It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: The Walking Dead is a much better show when no one is talking. Take tonight’s episode, named (ha ha) “Say The Word.” Part of the hour is spent in Woodbury, as Michonne tries to prove her suspicions to Andrea; part of it’s spent with the main group at the prison, as they deal with the fallout from last week, and as Daryl and Maggie hunt desperately for formula to save Lori and Rick’s baby; and part of it is spent with Rick—who has set himself apart from everyone, driven to madness in his grief—raging around a walker-filled cell block and stacking up bodies wherever he goes. Rick’s plot has the least conversation. At one point, Glenn tracks him down and tries to talk some sense into him, which doesn’t go so well. Rick never says a word. If there’s a line separating sanity from its absence, Rick has crossed it, and there’s no obvious route for him to find his way home. He doesn’t say a word until the very end of the episode, and his scenes are easily the strongest of the episode. They’re quick (to be fair, it’s doubtful “Silent, Grief-struck, Batshit Insane Rick” could’ve carried a full hour), and they’re violent, but they also have tremendous power, both in terms of momentum and character. While I had reservations about the context of Lori’s death, it does give everyone at the prison something to do this week, which is good; and seeing it as yet another way to drive Rick out of his ever-loving mind gives it some purpose beyond the immediate shock and horror.
While the rest of the episode is far from terrible, little in it reaches the feverish intensity of Rick’s few scenes, and the dialogue is a big reason why. It’s an easy criticism to make—those silly writers, they can’t write how people talk—but it’s worth focusing on what, specifically, makes the conversations on The Walking Dead so regularly tedious. In “Say The Word,” various characters chat with various other characters, laying out what’s on their mind in straightforward, declarative sentences. Glenn is upset at all the death, and sort of wishes they’d killed the other convicts as soon as they’d met them. Michonne doesn’t trust the Governor. The Governor wants Andrea and Michonne to stay. Merle is an asshole. And so on. This is better than season two, thank goodness; the Governor is still somewhat mysterious (why is he so invested in keeping Michonne and Andrea around? Is it because he wants more babies in Woodbury? Is he attracted to Andrea?), and Michonne’s lines are so minimal it makes those few things she says seem much more important than they otherwise might. She also gets off the occasional good line, like “People with nothing to hide don’t usually feel the need to say so.”
Still, it’s hard not to sigh when any two people on this show get to chatting, and the reason is pretty simple: There’s nothing to talk about beyond the immediate threat. The scenes in Woodbury work on a basic level because we know that Michonne is probably right, and we also know that Andrea will come to regret her refusal to listen. Plus, the Governor has serious issues; between him and his men shooting a bunch of innocent National Guardsmen and taking their stuff, the backroom full of heads in aquariums, and the fact that the man keeps his zombie daughter locked away in his house, it’s evident he’s not a well man. But at least that means he has a character, and a rough kind of complexity. Who is Michonne? Apart from the stuff she had when we first saw her—the sword, the mouthless walkers—there’s nothing to her. All we know is that she doesn’t trust Woodbury, and while that might say something about her (she’s cautious, has good instincts), her bad feelings are more a way to foreshadow the dangers the town represents than anything else. And Andrea? She’s—blonde. And she kind of has a chip on her shoulder, but it amounts to just arguing a lot.
The difficulty of a genre show is finding a way to balance obvious, general reactions (“Oh my God, zombies!” or “Oh my God, vampires!”, i.e., what basically anyone would say in a situation with zombies and/or vampires) and character-specific reactions. Take, say, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. One of Joss Whedon’s greatest gifts is being able to find his characters’ voices. Sure, they all tend to tell jokes in roughly the same way, but Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles are distinct personalities, and as the series went on, part of what made it so entertaining and moving to watch was that you got a rough sense of how, say, Buffy would handle this situation, or Willow would handle that. Which meant that their dialogue, in addition to being witty, had more going on than just basic, “This is literally what’s going through this person’s mind right now” stuff. It also meant there were reasons to team up various characters with other characters. A Xander and Giles storyline had potential beyond just the rudimentary details of plot. There was a history to work off of, and comic (and dramatic) potential to be drawn from clashing personalities.
The Walking Dead is a lot grimmer than Buffy ever is, for good reason, but despite the significant improvement the series has shown this season, it’s still flailing when it comes to finding ways to make these people interesting beyond their situation. Part of the appeal of good TV is that we want to hang out with characters we see every week—we’re drawn back for the laughs and the excitement, sure, but there’s also that sense of getting comfort from familiar faces. By the second season, I would’ve been happy to watch a monster-free episode of Buffy. Try and imagine what a zombie-free episode of The Walking Dead would be like. And no, I don’t mean one that has Rick and the Governor squaring off. Just an hour of Glenn, Maggie, Daryl, Hershel, the blonde one (Beth), Carl, Carol (if she isn’t dead), and Rick, sitting around, looking morose. Somebody would tell a story about how much better life was before the dead started rising. Everyone would sigh. Carl might stare at Beth for a while. Rick would say, “Where’s T-Dog?” and then someone would whisper in his ear.
There’s no reason to watch any of these people (apart from Daryl, who is awesome) beyond the promise that, yes, they will eventually have to deal with zombies, or psychopaths, or psychopaths with zombies. That’s fine so long as the action is going, and it’s easy to overlook when the writers are willing to kill off major characters every couple of episodes just to keep us guessing. (Last season, I spent half the time bemoaning the lack of major deaths, so I guess I should be thankful that particular policy has been changed.) A show called The Walking Dead is always going to have the walking dead around. But if it wants to make the episodes between those big moments work, scenes like Glenn and Hershel’s chat through the prison fence need to have something unexpected, something that makes them more than just actors reacting to the horrors at hand. Try humor (Maggie’s “I’m not putting that in my bag,” after Daryl shot a possum, was a throwaway line; it was also hilarious, and had more warmth and humanity in it than anything else in the hour), try individual goals, try anything beyond what we’re getting. As it is, I’m more scared of the scenes with no physical threat than I am of slavering monsters.
Plot-wise, “Say The Word” does have some interesting ideas. For one, it immediately addresses concerns about feeding Lori and Rick’s baby. Aside from general concerns about the show’s direction, this is a good plot, as it has both immediate importance and a symbolic value: As much as nobody wants the baby to die, it’s even more important saving her considering how much was lost to bring her into the world. No one says out loud, “If we can keep this child alive, we can prove it’s possible to find some hope and goodness in this awful world!” but that’s clearly what drives Maggie and Daryl. The episode also shows various characters using zombie-killing as a way to “blow off steam,” as the Governor puts it: Rick, in the aftermath of Lori’s death; Michonne, at least in part to get her and Andrea thrown out of town (this is the Governor’s theory, but it makes sense); Merle and Milton turn it into a kind of alpha-male game; and, of course, the Governor’s “festivities,” in a which a group of toothless, chained zombies snarl as Merle and another guy fight between them.
Andrea freaks out at this last bit, but while it’s clear that she’s supposed to be in the right (this is, in a small way, the awfulness Michonne sensed was coming), it’s hard to feel much sympathy. Given what we actually know the Governor is capable of, what Andrea sees at least makes a certain amount of sense. The night-fights are stupid and silly, but they at least offer some sense of victory over the dead, some way to normalize all that’s happened. Andrea is upset because the Governor and his men are making the walkers less frightening, but how else can people be expected to live in this new world? How else is it possible to create some kind of worthwhile existence if you can’t find a way to accept the most basic fact of your new reality? I’m sure this will all end in chaos and destruction for Woodbury, because that’s how zombie stories work, and the Governor is no doubt a total nut job (as indicated by the journal Michonne finds and its “All work and no play” style slash marks), but just showing a voluntary boxing match with some questionable-taste spectacle isn’t enough to generate suspense. It’s interesting, but after all that buildup, it’s pretty anticlimactic.
Because what are the other options? Right now, given a choice between the two, Woodbury seems a safer bet than the prison, provided you don’t pose a threat to the Governor’s way of life. David Morrissey remains an interesting presence (with an accent even worse than Andrew Lincoln’s), but his low-key, friendly approach makes him hard to read, and even harder to view as a serious threat. Which may be the point—maybe the writers are working to build up the contrasts between the prison folk and the Woodbury folk by making the latter seem better adjusted, saner, and safer. In fact, there’s no maybe about it—that’s clearly the main approach for this half of the season, and given how bad things have gotten at the prison (which is, let’s not forget, a prison), it’s worked fairly well. But for the inevitable conflict between Rick and the Governor to have any weight, the Governor needs to be more of a threat, and so far, the menace isn’t there. It comes out in bits and pieces, but hopefully Andrea will be having more reason to regret ignoring Michonne in the weeks ahead.
As for Rick—well, Rick is very scary now. At the end of the episode, he finds a walker with its belly pouched out like a pregnant woman’s; he shoots the zombie in the head, then stabs the thing’s stomach again and again and again. This is presumably “anger” in the Kubler-Ross model. Then Rick gets a phone call. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out who is calling, but given the circumstances, I doubt it’s Stevie Wonder.
- No sign of Carol, and the group is assuming she’s dead. But while Glenn digs a grave for her, we never see a body, so I’m holding out hope. (Carol actually showed some promise this season. It’d be a shame to lose her, although I don’t know why she’d still be hiding.)
- I like Glenn not making a big deal out of Maggie going with Daryl on the formula hunt. You could pass it off as part and parcel with Glenn’s usual passivity, but I read it as him showing respect for someone he loves.
- In all of the fuss over Lori’s death, I forgot to mention it last week, but I was disappointed at how quickly the Governor gave Andrea his name (“Philip.”). His men use it this week, so it’s not just a fake name, either. It undercuts one of his most menacing moments, which is a shame.
- Playing “Saturday Night Special” at the big zombie fights was a nice, if an obvious, touch.
- Michonne needs more development, and fast. But it’s great that she finally leaves town; having her glower at everyone to no effect was getting old, especially as it was obvious that the Governor wasn’t going to do anything to stop her.
- A NOTE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE READ THE COMICS: Yes, we all know what the phone call is about. Let’s let everyone who doesn’t know enjoy the mystery, okay?