Chandler Riggs Chandler Riggs

Once upon a time, back when young Carl Grimes was still more or less a little boy, his papa Rick laid down the facts of life and death as it applies to the zombie-infested world they now occupy. "No more kid stuff," Rick told the boy, giving him the gun Carl would later use in a way no could have imagined. "People are gonna die. I'm gonna die. [Your] Mom. There's no way you can ever be ready for it."

That much is true. There's no way any of us were ready for went down on The Walking Dead Sunday night. Even in a show that regularly deals in the horrific, in grisly fates for people on all rungs of the sympathy ladder, we weren't prepared for this. AMC's powerful saga of survival and sacrifice took perhaps its darkest, most intense turn yet, with a surprise prison infestation of "walkers" — engineered by a former inmate who somehow survived and sought to regain control of the facility by opening the gates to this supposedly safe haven and wiping out our heroes.

He didn't fully succeed, but the damage he wrought will change the show forever and cause many among the fan base a sleepless night or two. (I followed my second exposure to the episode this weekend with a chaser of tonight's enjoyable Comic-Con spoof of ABC's Castle. I needed the relief, and can't imagine anyone watching The Walking Dead as their Sunday night bedtime story.) We should have known to expect the worst when Glenn, having just enjoyed a little frisky alone time with Maggie in the guard tower, moans, "Ah man, can't we have just one good day?"

The answer, as it tends to be on this bleak series, is no. In a magnificently choreographed scene of chaos, the group is fatefully split apart, separated by fencing, when they realize they've been invaded. Adding to the calamity: One-legged Hershel has picked this very moment to start testing his mettle on crutches, leaving him and daughter Beth vulnerable. As they find shelter, the rest of the gang scatters, leaving many zombies in their wake — Glenn lopping off the top half of a zombie's skull was a new one to me — but not without major, major casualties.

The first to fall is T-Dog. Poor T-Dog. He rarely came into his own as a fully developed character, and even in his moment of ultimate sacrifice — already bitten, he throws himself at a pack of zombies to save Carol, this being "God's will" — he's upstaged by what's about to follow. Because it doesn't get worse than what happens to Earth Mother Lori.

Trapped in an overrun cell block with Maggie and little sharp-shooting Carl, Lori picks the absolute worst time to go into labor. Maggie knows something about birthing babies, but not when it's an emergency C-section, even when the scar from Carl's birth gives her a road map. This is triage at its most primitive and brutal, and only the hard-hearted can keep from falling apart as Lori gives her son one last pep talk — "You gotta do what's right, baby. ... Don't let the world spoil you." — before Maggie takes Carl's knife and welcomes the baby into this cruel world, sending Lori out of it. In the soul-numbing coup de grace, Carl becomes his mother's post-mortem executioner. "We can't just leave her here. She'll turn. She's my mom." Maggie walks away as we hear the gunshot.

And to remind us there's no way you can ever be ready for this, we end on Rick discovering the news as Carl, Maggie and the baby emerge into the sunlight, into the prison yard slaughterhouse. Rick collapses in grief as Carl, still carrying his gun, looks on in stony silence. "No, no, no," wails Rick, falling to the ground. Or is that us? Enough can't be said about the fine, heartbreaking work by Andrew Lincoln (Rick), Chandler Riggs (Carl), Lauren Cohan (Maggie) and especially Sarah Wayne Callies (Lori), giving it her all as she gives up the ghost.

The Walking Dead is that rare masterpiece of horror that works on a deeply human level, never more so than when our heroes confront their mortality — and their humanity. It's worth remembering that on T-Dog's final day, he went to bat for the two remaining inmates begging to be let into the group, one of whom would save Rick in his fight to the death with the prisoner who let the zombies in. At the time, Rick challenged T-Dog: "Whose blood would you rather have on your hands," theirs or ours? To which T-Dog shrugged: "Neither." No one's hands are clean in this desperate world.

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