Outside, Milton and Hershel bond over their shared intellectual curiosity and incisiveness. Both men appreciate the recently diminished power of intellect and logic, though Milton is just a bit creepy about it. The two could be friends in another world. Andrea gets the opportunity to do more of nothing, having set up the summit but getting removed from it almost immediately.
The best moment in this arc comes from watching Daryl and the Governor’s thug taking out zombies. The two men have been needlessly at one another’s throats since they first arrived at the farm house, but shortly after Daryl finds a pack of smokes on a zombie they open up to one another. This isn’t just the best character moment in the episode, but it also offers one of the few insights into how the zombies of the show could be treated now that ‘object of fear’ seems to have been crossed off the list.
When Daryl questions the ferocity that his counterpart uses to kill the walkers, he says that he hates the zombies for what they did to his life, his world. It’s the first time rage or anger toward the dead has entered into the show, and I think it’s a brilliant move. The walkers represent the force of change, and in the end, in the smarter episode, that would be the acknowledged primary motivating factor for the conflict – the fear of change, the fear of how each side will affect one another. Too bad the moment is swallowed whole and never allowed to grow.
Back at the prison there is a lot of sound and fury that represents nothing. Merle wants to go kill the Governor now (how quickly his loyalty shifts) while everyone tries to stop him. There are a number of fights, and it all adds up to very little but more empty tension building. The only real step forward from this point is when Glen and Maggie finally hash out the issues that have been holding them back since their capture.
Here we get the writing that could have helped the summit. The emotional honesty and the outright love between these two characters is on full display, and their eventual coupling is not so much gratuitous as it is a further physical expression of the emotional catharsis they just reached. There’s even a bit of humor, with Glen finding it hard to be intimate in front of the shambling horde of the undead. Though it does speak poorly about the tropes this show has cultivated when you assume that two characters who are finally happy will either been suddenly bitten or unceremoniously shot. Luckily neither of these things happen, but again this is the kind of false tension the show should stray from.
The episode ends with a final ultimatum and a musical montage that feels successful in execution while being woefully underdeveloped. The Governor promises Rick that the prison group will be safe if they hand over Michonne. Both groups then return to their camps, music in the background underscoring the elevation of tension that the show never really earned. Rick doesn’t even tell the group about the offer of peace, instead letting them know that war is coming.
The Governor, meanwhile, tells his cronies that no matter what happens the prison group will be killed. This, unfortunately, saps any tension out of Rick’s internal quandary over whether or not to hand over Michonne. If we believed it would help the group we could understand his reason for wanting to consider it. Since we know it will not, it now is just a kind of false flag, a source of tension only because we know that it won’t work and hope Rick realizes it too. It removes the moral dread from the situation – sacrificing one for the good of many – and instead reduces it all down to plot.
Rick fills in Hershel on the situation, Milton balks at the idea of slaughtering the prison group… but what does all of that leave us with? The Michonne gambit is a road which we know will lead us to a certain point. War has been coming all season. This episode offered no insights into the world of The Walking Dead like Clear did, nor did it move us in an unexpected direction. It was a water-treading hour, filled with two moments of personal honesty and otherwise padded out by stilted negotiating and irritating Merle posturing.
The Walking Dead has to learn to succeed as a narrative of life after the end of the world, and a season long narrative arc will not aid this endeavor as much as season long themes illustrated by smaller stories will. Invest us in the characters and we will follow them anywhere – Lost taught us this – but squander them on needlessly elongated and undercooked plots, and all we have is an occasionally thrilling diversion, rather than the truly great piece of fiction we hoped for.