For most of its running time, “Walk With Me” is playing a long con. We’re with Andrea and Michonne this week, as they first find a helicopter wreck, then watch a group of strange men deal with the bodies, then get grabbed by our old friend Merle, who, it turns out, isn’t dead after all (like anybody thought he was), then get taken to the seemingly idyllic town of Woodbury, where peace and prosperity and very big walls reign. The Governor runs Woodbury, and he seems like a very nice, very comforting presence, which is where the con comes in. If you’ve read the comics, you know the Governor is not a man to be trusted, but even if you haven’t, from a narrative standpoint, the odds of Andrea and Michonne stumbling across an actual sanctuary of safety and decency were slim. That’s not how stories work, and it’s not how The Walking Dead works. Besides, Merle lives in Woodbury. It’s hard to think of a more obvious omen of bad times ahead.
What makes this episode fun, then, is how long the writers keep up the ruse, and how far they go toward making the Governor sympathetic. Casting helps; David Morrissey is cast brilliantly against type, as the actor is authoritative but still sympathetic, warm, and friendly. He has lines throughout the hour that could’ve been played as blatantly threatening or cold, but Morrissey consistently goes for the lighter touch. It makes him a striking contrast against what we’ve seen of Rick this season; where Andrew Lincoln has been all strained frowns and desperation, Morrissey smiles, although not too easily. He’s comforting, and after spending seven months in the cold, always on the run, convinced they’d never see home again, you’d think such comforts would be a welcome sight to Andrea and Michonne.
Only neither of them are taken in, at least not at first, which is another part of the con. Michonne is practically monosyllabic, furious about the loss of her sword and refusing to accept any offer of charity or kindness. Andrea is more open, but even she questions everything she sees, to the point where you wonder, if the Governor really is a baddie, why he doesn’t just lock her away somewhere until she learns to appreciate all the good things Woodbury has to offer. The tension here comes partly from what we know is almost certainly going to happen (eventually, the Governor is going to show his true colors and turn out to be a right bastard), and partly from wondering if hey, maybe we were too quick to judge. There are times in “Walk With Me” where the Governor seems like the most openly decent character to appear on The Walking Dead since Dale lost his damn mind last season. Sure, he has a pet scientist and a lab, but he also makes an effort to keep the peace between his men without any overt threats. The speech he gives to Andrea about rebuilding society, about hope and change and all other things the zombie apocalypse has stripped away, is positively inspiring. Maybe a place like Woodbury really is possible. Maybe Rick’s increasingly desperate attempts to kill any possible threats isn’t the best answer. Maybe you can be sane and safe, somehow.
Then the Governor has to ruin everything by shooting a friendly National Guardsman and leading his men to massacre the rest of their group. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out the Governor has a room in back of his house, a secret place with a comfy leather chair and stacks of backlit aquariums filled with zombie heads. One aquarium has the heads from Michonne’s walkers (she killed them earlier in an attempt to stay hidden). Another has the head of the Guardsman from the helicopter crash whom the Governor was questioning earlier. So, yeah, he’s not a well man.
Not that Andrea and Michonne realize this. “Walk With Me” sets up what will presumably be this season’s big conflict: the inevitable confrontation between Rick and his small band of misfits, and the Governor and his army. This episode is free of any scenes at the prison, which is a smart move. It keeps us in Woodbury, and keeps the focus where it needs to be; this is all about meeting a new villain (who doesn’t look all that villainous at first), and getting introduced to a new way of dealing with the end of the world. Everyone in town is quiet and friendly, and the streets are empty after the sun goes down. One of the main questions of The Walking Dead has always been how far you’re willing to go to be safe, and even seeing what we see of the Governor’s true self, I can’t imagine many of the locals deciding it would be worth losing their peace of mind over some murder, especially if it’s outsiders who are the ones dying.
Having Merle back was basically inevitable; we never saw a corpse when Rick and Daryl tried to rescue him (after Rick handcuffed him to a pipe, of course), and that means that he’s a dangling thread, a loose end waiting to be tied off. If this had happened last season, I’d be less enthused. Great as Michael Rooker is, Merle was a terrible character, all dumb hick stereotypes and bluster. But given how much better the writing has gotten of late, and how Daryl has turned into one of the most well-drawn figures on the show, this could work out well. It’s hard to tell right now, but the Merle we see in “Walk With Me,” while still unquestionably a son of a bitch, is easier to take, less overtly awful, and more imposing. Having the Governor around will keep him in check, and Merle’s desire to get back at Rick means the Governor has even more of a reason to track down the main group.
Not that the Governor needs a reason. This is a guy who has achieved a level of control that Rick can only dream of. All it cost him was his sanity. Now he has guns, walls, and two women who don’t quite understand the rules. This is probably not going to end well for anyone.
- It was a nice touch that neither Andrea or Michonne knew how the zombie plague works. (They were creeped out at the sight of the Governor and his men stabbing corpses in the skull.)
- Merle’s replacement arm is great. Definite Bruce-Campbell-with-a-chainsaw-hand vibes.
- “My shit never stopped being together.” -Michonne. (I get that her suspicions keep her from saying much, but I hope we get some more characterization soon. Right now, her sword, pet zombies, and general bad-assery are fascinating, but they aren’t particularly deep traits.)
- “So what’s your name?” “I never tell.” “Never say never.” “Never.” -Andrea, trying to be friendly with the Governor and failing.