Trust. It's not a word Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is terribly fond of these days. The Walking Dead has seen Rick shot and left for dead in a hospital while the world was going down the crapper, only to survive and find out his best friend had taken to sharing a tent with his wife. That alone is enough to get anybody down on the whole "other people" thing, and we haven't even touched on the fact that he had to put said best friend down - twice. Lest we forget, Rick also felt justified in killing a couple of agro strangers who happened to walk into the wrong abandoned bar. Add all that up with the fact that he's spent an entire winter keeping a group of bickering ingrates alive, and it's clear that these days, Rick Grimes is not much of a people person.
After the rather stellar cold open that brought season 3 (and the series) to life, we're back to the more standard "pick up right where the previous episode left off" format, but with 'Sick,' it makes sense. In the commotion of Hershel (Scott Wilson) being passed out and leaving potentially infected body parts on the ground, Rick, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and the increasingly chatty T-Dog (IronE Singleton) have a run-in with some rather perplexed and territorial inmates, while Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) deal with Hershel.
Seems the inmates have spent the last several months holed up in the prison waiting for news from the outside, or the National Guard coming to save them all. The last thing they were expecting was to see a blood-soaked Southerner hacking off the leg of some poor old man. At any rate, that's what passes for introductions in the world of The Walking Dead.
Naturally, with safe space and food a premium in this world, Tomas (Nick Gomez), the defacto leader of the surviving inmates, isn't too happy to see this group of well-armed interlopers come into his territory. Rick is quick to explain the situation, but makes it clear that no help is coming, and unless Tomas and his buddies all want to die, they'd best be getting on board with what he's got planned.
The bar scene from season 2, in which Rick plugged Michael Raymond-James and some other fellow with little hesitation, seemed to be one of the turning points for Rick's character. He was no longer hesitant, no longer willing to see how things would play out if he just took the role of the nice guy who wants everyone to value life as much as he does. As it turns out, life in The Walking Dead is cheap, and death's a burden for everyone who can still voluntarily vary their walking speed. In that moment Rick became the decisive leader the group needs, so when he makes the threat that Tomas and his group – even the cuddly Big Tiny (Theodus Crane) – will wind up on the business end of his machete if things don't go smoothly, the audience believes him.
That's good, because if season 3 is going to maintain this pace, then it'll have to keep Rick and the others making snap decisions and dealing with the consequences later – rather than have long-drawn out arguments about morality in a world where such a thing is a luxury. Perhaps this is the consequence of the group losing Dale, who was the moral center, if not the most loquacious of the survivors. And while the problem of the characters' morality is likely something that will be addressed as the season moves on, at least the writers have recognized there are some strong moments that don't need to be filled up with dialogue. And showing that kind of restraint has added a lot of the dramatic tension this series needs.
There are still some bumps to be worked out, though. Carl (Chandler Riggs) still gets into a argument with his mother, and then runs off, while Rick and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) are still prone to overly complicated discussions of where they stand as a couple. That hasn't bogged down any of the episodes too much, but like Rick's machete meeting Tomas' head, such a thing just feels inevitable. Still, watching Hershel pull through and simply grasp Rick's hand in thanks, rather than go into some long-winded exchange about how he thought he was going to die, is exactly the kind of reserved drama that makes a scene like that more memorable.
There's no cut away to Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in 'Sick,' and it's not yet clear if every episode would benefit from such a division of action. There're shows with larger casts that seem to dilute the intensity of their individual episodes by cramming in too much character work and divergent plot lines to make for a cohesive story. 'Sick' stays with the core group the whole time, and since Thomas largely spends the episode goading Rick to kill him, the tension built up between the two feels more effective than it would have had the audience been asked before hand to listen while Andrea told Michonne to just let her die in the woods.
To that end, Rick's offer to help Tomas and his crew clear out a cellblock of their own, in exchange for half the food that's left in the prison's stores seems like a fair one. And watching as the inmates charge a walker and take to him like a snitch in the yard has the right kind of morbidly funny tone the show sometimes forgets is at the writers' disposal. But 'Sick' is really about the kind of quick-thinking, decisive leader Rick has to be if the survivors are going to be running into more of the living. Since the living dead have become a dangerous, but predictable obstacle, those who are still drawing breath pose the kind of threat that Rick simply can't afford to wait on. If that means preemptively burying his machete in Tomas' skull, and chasing his cohort into a pen full of walkers, then so be it. There's no sense in demanding the respect of his people if he's not willing to do whatever he can to keep them alive.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Walk With Me' @9pm on AMC.