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 4–Killer Within

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

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Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 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.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 2–Sick

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

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Warning – contains spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 1–Seed

“Weapons, food, medicine – this place could be a goldmine.”

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Warning – contains spoilers!

After a rather windy, badly paced second season, AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead was finally back on our screens last night. The often dull second season, aptly summed up on Facebook as “people argue… and sometimes zombies show up”, was a frustrating mixture of the brilliant and the utterly mundane, with, generally speaking, comparatively few sightings of the zombies that are the show’s raison d’etre.

It also settled into a tedious routine, with all the characters stuck on Hershel Greene’s implausibly utopian farm and settling into tropes of established behaviour. As sure is eggs is eggs, Rick and Shane would argue about the interminable search for little Sophia, T-Dog would struggle to get even one line, Lori would moan about stupidly trivial issues and Carl would wander off unsupervised into mortal danger.

Still, amid the soap opera, there were some good emotional beats and musings on the post-apocalypse scenario the gang found themselves in. And there were some good zombie set pieces; the freeway attack in episode 1, the barn full of walkers at the mid-season break, and finally, a memorably apocalyptic finale which saw a herd of them finally overrun and destroy (thank goodness) the farm that we’d got sick of the sight of by then.

Season 3 gives the show something of a fresh start in all sorts of ways. The alpha male territorial pissing between Rick and Shane is finally resolved what with Shane being dead and all, they’re off the farm at last, Rick has firmly taken charge to stave off the ceaseless arguing, and, refreshingly, the gang has split up into two parties, giving the possibility of separate narratives and settings that was absent last season.

As if to reflect the fresh start, the opening titles have been given a revamp for the first time since the start. They’re still in much the same style, but the sepia-toned rotting buildings are new ones, and obviously, the cast credits have changed to reflect the fact that we’re now free of Shane’s belligerent head-butting and Dale’s endless moralising. And the final building we see is plainly going to be the setting for this season. More downbeat and grim than Hershel’s farm, it’s the prison that’s so well-remembered from a fair chunk of the comic.

I’d have preferred it if they’d got there sooner, by dealing with the farm plotline halfway through last season then moving on. But the last season had budgetary problems, among others; a requirement to make more than twice the episodes of the first season with about half the money. Hopefully, given that it was still a success, AMC has thrown a bit more money at this even longer, 16 episode season.

It certainly seemed like it from this well-paced season opener, which certainly didn’t stint on the zombies but also left room for us to catch up on what the characters have been up to. Clearly, some time has passed; in the wordless precredit sequence as the gang raided a walker-infested house for supplies, it was noticeable that Carl’s hair is now longer and straggly, while Hershel has grown a beard. Everyone else’s hair looked the same as ever, though, making me wonder when on their lengthy flight from the walkers the guys found time to stop and have a shave and a haircut.

Turned out they’d been running all winter from the herd that engulfed the farm, with other herds closing in from all sides. Fortunately for Rick and the gang, a quick scout down the road revealed what was presumably the prison we’d seen in the distance at the end of the season finale. Given that they’d had all winter, you’d think they might have stumbled on it before, but I’ll let that pass.

The prison was heavily stocked with zombies, but had the advantage of several layers of boundary fences, enabling our gang to get in and clear the place out in the manner that was cursorily swept over in the original Dawn of the Dead. Here, we got to see it all, which meant liberal doses of zombie action for most of the first half of the episode as our heroes hacked, slashed and shot at rotting heads all over the screen. Just when they thought they could deal with the dead prisoners easily, out shuffled some riot gear-clad guard like the next level up in a first person shooter, which led to some inventive grue.

The fact that this is, among other things, a gory horror story was not forgotten about, and some of the effects were convincingly gruesome, a mixture of CG and practical work from the legendary Greg Nicotero. Probably the best was the unfortunate rotting guard whose face came off together with his gas mask as Rick pulled at it:

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Once inside, there was a bit of time to pause and reflect before the next round of searching the darkened, bleak setting. Lori, predictably, immediately took to moaning about how her husband and son can’t stand her any more (not to mention the audience), but her worries about the pregnancy were inventive and well-founded. What if the baby was stillborn? Would it try and eat her from inside? (That might be interesting to watch) Or if she died in childbirth, would she eat the baby? Hershel reassured her that in any of those scenarios, she and/or the baby would be promptly dispatched. Actually, if she doesn’t stop moaning, that might end up happening regardless of zombification.

Looks like Hershel may not be around too long though, as, during the claustrophobic search of the next block, he foolishly ignored a corpse that the camera kept suspiciously lingering on, which duly got up and bit him. Hustling him into the prison cafeteria, Rick lost no time in hacking his leg off to stop the infection spreading, another wince-makingly gruesome sequence. Whether it’ll work is anyone’s guess, as the show’s still making up its own rules about its zombies.Still, it was good to see another well-remembered incident from the comic book brought to life, even though it happened to a different character there.

Speaking of the comics, fans will doubtless be cheered by the arrival of well-liked character Michonne (though she’s yet to be identified by name onscreen). Memorably introduced as a silhouetted figure accompanied by two chained, jawless, armless zombies in the final minutes of the last season, she’d rescued Andrea from the chaos of the farm’s destruction and apparently they’ve been hanging out together all winter.

Danai Gurira is suitably grim-faced and badass in the role, first appearing here to hack off the heads of some inconvenient walkers as she foraged for aspirin. The katana is her chosen weapon, as in the comics, and she uses her neutered zombies as pack mules, an inventive touch. Unfortunately Andrea was a bit under the weather with some nasty cold-like symptoms, so we didn’t get to see much of a dynamic between their tow characters as yet, but hopefully that’s to come.

So, a promising start which looks like the showrunners may have digested many of the criticisms of the show’s uneven second season, and perhaps AMC have been a bit less stingy with the budget. The cliffhanger, which reveals that our heroes aren’t the only survivors in the prison, is straight out of the comic books, and promises more of a plot than just another year of everyone hanging around in one place and bitching. Meanwhile, Andrea and Michonne being already separated from the main party is a deviation from the comic, but a damn good idea, giving more narrative scope from the off.

Let’s hope the rest of the season maintains the quality here; but I won’t take it for granted, as the second season opener was pretty good too. I noticed that with all the action, T-Dog still barely got a line; though character beats were fairly frugal so far. And at least Carl now seems able to take care of himself with a gun, so hopefully there’ll be less worrying when he inevitably wanders off. The throw forward to upcoming events looks promising too, with the much-anticipated arrival of Britain’s own David Morrissey as the nasty Governor of Woodbury – though perhaps once again, fans of the comic will find their expectations of him cleverly subverted. Either way, this season opener has so far done much to dispel the fans’ anxieties after last year.