Imagine the dead are rising. Try and look past the countless movies, comics, books, and hours of television; and pretend, just for a few minutes, that it’s actually possible. Try and imagine what that would actually mean for your life. Once you got past the initial shocks, the collapsing infrastructure, the ugly deaths of people you love—once you get past those first crises, then you have to deal with what comes next. Which is just running for the rest of your life. There’s no safety anymore. You can hunker down for a while, but eventually, you’ll make a mistake. It doesn’t even have to be your first mistake—maybe it’s your second or third or 15th—but sooner or later, you’ll miss locking a door, or you’ll forget to bring enough ammunition, or you’ll get appendicitis, or so many other things. Then you die. And the thing is, even before then, even in that brief period when the walls around you are secure and you sleep three or four hours a night instead of none, even when you can pretend you’re starting to build a life for you and your family and a future that will last maybe even all the way to the weekend, even then, you know it’s a lie. Because you know how close you are. That’s always been the appeal of zombies, deep down. The danger isn’t sexy or eerie or otherworldly. It’s just death, only more so. And it never, ever stops.
The best thing The Walking Dead has done this season is to make that danger as present and unrelenting as possible. Many of the characters are still messy or ghosts; dialogue is often perfunctory at best; and if you actually stop and think about it, it’s hard to figure out what the point of all of this is, or what we’re rooting for, or where it’s headed. Those are fairly significant problems for an ongoing TV show, especially one as wildly popular as this one, given that it will most likely be on the air for at least two or three more seasons, if not many, many more. But while these past eight episodes weren’t perfect, they represent a huge step forward in turning this from a show that constantly squanders its few moments of potential to something fast and exciting and wickedly fun to watch. What it really comes down to is that constant rush. Where last season got stuck endlessly recycling the same two or three ideas at Hershel’s farm, this year it seems like every new week brings some fresh hell to Rick and his fellow survivors. Not all of it works, but the relentlessness means that the missteps hardly matter. Don’t like this twist? Well, wait five minutes, and let’s see how this grabs you.
Back in the première, Rick and the rest (including the still breathing Lori and poor, poor T. Dog) found the prison. Rick decided it would be a safe place to live, once they cleaned out the zombies, so that sounded like the plan that would dominate the next big arc on the series. First they’d get inside, then they’d kill a lot of walkers, and with that taken care of, they’d set to work making this a place people could live. Except, that hasn’t really happened. Yeah, the prison is working out okay, if you can get past the multiple deaths, but it doesn’t feel like a hub of operations so much as a place that still isn’t finished yet. There’s no real permanence to it, and when Rick takes a team to Woodbury to rescue Maggie and Glenn, there’s no comfort in thinking he’ll be taking them back home. There is no home. There’s just a building where they won’t be tortured and killed, which is basically the most anyone has to offer at this point.
“Made To Suffer” goes by quickly, like all the season’s best episodes, building to a firefight in the main streets of Woodbury where Andrea almost, but not quite, manages to see Rick and the others. It’s one of the bigger action set pieces the show has tried to pull off, and while the sequence doesn’t have a lot of grace to it (it’s nearly impossible to tell where anyone is in relation to anyone else, although that might be intentional), it’s intense and exciting, and it conveys both how good Rick and his team are at dealing with hostiles, and just how many men the Governor has at his disposal. Everything seems desperate and like it’s about to fall apart at any second, so it’s no big surprise when poor Oscar gets shot. He’s the least defined character of the group, and the most likely red shirt; his death doesn’t raise the stakes so much as it seems to satisfy some unspoken need for secondary-character sacrifice.
Thankfully, there’s enough crazy going on that this passes by with only a brief huh? Maggie and Glenn bond a little more (and I realize that I’m really invested in both of them now, which makes me understandably nervous), and then Glenn goes all MacGyver, ripping open the arm of a dead walker to break out some bone stakes for him and his girlfriend to use on the guards. Maggie even gets a kill in before Rick and the others storm in. These episodes have done a great job at selling just how lethal and driven the winter made our heroes. The Governor’s attempts to bring peace and joy to Woodbury are built on a foundation of lies and murder, but it’s also a dream that’s making his soldiers soft. As dangerous as it gets for Rick and the others, they manage to pull off a major assault and achieve their central goal with only one loss (so far). That’s the tradeoff for recognizing the world for what it really is: not many ice cream socials, but you know how to get the job done.
While Oscar is getting himself shot helping Maggie over the wall, Michonne goes on a mission to take down the Governor herself. The motivation here is questionable—while the Governor is definitely behind the men who went after Michonne to kill her, you’d think she’d need more justification to go on a special mission of revenge. Because we still know so little about the character’s backstory, there’s not enough context to understand her decision. It makes her look unstable in a way that I’m not sure was intended, like somehow she’s even crazier than the man she wants dead. Still, her discovery of the Governor’s secret room works well, allowing even Michonne to be shocked for once, and it’s interesting how her assumptions about the Governor make her think Penny’s captivity is much worse than it actually is. The fight between her and the Governor is appropriately brutal, and the sight of her stabbing a shard of glass into his eye has the sort of awful immediacy we’ve come to expect of the show’s violence. That Andrea shows up when she does and assumes the worst is interesting, but, again, it doesn’t work as well as it might have due to the lack of development for both characters. This is supposed to be the severing of an important friendship, but it doesn’t seem particularly significant, apart from the super intense staring.
Back at the prison, we’ve got another group to keep track off. Chad Coleman, an actor who should be familiar to everybody as Dennis “Cutty” Wise from The Wire, shows up as Tyreese, leading his own band of survivors, including Coleader Lady, Ben The Young Guy Who Can’t Handle Death, Other Guy, and Zombie Chow. (I think there were more names, but at this point they barely exist, so I’m sticking with my bad joke.) Zombie Chow gets bitten in the cold open, right before Tyreese and the others stumble across the prison. Once they’re inside, Carl, Beth, and Hershel hear the noises, and Carl goes to investigate, because I guess Hershel doesn’t think to call Carol over to help? Carl is basically a complete bad-ass at this point anyway. He locates Tyreese’s group, leads them to the safe cell block adjacent to where Rick and the others are staying, and closes the door on them. He also offers to shoot their bitten party member, because he’s had some practice, which is pretty damn heartbreaking.
It’s going to be some time before we see our not-so-merry band of survivors, so where does “Made To Suffer” leave everyone? Maggie and Glenn have been rescued, but they’re still waiting outside of Woodbury along with Rick. When Michonne shows up, Rick isn’t really happy to see her, which seems like a bit of over-compensation on his part; she did, after all, do what she promised to do, and as she points out, he needs her help to get back to the prison. But at least this group is relatively safe for the moment. Back at the prison, things seem okay, although Tyreese hasn’t killed off Zombie Chow yet, which could be bad news. Worse, Axel’s enthusiasm for getting laid is sending off all kinds of creepy vibes, just the way he got real interested when he found out Beth was 17 could be a bad sign. (His assumption that Carol was a lesbian was kind of funny, though.)
Really, though, the big cliffhanger that’s going to haunt us for the next couple months is the fact that the Governor has decided to turn on Merle and throw him and Daryl to the walkers. It’s an intense scene, and it builds well, but I’ll admit that I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It comes down to the fact that the Governor has never come across as insane as the show needs him to be to make all of this work. Right now, we should believe that an already unstable leader—someone charismatic enough to attract a following, cagey enough to protect them, and psychotic enough to see every outside group as a threat—has cracked and gone completely over the edge into something new and even more terrifying. That’s all there in theory, but the transition isn’t as effective as it should’ve been. The Governor betraying his second-in-command (or whatever Merle was) is almost too perfectly designed to set up that ending. It’s not completely unbelievable; it’s just not as believable, or intense, as it should have been.
Still, this was a decent way to close out the mid-season, and we’ve still got eight more episodes for everything to go to hell. “Made To Suffer” wasn’t the strongest hour of the fall, but it got the job done and it kept things moving. Right now, that’s the only way to stay alive.
- Weird how Tyreese gets introduced the same episode Oscar gets shot.
- Speaking of Oscar getting shot, fun seeing Shane again, if only for a few seconds. I guess getting a phone call from the dead doesn't make you completely sane after all.
- Possibly Loony Theory: Maybe the Governor didn't turn on Merle; maybe this is part of the scheme they were talking about earlier in the hour when the Governor wanted to use Daryl as a mole against the other prison people. If the Governor can find a way to first make it look like he wants Merle dead, and then find a way to let Merle escape... who knows?
- I don’t usually watch these as they air, so I’ve missed the ads for the most part, but man alive was that Talking Dead promo badly timed. Calm down, AMC. Give us, like, 10 seconds to enjoy your damn show.
- The Governor says he used the fish tanks full of heads to prepare him for the outside world. Oooookay.
- Andrea may finally realize she’s in over her head. But then again, she is Andrea.
- I’ll be thinking about that last scene for a while. Hoping it grows on me.
- See you all in February!