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