There’s a brutal practicality to The Walking Dead which, at its best, is a good part of the show’s appeal. Because the math is so simple. This guy is a threat? Shoot him in the head. A woman gets pregnant without any access to health care? Dead; and, when there’s a chance she might come back as a zombie, her young son shoots her in the head. I’ve beaten this point into the ground in previous episodes, but it keeps coming back, because it’s so key—the stakes are never more than dire, and that means an automatic tension no matter what’s happening on screen. That’s the attraction that keeps bringing in the audiences, the appeal that even the dregs of a sloppy, meandering second season couldn’t completely destroy. (It sure isn’t the raw sex appeal of sad, sweaty people shouting at each other.) The downside is, with everything this intense, it’s hard to build character. Character on television is created by showing us how people react in different situations, but in a situation like this, the range of response is highly limited. Which means it’s hard to know anything about these folks beyond the fact that they do not want to get eaten by the living dead. The writers do what they can—Rick is increasingly unhinged, the Governor has a need for control, Michonne stabs things—but it’s amazing how empty this show is, even now. It works, but it’s not really sustainable.
Case in point: “The Suicide King” gets us re-acquainted with everyone, picking the action back up right where “Made To Suffer” left off. Merle and Daryl are set against each other in a fight to the death, and the Governor isn’t interested in Andrea’s pleas for sanity. Then Rick and his highly trained squad of people who hadn’t been shot yet attack via guns and smoke bombs, and both Merle and Daryl escape in the chaos. It’s a decent sequence; the cliffhanger’s high stakes are put aside almost immediately (in that both Merle and Daryl make it out alive, and no one gets killed apart from a few more of the Governor’s henchmen), but that was probably inevitable. Most of the rest of the episode is people squabbling in different groups, pieces shifting across a very small board while we wait for the next big catastrophe. Daryl refuses to leave Merle behind, but Rick and Glenn don’t want him in their group. Merle is an asshole. Back at the prison, Tyrese and Sasha convince Adam and Ben that they don’t want to attack Hershel and the others, because that’s not the kind of people they are. Daryl ends up going off with Merle, and Rick is forced to take Michonne back to the prison because she’s unwell. Carol is sad that Daryl is gone. Rick tells Tyrese and the others to leave, and then freaks out when he sees a ghost.
It’s not terrible television, but it’s also not as gripping as the show at its best, because too much of it depends on people arguing about who goes where and does what, and there aren’t any real surprises. Okay, yes, the ghost was a surprise, although I’m not sure it’s a good one; showing Rick losing his grip on reality isn’t a terrible direction to take, but pushing him this hard, and doing so in front of the entire group, runs the risk of making it impossible to believe when he inevitably keeps his leadership position and has to pull everyone together to fight off the Governor’s attack. Still, we don’t know where this is headed, and we don’t know why Rick sees dead Lori (and it has to be dead Lori, right?) when he does; if I had to bet money, I’d say it’s that part of his brain realizes he needs to trust someone if his people are going to survive, and that could potentially pay off nicely down the line. But it would’ve been nice if, for once, Rick could’ve accepted Tyrese and the others without all the yelling. Because we’ve seen this scene before. Admittedly, the hallucination is new, but Rick’s unwillingness to bring in strangers has been well-established, and the show has spent too much time developing Tyrese, Sasha, and the others to just abandon them now. (And given that each episode is already splitting its time with Woodbury, I don’t think the writers are planning to throw in a third group to keep track of.) Which means there’s a ton of build up to what we all know is coming—Rick accepts the new people, they join forces to stave off a larger threat—without any release. On the one hand, that means that when Rick finally does make up his damn mind, it could be more satisfying; but on the other, it leaves us with yet another scene of growling and yelling and people failing to work together.
Really, The Walking Dead needs to do more than that. It needs to find ways to surprise us and move us that don’t require shocking violence or horrible consequences. Which isn’t to say those can’t be great—the first half of the season ably demonstrated how much mileage you could get out of twisting various knives. But there ought to be something to fill the space between the screams, right? “The Suicide King” does what it can, and there are signs that the show is in a better place than it was in its worst months. Of the prison folk, Tyrese and Sasha are likable, even if all we know about them so far is that they don’t want to kill strangers for guns. There’s a genuinely nice exchange between Hershel and Glenn, helping to get past the whole “Asian boy” issue before, and Carol continues to be one of the show’s most welcome, and unexpected, assets. Her conversations with Carl and Beth are well-acted, and give us a sense of some depth beyond the immediate crisis; and the way she connects Daryl’s relationship with Merle to her own relationship with her abusive husband is insightful and unexpected, clarifying her own feelings about Daryl in a way that makes me really want to see them together more often. Rick is still Rick, all bug-eyed and desperate.
But at least he’s consistent. Back at Woodbury, the Governor has turned all hard and violent because of the attack on his town, but as much as I like the actor, the character still remains too vague and ineffectual to come across as a serious threat. It should be a shock when he strides out and shoots an injured man in the head, but it’s mostly just funny, and his angry conversation with Julia just lies flat on the screen. I buy that he’s upset over losing an eye and seeing his dead daughter killed (again), but I’ve yet to be sold on this as some kind of massive shift in temperament, which is what the episode is clearly pushing for. Andrea keeps acting horrified at all the chaos around her, but instead of sympathizing with her (or feeling like this is some kind of just dessert for her choosing to side with the “bad” guys), I thought she came off like an idiot. Even more so than usual, really. And that pep talk she gives to the locals, the one that seems to stave off a riot by the sheer power of its under-justified optimism, was laughably bad. Everything that’s happening in that town ought to play like last act of a tragedy, the center-not-holding sequence that comes at the end of all the great zombie movies. And we’re getting glimpses of that; the idea of walkers breaking through the busted gates and munching on the citizens isn’t subtle, but it’s solid. A collapse into chaos is being suggested. There’s just precious little umph behind it.
There’s time, though. More than anything, “The Suicide King” feels like it’s shuffling folks around so it can get to the next big step in the season’s arc, and while I wish it did so with a little more grace or character, those make-or-break stakes remain. There’s going to be a big fight between the prison group and the Woodbury group, and it should be intense, and hopefully no more black people will have to die to make it happen. Merle and Daryl remain in the wilderness as wild cards for both sides, which could be cool. Rick will surely come to some kind of sanity in the weeks to come, unless the show suddenly decides to lose its main character for good, which I don’t see happening. The pieces that were put in motion in the fall still remain, for the most part, which means there’s a relentlessness to the proceedings that helps make the slower hours like this one easier to take. But it would be nice if the folks behind the scenes figured out how to make us care about these people in between the subtractions.
- As long as I’m whining, it’d also be great if the episodes were constructed more as episodes, and less as chunks of a big story with semi-arbitrary beginnings and conclusions. I don’t need standalones or anything crazy like that, but this starts with the escape from Woodbury and ends with Rick’s freak-out. There’s no real cohesion; it’s like the writers realized they were getting near the end, so they stopped as soon as they hit a big dramatic moment. Which isn’t the worst thing that could happen, of course, but this would be a better show if it put as much attention to the parts as it does to the whole.
- Merle calls Michonne “my Nubian queen,” because being a racist asshole dickhead takes class.
- Speaking of Merle, I think my theory from the mid-season finale (that this is all some plot by the Governor to get in with the prison people) could still potentially stand, although it’s looking less and less likely by the minute. The fact that Daryl and Merle ran off on their own doesn’t mean much one way or the other, since Merle could want some alone time with his brother to bring him back into the fold. But as others pointed out, Merle’s lie about Michonne is actually a pretty solid reason for the Governor to turn on him, so who knows.
- Rick refuses to shake Tyrese’s hand. Rick is a jerk.
- The Governor mentions “Heisenberg” as one of the people Rick and his team killed. Ha-ha. Nobody kills Heisenberg but Vince Gilligan.