SPOILER ALERT: The recap for the "Hounded" episode of "The Walking Dead" contains storyline and character spoilers.
Last week's cliffhanger: Whom was Rick talking to on the phone? Did a real, live human dial him up to chat? Or was a grief-stricken Rick imagining the whole thing? Had the death and destruction and constant threat of being snacked on and turned into a walker himself finally sent Mr. Grimes on a one-way trip to Cray-Cray Town?
And the answer, in this week's episode of "The Walking Dead": well ... yes. Sorta. Temporarily, maybe.
Rick's telephone time put him in touch with several people, and each time a different person got on the line, Rick begged them to allow him and his cohorts to join them in the safe haven they claimed they had found -- a place where there are "no attacks, no one's been bit, no one's died, no one's turned, no one's gone crazy."
Hershel, who has remarkably managed to find his calm among the continuing chaos and the loss of half a leg, visited Rick in his boiler-room bunker, where Hershel shared that Lori told him she was sorry for everything that had happened with Shane.
At one point, Hershel even picked up the receiver on Rick's phone, and the look on his face suggested he might not have heard a dial tone. When Rick rebuffed Hershel's offer to stay with him until he got the next call, you got a sinking feeling that Rick was quickly losing his tenuous connection with the real world.
But then this particular plot point, which, no doubt, had some viewers wondering whether "The Walking Dead" was about to jump the shark, paid off. Rick became frantic while talking to someone on the phone, and the more frantic he became, the clearer the voice on the other end became. It was Lori.
He was talking to his dead wife (who informed him all the other people he'd been chatting with were Amy, Jim, and Jacqui, the other survivors who had already died), and though he'd refused to talk to his other phone buddies about Lori's death, hearing her voice sent him spilling his list of regrets.
"I couldn't put it back together," he said. He didn't hate her, as she had feared. He had never fallen out of love with her. He had been on emotional lockdown because it was the only way he could focus all his efforts on finding a safe place for her, Carl, and the baby. "I couldn't open the door," he said, explaining that he couldn't talk to her about her fling with Shane and the fallout from the affair until he had done his job to make sure his family could survive. He did love her, and that was his way of showing it when he couldn't say it.
Lori's voice reminded him that Carl and the baby still needed him, and Rick joined his fellow survivors and held his baby daughter for the first time.
Well played, "Walking Dead" writers, even if we doubted where you were going with the telephone storyline.
Speaking of the show's writers, kudos to them for an incredibly plot-packed episode. Remember the beginning of Season 2, when some fans complained the series was moving too slowly?
It's as if the staff has those complaints tacked up on index cards in the writers' room, and are now saying, "Oh, yeah, you want action, you think last season's opening episodes were boring? Well, here you go...."
With just two episodes left until the Dec. 2 midseason finale, Lori and T-Dog have died, Rick has melted down and (seemingly) dealt with his grief, Hershel lost half his leg, Baby Grimes was born, the survivors have settled into the prison, we've met the Governor and been privy to just how wackadoodle he is, Merle survived and has become an even bigger psychopath with his new bayonet arm, and Michonne has only scratched the surface of how fierce she is.
Which brings us to a brief rundown of everything else that happened while Rick was sorting out his feelings in "Hounded":
- The Governor was not really okay with Michonne leaving Woodbury, so he sent Merle and a few other minions out to hunt her down. Merle and the Minions (hey, that would be a great band name) found a message in the woods: Michonne had a little arts-and-crafts session and arranged a dismembered walker body into the letters "G" and "O," followed by the walker torso with its back in the air ... get it? "Go back." Merle called it her "bitergram."
Merle and the Minions, er, minions, did not heed that warning, however, and the ensuing battle and its fallout ended with three dead minions.
- During her escape from Merle, Michonne took out more biters, which left her covered in walker innards. Gross, but it led to her discovery that when other walkers passed by her, they didn't even pause, because her zombie goo made them think she was one of them. Some of the other survivors are already hip to this tactic, but it's a new nugget of info that, for Michonne, will become very important later in the episode.
- In a scene that seems like a Carrie Underwood song about to go very wrong, Andrea and the Governor shared some whiskey shots and retired to his boudoir for the dance with no pants.
- Carol's alive! Darryl found her (of course) hidden away in a little room off one of the prison hallways.
- In an attempt to make Carl feel better about his mom's death, Darryl shared a story about his own childhood and how distraught he'd been when his mom got drunk and burned herself to death by smoking in bed. Carl's response: "I shot my mom. She was out, hadn't turned yet. I ended it. It was real ... sorry about your mom." Darryl: "Sorry about yours," followed by a pat on Carl's shoulder. Nice bonding moment, and no doubt another encounter that made the considerable army of Darryl-devoted "Dead" viewers swoon.
- Glenn and Maggie went off on a run to find more formula for Baby Grimes. In an interesting aside, they mention they've been scouting potential sources by looking through a phone book, which is a clever way for the show's writers to share a detail of the survivors' resourcefulness.
- Michonne made her way to the little strip mall where Maggie and Glenn were gathering baby supplies, and, hidden behind a car, watched them...
- ...as did Merle, who sneaked up on the couple, got the better of them with a gun, and forced them to drop the basket of formula and drive off in their truck toward Woodbury. Merle correctly guessed the Governor would be unhappy about the loss of his minions, so he tempered the bad news by revealing that he had returned with two replacements in tow, who seem to come from a stocked camp and who already know Andrea.
- And in what is possibly the best scene in three seasons of "The Walking Dead" so far, Rick, looking outside the prison fences, spots an onslaught of walkers approaching. But he looks curiously at one area and moves closer to the fence. As he gets there, gun drawn, the camera pans to what has grabbed his attention: Michonne, walking among the walkers (because she now can, covered in their guts), arriving at the prison carrying the shopping basket full of baby formula.
Now that is how to wow an already deeply invested audience, and end one very fine hour of TV drama.
Reactions from our fellow "Dead"-heads on Twitter:
And @tomandlorenzo tweeted this reaction to Andrea and the Governor's afternoon delight:
"The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 PM on AMC.