“It’s not enough. It’s not safe enough.”
Another sterling mix of action, gore and character drama this week from The Walking Dead, a show that’s rapidly becoming the best thing on TV all week. This week saw the much-anticipated head to head of Michonne and Merle, Rick coming out of his bottomless pit of despair, Andrea and the Governor getting jiggy – and the two narratives finally starting to entwine in what’s presumably going to end in a violent confrontation. Round about… oh, the mid-season break, I reckon.
At the prison, there was much contemplation and soul-searching in the aftermath of the traumatic events of two weeks ago, even while the gang continued to search the prison for errant Walkers. Daryl’s attempt to make Carl feel better with the heartwarming tale of how his own mother had burned herself to death in bed with a cigarette while drunk was curiously affecting. It’s not a story I’d relate to cheer up someone recently bereaved, but it gave the two a bond they’d never really had, Daryl acting as almost a surrogate father in the near-catatonic Rick’s absence.
Rick, of course, was busy having conversations on the mysteriously functional phone, which had finally caused him to haltingly recover the power of speech. Readers of the comic will not have been surprised at the ultimate revelation of the cathartic caller’s identity, but the show has wrongfooted the expectations of comics readers enough times for it still to have been a point of suspense. For a while, I even started to wonder whether somehow the call was coming from Woodbury; particularly when Hershel, listening doubtfully to the receiver, failed to point out that there was no dial tone.
But no, just as in the comic, the voice on the line was really a voice in Rick’s head – unsurprisingly, the voice of his wife. Thankfully, the episode didn’t play with this plot as much as the comics did, leading to an emotional, but relatively quickly resolved catharsis for our hero. If anyone has the right to snap under the strain, it’s Rick; not only has he had to take responsibility for the entire group, he’s now got to deal with is own failure to even save his own wife. Andrew Lincoln again demonstrated a powerful performance as Rick went from anger to frustration to finally acceptance, as the voice of Sarah Wayne Callies helped him begin to come to terms with his loss. Mind you, Glenn could have thought of reminding him about his kids last week, that might have sorted it more quickly.
Daryl too had a catharsis of sorts, but his had a happier ending, as the previously-assumed-dead Carol turned up bloodied and exhausted in a cell blocked shut by a dead Walker. Their relationship has been building in a nice slow burn since last year, and it felt entirely appropriate for him to pick her up and carry her away in his arms; if a little cheesy. I must say, though, given that it’s only been a couple of days, she’d have every right to be annoyed that the others gave up on her and planted a headstone without doing much in the way of actual searching…
Having learnt the lessons of last year’s tranquil tedium, even this soul-searching drama was interspersed with moments of zombie gore. But the real action this week was over in Woodbury, still seething with dark secrets, betrayal and torrid passion like a Harold Robbins novel. Unsurprisingly, the show opened with the ever-gleeful Merle out on the hunt for Michonne – well, really, did you actually believe the Governor was just going to let her go?
It didn’t take long to find her either, as she was hunting them as much as they were hunting her. Cue a rather excellently choreographed fight, as Michonne easily dispatched two of Merle’s henchmen with that nifty katana. I think this is the first time we’ve seen that she has no compunction in offing the living as well as the dead if they’re a threat; and of course it led to her going one on one with Merle. I was actually rather glad that that was prevented from going the distance by a sudden influx of Walkers, as neither is a character I want to say goodbye to just yet. And in this show, it doesn’t matter how important a character you are, your safety is never assured.
As indeed Merle’s other henchman was quick to learn – or might have, if he’d survived. A nice little one-shot character, ‘Neil’, the young guy with the unpronounceable name (it’s Gargulio, apparently) developed believably from inexperienced terror to adrenaline-fuelled fervour within about twenty minutes. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t reckoned on Merle’s desire for self-preservation, so his obsession with tracking Michonne to the bitter end was met with a bullet to the brain. It was a shocking moment that served as a timely reminder of just how nasty Merle is; but I rather liked Dave Davis in the part, and it’s a shame we won’t be seeing more of him.
Andrea continued to be irritating, but at least showed signs of a bit more complexity, as she admitted that, despite her distaste, she’d enjoyed the bread and circuses last week. She’s obviously missing zombie-stomping, as given a trial assignment guarding the Woodbury wall, she was vaulting straight over it to take down a Walker hand to hand. She’s obviously learned a lot from Michonne – not least a genuine thrill in taking down the dead. In her conflict between enjoying the violence while hating herself for it, she’s yet another embodiment of the conflict between the old world’s values of morality and civilisation, and the post-apocalypse realities of pragmatism and survival (themes the show repeatedly returns to).
It still didn’t stop me groaning with annoyance as she inevitably fell into the bedsheets of that old smoothy the Governor. Still, it’s a good indication of how much more subtle the character is than his comic counterpart that that was actually fairly believable. David Morrissey continues to play him as a wily, restrained politician with an undercurrent of mania; witness his just-contained fury as Merle, lying about Michonne’s ‘death’ admitted to failing at bringing back her head for his fish tank collection.
He brought back something else though – the beginning of the season’s two narratives meeting up, earlier than I’d expected. As both he and Michonne searched for cars/bandages in a nearby town, who should turn up but Glenn and Maggie, on the hunt for baby formula. It was a clever diversion from director Dan Attias that, just as we were waiting for the hidden Michonne to call out to them, it was Merle’s voice that rang out in the stillness, much to Glenn’s surprise.
Glenn’s less of a trusting idiot than Andrea, so he wasn’t ready for a moment to take the more psychotic Dixon back to the prison for a joyful reunion with his brother. Unfortunately he’s still no match for Merle, who was holding a gun to his girlfriend’s head in a flash and demanding they all drive back to Woodbury. Merle’s promised the Governor he’ll find out from his unwilling guests where the seemingly nice setup is that Rick and the gang have found. I’m pretty sure that won’t be pleasant, an interrogation under Merle’s tender mercies. I wonder if Glenn’s going to be the next one to die in the show’s ruthless cull of its characters?
Michonne, meanwhile, obviously overheard enough from Glenn and Maggie about a prison to figure out exactly where to go. Covered in zombie guts from the earlier fight, she was able to approach the Walker-surrounded prison fence with impunity, a basket of baby formula held out like a peace offering. But will the recovering Rick find it easy to trust her?
With Glenn and Maggie over in Woodbury, and Michonne at the prison, it’s not going to take long for each group to start learning the nitty gritty about each other. Will Rick, who seems less keen now on the corpse-littered, blood-spattered prison where his wife died, be tempted by the sinister idylls of Woodbury? And what will the Governor (aka the Anti-Rick) do when he finds out that there’s basically a fortress going begging, and all he has to do to take it is deal with a motley group that’s low on ammo?
As I said, I’m betting that this is all going to come to a head in time for the mid-season break, which looks to be at the halfway point of episode 8. In the mean time, the show is not letting up on the quality; this week had plenty of plot meat along with actual meat from hacked up zombies, while still remembering to delve into the characters whose depth makes the show so watchable.