[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]
During the first half of season 4, the story of The Walking Dead took a turn headlong into the kind of hopelessness that's normally reserved for news outlets the day after the president gives the State of the Union address. A horrific flu epidemic was negating the relative security of the prison by turning those falling victim to the relentless virus into the exact reason the survivors were holed-up in a prison in the first place.
It was a despondent succession of episodes that not only felt like the equivalent of being locked in prison, but the situation also brought a normally buoyant old man to tears, resulting in what was perhaps the most somber and legitimately hopeless moment the series had ever seen. In short, the time Rick & Co. had spent at the prison felt like it was up long before the Governor and his cronies arrived to blow everything to hell.
But this is the second half of the season and already a great deal has changed. The prison is no more and what survivors there are have been scattered about, left to wonder whom else might have survived and if it's worth the risk to go in search of them. This is the kind of situation The Walking Dead normally excels at; in fact, it's the sort of scenario that the entire series was based on. And yet, there's a unique distinction in 'Claimed' that makes all difference in the world: Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz).
It's not just the addition of another survivor who was popularized by the comic book on which the series is based; it's that the depiction of the character himself is the kind of representation the series has been in dire need of for quite some time. Early on, we see Tara (Alanna Masterson) and her mustachioed savior take on a small group of walkers with relative ease. Tara's more or less new at being a proficient walker slayer, but Abraham seems to know what he's doing - and what's more, he actually cracks a smile while doing it. That's right, someone on The Walking Dead cracked a smile without being a complete psycho. And when that smile was commented on, the individual in question didn't drift into some somber diatribe of his or her time slaying the undead, or the untold horrors they've seen. Instead, Abraham responds by telling Tara he's "the luckiest guy in the world."
Now we all know that, aside from his prodigious facial hair, Abraham is being facetious, but it doesn't matter; he's willing to make it seem like even he believes the words coming out of his mouth and the difference it makes for those around him (and those watching him) is simply enormous. What's more, Abraham has with him a scientist by the name of Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) who is not only rockin' the greatest mullet this side of Nicolas Cage in Con Air, he's also believed to be holding the secret to the whole zombie apocalypse.
Whether or not Eugene and his outmoded yet geographically appropriate hairstyle are actually in possession of "classified" information that needs to be delivered to Washington, D.C. doesn’t really matter. In a situation such as this – a least from the standpoint of certain viewers – the veracity of the data Eugene supposedly possesses is secondary to the belief that he – and by association, those around him – serves some function beyond merely surviving. Abraham and Eugene possess hope, and it's a difference maker. It's the difference between Abraham's forward-looking approach and Rick's uncertainty whether the house he, Carl, and Michonne are holed-up in is "home, or just a stopping point."
It's a thin distinction, but it's one where optimism and purpose trump the pursuit of simple survival. It may also be the most important addition to the series since the dead started walking.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Still' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: