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