The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 15–This Sorrowful Life

“Maybe these people need someone like me around. To do their dirty work. The bad guy.”

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It’s almost over. The penultimate episode of The Walking Dead’s third season was (as I expected) a catch up with the gang at the prison as the tension built for the inevitable season finale confrontation with the forces of Woodbury. But just as last week’s Woodbury episode was also an Andrea episode, this week’s prison ep was really all about Merle. And given the opportunity, Michael Rooker devoured the scenery all the way through. No disrespect to Laurie Holden in last week’s perfectly good episode, but an hour of Rooker as Merle was way more fun.

And emotionally resonant too. We’ve unexpectedly started to see a redeemable side to Merle these last few episodes; it started with his chat to Hershel about reading the Bible at Woodbury’s “damn fine library”. This episode was all about that redemption, or at least its possibility, and both the script and Rooker’s performance kept us guessing all the way through, making it a gripping ride.

We started out with Rick having a hush-hush meeting with Daryl and Hershel (his two chief lieutenants, it seems), in which he confided that he was going to give in to the Governor’s demands, and present him with Michonne. This seemed pretty foolish, given that a couple of weeks ago Rick seemed to have sussed out just how untrustworthy his neighbouring warlord is. But no, being Leader means making hard choices. Would Rick live up to them?

The answer (thankfully) was no – just as Merle guessed. Merle figured heavily from the outset; if he wasn’t actually in a scene, people were talking about him. Caustic he may be, but he also turned out to be pretty perceptive. About everyone but himself, anyway. He correctly surmised that Rick would be too decent to trade another person’s life for his own security, however ruthless he may seem to have become.

Also, he recognised a kindred spirit in the newly independent Carol, in a beautifully played scene between Rooker and Melissa McBride. Recognising how she’d grown out of the shadow of her abusive husband, Merle opined, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer”, to which Carol, seeing a man in search of redemption, replied, “maybe you are too.”

The possibility of Merle’s redemption from the no-good redneck thug we met back in season one hung heavy over the episode. Still of the (accurate) opinion that Rick wouldn’t go through with the deal, he took matters into his own hands by pre-emptively coshing the surprisingly trusting Michonne over the head. I’d have expected her to be more wary around the man who tried to hunt her down and kill her; but still it was a convenient way to get them travelling to Woodbury together for some quality character time.

This being The Walking Dead, the character interaction had to be spiced up with a bit of zombie thrills. So it was that, hotwiring a car (a neat trick with one hand), Merle inadvertently set off its alarm, sounding the dinner bell for every Walker in the vicinity. The ensuing fight saw he and Michonne working together – a taste of things to come, it turned out.

It also meant they had a car to cover the strangely mutable distance between the prison and Woodbury. Last week, Andrea managed the journey on foot in less than a day, even managing to find time for a game of cat and mouse with the Governor. This week, once again, it was a journey you needed to drive. Road trip!

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Along the way, Michonne gradually needled at Merle’s conscience, getting him to unwillingly recognise that the Governor had turned him into a monster. All right, he wasn’t exactly a nice guy long before he met the Governor; but he wasn’t, it turned out, a murderer. Those “sixteen men” he’d killed had all been since he set up home in Woodbury.

Merle wasn’t exactly happy at having his conscience pricked, threatening to cut out Michonne’s tongue if she didn’t shut up. It’s a tribute to Rooker’s performance that, when he pulled the car over, I half-wondered if he was about to do just that. But no – in an equally surprising development, he cut her bonds and let her go. Then sped off with the assertion that he had “something to do”.

It wasn’t hard to guess what. The script had painstakingly pointed out that Merle was looking for somewhere to belong, and that he could have had a chance with Rick’s group. Realising this, he thought they needed him to be the hardman who does the dirty jobs; it’s all he knows how to do. But as he released Michonne, it was clear that his search for redemption was taking him down the road of heroic self-sacrifice. He was going to take out the Governor – even if it killed him.

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Being Merle, this involved getting drunk and playing Motorhead at very high volume, to lure the Walkers into following his slow-moving car. This achieved, he led them straight to the appointed venue for the meeting with the Governor – and all hell broke loose. It was another of the show’s superb action sequences, gunfire from all sides and Walkers everywhere. A number of the Governor’s men bit the dust; but no-one we’d heard of. Oh, except Allen’s characterless son Ben. Not much of a loss, but presumably liable to enrage the already asshole-ish Allen – look out for that next week, though it may be hard to care.

All this intensity was counterpointed back at the prison with what, in this show, passes for light relief. Hershel led his daughters in prayer (Psalm 91, fact fans), while Rick was tormented by yet more visions of Lori, forcing him to realise he couldn’t go through with ‘the deal’. Glenn, meanwhile, offered a truly romantic proposal of marriage to Maggie – a ring he’d cut off the hand of a nearby Walker. He really knows how to charm a girl.

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As the ep ended, so did the ‘Ricktatorship’, as our hero realised he couldn’t bear the burden of decision-making all alone. So it’s back to democracy for our heroes, just in time to be plunged into war – probably the worst time for group decision-making.

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This is obviously getting to be a regular thing, after last week’s many Day of the Dead homages. This week, the zombie we saw lurching out of the bar where Merle was parked looked oddly familiar, if you’ve ever seen the original Dawn of the Dead:

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Gore of the week

LOTS to choose from this week, in a veritable gore-nucopia – exactly what you’d expect in an episode directed by effects honcho Greg Nicotero, himself a veteran of Romero’s original Day of the Dead.

The Walker attack triggered by Merle’s car theft led to some of the usual head splattering, courtesy of Michonne’s boot. Perhaps Walker skulls are softer than those of the living due to decomposition:

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There then followed an inventive use of the phone cord she was tied up with as a method of decapitation:

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While Merle had to cope with a zombie that seemed to be quite literally falling apart:

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And that was just the start of it, in an episode more bloodsoaked than we’ve seen in ages. Merle’s climactic ambush on the Governor’s forces led to head shots, entrail-chewing and death galore. But while it might not have been the ep’s goriest moment, nothing beat this shot as a sheer emotional gut-punch:

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I should have guessed it really. When this show gives that much attention to any one character, it usually means they’re for the chop by the end of the episode. So it proved with Merle, as the heartbroken Daryl discovered. Last week, I postulated that the show wouldn’t dispose of a character as important as the Governor offscreen; this week, that’s exactly what happened with Merle.

Having already bitten two of the fingers off his sole remaining hand (another choice gore moment), the Governor wound up with the ultimate cruelty to his sometime henchman – shooting him, but not in the head. As he knew anyone who dies turns into a Walker, it was about the nastiest thing he could have done. Given that, by this point, we’d started to feel some actual sympathy for Merle, it was a double whammy – the loss of a well-liked character, which also served to underline just how psychopathically cruel the real villain is.

I had actually wondered how long the show would get to keep a big-name actor like Rooker, but I actually assumed he would go out in a blaze of glory in the season finale. What we got here was, in fact, far more devastating. And it means Rick and the crew have to go into battle next week without the wily Merle. At least they still have Daryl – Norman Reedus was at his most intense here, weeping as he stove in his loved/hated brother’s head, rather than let him shamble around as a Walker.

This was a storming episode in a season that’s been full of them this year. There was action, gore, thrills and real drama, and it kept you guessing throughout. Next week (presumably) it’s the Final Conflict. I’m betting on some big spectacle, but I have to wonder if it’ll have the emotional impact of some of the episodes we’ve seen recently. Tune in next week to find out…

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 11–I Ain’t a Judas

“There’s nothing to work out. We’re gonna kill him. I don’t know how, or when, but we will.” – Rick

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After the frenetic action of the last two slam bang episodes, it was only natural that this week’s Walking Dead took a bit of a breather, as the characters were able to take stock, and manoeuvre themselves for the coming conflict – a conflict that Andrea was desperate to avoid. It’s a measure of how well-drawn the characters have become that this episode’s intrigue and emotional trauma was as gripping as the action that had preceded it.

As the title indicates, the episode was all about loyalty – or the lack of it. We know that, loose cannon though he may be, Merle is unswervingly loyal to his brother. And Daryl is equally loyal to the rest of the gang at the prison, who Glenn and Hershel unhesitatingly describe as family.

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Other loyalties, however, are shakier – particularly in Woodbury. Andrea finally seems to be getting some sort of an inkling (perceptive of her) that the man she’s sleeping with might actually be… a bit dangerous. Points for finally realising this were immediately deducted for her own foolish trust in Milton, confiding in him her plan to nip off and visit Rick. Milton, of course, is loyal only to the Governor, and was straight off to let his charismatic cult leader know. The Governor, who may be a nutter but is a shrewd politician, immediately recruited him as a double agent, to report on his girlfriend’s treacherous activities.

He needn’t have bothered, as Andrea basically blabbed exactly what she’d been doing when she got back. Again, would you do that with someone you’d just been told was a lying, murdering psychopath, and who you would later contemplate killing in his sleep after sex? Andrea’s dilemma – her loyalty to her old friends vs her newfound lover, who wants to kill them – was a central point of the story. Irritating though her persistent naivete is, it did at least pay off with the shades of grey she was faced with in deciding – a choice she still, apparently, hasn’t made.

It may seem an obvious choice to we the viewers, who think of Rick and the gang as the heroes of the piece. But the cleverest thing in this episode was allowing us to see them through Andrea’s eyes when finally reunited with them. Remember, she hasn’t seen them since halfway through the season 2 finale, when they were just losing Hershel’s cosy farm. She doesn’t even know Shane’s dead. Or T-Dog. Or Lori. In fact, the gang has befriended and lost several people she never even met.

Rick, meanwhile, is plainly unravelling mentally, instantly twitchy and paranoid; Hershel is failing to get him to pull it together, and even Carl thinks he should maybe take a break (“I think you should stop. Being leader. Let Hershel and Daryl handle it”). Hershel, meanwhile, is one leg lighter than when Andrea last saw him. Glenn’s been beaten half to death. And the whole gang look ragged, dirty and on the verge of collapse.

Because we’ve been with them through this whole process, we haven’t really noticed how far they’ve deteriorated until we saw the shock on Andrea’s face at the state of them. Even the prison, which previously seemed like a hard won haven, took on a new light when looked at with fresh eyes – Andrea described the situation as “they’re broken. Living in horrible conditions”.

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As the episode’s central theme, Andrea’s reunion with the group was well-handled; it even made some of the scales fall from her eyes regarding her boyfriend. But not enough to make her take up Carol’s suggestion of killing him in his sleep. And while Carol might have been pleased to see Andrea, the rest of the gang were more equivocal – or downright hostile. Rick didn’t trust her for a minute, and she earned Michonne’s contempt for choosing the Governor and a life of comfort over hardship and her friend.

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For whatever else it may be, Woodbury is luxury compared to the dank, forbidding prison. By merest coincidence (and maybe a bit of plot contrivance), Tyreese and his group have found themselves welcome recruits there. With the Governor doing his hail-fellow-well-met act, Allen and Ben were immediately keen to sign up for getting rid of the unkempt loons who’d just chucked them out of the prison. Told you we’d need to watch out for them.

Tyreese was less keen, but it’s unlikely to make much of a difference; the Governor was conscripting, basically, anyone who could shoot a gun for what’s presumably his next assault on the prison. Arthritis might win you a ticket out of his army, but asthma won’t, especially when the teenager concerned was so keen to fight for his community. The Woodbury residents’ fervent loyalty to their Jim Jones-like leader touched on the episode’s central theme again – as well as cementing the Governor as a Fuhrer-like figure who can command irrational devotion. In times of peril, people like turning to a strong, charismatic leader. They don’t always make the right decision about who that should be.

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Away from the intrigue in Woodbury and Andrea’s sour reunion, there were plenty of choice character moments to be had. Glenn continues to be an embittered, vengeance-hungry figure; Merle, meanwhile, was revealing yet more hidden layers. In a quiet chat with the amenable Hershel, he revealed that not only does he know his scripture, but he likes to read – “Woodbury had a damn fine library. One of the only things I miss about it.” The man’s just full of surprises. He may have a way to go before atoning for torturing Glenn in the Governor’s name, but I like the way the writers are developing him as a character with more depth than the stereotypical redneck thug we met way back in season 1.

Gore of the week

In a more contemplative episode than recent weeks, there were slightly fewer Walkers to be seen. But we did get one wince-making moment when Andrea, having learned a lesson from Michonne, ‘customised’ one to be her ‘guardian angel’. He didn’t look too pretty even before she got her hands on him, with half his face ripped off:

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But he got a whole lot worse when Milton pinned him down and Andrea lopped off his arms with an axe then smashed out his teeth on a rock.

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Reminiscent of a similarly unpleasant sequence in the movie American History X, and only slightly more bearable because the victim here was actually already dead.

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This felt like a ‘calm before the storm’ episode, as wounds were licked, loyalties tested and preparations for the next moves made by both sides. Even though Andrea’s bullish stupidity long since became deeply annoying, it served a purpose here as she was forced to choose, and still can’t make herself do it. As I mentioned, the character interaction on display here was every bit as gripping as any shootout, and the glimpse at Rick and the gang through fresh eyes was a bit of a shocker after we’ve become so accustomed to their gradual decline.

I’m sure the calm won’t last long though. As Beth took to crooning in the lamplit prison, seguing into a montage soundtracked by the mournful voice of Tom Waits, it’s clear that there’s tragic events a-comin’. But how soon?

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episodes 9 & 10–The Suicide King / Home

“We’re staying put. We’re gonna defend this place. We’re making a stand.” – Glenn

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Blimey, how does this show keep being so good after last year’s lacklustre season? Back with a bang after its mid-season break, The Walking Dead’s first two new episodes in months offered a high octane mix of action, character development, gore and sheer bloody insanity.

Jumping straight in where we left off, we were immediately confronted with the conundrum of whether bad old boy Merle really would fight his little brother to the death for the entertainment of the seething Governor and his vengeance-hungry mob. Kudos to Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus for actually keeping me guessing on that – it would be a wrench, as both characters are too good to lose.

I wasn’t guessing for long though, as Rick and co stormed to the rescue in the first of several frenetic action sequences across the two episodes. Their frantic retreat with the unwelcome Merle (“You wanna talk about this now?”) was gripping, but they left chaos in their wake. The Governor had a point when he said that they’d left six people dead, and terrified the largely innocent population of Woodbury; Rick and co might be the good guys to us, but they’ve just terrorised another community. That’s how wars start.

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The Governor is emphatically not a good guy, but bafflingly Andrea still seemed unable to figure this out. I mean, really – she’s seen zombie fights, his undead daughter in a cupboard, fish tanks full of severed heads and him forcing one of her friends to fight his brother to the death. What more evidence does she need that her boyfriend is a homicidal psychopath? How amazingly gullible must she be to still take his contrition at face value, and believe him when he told her he planned no action against the gang at the prison?

Still, the show’s got enough else going for it for me to be able to forgive Andrea’s implausible stupidity. In the breathers between action sequences, we got some great character interaction and reflection. Everyone was, understandably, rather tense. Glenn knew a little about what the Governor did to Maggie, and was really, really angry; Daryl won’t go back to the prison without his hotheaded brother, and Rick wasn’t up for that – even less so were Glenn and Maggie, after the whole torture/beating/attempted murder thing.

Rick has been losing his fragile grip on sanity too, in a nice contrast to the already nutty Governor. After last season’s phantom phone calls with Lori and hallucination of Shane, he’s taken to seeing an apparition of Lori wandering the prison in a white dress. This caused him to start shouting incoherently, clutching his head and waving a gun about – probably the best incentive he could have given for the reluctant Tyreese and his group to move out.

We learned a bit more about Tyreese’s group here. He’s plainly a decent guy, but they’re not perfect; Allen and his son Ben were all for jumping the skeleton crew left at the prison before Rick and co got back. Luckily Tyreese nipped that in the bud, but I wonder if they’re going to be ones to watch?

Hershel, meanwhile, is rapidly becoming the moral conscience of the group the way Dale used to be, but without the burden of Dale’s sour relationship with Shane. He was the only oasis of stability in two episodes of increasingly stressed, frantic and increasingly unhinged main characters. But he still couldn’t talk Angry Glenn out of his headstrong suicide mission to take down the Governor, or convince Mad Rick to come back inside and sort himself out. There again, Dale never used to have much luck at talking sense into anyone either.

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Merle and Daryl, wandering the woods together, got some electrifying scenes together. It occurred to me that, last year’s hallucination of Merle aside, this is the first time they’ve had actual screen time together, and Rooker and Reedus didn’t disappoint. Bickering constantly about how nice Daryl had become since their initial plan to loot the camp back in season one, they got caught up in another frenetic action sequence when Daryl selflessly jumped in to rescue a Hispanic family stuck on a bridge full of Walkers, with his reluctant brother trailing after him.

It was a cracking bit of action, but the aftermath was, if anything, even more gripping, as both brothers addressed their differences with fisticuffs. It looked like Merle was on top there until he tore Daryl’s shirt and saw the scars of what their father had done to him as a boy (“That’s why I left first. I’d’ve killed him if I’d stayed.”). Together with Carol explicitly spelling out the similarity in their and her own abusive relationships, it was a powerful moment that, perhaps for the first time, made you feel sympathetic for Merle – no mean feat.

Back in Woodbury, Andrea was the only one calm enough to soothe the panicking population – probably because she’s the only one who can’t see what’s really going on there. Nonetheless, she managed to damp down a potentially explosive confrontation between the Governor’s thugs and the fleeing populace (most of whom, remember, are innocent, if gullible) with a statesmanlike speech about pulling together, because when the history books are written, Woodbury will be in them. Yes Andrea, and so was Jonestown.

The speech impressed the Governor enough for him to hand over de facto leadership to Andrea because he’d done “terrible things”. And she was still too clueless to figure out that he was going to be straight off to the prison with a whole bunch of thugs with guns…

And I’d started to warm to last remaining convict Axel too (though I was a little suspicious of his ever-changing story). However, I should have realised that the greater depth given to his character in the latter of these two episodes meant he was immediately for the chop – that’s this show’s version of the war movie weary soldier saying he’s only got two more weeks on duty till he sees his sweetheart.

So it proved, and Axel’s surprise shot to the head was followed by the poor guy’s corpse being mercilessly pulverised with bullets while Carol used him as a human shield. It was, of course, the Governor, coolly machine-gunning left, right and centre, backed up by his cronies while they drove a van full of Walkers through the prison gates and released them. Hershel was pinned down in the grass, Rick trapped outside where he’d been talking to Imaginary Lori; it was a lengthy, heart-stopping action sequence of pure brilliance. Given the show’s eagerness to off its main characters this year, there was a genuine sense of jeopardy. You couldn’t be sure who would make it.

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Which was the perfect cue for Daryl and Merle to ride to the rescue, as the Governor left with a satisfied smirk, assuming the Walkers would do his work for him. Angry Glenn turned up too, roaring back in his pickup to rescue Hershel while the rest of the guys locked the inner gates and stared forlornly at the Walkers shambling through the area they’d wanted to grow crops in.

Gore of the week(s).

As ever this year, plenty of zombies in almost every shot, even when they’re just shadowy figures stumbling around in the background. This gave plenty of opportunities for some brutal head shots with knives, guns and even fists – though I had to wonder at the wisdom of Daryl punching them in the mouths. Surely if he cut his fist, he’d die as surely as if they’d bitten him?

Be that as it may, picks of the weeks were a couple of inventive head smashes. In ep9, Angry Glenn was so angry that he literally stomped a Walker’s head into mush:

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While in ep10, Daryl managed a similar effect with the tailgate of an elderly Subaru in his rescue of the stricken family on the bridge:

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Ouch.

These were two excellent episodes (despite Andrea’s annoying stupidity), outstanding as much for the performances as the thrills and action. Andrew Lincoln’s portrayal of the rapidly unravelling Rick is magnetic, while so, in a different way, is David Morrissey as the coolly psychopathic Governor. Melissa McBride continues to be quietly affecting as Carol, and Scott Wilson as Hershel has really come into his own recently. Steven Yeun continues to convince as Glenn becomes more bitter and angry, his relationship with Maggie hitting a bit of a rough spot this week.

Despite all that, my top performances this week were the continuingly superb Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus as Merle and Daryl. Rooker keeps Merle just the right side of parody, while Reedus manages to embody the kind of integrity his brother seems unable to ever reach. They’re a brilliant pair to watch.

The second half of the season is off to a terrific start. Will the Governor be back? What do you think? Will Andrea ever realise she’s being had? And how many of our main cast will be left alive and sane by the end of the season? Six more episodes to go…

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 7 – When the Dead Come Knocking

“For all we know, your brother’s out there searching for them now. Blood is blood, right? Makes me wonder where your loyalties lie.”

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Another thrilling missive from the post-zombie apocalypse world this week, as The Walking Dead continues to be compulsive viewing. This episode had the feel of an endgame, moving the pieces into place for next week’s big mid-season break, but managed to be just as exciting and creepy as ever. Along the way, there was the requisite amount of gore, death and betrayal, as the Woodbury community and the prison gang dealt with the newcomers in their midst.

As I’d expected, Glenn and Maggie did not have a nice time at the tender mercies of their Woodbury interrogations. Locked into a windowless room, Glenn had to deal with a brutal beating from Merle, whose final gambit was to unleash a ravenous Walker in with him. Steven Yeun got to be brilliantly hardass as he had to fight it off with his arms duct taped to a chair – which saved him from a nasty bite – before smashing the chair to bits and ramming its fragments through the corpse’s head. It was another demonstration of how the characters have hardened over the months since the last season, and a thrilling sequence to watch. Given the show’s high body count of late, the suspense over whether Glenn would make it felt very real.

But he didn’t give away his gang’s location, so it was up to the Governor himself to have another try, this time with Maggie. And boy, was that worse. Aptly described by Michonne as a “Jim Jones type”, his interrogation of Maggie was, if anything, nastier than Merle’s straightforward brutality. He started off trying the smooth, seductive technique that worked so well on the gullible Andrea, but when it became clear that wasn’t working, went straight to the sexual humiliation, forcing Maggie to strip before shoving her down and (presumably) raping her. It was probably the nastiest thing we’ve seen him do yet, and it was notable that not even this show actually depicted it happening. Blood and guts might be fine, but some things, it seems, are just too uncomfortable even for a cable network to show.

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Given that not even this could persuade Maggie to spill her guts, the Governor ended up taking what would have been the logical approach to try first – threatening to shoot one of them if the other wouldn’t answer the question. But it was a nice subversion of the expected trope that it was Glenn who was threatened and Maggie who had to answer. Which, finally, she did.

So now the Governor knows about the prison, and seems incredulous that such a small group could have cleared the place of Walkers. And there’s a hint that he was interested in it himself – for what, I wonder? Mention was again made of “the red zone”, which has yet to be fully explained, but I’m guessing it just means “area with a lot of Walkers in it”.

He’s interested in Walkers, the Governor. This week we got some enlargement on that, after the recent hints about Milton’s experiments, as we got to see his “scientific method” in action. Ably assisted by the glamorous Andrea, he was conditioning a dying old man to respond to repeated stimuli, in the hope that his revived corpse might have some memory of its former identity.

Andrea did try telling him that this wasn’t going to work, though for some reason she failed to mention that she’d seen some far more detailed research on the subject at the Atlanta CDC. But their conversation as they waited for the old man to turn gave us some revealing background on Milton – only child, parents already dead when civilisation fell, worked from home and had no friends. The perfect background, basically, for a sociopath, however mild-mannered he may seem, with no empathy for his fellow survivors.

Speaking of sociopaths, this pointed ever more obviously to one of the Governor’s larger motivations, made more explicit here than in the comic. He’s plainly hoping to somehow ‘bring back’ his undead daughter; I wonder how many in Woodbury know that he’s keeping her walking corpse locked up in his rooms?

Over at the prison, there was much debate about the recently arrived Michonne – once they’d made the decision to actually let her in. Michonne, for her part, was surprisingly trusting of another group she’d just met, considering her nous in immediate suspicion of Woodbury. Yes, she was a bit hostile – that’s basically her character – but she didn’t immediately wonder what Dark Secret Rick and the gang were keeping. Yes, we know they’re good guys, but it seemed a tad unlikely for Michonne, without the information we have, to be so trusting.

I also found myself constantly anticipating when/if she was going to let slip that ‘the enemy’ over in Woodbury included their old friends Andrea and Merle. She must be aware that this is the group they were both previously with, from the conversations we’ve seen them all having – is she keeping the information back for some reason of her own?

At least Rick was a bit suspicious; but trusting enough that soon he, Daryl and Oscar were accompanying Michonne on a trek to Woodbury to retrieve Maggie and Glenn. The trip took a peculiar sidestep when they found themselves surrounded by Walkers and took refuge in a nearby shack, which turned out to be occupied by a reclusive fellow survivor. Since he was making enough noise to wake the dead (or at least, attract them), Michonne took the lead in despatching him with a quick swordthrust.

I was again surprised at the level of trust Rick extended to somebody he’d only just met, in allowing her to keep a deadly sharp sword. But the scene showed again Michonne’s level of ruthless pragmatism, a level it seems Rick has yet to achieve. While he, Daryl and Oscar dithered over dealing with the shouting hermit, it was she who took the lead in, basically, rejecting the now useless morality left over from before the apocalypse.

It also provided a handy escape route – and this week’s gore highlight – as the gang used the fresh corpse as a tasty snack to distract the Walkers, making a sneaky getaway via the back door. The gruesome gut-ripping, courtesy as ever of KNB Effects, was definitely up there with the greats of zombie classics like Day of the Dead.

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The episode climaxed with Rick, Michonne, Daryl and Oscar hanging furtively around just outside the Woodbury wall, while behind it Andrea lurked unseen. The stakes have been made clear. Andrea doesn’t (yet) know that Merle has found the remnants of her former group, while they don’t know that she – and Merle – are within the walls. Merle doesn’t know – yet – that his beloved little brother is about to break into his stronghold. And I’m betting, that with the mid-season break after next week, we’re going to see a bit of a confrontation between the two groups’ diametrically opposed leaders.

Will Rick and the Governor annihilate each other by existing in the same space? Where will the loyalties lie of all the former allies and relatives, now on opposite sides? Like all the best zombie movies, The Walking Dead this year has come up with a group of human antangonists as the true villains, since the Walkers themselves can have no motivation and exist as a basic hazard of the post-apocalyptic world. Last year, for a human villain, we only had Shane – yes, a powerhouse performance from Jon Bernthal, but characteristic of the soap opera approach the show took that year as Shane was motivated by jealousy, obsession and lust. This year, the Governor and the Woodbury group are arguably nastier, with their greed, lust for power and honest-to-goodness insanity.

With what it seems we are now obliged to call the “mid-season finale” next week, the pieces are in place for a high stakes cliffhanger ending. The tension ratcheted up by Bear McCreary’s pulsating, pounding score (incidental music is a rarity in this show) has wound up the suspense to fever pitch. Since we know a lot of the stakes already, there’s likely to be less of an unexpected shock than last year’s mid season stunner of the undead Sophia’s reappearance – unless the showrunners have something to pull out of the hat in addition to the drama we already know about. Whichever, it looks like we’re in for quite a ride next week.

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The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 6–Hounded

“It’s not enough. It’s not safe enough.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 5–Say the Word

“People with nothing to hide don’t usually feel the need to tell you that.”

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After weeks of seemingly escalating action, it was a welcome change of pace in this week’s Walking Dead. Yes, the episode dealt with the aftermath of last week’s frenzied, traumatic developments; but this week the focus was more squarely on the seemingly idyllic community of Woodbury, as more of its Dark Secrets were revealed.

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As early as the pre-credit sequence, we saw who it was that the Governor had tipped his drink towards in his inner sanctum a couple of weeks ago – his beloved daughter. But she’s not the smiling, pretty little girl from the photo in his office any more – she’s a grey, rotting Walker, her hair coming out in clumps as her father tries to tenderly brush it.

As I’ve commented in various other reviews, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl in horror. From the ghostly twins in The Shining, through the wraithlike apparition in Ringu, they’re a staple, and a very spooky tradition. Penny, the Governor’s daughter, specifically recalls little Karen Cooper, the zombie girl from the original Night of the Living Dead who so brutally killed her mother with a trowel. But the Governor’s not quite so helpless as Mrs Cooper; he’s obviously been looking after what remains of his daughter for quite a while, and has a pillowcase handy to cover her head when she gets… bitey.

Michonne was not so subtly investigating the Too-Good-To-Be True community again this week, with a bullheaded approach that seemed less than sensible. She seemed to be sailing close to the wind last week with her barefaced challenge to the Governor over his account of what had happened to the too-trusting National Guardsmen; this week she was blatantly breaking into his house, reading his diary, and slaughtering his captive Walkers in a nice bit of gory katana-based action.

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It’s been said by some that Michonne hasn’t exactly translated well from the more obviously fantastical comic series to a TV show that strains to be grounded in realistic characters. Certainly her surly terseness and superhero-like ability with a sword seem more suited to something like Smallville. And yet, I’m enjoying Danai Gurira’s portrayal, which hints at untold events that turned Michonne from a normal person to this brooding post-apocalypse warrior. There’s plenty to be revealed about her yet, I think.

Still, her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to investigating seems quite unwise, even given her confidence in her ability to handle herself. Woodbury is firmly under the Governor’s spell, and challenging him against that kind of devotion from that many people would surely merit a more cautious, secretive investigation. Michonne, instead, allows herself to be nearly caught in the Governor’s house, then actually caught having a slash-fest with a bunch of Walkers whose purpose she can’t have been aware of.

It’s a credit to the show’s more subtle version of the Governor that, on discovering all this, he didn’t go straight to the violent extremes of his comic counterpart. Instead, he tried a more subtle approach, cajoling Michonne and trying to recruit her to his cause, even going so far as to apparently ‘allow’ her and Andrea to leave the town. It’s another nuanced portrayal from the talented David Morrissey; we believe the Governor is a genuinely dangerous, scheming politician utterly without scruple, but seductive with it (despite, behind the scenes, plainly being an absolute loon).

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Andrea’s certainly seduced, to the extent that she’s unwilling to even entertain Michonne’s (as it happens, accurate) suspicions. I must confess, since her self-obsessed death wish for much of season two, I’ve found Andrea a hard character to like, despite a perfectly good performance from Laurie Holden. Here, she compounded unlikeability with sheer stupidity in her unthinking trust not just of a gang of strangers, but a man she would have every reason to be suspicious of – the ever-charming Merle Dixon.

Still, at least Merle was consistent, with more memorable scenery-chewing from Michael Rooker this week. You genuinely didn’t know which way he’d jump when opening the gates for Michonne and Andrea to leave, but you were on safer ground when he started having fun with the undead. It came as no surprise that, when the show realised the comic’s concept of the Woodbury zombie-based gladiatorial streetfights, it was Merle who was straight into the ‘ring’ as reigning champion.

In the comic, it was the revelation of the ‘bread and circuses’ zombie fights which was the ultimate Secret of Woodbury; here, with that revealed in the fifth episode, I’m wondering if there’s more. Certainly Dr Milton’s mysterious ‘experiments’ have still to be explained, especially with a ‘research team’ that includes a man like Merle Dixon. Together with the conversation about Walkers ‘remembering’ their former identities a couple of weeks ago, I have a feeling this is going to play into quite what the Governor’s up to with his decomposing daughter…

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Back at the prison, it was all fallout from last week’s jawdropping events. With Woodbury having the lion’s share of the action this week, there was still plenty of drama with Rick and the gang, as they struggled to deal with their losses, together with the new addition of a baby girl who needed feeding.

Prisons not normally being replete with baby formula, Daryl took charge to dash out beyond the fence and find some, accompanied by the surprisingly resilient Maggie. Rick, meanwhile, went from last week’s crying wreck into a violent, self-destructive fugue of grief, heading unheeding of protest into the bowels of the prison, with an axe, to wreak revenge on the Walkers. Any Walkers.

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Cue an orgy of head-splitting with some quite excellent gore effects, from which not even Glenn could dissuade his enraged leader. The whole sequence was obviously inspired by a similarly self-destructive orgy of Walker-killing from the original comic, in that case carried out by another grief-stricken character who didn’t make it into the TV adaptation. As was the cliffhanger, which saw the tearful Rick startled by a ringing from a dusty phone, and reaching out to answer it. In fact, given the show’s usual approach of deliberately subverting comic readers’ expectations, this week was surprisingly faithful in its straight(ish) adaptations of the original’s set pieces and concepts.

Even with comparably little airtime, the gang at the prison still found moments to (often affectingly) reflect on the trauma of recent events. Trying to choose a name for his new baby sister, Carl came up with a litany of all the names of the female characters who’ve died since the show began, ending (inevitably) with ‘Lori’. Glenn emotionally explained to Axel and Oscar that the group were more than just his friends; after everything they’d been through together, they were family. Suitably awed, the former convicts helped him to dig the necessary graves – looks like they’ve been accepted into the group now.

Still, Glenn might be being overly fatalistic with those graves, unless I’ve somehow missed something. Given Daryl’s melancholy emplacement of a Cherokee Rose on one of them, it’s presumably Carol’s; and yet, I don’t recall her fate being shown. Did the gang just put up a cross, with nothing to bury?

This was a more thoughtful Walking Dead than we’ve been used to of late, in keeping with the trauma of last week. There’s no way the show could keep up that level of adrenaline-pumping action for the whole of its sixteen episode run, and fun though it’s been, I wouldn’t want to see it exchange spectacle for drama. But even here, the showrunners appear mindful of last year’s criticisms, not stinting on zombie appearances. Even in the seemingly peaceful prison yard, there were corpses all over the floor and Walkers shambling around outside the fence. In contrast to last year’s largely zombie-free farm, this year we have a setting that demonstrates, however calm it may seem, that this is still very much a show about a zombie apocalypse.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 3–Walk With Me

“Looks like you’re sitting pretty at the end of the world.”

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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.

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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.

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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.