The Walking Dead: “When The Dead Come Knocking”
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The Walking Dead: “When The Dead Come Knocking”

Who the hell was that hermit? A lot happens in “When The Dead Come Knocking,” and nearly all of it’s exciting, but the oddest scene has Rick and his hit squad taking shelter in a cabin in the woods, and waking up apparently the world’s most gifted isolationist. How else can you explain the fact that the guy threatens to call the police, demands to see Rick’s badge, and seems to have absolutely no idea that the hungry dead are banging on his door? Unfortunately, he doesn’t survive long enough to answer any questions. There’s a short, shouted conversation, he and Rick struggle over a gun for a few seconds, and then Michonne stabs him in the chest. It’s hard to blame her, given the situation, but you gotta feel for the guy. He’s sleeping peacefully, somehow oblivious to world ending around him, only to be rudely awakened and then dispatched by a group of people in the middle of their own epic tale of woe. The hermit is a Star Trek red shirt, only he never signed on for anything. He is, in a manner so bleak and unadorned that it becomes sort of hilarious, a plot convenience. Our heroes wander into the middle of a herd of walkers; they need a distraction to escape; and oh hey, here’s a warm body no one cares about. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the brutal demands of the zombie apocalypse—good guys and bad guys don’t exist so much as “Them” and “Us.” Maybe it’s a grim joke. Whatever the reason, it’s a bit silly, and sloppily plotted, but over so quickly it’s hard to take much offense. Besides, there are other things to worry about.

Season three of The Walking Dead has gone a long way toward fixing most of my complaints about the show, and one of the most important fixes is the pacing. Last season got bogged down by a writing staff that didn’t seem to have any idea where its story was headed; or, even when it did know the endpoint, it couldn’t fill the journey with enough incident to keep it from being a slog. (In other words, the end of the Sophie arc was excellent, but most of the space between her disappearance and her return was tedious and badly constructed.) In comparison, this season has been a rush. Stuff happens now, and it happens a lot. Our heroes found the prison and cleaned it out; Andrea and Michonne ran into the Governor; Michonne left, was targeted by the governor’s men, and escaped; Maggie and Glenn have been taken prisoner; Michonne tells Rick what happened; and Rick organizes a rescue. Plus Lori and T-Dog died, and Hershel lost a leg. This series works best when it’s all in a great rush, when the shock and horror of events is constantly threatening to overwhelm both the characters and the audience; when those few moments of peace are so valuable that they are somehow poetic. This is a difficult balance to pull off, and inevitably, there’s going to come a point where the shock wears off. At which point, the writers will push harder, the twists will get even more bizarre, until finally the show descends into hollow camp. But for now, it works, and, with a bit of luck, there’s every reason to believe it will keep on working for at least the next few seasons.

Case in point: the speed with which Michonne’s arrival at the prison goes from “Who are you?” to “We need to get our people back, let’s go.” Rick is initially reluctant to make a move after he sees Michonne on the other side of the fence, but when the zombies start seeing through the lady’s gore disguise, and she collapses from the pain of her wounded leg, Carl decides the issue, shooting a couple of walkers while Rick opens the gates and pulls Michonne inside. What follows is a quick refresher (if any is needed) in how far our “heroes” have come; while Rick isn’t as bad as the Governor, he does confiscate Michonne’s sword, before locking her up in an abandoned cell block. Sure, times are tough, and she’s a stranger, so that’s probably defensible, but his willingness to use pain to get answers to his questions—he squeezes her leg wound when she doesn’t respond fast enough—is not. Rick is saner now than he was a couple episodes ago, sure, but he’s still a man who previously spent his whole life being good deciding that he needs to be crueler (and harder) to survive. That makes him dangerous.

Thankfully, Michonne is willing to stand up for him, and the scene ends without anyone getting an arrow in the face. There are a number of interrogations in “When The Dead Come Knocking,” and all of them serve to tell us more about the interrogator than the person (or thing) being questioned. Like Milton’s futile attempts to communicate with the recently turned. Clearly, the Governor’s people are already well aware that anyone who dies becomes a zombie, regardless of whether or not they were bit, but they don’t seem to have taken that knowledge to heart. Milton spends weeks working with a man with prostate cancer, trying to instill a sort of sense memory around a series of questions in order to determine if anything of his mind remains after death. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work, and it’s only Andrea’s quick reflexes that save Milton from having to test out his theories firsthand. It’s not a bad scene, and there’s undeniable sadness in hearing the list of family members Mr. Coleman, the soon to be dead man, has lost. But what’s most revealing here is how Milton, and by extension the Governor, don’t seem to have completely internalized the ramifications of the end of the world. Woodbury is lovely and all, but it can’t last, especially not with these knuckleheads in charge. They think they can control what’s happened, that it’s just another hurdle in humanity’s path, but that’s dangerous positive thinking. If the zombie plague continues—and there’s no indication it will ever stop—people are doomed. Simple as that. The only real option is to protect your own and keep the metaphorical keys in the metaphorical car in case you need to make a quick getaway.

Which isn’t to say the Governor can’t get vicious. The dual interrogations of Glenn and Maggie are tense and, at times, difficult to watch, skirting up to the edge of unbearable without going over. Both sequences are helped by the recent rash of character deaths; the palpable possibility that either captive could die drove the stakes up considerably. Merle spends his time punching Glenn, cajoling him, threatening him, trying to appeal to his sense of fair play, and, finally, throwing a zombie into the room and locking the door, Glenn, who spends most of the episode duct-taped to a chair, manages to hold the walker at bay long enough to free himself and drive a chair leg through the thing’s face. The character’s general kindness and decency make it easy to forget he has some skills, and the whole scene is a lot of fun to watch.

The same can’t be said for the Governor’s assault on Maggie. At first, it looks like he’s going for the Good Cop routine, unlocking her handcuffs and acting all friendly and polite. But when Maggie refuses to give him the answers he wants, he orders her to take off her shirt and bra, and threatens her with rape. If he’d gone through with the threat, the scene would’ve been too much. As is, it’s suspenseful and terrifying, but stopping short of being just plain ugly (ugliness has its place in drama, but there needs to be context supporting it; on The Walking Dead, a rape would be exploitive in the worst way). It’s still hard to get a handle on the Governor; his evil acts don’t jibe with his seeming kindness in other scenes, making him at times like a character who exists only to serve the needs of the current scene. But at least this scene reinforces the idea of him as a threat, as someone who can’t be reasoned with and who is unquestionably a worse leader than Rick. Rick might resort to some light torture to get what he wants, but I’m betting he draws the line at sexual assault.

Rick is also determined to rescue his people, which puts him ahead in my book. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out if he succeeds (it looks like the midseason finale is going to end with the Governor getting his people together for an assault on the prison—I’m just guessing, but that seems logical enough), but the Governor has already managed to get the information he wanted from Maggie and Glenn. It’s a typical twist for the show: while Maggie and Glenn both stand strong on their own, once the Governor brings them back together—but when he threatens Glenn’s life, Maggie folds in an instant. The moral of the story: The people we cling to make us weak. Love is a vulnerability. But while that may be true, I couldn’t help liking Maggie for refusing to let Glenn die. Her actions will probably have grave consequences for everyone’s future, but if you don’t hold on to something, there’s no real point to going on. If you give up on others, you might just end up living in a shack in the woods, sleeping through important news until one afternoon there are strangers at your door.

Stray observations:

  • In case anyone was wondering, Merle is still racist. (Or he’s willing to use racism to try and rattle Glenn.)
  • Michonne: “I didn’t ask for your help.” Rick: “It doesn’t matter.” (Although at least Rick doesn’t insist she stick around.)
  • Rick and Carl’s conversation is great—I think it’s the first real talk they’ve had since Lori’s death. Also, we have a name for the baby: Judith.

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