Here’s how you know The Walking Dead is a better TV show this year. No sooner had I scribbled “there’s no way Rick should let this stringy-haired prisoner guy live for another minute” in my notes than Rick went ahead and buried a machete in the dude’s head. In past seasons, this could have been one of those increasingly problematic situations that the viewer could see developing from miles away but that the characters would be ridiculously slow to respond to. But not now. The prisoner guy acts a little too crazy? The blood lust in his eyes seems a little too intense when he bashes in the head of a fellow inmate who’s been bitten? Thwack. No problem here. Rick took care of it.

While not as strong as the season opener, “Sick” is another lean, fast-moving episode that offers further evidence the show has found more secure footing this year. The episode is mostly split into two separate story lines. In one, Rick strikes a deal with the five inmates found alive but trapped in the prison kitchen at the end of last week’s episode: The inmates agree to turn over half of their food provided Rick and company help them clear out another cell block so there doesn’t need to be a fight over who gets to live in the prison. (All the while, Rick’s calculating if it’s worth the risk to keep the inmates around at all.) The scenes away from that action deal with the rest of the group’s attempts to save Hershel, as he’s unconscious and quickly losing blood from last week’s emergency leg-ectomy. These sections could have easily caused eyes to roll by being overly sentimental, but they’re grounded by a very nice performance by Lauren Cohen as Hershel’s daughter Maggie, who’s quietly developed into one of The Walking Dead‘s more reliable cast members.

Unlike with the premiere, however, it’s not all good news this week. Some old annoyances are back, including Lori and Carl fighting over just how much rope Carl has to act like one of the men in the group. (Carl went off by himself to scout the prison for meds. This did not make his mother happy, even though he was successful.) Look, I get that if this were real life, a mother would always worry about her young son and want to do everything to protect him. And I also understand that Carl would want to contribute to the group and feel like he’s pulling his weight. So realism isn’t necessarily the issue here. It’s just that I’m so goddamn tired of watching these two have this same fight. You’d also think that since they’ve now given the kid a gun and are letting him plug walkers with it, he’d be happy following the rules for just a little while. Also, for the love of god, Carl, please take off the stupid hat.

I also thought some of the drama this week seemed falsely manufactured. Prior to Rick and the inmates striking their deal, the parties spend a fair amount of time squaring off over who’s got dibs on the prison. The place is huge, and the inmates count only five. You’d think a simple conversation could ensure that everyone is accommodated. And, honestly, I find it hard to believe that the prisoners didn’t bolt for the countryside as soon as they were freed. They’ve been incarcerated for who knows how many months, and all they know about the current state of the outside world is what Rick and Daryl tell them. The inmates are just going to take their word on it and decide to stick with the jail? Not even one of them wants to make a run for it, taste the fresh air and try to find their family? That’s tough to believe.

Still, there was more to like in this episode than not. “Sick” isn’t nearly the bloodbath last week’s hour was, but there’s a fair amount of human-on-zombie violence in the second half. (I personally never tire of watching Daryl pull crossbow bolts out of some poor undead guy’s head.) And it was worth a sick chuckle to see the inmates go after the zombies “prison riot” style, without a lick of the zombie-killin’ grace Rick and his crew have developed.

Rick and Lori have a little scene near the end that’s a bit grating because of the inconsistencies in the way their relationship has been written, but I thought it was somewhat saved by Lori’s little joke about breaking up. (“What are we going to do? Hire lawyers and get divorced and split our assets?”)

Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, has a few nice moments this ep, especially when she decides she better get some practice performing a C-section just in case Hershel doesn’t make it. After all, there are lots of easy-to-make-dead folks around to practice on. Headstrong Carol is so much better than helpless Carol. By the way, that brief “slasher flick” shot at the end that indicated someone was spying on her in the courtyard is a strong hint that the first big prison story from the comic book will be making its way to the show in some form.

Some other thoughts on “Sick”:

– Credit the episode’s writer (Nichole Beattie) and director (Billy Gierhart) for the bit where Rick leaves the one inmate locked in a small, zombie-filled outdoor section of the jail, and the camera follows Rick back inside so that we only hear the man’s dying screams while the camera stays on Rick’s face. Chilling stuff.

– This is really on AMC and not the people who make the show, but it didn’t help having Chris Hardwick, host of the Talking Dead post-show, cracking wise about #OneLeggedHershel hashtags in a commercial just seconds after Maggie delivered an emotional speech to her clinging-to-life father. Pick a better spot for your promo next time, AMC.

– At one point, Rick tells the inmates that “half the population’s been wiped out, probably more.” Probably more? I’d say definitely more. I was under the impression that a huge majority of the U.S. population now qualified as either zombie proper or zombie food in The Walking Dead universe.

– This week’s most truthful line of dialogue comes from Lori: “Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any mother of the year awards.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

– No Andrea and Michonne this week, but the previews show that they’ll be back next Sunday in a big way as the much-anticipated Governor storyline gets going.