I realized last week that they were going this route, I was skeptical that those scenes could be translated effectively from the page to the screen, especially since they seemed a bit cheesy in the comics. Much to my surprise, this storyline was handled extremely well and surpassed the source material. I'm no awards expert, but this episode should be fodder for an Emmy nomination for Andrew Lincoln if there is any justice.
Also drawing from the source material but adding a twist for the television audience, Merle ran into Glenn and Maggie while they were on a run for baby formula and took them hostage when they refused to divulge the location of their camp. Returning to Woodbury with them, Merle interrupted the new lovefest between the Governor and Andrea—a relationship that turned intimate during this episode—to tell him the news. Unbeknown to Merle, Michonne had witnessed the kidnapping and found her way to the prison at the end of the show, covered in disgusting walker guts and carrying the supplies Glenn and Maggie had dropped. At the beginning of the show, Michonne was being hunted down by Merle and an elite squad on a mission from the Governor to bring back her sword and her head. In response, she left what Merle termed a "bitergram," one of the cleverest creations yet on the show. Reading "Go back," the bitergram consisted of a biter's severed limbs forming the "G" and "O" and the torso on its stomach, meaning "back." That was as shocking as it was brilliant. Once again proving her badass credentials, Michonne sliced and diced two of the mercenaries, including the first decapitation of a living character on the series, and also fought off a small gathering of walkers while tangling with Merle. In fact, she was so intimidating that Merle gave up the hunt after she got away and then lied to the Governor about killing her. Although the Gov had requested her sword and her head, Merle claimed that the walkers interfered and made it impossible. In his role as Merle, Michael Rooker has the opportunity to display his full range as an actor, veering from supportive middle-management personality when leading his group, to friendly old buddy when he first finds Glenn and Maggie, to a menacing psychopath when he turns on them and takes them hostage. More than anyone else aside from maybe the Governor, Merle was made for this kind of environment and clearly seems to be thriving in such a lawless world, and somehow became even more dangerous without his hand.
There were a few darkly humorous moments as well. Serving as a father figure or big brother to Carl while his dad was off engaging in imaginary phone conversations, Daryl told a story about his mother dying in a fire when he was young, only for Carl to one-up him by pointing out that he had to shoot his mom in the head after watching her die in front of him. "That was real," the young boy lamented. I also had to chuckle during the scene with Andrea helping to guard Woodbury's wall, when she saw a walker approaching and leapt to her feet breathing heavily, almost as if the element of danger turned her on. Considering she later had sex with the Governor, perhaps this was a form of foreplay. Another moment I found funny was when Rick explained to Hershel that he had received a cryptic phone call about a safe place, but asked the old man not to tell the rest of the group yet. Hearing only static on the other end of the phone, Hershel just had this look in his eye that said, "Uh, yeah, I'll try and keep that to myself, you crazy motherfucker."
The other notable item from the show was that Daryl found Carol alive in one of the cells, although she was obviously traumatized and dazed from her experience. It might have been better for her if Daryl hadn't purposely decided to delay checking that cell because he thought it likely contained a walker that didn't have any fight left in it. WHAT?! That really didn't make any sense because they have never done anything like that before. Nevertheless, the reunion of Daryl and Carol—let's call them Caryl—was a heartwarming moment and a welcome resolution that kind of made up for the sorrow that was found at the end of the search for Sophia last season. Yet another strong episode, "Hounded" was a more personal offering and, outside of the Merle/Michonne battle, lacked the copious zombie-slaughtering action found previously this season. It also advanced the overall story and set in motion the eventual confrontation between Rick and the Governor, as we are only two episodes away from the end of The Walking Dead's fall season. As the kids say, "Shit is about to get real."
FINAL GRADE: A-