When we last left Rick (Andrew Lincoln), he was digging through a zombie's intestines looking for what remained of his wife. It was a grim moment and another illustration of The Walking Dead's increasingly despairing outlook. At IndieWire earlier this week, Alison Willmore wondered whether the series is presenting an argument for the end of humanity. Given the trajectory it's taken thus far, that's not a far-reaching notion. That the writers continue to delve deeper into human despondency and ax more members of the cast in the process quite frankly makes it difficult to see any redeeming future for the characters, and perhaps the series itself. Nevertheless, every so often an episode gives us a fleeting moment of stillness and humanity that cuts through the surrounding gloom. Such a moment arrives late in "Hounded" just when you think Rick might be headed for a total breakdown. For much of the episode, he's away from the group and preoccupied with strange phone conversations with unknown callers. His desperate pleas for help initially suggest that he may be losing it, but this thread evolves into an unexpected moment of catharsis that the series needed as much as its protagonist.
Rick's storyline is one of several in which characters strike up or rekindle a connection. Daryl (Norman Reedus) also experiences a similarly heartening event after he discovers that Carol (Melissa McBride) is still alive, a scene that's intercut with Rick's return to the group. These developments are why "Hounded" may represent The Walking Dead's most significant attempt to revive a sense of hopefulness. But the cruel joke of the episode is that these tender brushstrokes are threaded into a more cynical view that comes into focus through other plot circumstances. Namely, this episode places events in motion that will lead to an eventual collision between the Woodbury community and the prison survivors.