The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 16–Welcome to the Tombs

“In this life now, you kill or you die – or you die and you kill.”

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And so, the generally enthralling third season of The Walking Dead has come to an end with a surprisingly low-key – even anticlimactic – finale. Matters finally came to a head between the armed forces of Rick and the armed forces of the Governor. And yet, despite a very heavy buildup in the preceding episodes to an apocalyptic final battle, this ep centred more on the characters than the action – and left unresolved the expected showdown between main hero and main villain.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but I have to admit, I was expecting a little more action than this. True, there was a battle, but it took place mid-episode and was, if anything, less tense than the Governor’s previous assault on the prison folk. Most of the story concerned itself with the ongoing intrigue in the Woodbury community, and for that at least there was some kind of resolution; though I’m not sure it really made sense.

Strategically, a lot of this made little sense, though the Governor at least had the excuse of being utterly unhinged. The ep began with some nice pov shots leading the viewer to believe he was beating and torturing Andrea, though it quickly became obvious that it was the treacherous Milton who was the object of his ire.

As Milton had become, effectively, Woodbury’s conscience, it was a foreshadowing of the Governor’s fast-crumbling sanity that he was prepared to torture his old friend, then force him to prove his loyalty by killing Andrea, still cuffed to the Dentist Chair of Doom. Predictably, Milton took the opportunity to turn the knife onto the Governor himself, who equally predictably used it to stab Milton. He then left him to die, so he would rise as a Walker and kill Andrea anyway – after last week, he’s plainly got a taste for that particular cruelty.

It was a setup for a tense series of scenes spread throughout the episode, as Andrea struggled to reach the unnoticed pair of pliers on the floor, while we wondered exactly how long it was going to take Milton to die and reanimate – as long as was convenient to wring the maximum tension from the scenario, as it turned out.

Rick and co, meanwhile, appeared to be preparing to abandon the prison – surely the only sensible decision when faced with the overwhelming numbers from Woodbury, however many guns they may have got from Morgan. It was at this point that I had an inkling the heavily implied pitched battle might not be in the offing after all, though abandoning the prison was the realistic, sensible thing to do.

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So when the Governor did turn up, in armoured column with rocket launchers and grenades, it seemed like the explosive carnage he wreaked on the prison watchtowers and the Walkers between the fences might all be for naught. The pyrotechnics were cool, and it was fun seeing so many Walkers withering in a hail of high-calibre gunfire, but it seemed lacking in drama if Rick and the gang had already fled.

Except, as it turned out, they hadn’t. It was a good bit of misdirection to have so thoroughly convinced us they’d gone. And yet, it seemed a bit of an anticlimax that the Governor’s forces could be so easily routed once in the prison’s dingy corridors. A couple of the usual smoke bombs, a few Walkers and some loud sirens had them running like rabbits, at which point the armoured Glenn and Maggie let rip with some machine gun fire. Already confused, the fleeing Woodbury-ites went into full retreat.

OK, it’s a fair and realistic point that most of the Governor’s forces were not from the military, and would have been ill-prepared for actual combat. In that sense, their reaction was perfectly believable. But it didn’t jibe with their previous attempts, nor with the Governor’s established ability to whip them into a propaganda-inspired fervour, that they would give up quite so easily.

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The Governor at least was more consistent. Faced with mutinous troops who wouldn’t carry out his personal vendetta for him, he took the predictable choice of every discerning psychopathic dictator and slaughtered the lot of them. The scene was less shocking than it could have been, as it had been telegraphed long before that the Governor was fast becoming utterly unhinged; under the circumstances, his “WTF?” strategy of destroying his own army didn’t come as too much of a surprise. It didn’t carry much dramatic weight either, as the only character in the group who we even knew by name was Allen, and he didn’t feel like much of a loss.

With that, we pretty much lost the only possibility of a major conflict; though I’ll admit that, had the expected apocalypse happened, I wouldn’t have expected many from Rick’s gang to survive. Nonetheless, it felt like a bit of a dramatic cheat that the Governor, accompanied by the ever-loyal Martinez and one other unquestioning henchman, then sped off into the distance, not to be seen again. I can understand the desire to keep him around; the comic has never managed to come up with an antagonist to match him. But surely, the finale of a season that’s been all about the conflict between him and Rick deserved at least some kind of dramatic payoff in the form of a showdown. This just felt disappointing.

The show has never clearly established exactly how many people were in Woodbury, and certainly the conflict must have taken its toll. But it seemed a little implausible (and convenient) that the only people left on watch in the town were Tyreese and Donna, especially since we’d already established that they were deeply suspicious of the Governor. So it was that Rick and co, trying to take the fight to the enemy, found first the massacred remains of their former foes and were then able to walk into their HQ with barely a shot fired.

Again, I had to quibble with the overall strategy. With most of the Governor’s forces committed to the prison attack, why didn’t Rick make his move on Woodbury then? He could have been in charge of the town before the Governor’s forces even got to the prison.

Still, cop he may be, but Rick’s not a soldier either. So I could forgive him having missed that option. But it seemed baffling that, with the Governor gone and Woodbury having pretty much welcomed Rick, Daryl and Michonne with virtually open arms, they all chose to move back to the dingy, less than secure prison, the town’s remaining population in tow. Why not move everyone into the still-fortified Woodbury? Do they actually want to make their lives as difficult as possible?

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There were, at least, some good dramatic payoffs. Carl shockingly gunned down a scared young guy from Woodbury who was trying to surrender, much to Hershel’s disquiet. When Rick learned the circumstances, he was less than pleased either, but Carl was unrepentant. His argument – that Rick’s mercy in not killing Andrew had led to the death of Lori, and not killing the Governor had led to the death of Merle – made worrying sense. And was further evidence that the ruthless pragmatism formerly embodied by Shane hasn’t died with him. I suspect we’re going to see a very ‘dark’ Carl next year.

The biggest dramatic payoff, though, was of course Andrea. Having eked out the tension of her situation throughout the ep, director Ernest Dickerson cleverly let the action happen offscreen when Milton finally did revive as a Walker. Thus it was that when her erstwhile friends found her, with Milton’s corpse in the background, we still didn’t know whether she was alive or undead.

It turned out to be a bit of both; yes, she’d offed the Milton-Walker, but she’d been bitten and was in the feverish stage of dying from the bite. The ensuing last scene between her, Rick, Daryl and Michonne was not as moving as it could have been if Andrea hadn’t been so wilfully dumb all year long. She asserted that she’d just wanted to save everyone, even the Governor – that worked out well, then.

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Michonne at least got one of her rare displays of actual emotion (beyond surly anger), and Danai Gurira was quite affecting as she cradled the head of her former friend. Points also for her managing to resist saying, “I told you so”, which certainly would have been most people’s temptation at this stage. Rick and Daryl left them alone for Andrea to perform the final act,though the inevitable gunshot was merely heard offscreen. I think we have seen the last of Andrea though, which despite her being so annoying this year seems a bit of a shamed; Laurie Holden is a talented actor given the right material.

The ep faded to black with everyone back at the prison, presumably about to rebuild. No cliffhanger, no sense of what might be due to happen next. It almost felt like the show was hedging its bets against not being renewed by providing an actual ending of sorts; though given its success this year, I’d be amazed if it wasn’t back for another season.

This year has been, generally, a superb season – I think that’s why such a low key season finale felt like a bit of a disappointment. With episode after episode having ramped up the dramatic stakes continuously, it was perhaps impossible for anything to top the season overall as a final payoff. Nevertheless, I have to say I found it curiously unsatisfying after the show has barely put a foot wrong all year. There was nothing really wrong with it, but somehow it felt like an anticlimax, and the lack of a Rick/Governor showdown is hard to forgive.

Overall, though, this year has let the show truly show what it can do given a decent budget and a reasonable season length. It’s become the weekly post-apocalypse zombie show I always hoped it would be. Reason enough for me to forgive a somewhat disappointing finale and still eagerly look forward to next year. It is hard to see where they can go from here, though…

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The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 8 – Made to Suffer

“We’ve been running from Walkers so long, we forgot what people do.”

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The Walking Dead reached its ‘mid-season finale’ this week with a measured but exciting climax, by original comic writer Robert Kirkman, that resisted the usual temptation to chuck in everything but the kitchen sink. It was all the better for it, keeping a tight rein on the drama even while (surprisingly at this point) introducing a new group of characters.

Making their debut in the pre-credits teaser, the new gang include comics stalwart Tyreese, here played efficiently but unmemorably by Chad Coleman. Tyreese’s group got the lion’s share of the Walker action this week, fighting through the undead in the woods, then later in the prison, with some good head-smashing action sequences. Some nice direction from Billy Gierhart here – this is the first time we’ve seen any rain in the show since season one, where it functioned as a plot device rather than part of the show’s atmosphere. It certainly explains the well-realised increasing shabbiness of the Walkers, who presumably just stagger about in the open whatever the weather.

The new characters also served to introduce some action into the prison, where the regulars would otherwise have little to do but twiddle their thumbs waiting for Rick and co to return. There was a bit of this, with moustachioed and frustrated Axel seemingly hitting on young Beth, then having a go at the stern Carol (once he’d established that she wasn’t a lesbian). But of all the ones waiting at the prison, it was, once again, Carl who got to step up and be a hero.

It’s a measure of how the series has grown that Carl is no longer the irritating child who keeps wandering off into mortal danger, but a hardened survivor more than capable of taking care of himself. By this point in the comics, he’d had to take some very nasty courses of action that left him pretty well scarred psychologically; here, obviously his part in his mother’s death has served that function somewhat. He’s now almost like a miniature Rick, stern, gruff and taciturn – and handy with a gun. Chandler Riggs continues to use the opportunity to deliver an excellent performance – between this, Game of Thrones and Mad Men, cable drama seems to have some amazingly good child actors.

Carl’s sojourn into the Walker-infested depths of the prison to rescue Tyreese’s crew also revealed that the prison was not as secure as it might have seemed. There’s an enormous hole blasted in one of the buildings and the fence around it, which is presumably why the gang haven’t yet completely cleared the place of Walkers. What’s the betting that this could be a problem when the Governor’s forces finally turn up?

And turn up they undoubtedly will after the events of this episode. Occurrences at the prison were really just a sideshow, as the bulk of the story concentrated on Rick, Daryl, Oscar and Michonne as they infiltrated Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie – laying the ground for some unanticipated consequences. Glenn continued to be resourceful this week, literally ripping the arm bones out of the downed Walker to use as a weapon. It was a gruesome moment, which also showcased how good Steven Yeun currently looks with his shirt off – someone’s been working out.

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Significantly, Maggie told the concerned Glenn that the Governor “never touched” her – very much in contradiction to what was heavily implied (but not shown) last week. Given this show’s tendency to put its characters through the wringer, I’m betting that she’s trying to spare her boyfriend’s feelings, and that some measure of PTSD is very much in the offing for her.

Glenn did get to use his improvised weapon on one of the Woodbury troops, but not unexpectedly failed to get the drop on Merle. Luckily for him (and Maggie, that was the point when Rick and his commandos showed up to rescue them, alerted by the shooting they’d provoked.

One of the major points of suspense in the episode was when exactly Merle and Daryl would meet up (or at least realise they were fighting each other as the gang battled through the streets of Woodbury in a shot filled firefight). In this, both script and direction were clever, as Rick deployed smoke bombs to obscure their presence. This also had the effect of obscuring who the shadowy figures shooting were, meaning Merle and Daryl were frequently within spitting distance of each other, all unawares.

Rick too got a moment of confusion about who he was shooting at – he thought it was Shane. Yes, in a crowd-pleasing (but extremely contrived) moment, Jon Bernthal popped back to the show for a quick wordless cameo, blasting away at Rick in slo mo. Contrived it may have been, but it also served to point up that Rick’s mental state may not be all that stable after everything he’s been through; perhaps that will come back to haunt him.

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Still, Rick is a paragon of sanity compared to the Governor, whose actions this week pretty much laid bare everything he’d been keeping secret. Michonne, obviously motivated by a personal grudge, had split off from Rick and co to head for the Governor’s apartment; where it didn’t take her long to stumble over his room full of floating heads, and what she initially took to be a little girl held hostage.

Again, direction and script worked well together as, at the precise moment she realised what the little girl really was and prepared to despatch her, who should walk in but the Governor himself. It was a measure of how much more nuanced this version of the character is than his comic counterpart that, with the threat to his beloved daughter, he was instantly submissive, dropping all his weapons and practically begging Michonne not to harm his little girl.

I’ve read a couple of comments to the effect that, by then killing her anyway in the face of pleas from a man who’s obviously mentally ill, Michonne didn’t exactly show herself to be the better “man” in this scene. Certainly, David Morrissey’s performance made me feel more than a bit of sympathy for the Governor, despite all we’ve seen him do.

But let’s not forget, Michonne’s initial suspicions of him hardened into certainty quite quickly, when in the second episode featuring Woodbury, she found damn near conclusive evidence that he’d murdered all those National Guardsmen then lied to the town about it. And we as viewers have seen enough that any flickers of sympathy disappeared fairly quickly as he roared with rage and engaged her in a pretty brutal fight. It was cleverly choreographed, as some of the fish tanks were pulled over to deposit chomping undead heads on the floor between the combatants, giving an extra layer of jeopardy to it.

Michonne eventually got the upper hand, and incapacitated the enraged Governor with a shard of glass from one of the broken fish tanks, inserted into the eye. It was another nod to the comics (where the Governor lost considerably more body parts in that fight), later issues of which show him sporting an eyepatch – currently it’s just bandaged up, but I’m guessing the eyepatch is on the way.

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Of course, that was the point where, inevitably, Andrea walked in to find her erstwhile comrade having just half-blinded the man she’s sleeping with. While many critics find Michonne’s comic-book hardassery and terseness an annoying feature of this year, for me it’s trumped by Andrea’s continuing stupidity, gullibility and blind trust. You’d expect her to be horrified by the revelation that the Governor had an aquarium of zombie heads (including the quite recognisable helicopter pilot), and was keeping his undead daughter chained in a cupboard. For most people, this would likely be a relationship-ending moment.

Not for Andrea, though. She was horrified for a bit, then meekly accepted the Governor’s dubious excuse that the heads were to “prepare me for the horrors out there”. And she still hasn’t had the nous to wonder what provoked the running battle on Woodbury’s formerly idyllic streets – ie the hostages that used to be friends of hers. Yes, I acknowledge that Michonne needs to be given more depth when the show returns, to stop her being just a Batman-like hardass cipher; but even more urgently, the writers need to stop portraying Andrea as quite so stupid.

Luckily for the Governor, the rest of Woodbury’s population seem just as gullible as Andrea is. Nuts he may be, but he’s still an instinctively smart politician, and as soon as he used the word “terrorists” to describe Rick and his gang, I could see where this was going. Yes, it’s becoming an overused trope for powerful TV villains to cast our heroes in this light, with all the contemporary comment it’s obviously freighted with. But it was done well here, with David Morrissey’s charismatic speech whipping the Woodbury residents into a convincingly frenzied, vengeance-hungry mob.

And it was the targets of their hate that prompted the cleverly low key cliffhanger to this half of the season. It was a genuine shock (both offscreen and on) when the Governor suddenly singled Merle out as the traitor who’d granted the terrorists access. Michael Rooker was, as ever, excellent as he went from astonishment to trepidation to cynicism here. We – and he – know that Merle’s being made a scapegoat because of his lies about having killed Michonne. But the Woodbury mob doesn’t know that. And the crowning cliffhanger (which became inevitable once we realised Merle was being thrown to the wolves) was the Governor’s evidence against him – his captive brother, dragged out in chains.

As I say, a nicely restrained mid-season cliffhanger; only two of the major characters are in immediate jeopardy, and one of those isn’t very nice (though I’d hate to lose him). Rick and the rest of the gang are safely (well, safely-ish) on their way back to the prison with Glenn and Maggie; though they lost Oscar along the way. Shame, I thought he was shaping up nicely as a character. And the rest of the prison crew are still safe (ish), with Tyreese and the new gang behind locked doors until they can be trusted. So it’s really just Merle and Daryl we have to worry about. For now.

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I like that; too many shows try to ramp up the cliffhangers in an increasingly contrived desire to up the stakes for each season break. Here, Kirkman’s script gives us longer-term worries; the Governor definitely wants the prison cleared of people, but he doesn’t want to move his community there. Why should he? Their blindly faithful morale would likely be crushed by its grey bleakness. No, it seems he just doesn’t want to lose face, having previously claimed the prison to be uninhabitable. I’m not sure I buy that as a motive, but either way his sights are obviously fixed on the place. Merle and Daryl might be the only ones in immediate danger, but the rest of our heroes had better watch out when the show returns in February.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 4–Killer Within

“It’s so easy to do the wrong thing in this world.”

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Wow.

After three damned good episodes in a row, I’ve been half expecting this much improved Walking Dead to stumble, with a stagey, talky episode like so many last year. I kind of thought this would be the one, with the gang safely ensconced in their new home and the unease about Woodbury still just a background murmur. Instead, this week’s episode served up one of the most unbearably tense, dramatic and emotional hours of television I’ve seen for a long time. Along the way, so many major characters were put in separate situations of jeopardy it was almost impossible to keep track, and by the jaw-dropping, tear-inducing end, we’d unexpectedly seen two of them bite the dust.

Sang Kyu Kim’s expertly structured script started slowly enough, intercutting tense scenes in Woodbury with the relative calm of Rick’s gang at the prison, where the clear up of the felled walkers was continuing apace. But in the precredit sequence, we’d already seen a mysterious figure (presumably the one watching Carol from the woods a couple of weeks ago) unchaining the exercise yard’s penned zombies and setting them a trail of disembowelled deer chunks. Plainly things were going to go wrong for Rick’s group. But I couldn’t have foreseen how frenetically wrong they would go as the episode ratcheted up the tension.

As the gang began their clearup, the mood was jocular; Maggie and Glenn had been off shagging in the guard tower again, prompting guffaws of mirth as a smirking Daryl enquired “You comin’?” Hershel was taking his first stumbling steps on crutches, and things looked good. A slight tension was introduced with the reappearance of convicts Axel and Oscar, who said they couldn’t live in the cell block full of their friends’ corpses and begged to join Rick and the gang.

Some toing and froing about this ensued, with T-Dog surprisingly taking the “group conscience” role left vacant by Dale. But to no avail – Daryl and the new, pragmatic Rick both had experience of these kinds of guys, and neither was prepared to take the risk. So they were penned between the outer fences pending release into the outside world, and things looked stable again. Which was when a horde of walkers showed up, and everything went to hell all at once.

In the chaos, the group were split up into at least four separate parties. Rick, Daryl, and Glenn were rushing to undo the multifarious locks that would get them back through the fences to their friends. Hershel and Beth managed to shut themselves up at the top of a stairwell. Maggie, Lori and Carl dashed for the opposite door leading into the depths of the prison. And Carol was dragged inside too by T-Dog, who in a genuine shock moment had got himself bitten.

In hindsight, I suppose T-Dog’s death was somewhat signposted by the fact that his moral argument with Rick and Daryl gave him seemingly more lines than he’d had in the entirety of the previous season. He’s never been well-used as a character by the writers, which gave him the unfortunate appearance of tokenism as the group’s only non-white character. But for his final episode (too little too late perhaps), he got to step up and be an honest to goodness hero. Having been bitten, it was only a matter of time of course; but even then, he sacrificed what little life he had left to save Carol, literally holding two slavering walkers back so she could escape through a nearby door while they chowed down on him with some really nasty gore.

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The stakes just kept ratcheting up as the episode went on. As Rick, Daryl and Glenn reached the yard to put pay to the walkers menacing Beth and Hershel, the prison siren unexpectedly started blaring, basically sounding a dinner bell to any walkers from outside. Then, as a gun-toting Carl led the way through the darkened interior of the prison like the hero of a first person shooter, Lori found the most inconvenient moment possible to go into labour.

Obviously giving birth in a corridor full of zombies wasn’t an option, so Carl led her and Maggie into a nearby machine room conveniently free of walkers. But even then, there was no letup in the tension. We already knew that Lori had had to have Carl by C-section, and would probably have to this time as well. But Hershel and Carol were nowhere nearby. Lori had only Carl and Maggie to help.

And again, things did not go well. Lori wasn’t properly dilated, and the baby couldn’t come out. There was only one option, on which Lori insisted despite the protestations of the tearful Maggie and Carl. They would have to cut her open to get the baby out. And with no anaesthetic, it would kill her.

The death of T-Dog (underused though he was) would have been shock enough for one episode. That the show was prepared to kill off, essentially, its female lead, was a hell of a surprise, and a well-handled one too. Having spent much of the last season whining and setting Rick and Shane at each other’s throats, Lori (through no fault of actor Sarah Wayne Callies) earned more than a share of fans’ ire. But she more than redeemed herself here, with a death scene freighted with emotion.

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Stepping up equally well with an amazing performance was Chandler Riggs as Carl. The tearful exchanges of mother and son saying goodbye were almost unbearable to watch. Not to mention the fact that, as Maggie cut deep into Lori’s belly to extract the baby, we couldn’t know if it would survive.

Survive it (she) did, but the ordeal wasn’t over; because Carl had to shoot his mother in the head before she turned. Again, Chandler Riggs’ performance, as he first begged to be spared this then went back into the room to carry out the deed, was nothing short of incredible. The shot happened offscreen, so we might yet see an undead Lori, her guts hanging out, have to be put down properly. But I hope not; to do that would be to undercut the dramatic impact of the scene.

But it was another supposed offscreen death that was to blame for the situation, as Rick and Daryl discovered. Finding the generator running the siren, they also found Andrew, the convict left to die by Rick two weeks ago. Evidently he hadn’t died, and was intent on revenge. The inevitable struggle was less tense than events elsewhere, as it hardly seemed likely that the show would off both its leading roles in the same episode. But it did give Oscar a chance to step up, choosing to shoot his fellow convict rather than side with him against Rick’s group. So the gang has another “token” non-white to replace T-Dog – let’s hope actor Vincent Ward gets a better share of the action.

If all that left you feeling thoroughly wrung out emotionally, it was nothing compared to the final scene as a devastated Carl and Maggie wordlessly handed Rick the baby, and Lori’s fate became clear to him. Andrew Lincoln too gave a gut wrenching performance as the new Ruthless Rick just crumbled, stumbling crying onto the floor. After recent episodes, this had upped the emotional ante by making it clear early on that Rick really did still love his wife. That just made it all the more heartbreaking that she died without them getting to reconcile with each other. And the fate of Carol is still unknown – is she still wandering the innards of the prison, or did the walkers get her?

With all that going on, you’d think it somewhat redundant to keep intercutting such intense action with the slower moving events in Woodbury. Not a bit of it; those scenes functioned as breathers in the action, and also heightened the tension. Each time one of the group in the prison was in mortal jeopardy, the scene cut to the more idyllic setting leaving you gasping with tension.

And those scenes also served to further the narrative of what’s happening in the show’s other setting. Michonne is still highly suspicious of the setup; having found the bullet holes and fresh blood in the newly acquired National Guard vehicles, she sailed perilously close to danger by voicing her suspicions to the Governor himself, who came up with glib but unconvincing excuses.

Andrea, meanwhile, was chatting with the new, mellower Merle, who found common ground with her now that they’d both been ‘abandoned’ by the group. She was also undeniably flirting with the Governor, who revealed his real name to be Philip, as in the comics. And Merle’s newfound eagerness to hunt for his brother led the Governor to comment that he “understood”. Could he have brother issues as well?

David Morrissey and Michael Rooker are well-matched, their scenes together like watching two alpha males head-butting. For the moment, the Governor has the upper hand. But how long will that last against the unpredictable Merle?

This will probably be the pattern of episodes for the foreseeable future, intercutting between the show’s two settings to wring maximum tension out of one, the other or both. This time, the dramatic heart of the episode (and boy, was it dramatic) was at the prison. It was an amazing episode, courtesy of writer Sang Kyu Kim and director Guy Ferland, that has achieved the apparently impossible in continuing to top the previous ones. From last year’s frustratingly stop-start narrative, The Walking Dead has now become one of the most compulsively watchable shows on TV – let’s see if it can carry on with episodes of this kind of quality.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 2–Sick

“We took out these walkers, this prison is ours.”

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Warning – contains spoilers!

Having presumably learned a lesson from last year’s fitful pace, this second episode of The Walking Dead’s third season kept up the level of intense action established last week. There was plenty of gore and, importantly, plenty of zombies; but as in all the best zombie stories, the most dangerous threat wasn’t from the shambling dead, but from the greedy, self-interested living.

Readers of the comics will not have been too surprised at last week’s end-of-episode reveal that some of the prisoners had survived, barricaded into the prison cafeteria for nearly a year. But as usual for the show, it looks like their interactions with the heroes (if you can call them that) are taking a very different path from that in the comics. For a start, in the course of only one episode, most of them have now been killed.

The prisoners’ plight, expecting Rick and co to be a rescue team and not comprehending the scale of what’s happened to the world, was an interesting take on the whole post-apocalypse thing. Imagine if you had managed to wait it out, thought you were being rescued, and found out that the whole of civilisation had fallen.

Even then, they scarcely seemed able to grasp it, which was perfectly credible; wanting to borrow cellphones to call their loved ones rather than panicking. It was only when the group’s de facto leader, the aggressive and hyper-macho Tomas (Nick Gomez) pointed out how bad things would have to be outside for people to break into a prison that the reality seemed to sink in.

Tomas was obviously going to be a problem from the start, with he and Rick squaring off to each other as two alpha males vying for territory – if the show had been in smell-o-vision, you could probably have smelled the testosterone. But Tomas was taking his hard man status a little too seriously; as evidenced at the close of the last season, this is a new Rick, more hardened to Shane’s pragmatic view of needing to do anything in order to survive, and unhampered by moral objections from the group now that Dale is gone.

Fairly early in the episode, he had a cold, matter-of-fact discussion with Lori about whether to just kill the prisoners rather than take any risks, which Lori accepted meekly enough. As it turned out, Rick didn’t even leave it to the last resort. Shane may be dead, but it seems his philosophy lives on in his best friend, who was right to doubt the safety of cohabiting with the prison’s former inmates. That confrontational, “we took it. It’s ours” is virtually a quote from the original Dawn of the Dead, and there, as here, we’re perhaps not meant to sympathise with the man expressing such possessive sentiments. Given the alternative, you see his point; but if Dale had still been around, he might have seen the inmates’ point of view too.

These guys are hardened prisoners, and no clue was given as to why they were incarcerated; it could just as easily have been multiple murder as accounting fraud. The former seemed more likely as evidenced by the ferocity of their attack on the zombies. Completely undisciplined, they went at it violently but stupidly, viciously stabbing at anywhere but the head, contrary to Rick’s instructions. No surprise that, in one of the week’s more inventive gory moments, one of them ended up stabbed in the back by the arm bones of a zombie that had torn off its own hand to escape from a pair of cuffs.

Neither was there much surprise, given what we’d established about him, that Tomas chose to end the debate about trying to save his life by brutally smashing his head to a pulp. It was a surprise, though, quite how much Rick had changed towards Shane’s worldview when presented with Tomas’ sly but unconvincing attempt to kill him by shoving a zombie at him after ‘accidentally’ nearly clouting him with a baseball bat. For a few heart-stopping moments, the two men stared at each other coldly as they’d been doing every couple of minutes since the episode started. Then with nary a change of expression, Rick simply clove Tomas’ head in two with a cleaver. Bet he wasn’t expecting that.

But if viewers were shocked by this display of Rick’s new ruthlessness, it was nothing compared to what happened next. Tomas’ compatriot Andrew (who seemed so upset about Tomas’ death that the implication was they were lovers) made a run for it, with Rick in hot pursuit. And when Andrew stumbled into an exercise yard full of walkers, Rick simply locked him in to be torn apart, listening dispassionately to the screaming.

This is indeed a new Rick, hardening to his situation just as he did in the comics. It makes sense, pragmatically, if he’s to ensure his own survival and that of his group; but it also makes him harder to like as a character. I’m betting that this newfound ruthlessness will be a major plot point in the coming episodes.

It is at least (for now) tempered with a certain sense of fairplay, as he kept to his word in allowing surviving prisoners Oscar and Axel to settle in to the newly cleared adjacent cell block to the gang’s own. This may be a mistake. In the comic, it leads to a very gruesome subplot which looks unlikely in the show as it depends on additional characters not included in the TV scripts. Nonetheless, I can’t see showrunner Glen Mazzara leaving the plot thread of the group’s neighbours simply dangling. Custer-bearded whiner Axel (Lew Temple) seems amenable enough (but is he?), but his compatriot Oscar (Vincent Ward), stubborn enough not to beg for his life with a gun pointed at his head, looks like trouble. Still, my guess is that the show will subvert expectations by showing us that Oscar’s the one who can truly be trusted.

Amid all that action, there was still plenty of time for character moments and development, mostly centring on the rest of the group holding vigil for the unconscious Hershel while Rick, Daryl and T-Dog went off a-hunting. Refreshingly though, the character moments sprang as much from their actions as from sitting around listlessly talking, which seemed to be the main format of season two. Carol, in particular, has become much more self-reliant, partly trained by Hershel in medical techniques. After her mostly passive role in previous seasons, as beaten wife and grieving mother, it was good to see Melissa McBride taking charge here, binding Hershel’s stump and experimenting on a downed walker as practice for Lori’s potential upcoming C-section.

Lori, for her part, seemed to be curbing her tendency to whine at every moment, and even gaining a bit of self-aware humour. And it was she who took charge when Hershel stopped breathing, bravely giving mouth to mouth to a man who might rise from the dead and try to eat her face off. Indeed, it was a genuine shock moment that made me jump when he seemed to lunge for her to do just that; but as it turned out, he was back in the land of the living. This surprised me, as Scott Wilson’s absence from the main cast list, together with daughter Maggie’s heartfelt farewell speech to him, made me fairly certain he was on the way out. The fact that he isn’t is a good example of the show playing with your expectations.

It was a measure of how much better this year’s balance between action and character development seems to be that this week’s cliffhanger centred not on the prisoners, or any threat from the walkers, but on Rick’s ambivalence about his cheating wife, and her eagerness to be forgiven. Rick was at least able to reassure her that she was a good mother, after her earlier shouting match with the increasingly self-reliant Carl; like any good son, Carl seems to be following his dad’s example by hardening his worldview towards ruthlessness in order to survive.

But when it came to talking about where their marriage stood, after some wry discussion on the absence of divorce lawyers after the end of civilisation, the best Rick could offer was “we’re all grateful for what you did”, ie saving Hershel. So much left unspoken and nothing resolved – even amidst the thrills and the gore, it was a quietly powerful moment.

Thus far, I’m loving this new season, which seems to have truly taken the criticisms of last year on board. It’s worth noting that the pace of the previous season flagged as early as halfway through its first episode; here, it’s been breathlessly exciting for two already. Thankfully, though, the writers haven’t tacked to the other side of the balance by giving us nothing but action, gore and zombies; there’s still enough depth and development of character to make these people interesting enough to care about. Because without that, they might as well be the walking dead themselves.

My only disappointment this week was the complete absence of Andrea and Michonne, last seen wandering off towards an unspecified destination. I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more of them next week, as the season’s other major plot thread and location begin to get properly established…

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 2

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

Bloodletting

The Walking Dead (Season 2)

After a strong start with last week’s season opener, the second episode of The Walking Dead’s second season felt a lot more low key. There was much less zombie action this week, as new showrunner Glen Mazzara’s script focussed more on the drama surrounding the characters – particularly Rick’s son Carl, who’d been accidentally shot by a hunter at the end of the last episode.

The episode opened with a flashback to pre-apocalypse days, as we saw how Shane informed Lori of her husband’s shooting, and how she then informed Carl. Obviously intended to provide a counterpoint or parallel to the situation now, as a dramatic device this felt a little obvious. Admittedly it paid off plenty as Rick and Lori agonised over their injured son, and we heard how they dealt with Rick’s comatose condition before the dead started rising; nonetheless, the flashback seemed unnecessary to highlight the similarities, as though the viewer needed to be cudgelled over the head to get the point.

Which was fortunate, because there wasn’t much other head-cudgelling going on this week. Perhaps because of the reduced budget (and admittedly, knowledge of this is going to have me scrutinising every episode for evidence of it), there was comparatively little zombie action this week. In fact, Andrea’s encounter with a lone walker was beginning to look like it as far as zombies were concerned; thankfully the showrunner knows that, however respectable the drama, a zombie show is going to need some zombies, so by the end we were back in the thick of them – briefly at least.

But to go back to the beginning – as in the comic, Carl’s shooting led our heroes to the farm of one Hershel Greene and his family. Hershel seemed almost awesomely prepared to deal with Carl’s injuries, leading the viewer to the obvious conclusion that he must be a doctor; but for readers of the comic, it was no surprise when Lori winkled out of him that he was, in fact, a veterinarian.

Actually this shouldn’t cause too much concern. There’s an episode of 70s BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors where a similar situation crops up, and the vet in question points out that, unlike doctors, vets are trained as applied scientists. This is because they might at any point be called on to treat an animal whose physiology they’re unfamiliar with, so they’re taught to adapt basic principles. As that vet pointed out (in the UK at least) it’s illegal for doctors to operate on animals, but perfectly all right for vets to work on humans.

Mind you, it does point out one little problem, if you’re a fan of the comic – that there’s a good chance you’ll know what’s going to happen next. The Walking Dead has generally treated the comic more as an inspiration than a direct storyboard, which is by far the best approach. Hence, some well-remembered set pieces from the comic are retained, but generally the show is its own animal. It’s just that when, as last week with Carl’s shooting, the show reproduces a moment from the comic very faithfully, you tend to know what’s coming next. It might be interesting if, at some point, a script lifts an incident directly from the comic and deliberately changes the result of it, to wrongfoot those of us who are familiar with the story in its original medium. However, the conversation between Rick and Hershel as to “God’s plan” with the plague, and its potential cure, hints that we’re quite likely to see the next part of that plotline in the near future as Rick investigates Hershel’s barn…

Most of the episode, though, was spent agonising over whether Hershel could dig out the six fragments of bullet that hunter Otis had left in Carl. I must say it seemed impressive/implausible that Hershel could tell how many fragments there were without the aid of an X ray, but we’ll ignore that for now. There was also much soul searching among the now fragmented group of heroes; Rick and Lori were beside themselves worrying about their son, while the search party for little Sophia discussed the advisability of asking God for help (Daryl, pragmatically, concluded that it was a waste of time) and back at the RV, Dale had to deal with T-Dog’s cut becoming dangerously infected.

All nice, character developing stuff, but it did feel as though the story moved very slowly while it was going on. As a character, Norman Reedus’ Daryl is already becoming far more likeable (if less exciting) than his more overtly redneck brother Merle; it’s a telling indication of the occasionally survivalist mentality of zombie stories that he’s coming across as one of the best equipped to deal with the situation. Not that the script ignored the other tendencies of rednecks in general, as T-Dog told the incredulous Dale that he felt a bit worried being the only black man with “two cracker sheriffs and a redneck”. It’s nice to see IronE Singleton as T-Dog getting a bit more to do this season, and in a way this speech felt like a critique of him having been almost the “token black” last year.

Nevertheless, the tension built up by his feverish infection and the apparent lack of antibiotics to treat it was immediately undercut when the returning Daryl nonchalantly produced a handy bag of pills from his motorbike. This had the effect of making the entire subplot feel very much like filler. And the decision of Dale, Andrea and Daryl to remain with the RV – in case Sophia comes back – while the others head back to Rick smacked of a certain limit in settings. I said last week how impressively expensive the corpse-strewn traffic jam looked; it seems now that this will have to be justified by some of the characters spending a lot of time there. Budgetary considerations again?

Elsewhere, the story did gain a bit of momentum again as Shane joined up with Otis to try and scavenge some much-needed medical supplies from a local FEMA emergency shelter. Pruitt Taylor Vince was somewhat typecast as Otis, though the revelation that he had medical knowledge from volunteering as an EMT expanded his role somewhat from the comic. The other new characters on Hershel’s farm, though, were far more paper thin. Otis’ wife got barely more than a few lines, while the unidentified teenage boy didn’t get to say anything at all. At least Hershel’s daughter Maggie got to be a bit hardass, as she rescued Andrea by cudgelling a zombie from horseback. Let’s hope that the others at least get a chance to talk in the upcoming weeks, but it actually felt like the show might be getting a little overmanned in terms of characters again.

It was looking like that lone zombie might be the only one we saw this week, and I was beginning to think that, for budgetary reasons, Shane and Otis’ mercy mission would take place entirely offscreen. But here was the first evidence that my eagle-eyed search for budget cuts wasn’t always right. As they turned up at the local high school converted into a FEMA shelter, it was swarming with zombies. This did revitalise the episode somewhat, as they had to figure out how to get past them and get at the medical supplies. This was neatly done in a tensely directed scene as Shane had the bright idea of distracting them with lit roadflares from the back of a handy police cruiser – though I couldn’t help being reminded of the fireworks used to distract zombies in Romero’s recent Land of the Dead. Perhaps a love of shiny things is part of official zombie lore now.

Unfortunately, Shane and Otis don’t seem to have worked out an escape plan, and the episode climaxed with them barricading themselves in the school, and their flimsy barricade about to give way. It was a pretty tense last few minutes that almost made up for the general slowness of the rest of the episode.

So, a much less exciting episode this week – though it remains to be seen how much this feeling was caused, for me, by familiarity with these events from the comic. Still, the characters and performances continue to engage, even if the structure of the story could have used a bit of work. With Shane and Otis in the thick of some real zombie action at the climax, let’s hope next week is rather more evenly paced.