“Looks like you’re sitting pretty at the end of the world.”
Welcome to Woodbury.
As I suspected after last week’s total absence of Andrea and Michonne, this week’s Walking Dead focused exclusively on what’s happening with them, with no sight of Rick and the rest of the gang at the prison. The splitting of the narrative into two threads (and two settings) that will inevitably converge at some point is yet another of the strengths of this season compared to the last. Last year’s constant setting of Hershel’s farm was at once claustrophobic and boring, with the hints of budget restrictions preventing us seeing anywhere else; the new setting of the idyllic town of Woodbury, contrasting with the grim bleakness of the prison, already gives a sense of a wider world in the story.
It’s a standard trope in post-apocalyptic fiction that, at some point, our plucky survivors will encounter an idyllic, picture postcard perfect community where everything Seems Too Good To Be True. Because of course it is – these places always have a Dark Secret underpinning their seemingly utopian nature. In this regard, Woodbury is nothing new, and to the show’s credit it trades on that trope by giving us a sense of unease throughout, and revealing some pretty nasty aspects of the place in its very first episode.
As in the comics, the introduction of this new story thread was foreshadowed by the crash of a helicopter, presumably the one we’ve been seeing on and off since about the third episode. It was revealed to be military, a National Guard Huey forced down by an engine malfunction, killing all but one of the crew. Andrea and Michonne were drawn to it, but when they got there another group turned up, professionally killing the walkers with a minimum of fuss under a businesslike, black-clad leader. Meet the Governor.
Yes, one of the comics’ best-remembered characters (along with Michonne) has finally shown up in the TV show. Played by Britain’s own David Morrissey (with a somewhat variable Georgia accent), his introduction is pretty faithful to that from the comics, but with the significant deviation that two of the heroes are ‘rescued’ by his party and taken back to the stronghold community of Woodbury, thus setting up a whole new narrative. In the comics, Rick and co stumbled over Woodbury and found out pretty quickly that it wasn’t as nice as it looked; here, it looks like Andrea and Michonne are going to settle in blithely (though Michonne at least is very distrustful already) before discovering the place’s Dark Secrets.
The show’s tendency to subvert expectations from the comics made me wonder if its version of the Governor might be less of a wrong ‘un than previously, but no, he’s established as a cast-iron baddie by the end of this episode. Again in keeping with the tropes of this genre, he’s a lying, manipulative politician, trading on the faith and wilful blindness of his community to carry out ruthless acts in its name. That hanging corpse outside Woodbury was just a hint; inside lies a secret lab run by a slightly unhinged scientist (notably like the one in Romero’s Day of the Dead), where unspeakable experiments are carried out on the walking dead.
And when the Governor found out from the injured pilot that a whole unit of National Guardsmen are just down the road, he gained their trust with a flag of truce before having them ambushed and massacred for their guns and equipment. He followed this up by telling the town of their “heroic sacrifice” before settling down with a drink in front of masses of fish tanks full of disembodied “living” zombie heads – including the (presumably murdered) helicopter pilot. That’s one of the creepiest images in the comics, and it was good to see it faithfully reproduced here, serving the same purpose – to show us that this guy is not right in the head.
Andrea, though, seems completely taken in, enough to end the episode seemingly flirting with him. Asking what his actual name was, she received the reply, “I’ll never tell” – an acknowledgement, presumably, of the confusion over his identity in the comics and the spin off novel also written by Robert Kirkman.
I’m not sure I buy Andrea’s instant trust quite so easily (although to be fair, she’s still pretty ill), given that she and Michonne were initially ‘captured’ by an old friend she would have every right to distrust. Yes, just as the show introduces a comics favourite in the form of the Governor, this week also saw the re-introduction of a favourite character created purely for the TV version. As was pretty obvious from the instantly recognisable offscreen voice, Merle Dixon is finally back – not as a teasing hallucination this time, but in the flesh, large as life and twice as ugly.
Michael Rooker, as before, chews up the screen as Merle – and he got a lot of screentime to do it this week. This is no bad thing, as we finally got to learn what happened to him since we last saw him cuffed to a roof in Atlanta and having sawn off his own hand to get free. He’s constructed a nifty stump attachment thingy which can have a bayonet attached to it, and become one of the mainstays of Woodbury, despite the Governor’s sniffy dismissal of him as a barely tamed animal.
So he and Andrea got to fill in each other’s backstories (helpful for us viewers). Andrea, of course, was unaware that you don’t have to be bitten by a walker to turn when you die, while Merle was unaware of how his little brother Daryl had stepped up to the plate in his absence. “He became a valued member of the group,” Andrea supplied rather tactlessly, implying that before then both Dixon brothers had been useless hangers-on.
Merle didn’t seem offended by that. He actually seems to have mellowed a bit; his previous unreconstructed Southern racism was nowhere in evidence, given that he was working with an African-American doctor, and had no special contempt for Michonne. Could he be being groomed for a slightly more heroic role? I rather hope not, he works best as a villain.
The tight-lipped Michonne (referred to by name onscreen for the first time) got to parcel out a little more of her backstory, courtesy of creepy scientist Milton and a nice civilised breakfast. The conversation turned to whether the walkers actually remembered anything of who they had been (“an echo, perhaps”), a possibility an uncomfortable Andrea dismissed, remembering the experience of having to put down her risen sister.
Michonne, though, seemed even more uncomfortable, especially when the question of her armless, jawless zombie ‘helpers’ came up. She’d put them down herself earlier in an unsuccessful attempt to stay hidden; asked who they had been, her hostile refusal to answer spoke volumes. As everyone present worked out, she had known them when they were alive – but only Andrea was foolish enough to press the point, receiving a contemptuous glare for her trouble. After only two episodes of screentime, I’m very much enjoying Danai Gurira in the part; she has the perfect blend of steeliness and inner vulnerability I expected from the comics.
It was a talkier episode than the first two breathlessly-paced, action-filled instalments, but no less compelling for that. We had a whole new scenario to introduce, as well as several very important characters, and even comic fans were probably kept guessing (as I was) by Evan Reilly’s script. Intrigue in place of action is better than the endless arguing that formed much of last season, and there were still plenty of zombies in evidence. It was excellent to see Michael Rooker back as Merle, and David Morrissey made an impressive debut as the Governor, who looks set to be just as memorable on TV as he was in the comics. Another very strong episode from a much-improved show.