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.