In the grand scheme of things, “Hounded” is a necessary and somewhat effective episode of The Walking Dead. Up to this point, this season has been distinctly split between two separate storylines — one involving Rick and his crew’s tribulations at the prison and the other concerning Andrea and Michonne’s adventures in Woodbury. It was only a matter of time until the two started bleeding into each other, and this episode opens several wounds on that front, including Michonne finding the prison and Merle kidnapping Glenn and Maggie. Now that The Walking Dead has cut off some of the chaff, it’s important that it starts bouncing its living characters off each other in interesting and dramatic ways. “Hounded” is successful at moving the show down that path.

And yet, on a micro level, I still found individual parts of this episode to be seriously dumb. Like, season-two levels of dumb. The opening scene alone bugged the shit out of me. The one thing we know about Michonne up to this point is that she’s an efficient and cunning warrior, capable of not just surviving but thriving in this horrible, monster-filled universe. Once she strolled out Woodbury’s front door in last week’s episode, she should have been gone, vanished … a ghost. But somehow, someway, Merle and a team of rubes were able to track her down in the woods despite the fact that she had a massive head start while Merle was busy participating in the Woodbury gladiator games. The odds of an inexperienced team of four running down someone with Michonne’s skill set — without even splitting up to look for her! — seem astronomical. Of course, their chances improve once Michonne starts leaving them little “Go Back” messages made out of zombie body parts, which is incredibly silly. Does she want to be tracked?! Or maybe the message was just meant to put Merle and his crew off-guard so Michonne could get the drop of them. But then, once she does, she bafflingly eliminates the red shirts first instead of the guy who is clearly the group leader and most dangerous. Yeah, I realize the real reason Merle survived. It’s because we all love Michael Rooker and the show is better with him in it. But in the context of the universe, this entire series of events seems completely illogical, starting with the fact that the show doesn’t explain well enough why the Governor is wasting resources to go after her in the first place.

The Michonne vs. Merle throwdown is just one of three plot lines juggled in “Hounded.” We also get a glimpse into Rick’s rapidly deteriorating mind as he begins having telephone conversations from inside the prison with a group of survivors who insist they are living in a safe place where no one dies and no one is turned. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something is severely off about this, so it’s not a huge shock when Rick’s dead wife picks up on the other end of the line. Had this little bit of drama been strung over multiple episodes, it would have been excruciating. As a one-and-done exercise meant to illustrate how close to the breaking point Rick’s mind has been pushed, it’s mostly harmless, even if it seems out of place, like a low-end episode of The Twilight Zone shoved into the middle of a Walking Dead episode just for shits and giggles. It’s also fairly stupid how Rick just decides not to be crazy at the episode’s end. There’s no important event or pivotal moment with another character, like say Carl, that shocks him back to normalcy. The guy just makes a conscious choice that having imaginary conversations with dead folk might not be the best way to bide his time in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Ooo-kay then.

Still, I actually prefer watching amusing closeups of sweaty, crazy Rick than I do the bedroom activities of Andrea and the Governor. In this episode, their relationship progresses from discussing the benefits of forgetting the past to deep soul-searching over why watching zombie gladiator fights is so damn fun before culminating in some full-fledged boinking. Nothing about these two really works for me. Dialogue in the vein of “I liked the fights, but I didn’t like that I liked them” doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that Laurie Holden and David Morrissey have zero chemistry. And I don’t enjoy Andrea enough as a character to fret over what happens to her, so the coupling between the two appears to be a total dead end. Here’s hoping she starts to sniff out what bad things the Governor is doing behind the scenes next week.

Some other thoughts on “Hounded” …

— Let the guesswork cease — Carol lives! I’m not sure why the show felt the need to make such a big mystery out of her fate, but I must say I’m pleased with the end result. Carol is one of the show’s most-improved characters as of late, and whatever is blossoming between her and Daryl may result in the show’s most interesting relationship.

— Best line of dialogue: The scene with Michonne’s homemade zombie-parts warning sign makes no sense, but you got to love Merle declaring, “She sent us a biter-gram, y’all!”

— Speaking of Merle, he kills one of the Governor’s own people this week, showing that looking out for himself is still the number-one priority and that Woodbury hasn’t completely reformed him. The charming rapscallion persona he’s adapted this season is a bit of a con.

— Zombie kill of the week: Actually, I’m not sure it’s dead, but Michonne slicing open a walker’s stomach and being showered with its intestines was pretty gnarly.

— I really dug the final shot of Michonne standing against the prison fence surrounded by walkers with Rick staring at her, mouth agape. Has me looking forward to next week.

— My hashtag of the day is #ShutYerYapHardwick

Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor