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.

Continue reading “The Walking Dead: Season 4, episode 6 – Live Bait”

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.

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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 14 – Prey

“I knew Philip before he was the Governor. That man still exists.” – Milton

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After In the Flesh, it was back to more conventional zombie fare with the latest instalment of this year’s much-improved Walking Dead. Watching the show after BBC3’s innovative version of the zombie myth brings home what a trad take on zombies The Walking Dead is, more so even than George Romero’s later instalments. Contrary to whatever Milton and the Governor may think, these zombies are simply mindless killers, with no ‘spark’ left of their former selves.

Not that this is a bad thing; The Walking Dead is still one of the best dramas on TV right now, and certainly the most indepth exploration of a premise that’s normally confined to 2 hour feature films. Still, as my friend Matt pointed out the other day, it’s getting so involved in the conflict between the human characters that the Walkers are getting treated rather inconsistently. They vacillate between being major threats or minor inconveniences as the story demands.

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Hence, this week, Andrea was able to stroll around among them without much of a problem, but when a bit of tension was required, suddenly she found herself grabbed by one and unable to get free. Except by ramming her knife into the other ones attacking her that is. And that’s another thing; aren’t they getting easier to kill? I’ve alluded to this before, but the human skull is actually quite hard. Pushing a knife through it seems easier here than it should be (eye sockets excepted). Still later in the ep though, they became a major threat once again…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This week was primarily about the machinations in Woodbury, and very involving it was too. So much so that, in fact, it wasn’t until near the end that I realised we hadn’t actually seen any of the gang from the prison this week.

True, we did see Michonne in a pre-credits flashback, which threw a few more hints about the origin of her now properly deceased Walker companions (“They deserved what they got. They weren’t human to begin with”). And Rick popped up for about ten seconds, but didn’t get any dialogue. No, we were definitely focused on one side of the coming war this week; I’d guess that next week we’ll see the prison group’s side of the preparations, and that the finale will be The Final Conflict. It has a degree of predictability, true, but it’s fun to watch it unfold.

As is often the case, the machinations of the ‘villains’ were more intriguing than the arguments and angst of the ‘heroes’ (though one of this show’s strengths is that neither group strictly fits into either category). Over in Woodbury, the Governor was gearing up for war, with Martinez loading an awful lot of heavy weaponry onto a truck – just as a “precaution”.

But the Governor’s followers aren’t quite the mindless puppets they were, and this week he faced discontent from several directions. Tyreese, plainly more perceptive than Andrea, has already begun to smell a rat (and a pit full of Walkers). Milton, perhaps bolstered by his chat with Hershel, appears to have grown a spine, and is no longer shy about telling his maniac boss that the upcoming fight is a Bad Idea. With predictable results.

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And Andrea (finally!) has realised that her boyfriend is a psychotic nutter. What clued you in, Andrea? The zombie daughter in a cupboard, the fish tanks full of served heads, the constant propaganda lies? No, it was Milton’s shaky revelation that the Governor has a dentist chair equipped with handcuffs. The relish with which our eyepatched antagonist fondled his torture tools was truly disturbing – especially his lingering delight at the dental pick. Perhaps the first question he’s going to ask is, “is it safe?”

Anyway, this was the final straw for Andrea, a woman who apparently takes a lot of pushing, and she reached for her gun. Unfortunately, Milton wasn’t prepared to let her go that far; fortunately for us, as it would deprive the viewers of the Big Finale. No, Milton still thinks there’s a decent man in there somewhere. Thankfully, Andrea finally doesn’t, so she was straight on to Plan B – leg it to the prison and warn Rick that the proposed deal was off.

Tyreese, meanwhile, was somewhat disturbed at the proposed tactic of letting another phalanx of Walkers loose at the prison. Rick may not have impressed him, but he wasn’t keen on turning a group including women and children into zombie chow. Allen (even more of a dick here than his counterpart in the comics) didn’t agree, and plainly has issues with Tyreese – issues relating to his recently-deceased wife.

It was good to get a bit more background on this gang; we still haven’t learned much about them, and if the comics are anything to go by, Tyreese at least will be a major player. And he’s currently fulfilling the show’s apparent quota of one black male allowed as a major character – let’s hope for his sake that Morgan doesn’t turn up to join the cast as a regular.

Thankfully, the resentment between Tyreese and Allen didn’t simmer on for countless episodes as with Rick and Shane. They got straight to addressing their differences, by means of Tyreese dangling Allen over the pit of Walkers.

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I’m guessing that showrunner Glen Mazzara, who co-wrote this episode, has recently watched Romero’s 1986 classic Day of the Dead, as this was obviously a moment lifted from that movie – specifically, the bit where the angry Steel dangles Miguel over – yes – a pit of Walkers. And it wasn’t the only moment lifted from that movie this week – I counted three.

The others came in a genuinely tense sequence as the increasingly barmy Governor chased Andrea down to an abandoned factory infested with Walkers. I thought I’d had my fill of people stalking each other round abandoned factories after 24 and Homeland, but director Stefan Schwartz managed to wring some real tension out of it. The Governor had a spade, and plainly was going to use it; his hollow attempts at persuasion (“Come back… Woodbury is your home now.”) being pretty unconvincing.

Andrea, for her part, kept having to deal with those inconvenient Walkers. Until they swung once again from being an inconvenience to a genuine threat. Having discovered a stairwell chock full of them, she pulled the door open and hid behind it to unleash them on the Governor, in an obvious ‘homage’ to the moment in Day of the Dead when villainous Captain Rhodes opens a door to find a horde of zombies ready to engulf him.

It was a tense sequence, spiced up by the knowledge that in this show, anyone can die at any time. So for a while, I wondered if the Governor genuinely was going to bash in his former girlfriend’s head; then I wondered whether he’d find himself overwhelmed and bitten or eaten. The script cleverly cut to another scene before we found out, eking out the tension. But no, the Governor’s too good a villain to die offscreen, and he was back just as Andrea reached the prison (which obviously is within walking distance), in time to grab her before she had a chance to call out to Rick. And with the inevitability of a Chekov’s Gun, she ended the episode strapped into the dentist chair. That’ll teach her not to notice she’s shacked up with a sociopath.

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Gore of the week

I wasn’t expecting much gore this week, in an episode where it seemed that the humans were the real threat. Thankfully, this year the show has remembered to include some actual zombies in every episode, and in the end I found myself torn between two choice gore moments.

The first was yet another Day of the Dead tribute, as the Governor borrowed one of that movie’s methods of zombie dispatch and offed a Walker with a nicely-aimed shovel through the mouth:

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But that was rivalled a mere few minutes later, as we saw the aftermath of a mysterious ‘somebody’ (let’s face it, it was Milton) having torched the Walker pit. A tangled mass of charbroiled zombies were still feebly flopping around in a scene that probably topped the mouth/shovel interface:

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Only two more episodes to go, and the show’s plainly ramping up for the final act. This was another gripping instalment, with David Morrissey at the top of his game as the Governor’s façade of sanity began to seriously crack. The way he’s crumbling cleverly mirrors what happened to Rick, but Rick seems to be pulling himself together in the face of a seemingly overwhelming threat. Perhaps his only chance is if the Governor (or the ‘AntiRick’) loses it altogether. But I wouldn’t count on that happening before the season finale…

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 8 – Made to Suffer

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

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The Walking Dead reached its ‘mid-season finale’ this week with a measured but exciting climax, by original comic writer Robert Kirkman, that resisted the usual temptation to chuck in everything but the kitchen sink. It was all the better for it, keeping a tight rein on the drama even while (surprisingly at this point) introducing a new group of characters.

Making their debut in the pre-credits teaser, the new gang include comics stalwart Tyreese, here played efficiently but unmemorably by Chad Coleman. Tyreese’s group got the lion’s share of the Walker action this week, fighting through the undead in the woods, then later in the prison, with some good head-smashing action sequences. Some nice direction from Billy Gierhart here – this is the first time we’ve seen any rain in the show since season one, where it functioned as a plot device rather than part of the show’s atmosphere. It certainly explains the well-realised increasing shabbiness of the Walkers, who presumably just stagger about in the open whatever the weather.

The new characters also served to introduce some action into the prison, where the regulars would otherwise have little to do but twiddle their thumbs waiting for Rick and co to return. There was a bit of this, with moustachioed and frustrated Axel seemingly hitting on young Beth, then having a go at the stern Carol (once he’d established that she wasn’t a lesbian). But of all the ones waiting at the prison, it was, once again, Carl who got to step up and be a hero.

It’s a measure of how the series has grown that Carl is no longer the irritating child who keeps wandering off into mortal danger, but a hardened survivor more than capable of taking care of himself. By this point in the comics, he’d had to take some very nasty courses of action that left him pretty well scarred psychologically; here, obviously his part in his mother’s death has served that function somewhat. He’s now almost like a miniature Rick, stern, gruff and taciturn – and handy with a gun. Chandler Riggs continues to use the opportunity to deliver an excellent performance – between this, Game of Thrones and Mad Men, cable drama seems to have some amazingly good child actors.

Carl’s sojourn into the Walker-infested depths of the prison to rescue Tyreese’s crew also revealed that the prison was not as secure as it might have seemed. There’s an enormous hole blasted in one of the buildings and the fence around it, which is presumably why the gang haven’t yet completely cleared the place of Walkers. What’s the betting that this could be a problem when the Governor’s forces finally turn up?

And turn up they undoubtedly will after the events of this episode. Occurrences at the prison were really just a sideshow, as the bulk of the story concentrated on Rick, Daryl, Oscar and Michonne as they infiltrated Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie – laying the ground for some unanticipated consequences. Glenn continued to be resourceful this week, literally ripping the arm bones out of the downed Walker to use as a weapon. It was a gruesome moment, which also showcased how good Steven Yeun currently looks with his shirt off – someone’s been working out.

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Significantly, Maggie told the concerned Glenn that the Governor “never touched” her – very much in contradiction to what was heavily implied (but not shown) last week. Given this show’s tendency to put its characters through the wringer, I’m betting that she’s trying to spare her boyfriend’s feelings, and that some measure of PTSD is very much in the offing for her.

Glenn did get to use his improvised weapon on one of the Woodbury troops, but not unexpectedly failed to get the drop on Merle. Luckily for him (and Maggie, that was the point when Rick and his commandos showed up to rescue them, alerted by the shooting they’d provoked.

One of the major points of suspense in the episode was when exactly Merle and Daryl would meet up (or at least realise they were fighting each other as the gang battled through the streets of Woodbury in a shot filled firefight). In this, both script and direction were clever, as Rick deployed smoke bombs to obscure their presence. This also had the effect of obscuring who the shadowy figures shooting were, meaning Merle and Daryl were frequently within spitting distance of each other, all unawares.

Rick too got a moment of confusion about who he was shooting at – he thought it was Shane. Yes, in a crowd-pleasing (but extremely contrived) moment, Jon Bernthal popped back to the show for a quick wordless cameo, blasting away at Rick in slo mo. Contrived it may have been, but it also served to point up that Rick’s mental state may not be all that stable after everything he’s been through; perhaps that will come back to haunt him.

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Still, Rick is a paragon of sanity compared to the Governor, whose actions this week pretty much laid bare everything he’d been keeping secret. Michonne, obviously motivated by a personal grudge, had split off from Rick and co to head for the Governor’s apartment; where it didn’t take her long to stumble over his room full of floating heads, and what she initially took to be a little girl held hostage.

Again, direction and script worked well together as, at the precise moment she realised what the little girl really was and prepared to despatch her, who should walk in but the Governor himself. It was a measure of how much more nuanced this version of the character is than his comic counterpart that, with the threat to his beloved daughter, he was instantly submissive, dropping all his weapons and practically begging Michonne not to harm his little girl.

I’ve read a couple of comments to the effect that, by then killing her anyway in the face of pleas from a man who’s obviously mentally ill, Michonne didn’t exactly show herself to be the better “man” in this scene. Certainly, David Morrissey’s performance made me feel more than a bit of sympathy for the Governor, despite all we’ve seen him do.

But let’s not forget, Michonne’s initial suspicions of him hardened into certainty quite quickly, when in the second episode featuring Woodbury, she found damn near conclusive evidence that he’d murdered all those National Guardsmen then lied to the town about it. And we as viewers have seen enough that any flickers of sympathy disappeared fairly quickly as he roared with rage and engaged her in a pretty brutal fight. It was cleverly choreographed, as some of the fish tanks were pulled over to deposit chomping undead heads on the floor between the combatants, giving an extra layer of jeopardy to it.

Michonne eventually got the upper hand, and incapacitated the enraged Governor with a shard of glass from one of the broken fish tanks, inserted into the eye. It was another nod to the comics (where the Governor lost considerably more body parts in that fight), later issues of which show him sporting an eyepatch – currently it’s just bandaged up, but I’m guessing the eyepatch is on the way.

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Of course, that was the point where, inevitably, Andrea walked in to find her erstwhile comrade having just half-blinded the man she’s sleeping with. While many critics find Michonne’s comic-book hardassery and terseness an annoying feature of this year, for me it’s trumped by Andrea’s continuing stupidity, gullibility and blind trust. You’d expect her to be horrified by the revelation that the Governor had an aquarium of zombie heads (including the quite recognisable helicopter pilot), and was keeping his undead daughter chained in a cupboard. For most people, this would likely be a relationship-ending moment.

Not for Andrea, though. She was horrified for a bit, then meekly accepted the Governor’s dubious excuse that the heads were to “prepare me for the horrors out there”. And she still hasn’t had the nous to wonder what provoked the running battle on Woodbury’s formerly idyllic streets – ie the hostages that used to be friends of hers. Yes, I acknowledge that Michonne needs to be given more depth when the show returns, to stop her being just a Batman-like hardass cipher; but even more urgently, the writers need to stop portraying Andrea as quite so stupid.

Luckily for the Governor, the rest of Woodbury’s population seem just as gullible as Andrea is. Nuts he may be, but he’s still an instinctively smart politician, and as soon as he used the word “terrorists” to describe Rick and his gang, I could see where this was going. Yes, it’s becoming an overused trope for powerful TV villains to cast our heroes in this light, with all the contemporary comment it’s obviously freighted with. But it was done well here, with David Morrissey’s charismatic speech whipping the Woodbury residents into a convincingly frenzied, vengeance-hungry mob.

And it was the targets of their hate that prompted the cleverly low key cliffhanger to this half of the season. It was a genuine shock (both offscreen and on) when the Governor suddenly singled Merle out as the traitor who’d granted the terrorists access. Michael Rooker was, as ever, excellent as he went from astonishment to trepidation to cynicism here. We – and he – know that Merle’s being made a scapegoat because of his lies about having killed Michonne. But the Woodbury mob doesn’t know that. And the crowning cliffhanger (which became inevitable once we realised Merle was being thrown to the wolves) was the Governor’s evidence against him – his captive brother, dragged out in chains.

As I say, a nicely restrained mid-season cliffhanger; only two of the major characters are in immediate jeopardy, and one of those isn’t very nice (though I’d hate to lose him). Rick and the rest of the gang are safely (well, safely-ish) on their way back to the prison with Glenn and Maggie; though they lost Oscar along the way. Shame, I thought he was shaping up nicely as a character. And the rest of the prison crew are still safe (ish), with Tyreese and the new gang behind locked doors until they can be trusted. So it’s really just Merle and Daryl we have to worry about. For now.

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I like that; too many shows try to ramp up the cliffhangers in an increasingly contrived desire to up the stakes for each season break. Here, Kirkman’s script gives us longer-term worries; the Governor definitely wants the prison cleared of people, but he doesn’t want to move his community there. Why should he? Their blindly faithful morale would likely be crushed by its grey bleakness. No, it seems he just doesn’t want to lose face, having previously claimed the prison to be uninhabitable. I’m not sure I buy that as a motive, but either way his sights are obviously fixed on the place. Merle and Daryl might be the only ones in immediate danger, but the rest of our heroes had better watch out when the show returns in February.