The telephone may be one of the most effective – and underrated – plot devices in the horror genre. Wes Craven’s Scream has become an entire film franchise based around this concept, while countless others have employed it as a timeless purveyor of fear. We have seen this thousands of times, yet it has lost none of its potency. The feeling of utter loneliness with only that mysterious voice on the other end of the line leaves your remaining senses hanging in a state of suspense.
This trope is masterfully played in this week’s episode of The Walking Dead. We find Rick Grimes, still sitting in that dark prison room, trying to process the reality that his wife is no longer alive. He sits silently and perfectly still, physically there but mentally elsewhere, with nothing around him except for the slain body of a zombie and a telephone on the desk. Suddenly, the phone rings, and he stares at it with complete confusion. He picks up the receiver after several seconds, and musters a weak hello. The voice on the other end is unidentified but clearly female, yet somehow familiar. Only vague details are exchanged, but we learn that the person on the other end is in a safe location, and that they may know more about Rick than he realizes.
Their conversation ends abruptly, but a few hours later, the phone rings again. Rick is now greeted by a male voice, much more imposing and wanting to know answers. Rick pleads with them that his group is dying, and that they need any help they can get, but the mystery person hangs up.
Finally, the phone rings for a third time. This time, the voice is unmistakable – Rick is now talking on the phone with his deceased wife Lori. She tells him that she and the other deceased members of their group are all there, and all safe. In this realization, we see a man that has finally come undone. We only see Rick’s eyes, and hear eerie static from a badly connected phone call. It is a true testament to Andrew Lincoln’s performance that we are able to feel this moment in its perfect mixture of beauty and terror.
In many similar ways, the conflicts between the other living characters on the show are reaching a fever pitch as we approach the middle of this season. Michonne has been allowed to leave Woodbury, yet she is still being hunted by Merle and his men. They are under strict instructions by the Governor to kill her and return with her head, but she is not to be dealt with so easily. She kills all but two of them in mere seconds, and flees only when Merle manages to wound her leg with a single shot. Believing that she is as good as dead out there anyway, Merle kills his final disobedient henchman and heads off on his own.
Meanwhile, Glenn and Maggie have left the prison to make a short supply run, primarily searching for formula for Rick’s new baby. They stumble upon a heaping supply of the sustenance, along with baskets full of practically everything else they could put to good use. Their good fortune quickly runs out, however, as Merle suddenly appears. He recognizes Glenn, but their reunion is hardly a friendly one. Before long, Merle is holding his knife to Maggie’s throat, and tells Glen to get in the car and drive the three of them back to Woodbury. This is the last we see of them for this episode, but we can only imagine the unthinkable fate that awaits them.
This episode in particular is fraught with the dissolution of relationships, reconnections, and new bonds. The circumstances of each are not necessarily what keeps us watching so much as the anticipation of things to come. With Andrea and the Governor beginning a romantic endeavor, and Merle as the Governor’s right-hand man on the opposite side from his little brother Darryl, the pieces are now in place for what could very well be the most compelling piece of dramatic storytelling the television medium has ever seen. It is worth noting that as the story deepens and we become more invested, we find ourselves caring less about the zombies. I have a feeling that this will not last, and that whatever the rest of the season has in store for us, the bloodshed will affect us more than we might think.