“I need the prison, that’s all. I got people I need to keep alive. No one needs to die.”
Well, that was upsetting on several different levels. Real drama, with characters we care about in mortal danger, and given the show’s usual style, no guarantee who would get out alive. As the ‘mid-season finale’, this episode packed a punch that was bigger than the actual finale of the otherwise excellent third season. Mostly because it felt like it actually was the finale to the third season, the climax that never really came to the story of the rivalry between Rick and the Governor, and their two communities.
I do wonder whether large parts of this had been planned for the end of the last season, then postponed to this point with the epidemic plotline inserted into the middle. Of course, that would have required the deposed Governor to find himself in charge of another group – and of course that’s what the last two episodes have been all about.
This time, it felt like having read the original comics added to the suspense. This was obviously a replay of the real end to the Woodbury story from the comics, and if you remembered that, you probably remembered that it ended in an absolute bloodbath. That’s where Lori bought it in the comic, along with her and Rick’s baby, gunned down in the battle. And it was also where the comic saw the demise of Tyreese, being held hostage outside the prison fence to drag Rick and the gang outside, and ultimately decapitated by the increasingly psychotic Governor.
It wasn’t Tyreese here though; in fact he made it to the end. Besides, the TV version of Tyreese isn’t quite the established character his comic book counterpart was. No, for the scene to have the same emotional impact on TV, it had to be one of the characters we know and love. And it was no surprise, after the ending of last week’s ep, that the hostages should turn out to be Michonne and Hershel.
That didn’t make it a foregone conclusion that one of them was for the chop though. Comic readers know how often the TV show has wrongfooted us with a scenario based on the comic then fundamentally changed for a bit of misdirection. It was that very sense of hope – that maybe this wouldn’t play out like it did in the comic – that gave the mid-portion of the ep so much genuine suspense.
From the Governor’s slightly Churchillian speech onwards, I still wasn’t sure how much (if at all) he’d changed, and that too was a serious factor in the ep’s suspense. Nothing he said about Rick’s group was actually untrue; they had terrorised Woodbury, ‘killed’ his daughter and mutilated him. He did miss out the part where he started it with his Michonne-obsession and torture of Glenn and Maggie. But then, he’s a natural politician, with the innate skill to present a factual account that’s still thoroughly slanted in his favour.
He had mellowed though; even Hershel noticed it. That scene in the RV, as Hershel tried to make him see reason, felt balanced on a knife edge as to whether he really would turn a new leaf, particularly when he overtly rejected his previous identity; when Hershel called him “Governor”, he snarled, “don’t call me that!”
Ultimately though, his response to Hershel’s empathy as a fellow father was not just chilling, but a dark mirror of his counterpart Rick, once again. Asked by Hershel how he could contemplate killing another man’s daughters, he paused to consider for a second before flatly responding, “because they’re not mine”. On top of all the horrors in this episode, that may be one of the most unsettling – to realise that everyone in the show thinks that way. Maybe we just think of Rick and the gang as heroes because we see everything from their perspective.
So, inevitably we reached the confrontation it felt like we’d been cheated of at the end of last year as the Governor rolled up to the prison fences with his tank and his hostages. And yet, that extra breathing space gave the conclusion more depth than it would have had then, back when we just thought of the Governor as an unalloyed bad guy. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had some insight into his character we never had before, and come to sympathise with and perhaps even, unwillingly, ‘like’ him. A bit.
Seth Hoffman’s script and Ernest Dickerson’s direction cleverly kept us off-balance throughout the whole, lip-chewingly tense ‘negotiation’ sequence, with Rick seemingly paralysed at first, and then, surprisingly, making the same offer Hershel had; if the besiegers laid down their guns and came to the gates, he’d let them in. All of them. Even the Governor.
And that, finally, was where the show drew a clear line between the two men. It was obviously a turning point, played out with heart-pounding tension in slo-mo, with Bear McCreary’s seldom-used music playing a mournful string lament. Would the Governor see reason? Maybe…maybe… Nah. “Liar!” he spat, and swung Michonne’s katana at Hershel’s neck.
That Hershel wasn’t decapitated in one go only made it more upsetting. Obviously all kinds of hell broke loose at that point, with gunfire erupting from both sides; but the real horror was poor Hershel trying to drag himself away, until the Governor caught up with him, manically swinging the katana again and again until the decapitation was complete. Even this show wasn’t heartless enough to show that in full detail, leaving the corpse out of focus.
The last third of the ep was frenzied, non-stop action, and very thrilling it was too. But Hershel’s death was the script’s biggest punch, especially with recent events having built him up to be the Gandalf/Obi-Wan Kenobi of the group. Like them, Hershel could come back. Sort of. I don’t know if anyone stopped to put a bullet in his brain, but I certainly hope so.
And yet, even after that it was still possible to feel for the Governor when Lily turned up, carrying the body of little Megan, bitten by a Walker while her new ‘father’ was off playing war. It was actually quite devastating to see him bleakly take the little corpse and shoot it in the head; and even understandable that it drove him to a nihilistic rage, exhorting his followers into the prison with the order to “kill them all!”
The action was frenetic and exciting, but still underpinned with the personal tragedies on either side. The tank should have been a clincher, but strategically, it was a sledgehammer to crack a nut – and more importantly, the destruction of the fences and the holes blasted in the walls and the gardens ruined any possible future for the prison as a working settlement. If you were beginning to get as fed up with the place as you were with Hershel’s farm back in season two, this may have made you breathe a sigh of relief.
Lots of gunfire meant everyone got to play the hero (if anyone in the show can still be considered such). No surprise to see Daryl taking out plenty of the Governor’s ‘troops’ while still managing to fend off the Walkers coming up behind him; he even handily used one as a shield to advance into gunfire.
And Carl, as ever since he stopped wandering stupidly into mortal danger, was a dab hand with a gun. The real surprise was little Lizzie, fiercely blazing away with a purloined pistol and killing a couple of the Governor’s ‘men’ – one of whom was Tara’s new girlfriend, Alisha.
That was also the point where you realised (if you hadn’t already) that you quite liked some of the bunch with the Governor too; and he’d just led them to utter destruction. It was entirely fitting that, despite a much-appreciated actual punch-up with Rick and a katana impalement from Michonne, it was his newfound lover Lily who finished him off with a shot to the head – more mercy than he’d shown to some.
And at least it only took Lily three episodes to realise he was a psychopath rather than the sixteen it took Andrea.
It was a massively powerful downer of an ending – not a cliffhanger as such, though many characters’ fates are uncertain and who knows where the gang will go from here. The last to leave the prison were Rick and Carl, sobbing in each other’s arms after discovering the empty and bloodied kiddie seat that should have held baby Judith. In a mournful final touch, an approaching wave of Walkers was headed by none other than the corpse of Clara from the season opener, finally getting into the prison at last.
Gore of the week
It’s a measure of just how gory this show usually is that I considered this a fairly gore-free week despite the decapitation of a much-loved character and a Walker chowing down on a little girl. But that last one did make for a return of one of the show’s periodic bits of fun – the Classic Tribute Zombie. Stepping outside the Romero canon for this one, the wormy, mud-ridden corpse that rose from the clay to chomp on little Megan was all too familiar if you have fond memories of ‘Old Worm-Eye’ from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2:
So, the half-time score – it’s pretty much nil-nil, with the Governor dead, Hershel dead, the surviving characters scattered, the prison sanctuary lost, and baby Judith perhaps zombie chow. Time to pay tribute to two cast members we won’t be seeing again – David Morrissey will be missed as the Governor, a charismatic villain who was more shades of grey than black; and with the departure of Scott Wilson’s Hershel, the show’s now without a moral compass again. But with the group scattered all over the surrounding countryside, will they even get time to mourn him?
This has felt like a slightly unbalanced half-season overall, with the epidemic swiftly dealt with by the all-powerful antibiotics (what if they’d been the wrong ones, or hadn’t worked?) followed by the Governor’s sudden reappearance, flashbacked return to power and then demise. That’s two pretty major plots built up, climaxing, and over in eight episodes. It’s actually twice as much plot as the show’s entire second season, and this season’s only half over.
But as an episode in its own right, this worked fantastically, delivering drama, action, pyrotechnics, gore and emotional trauma in spades. There are still plenty of dangling loose ends. Did anyone rescue baby Judith? Who’s dissecting rats and feeding them to the Walkers? Is Carol really guilty, or is she covering up for whoever really did it (my money’s on Lizzie)?
The show’s back in February, and looks like it’s going to have a major makeover now the gang are out of the prison. Hopefully they’ve pre-arranged a rendezvous point, and don’t just randomly end up all arriving at the same place as in the contrived season two finale. For now though, “Don’t look back. Keep walking.”