The real problem with last week’s excellent outing is a problem that had nothing to do with the episode itself. The real problem was that, for all its excellence and sadness and character clarification, “Clear” didn’t have all that much to do with the rest of the season as a whole. Sure, Rick found his damn guns, and Michonne’s efforts to ingratiate herself have something of an immediate pay off in “Arrow On The Doorpost,” but part of what made the episode so effective was that it was removed. It was a breath outside the shambling, rambling chaos of the rest of the show, and coming back to the plot means remembering all the things it was so much easier to put aside when the show, briefly, seemed to operate on some slightly higher plane. Like the fact that Andrea is still the worst. Or that awful habit everyone has of saying exactly what’s on their minds at any given moment, reducing conversations to Powerpoint presentations without all those nifty animation effects. Or the way so much of the conflict between Rick and the Governor seems to be built on a foundation of wet sand, solid enough in the moment, but crumbling when it drys.
The thing is, “Arrow On The Doorpost” isn’t really that bad. It’s better than the two episodes before “Clear,” and it brings Rick and the Governor together for their first (and probably last) face to face conversation. In a sense, this is a different kind of stalling, but it’s a much more interesting way to hold off a big battle than to just have people wander around aimlessly with occasional yelling. There’s no serious possibility that Rick and the Governor are going to find common ground, because the writers have seemingly no other story to tell at this point than the “war” Rick promises near the end of the hour. If Rick and the Governor had walked out of that room with some kind of handshake deal, you just know that someone on either side of the line would’ve managed to fuck things up somehow. An uneasy peace between Woodbury and the prison would get us dangerously close to the doldrums of Hershel’s farm, because instead of trying to build up a lasting world outside this conflict, the writers have mostly dithered and wasted time. Rick and his group exists because they’re the main characters, and the Governor and Woodbury exist because they need to have someone to shoot at in between zombie kills. It makes the season feel like it’s on rails, and not in a momentum-building way; this is better than season two’s vapid sandboxing, but the show still isn’t getting the most out of its thrills, because it has no way to properly contextualize them. Twists and shocks can be great tools, but they can’t exist in a vacuum. If they do, they just feel random and nihilistic. Anybody could die in the final battle, excluding (probably) Rick, but is that all we have to look forward to? Waiting for each climax to see who gets scrubbed out of the credits?
But yeah, this isn’t as bad as it has been. The scenes between Rick and the Governor are all glowering and bullshit, but the Governor gets a good speech about losing his wife before the plague hit; while I’ve come around to thinking he was miscast in this role (or, at the very least, needed writers who had a clearer idea of just who the hell the Governor is supposed to be), David Morrissey is still a strong actor, and he delivers the monologue well. Andrew Lincoln glares a lot, which he does very well. The only real point of interest (apart from the Governor kicking Andrea out, which is pretty funny) is the Governor’s offer to Rick to make this all go away if he just hands over Michonne.
This, at least, has some possibilities. Forcing Rick to decide what kind of leader he wants to be, suggesting Michonne as a possible sacrifice right after she finally starts to make friends with people, raising the question of whether trading one life for more is a good idea, regardless of the math. It’s the sort of issue that, theoretically, might have generated a lot of awkward emoting, but at least it was something that more complicated than simply, “I hate you. Die.” Or at least it would’ve been if the Governor hadn’t immediately revealed to Milton that he planned to execute Michonne and anyone dumb enough to come with her to Woodbury if Rick took him up on his offer. (Milton helpfully points out that this would be a slaughter.) So now any discussion of the proposition, like the one Rick has with Hershel at the end of the hour, is basically moot; it’s an idea built on bad faith, so there’s no doubt the answer should be no. Admittedly, it would’ve been hard to trust the Governor in any case, but at least entertaining the possibility that he might be serious for more than five minutes would’ve been nice. Now all we get to do is to go back to hoping Rick won’t do anything stupid.
Right, I was saying this wasn’t bad, but I keep getting distracted. While Rick and the Governor talk, we check in on various characters as they wait to see what happens next. Daryl gets to bond with one of the Governor’s men, and Hershel and Milton have a conversation about Hershel’s bum leg; these are small, effective scenes that help to remind us just how unreal all of this is, and how pointless any battle between Woodbury and the prison will be. Back at the prison, everyone’s going through the new gun stash, and Merle makes an aggressive case for going to take out the Governor then and there. Merle’s assholery seems to fluctuate between episodes; at this point, he’s basically just a more intense version of Daryl, although I’m sure he’ll say something horrible again soon. (Not that his comments to Glenn were exactly friendly.) Oh, and Glenn and Maggie have sex while they should be on guard duty, which, in a horror movie, would mean they were both doomed, but as this is a TV show, they’re still doomed—it’ll take longer for the doom to arrive. Multiple seasons, let’s hope.
What makes this a bit better than some earlier episodes is that there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end; this is an episode with a single story to tell, and that means it has some of that focus I was going on about last week. Structure is important, and the structure here is sound; it’s even a nice touch the way the hour begins, with a silent cold open as Rick, Hershel, and Daryl arrive at the proposed meeting place to find the Governor already waiting for them. For the most part, every scene has a definite purpose; Merle’s sudden decision that he absolutely has to go to the meeting spot and get revenge is arbitrary and doesn’t go anywhere (which is an apt for description for too much of the between-big-moments stuff on this show), but at least every conversation has a point to it. There are three more episodes left before the end of the season, and presumably that means the momentum established by “Arrow On The Doorpost” will continue. Which is good, really; this is a shark show, and shark shows survive on constant motion, so Rick’s speech to the group, in which he doesn’t mention the Michonne offer but does promise everyone that they violence is coming, reassures us that everything is on track. Sometime soon, the guns will go off, and the dying will being in earnest, and I’m sure someone will get eaten by zombies in a manner which is both ironic and horrifying, so that’s all right. That’s enough for a decent show to get by on. It’s just, a great show, like the one we got a glimpse of last week, would’ve done better at making sure the conflict had more at stake than numbers.
- Why the hell doesn’t the Governor just kill Rick when he has the chance? He’s demonstrated he has no compunction about betraying his enemies’ trust when it suits him. I guess he might be worried that Daryl would put up a fight if Rick went down, but I still don’t understand his motivation here. But then, that’s nothing new. The closer we get to the end, the more the Governor seems like a waste of potential, his personality shifting between “reasonable” and “brutal totalitarian obsessive” without any sense of why he’s shifting, and no real consistency as to what makes him do what he does. While I appreciate the effort to avoid making the character a one-note psychopath, at this point, I can’t help wondering if a psychopath might not have been more effective; at least then there’d be real horror at the thought of what would happen to our heroes if he had them at his mercy. (And no, I’m not forgetting how awful he and his men were to Glenn and Maggie. But he isn’t scary, not even when he’s threatening someone with sexual violence. He’s just a wishy-washy creep.)
- “I thought you were a cop, not a lawyer.” “Either way, I don’t pretend to be a governor.” Rick burn!
- THIS WEEK IN ANDREA IS THE WORST: She told the Governor that Lori’s baby might be Shane’s son, and not Rick’s. Who does that?
- “What happened with Maggie?” “He’s a sick man.”—Hershel, subtly suggesting to Andrea that she may have picked the wrong horse.