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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