Season three of "The Walking Dead" has had a decidedly John Wayne bent to it. The bad guys are evil, the good guys are complicated, and the elements are constantly threatening. What is a post-apocalyptic zombie landscape but another frontier, after all? This week’s mid-season finale followed familiar Western logic: Rick and his team of prison misfits would finally face a showdown with the Governor over Glenn and Maggie.
Though "The Walking Dead" is a show that’s ostensibly about zombies, it's at its best when it balances the constant heart-in-your-throat horror with the brutality of the survivors, what part of humanity the characters are forced to sacrifice in order to stay alive. The dialog can be a little on the nose, as when Maggie turns to Glenn and laments that “all this time running from walkers, you forget what people can do.” More interesting are the logical sacrifices the characters make. Earlier this season, there was Rick’s hallucinated phone call. And this week, some of the Governor's grandiose control issues come to light.
It’s clear that the Governor is a bad dude. But until this episode, he seems more like a confused, power-addled accountant than a super villain. He chases Michonne down and pretty ruthlessly interrogates Glenn and Maggie. There’s his whole zombie heads in backlit aquariums thing, which is a big red flag. Even keeping his undead daughter Penny in hair bows and a straitjacket isn’t the worst thing: After all, Hershel had a whole barn full of walkers.
But when Michonne, split off from Rick and his rescue team, puts a sword through Penny’s head, the Governor loses his only link to normal human feelings. The scene with Michonne and the Governor struggling on the floor, decapitated zombie heads snapping around them on the floor like unleashed piranhas, had more desperation than most of last season combined. Michonne escapes by stabbing the Governor in the eye with a piece of glass. (A slashed eyeball? Now that’s a face injury worthy of a megalomaniac.) Andrea finds him sobbing and rocking his daughter, blood streaming down his face. If there’s one sure way to turn a bad guy into a ruthless villain, it’s to take away the only thing he cares about.
It’s a tribute to the team of the show's writers that the emotional heft of the episode wasn’t in an obvious place. It wasn’t Darryl and Merle’s fraught reunion, or even in Glenn and Maggie’s rescue from a terrifying-sounding “screamer pit.” The most resonant part of the episode was the brief moment when Michonne and Andrea met, weapons drawn. Michonne all but snarls, and Andrea, still oblivious to the monster that the Governor is becoming, looks disappointed.
Back at the prison, Carl has to take charge when another band of survivors wanders into the prison. He goes down to rescue the screaming outsiders because, as he says, “it’s what my dad would do.” But Carl has learned caution as well as compassion from Rick. He helps the new guys out of the walker-infested tombs, but then locks them into a holding room outside the cellblock. It’s a nice touch, and it rings true: Carl has evolved from a liability to an asset, a stone-cold killer before he hits puberty. He won’t leave anyone behind, but nor will he risk one of his own.
Rick, meanwhile, gets Glenn and Maggie out of Woodbury relatively unscathed. Oscar gets hit in the process, but he’s basically been zombie bait since he and Axel came crawling to the gate. The biggest loss is Darryl, who’s on the hunt for his brother. The episode ends with the Governor ruthlessly turning on Merle, who he blames for letting in “the terrorists.” When "The Walking Dead" returns in February, it’ll open with Merle and Darryl trying to get out of this scrape, and a new age of the Governor’s rule. Things are about to get nasty in Woodbury.
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