The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 8–Too Far Gone

“I need the prison, that’s all. I got people I need to keep alive. No one needs to die.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that was upsetting on several different levels. Real drama, with characters we care about in mortal danger, and  given the show’s usual style, no guarantee who would get out alive. As the ‘mid-season finale’, this episode packed a punch that was bigger than the actual finale of the otherwise excellent third season. Mostly because it felt like it actually was the finale to the third season, the climax that never really came to the story of the rivalry between Rick and the Governor, and their two communities.

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The Walking Dead: Season 4, episode 7–Dead Weight

“You seem different now. Changed. Are you?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

It was another Governor-centric episode of The Walking Dead this week, as we followed the ongoing adventures of our favourite baddie and the show continued to tease us as to whether he was a reformed character. More action-packed than last week, it seemed a little more conventional as an episode, though as ever David Morrissey’s performance as the charismatic villain/antihero made up for a lot of shortcomings.

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The Walking Dead: Season 4, episode 6 – Live Bait

“You can lose a lot of soldiers but still win the game.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

If, like a number of people I know, you found last week’s rushed conclusion to the epidemic storyline rather a mixed bag of an episode, this week’s Walking Dead offered something completely different. And, I think, rather more interesting.

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The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 5 – Internment

“Life was always a test, Rick.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Things were sure looking grim at the prison in this week’s instalment of The Walking Dead. As seems to be the style this season, it was a slow-burning plot that built to an action-packed climax; with Daryl’s drug-gathering party still not returned, only Rick, Carl, Maggie and Hershel were well enough to defend the fences against the hordes of slavering undead. And Hershel was unavailable, having quarantined himself in Cell Block A with the sufferers of the mysterious disease.

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The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 1 – 30 Days Without an Accident

“Being afraid is what’s kept us alive.

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As The Walking Dead returns for its fourth season, we find ourselves in the hands of yet another showrunner. Glen Mazzara relinquished the reins of the show after the excellent third season to Scott Gimple; but that shouldn’t be a cause for worry, as Gimple’s been a producer and writer since the show’s second season. This season premiere confirmed that the show’s in safe hands. It’s very much found its stride after the action and dramatic punch of last year, and this ep continued that trend, with enough character development to work as serious drama while not stinting on the undead action.

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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 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.

Classic tribute zombie

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…