The secret behind most zombie fiction is that, yes, the undead rising up and feasting on everybody would be cause for considerable alarm, but the real danger is always the people who manage to avoid getting eaten. Exceptions exist when the zombies aren’t the real focus of the story (Shaun of the Dead is actually about a man-child growing up. The upcoming Warm Bodies looks like it’s about…chasing Twilight dollars?), but whether it’s Book of Eli, Escape from New York, or 28 Days Later, the true fear that comes with living in the apocalypse is in not knowing what lengths other people are willing to go to in order to survive. Or, barring the comfort of a natural death, just making sure they last a little bit longer than you do.
Ending the first half of its third season on a high note worthy of just how good it’s been thus far, The Walking Dead is really starting to understand the dramatic benefits that come with letting an apocalypse scenario run for the long-term. Most zombie movies inevitably end with a last stand at a fortified location, because two hours only allots you so much time to wring every last scare and thrill out of shambling corpses coming to chew your brains. They’ll also show the immediate dangers posed by people that are unprepared, unwilling, or unreliable in a crisis. Those are the chumps that usually end up as fodder, becoming haunting memories for others lucky, or smart enough to adapt in the new world order. Guys like Rick and The Governor.
In the immediate aftermath of a viral outbreak that drops the world’s population down a couple digits, it’s harder to lump people into discreet moral categories, because survival tends to bring out the worst in almost everyone. Sure, you’ve got racist assholes like Merle who can’t change their ways, or guys like Shane, who try to capitalize on the situation, but it’s only once things have settled down a bit, when getting through to the next day isn’t what’s driving you, that individual nature begins to bare out. We watched Rick’s gang navigate some interpersonal water when trying to make their case for staying on Herschel’s farm, but until they reached the prison, zombies were pretty much the only antagonistic force they needed to be concerned with, so motives and maneuvering took a backseat to headshots and fire axes.
A year after the start of the outbreak though, things have changed plenty. The opening scene of season 3 made a big point of how adjusted everyone has become to the daily rigors of living in Zombieland, and once they found the prison, the walkers were no longer the big problem. It was the people in the prison that proved fatal, and Rick learned the hard way what happens when you give someone the chance to get revenge. The Governor on the other hand seems far too comfortable with making the hard call, such that almost anyone who isn’t already a member of Woodbury is considered a threat to be eliminated. It’s hard to know how the people he’s protecting would react if they knew the lengths he goes to in keeping them safe, but you get something of an idea based on how readily the townsfolk turn on Merle, once the newly cycloptic Governor names him as a spy (either believing it himself following a painful reunion with Michonne, or choosing to offer Merle up as a scapegoat).
Rick hasn’t hit Governor levels of callousness yet, but the degree to which he’s hardened becomes apparent when “Made to Suffer” opens with an entirely new set of survivors. Pursued by walkers into a heretofore unseen (unmentioned too?) entrance of the prison, their hulking leader, Tyrese (Chad Coleman, AKA The Wire’s Cutty Wise), could be mistaken for an earlier Rick, refusing to leave behind a bitten member of the group out of stupid, but humane decency. It’s funny to imagine the story from their perspective, as they wind up cornered by walkers before a pistol-toting, cowboy-hat-wearing savior appears, one who bails them out mere moments before locking them all in a cell. Tyrese is almost naively diplomatic about being trapped so long as his survivors are safe, while Carl’s purely calculated move is the result of following his father’s example.
The edge Rick’s camp has over the average Woodbury citizen is that they haven’t had the luxury of acclimatizing to four-walled living yet. Reunited with Maggy, Glen shares a tender moment with her, before wisely limping over to the walker he killed last week, ripping off its arm, and making an infected shank out of some bone. If nothing else, this season has proven that the writers are developing the Breaking Bad skill set of giving characters clever and grisly solutions to dire situations. They only succeed in delaying their execution a few moments (Gov won’t risk Andrea finding out about them, now that he knows the prison has been taken), but it buys them enough time for Rick, Oscar, Michonne and Darryl to mount a rescue.
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Had you told me a year ago that The Walking Dead could stage an exhilarating, episode-long action scene with no zombies in it, I’d be as confused as the member of the Woodbury neighborhood watch who stumbles upon Rick’s gang (favorite detail: when asked about how many were in the group, he thinks maybe six or seven). Rick’s bunch seemed conveniently immune to the gas grenades they were dropping, but the smoke, constant gunfire and burning torches really sold the hard-fought crawl through enemy territory. The prison crew are hopelessly outmanned, and though they have the element of surprise on their side, they wind up losing Oscar, after Rick gets distracted by a vision of Shane. Even with his mind focused on saving his people, it’s clear that Rick’s dementia isn’t going away anytime soon.
More than the effects and the non-stop tension though, what makes the rescue, and “Made to Suffer” work on the whole, is the clear internal conflict inhibiting many of the characters. Back when they were fighting zombies, no one gave a rat’s ass about relationships and secrets. Now though, allegiances are in question, and politics need to be accounted for. The Governor proves how attractive a leader he is when he calmly dictates the town’s defense, but brusquely sidelines Andrea to keep her from realizing her old friends are killing her new ones.
Michonne ditches the group to pay a visit to The Governor’s house, doing her best Anton Chigurh impression as she waits to get a little payback for the goodbye party he sent after her a few weeks back. The discovery of Gov’s daughter Penny, and how scared he is when she’s threatened, makes Michonne think twice about the man. Here’s a guy who’s gained immense power in this new social hierarchy, but is desperately grasping at the last trace of his old life. We may not know Michonne’s story, but now she knows some of his. The loss of his family might partially explain why he’s turned so ruthless, but does it excuse it?
As Michonne decides, no, not in the slightest, and even if she was aware of his new-age zombie rehabilitation program, she would have probably killed Penny regardless. This leads to a ferocious struggle (one which the camera has trouble fully capturing), as the The Governor’s trophy cases are shattered while the two tussle, in a version of the town’s Wrestlemania brawling that’s surprisingly more dangerous with just biter heads lying about. After giving Gov the kind of glass eye that means he’ll need the another type soon, Michonne is robbed of the chance to finish him off when Andrea shows up, and the two remorsefully stare each other down, before Michonne flees. Andrea starts the episode a naturalized citizen of Woodbury, but her trust of The Governor is in jeopardy by hour’s end, and she’ll soon be caught up in a struggle that’s outcome might hinge on her allegiance.
The biggest pivots on both sides of the conflict were the Dixon brothers though. Norman Reedus opens up Darryl just a bit, as he pleads with Rick to help him find his brother, and it’s shockingly moving. Darryl is a fan favorite mostly for his laconic nature and skill with a crossbow, but getting a glimpse behind the affects, and seeing the genuinely concerned brother that wears them, makes him all the more fascinating. Merle is absolute scum, but to Darryl, he’s family, and what else is worth trying to save in hell on earth? Even Merle seems to agree that blood runs thicker than Woodbury’s clean water, and through all the excitement, you’re left hoping the two will be reunited by the end of it.
Which is what makes the closing scene mildly Shakespearean, both for the manner in which the brothers are rejoined, and for how theatrically it stages The Governor’s use of the two as a rallying cry. A fight to the death between the Dixon boys is a perfect note to end the half season on, making a cliffhanger out a personal moment that has grave implications for the pair. But more than any other finale thus far, The Walking Dead’s path after tonight seems clear, and rife with potential: Rick hasn’t just poked a bear, he’s made a decisive first strike against a superior force, a force that’s out for revenge. His group has proven they can survive zombies, the elements, and individuals. But can they survive a war? We’ll find out, come February.Previous