The writers of The Walking Dead don’t have a lot of tricks at their disposal. Last week, they trotted out the Shocking, Semi-Random Character Death (farewell, poor Axel; we appreciate you found the time to make yourself slightly more interesting before taking one for the team); this week, it’s the less exciting, but far more routine Location Exchange. Some characters are at Point A. Others are at Point B. Because there is apparently nothing else in the world apart from those two locations, all that’s left is to move individuals and groups back and forth, creating new combinations and hoping against hope that one of those combinations might spark something of interest. Granted, a lot of TV writing uses unexpected character pairings to generate drama, but in order for that to work, you need actual characters, and not just ghosts with names. A lot of what happens on this particular show is just stalling until the explosions start. Season three has been more entertaining because there have been more explosions and because our “heroes” are a little sharper, a little better defined, a little more present. And at least they have an enemy to bounce off of that isn’t just each other. But there’s still that hole at the center where a heart should be, and so, right now, while we’re in the doldrums, waiting to catch a breeze, people shuffle back and forth, moaning at each other before heading back the way they came. It’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s hard not to notice how well-trod the ground is.
At least Andrea’s visit to the prison group had history behind it. Realizing the situation has gotten out of hand and that there’s no way she’ll be able to talk the Governor out of violence on her own, Andrea enlists Milton’s help in snagging a walker and giving it the Michonne treatment: cutting off the forearms, and curb-stomping (well, rock-stomping, anyway) the thing until it’s all out of teeth. Milton has, of course, reported Andrea’s intentions to the Governor, because Andrea is an idiot, and because Milton is utterly his boss’ man, but the Governor lets her go. This might be a plan he’s hatching for later, or it might be some other mysterious character motivation—he’d probably rather have her by his side and loyal than force her to stay in town against her will, I guess. Regardless, Andrea makes the trip and finds that Rick and the others have changed since she last saw them. It’s not as powerful a meeting as it probably should have been (Andrea is so problematic by now it’s hard to get invested no matter what she does), but at least these are people who know each other. At least Andrea’s shock is genuine and understandable and doesn’t rely on someone getting stabbed, shot, or eaten.
About that word, “problematic”: I’m always reluctant to turn on a character, because who knows what the long game is, but I’d say Andrea has taken over the Dale (remember Dale?) role of Most Annoyingly Self-Righteous Idiot Who Can’t Stop Lecturing People. It’s hard to tell how much to blame Laurie Holden, who’s done good work in other roles, and how much of it’s horrible scripting, but whatever the reason, she’s a mess, and it only becomes more obvious when she’s asked to serve as the center of some kind of ongoing moral crisis. Her horror at what’s happening at Woodbury, combined with her shock at just how grim Rick has become (and how many of her old friends have died; she asks after Shane, but I swear, T-Dog’s name gets mentioned more time than that poor bastard had lines), puts her in the unique position of judgment, of finding some kind center to all the muddied themes of the season: Whichever side she chooses, even if we don’t think it’s the “right” side, that choice should mean something. But because she’s a tool, and because the show hasn’t spent nearly enough time contrasting the sides of this coin, her decision is hollow. Standing naked over the Governor with a knife in her hand in the episode’s last scene, she ponders her next move, and we try and follow her thoughts: Is she contemplating Carol’s bizarre advice? Is she planning a ritual sacrifice to the gods, in the hopes that this might end the zombie menace? Does she think the Governor might need a knife for something? It’s probably the first question, but they’re all just as meaningless. Choosing to stay with him, to not kill him, doesn’t count as a defining moment, because it’s simply doing what she’s been doing the entire season. Pulling that knife was as random as not stabbing anyone with it. It’s an action that exists solely to create tension, and sure, there is automatic suspense in a weapon held over a sleeping person, but it doesn’t do anything else, and it certainly doesn’t strengthen our sense of who the fuck Andrea is.
What’s really frustrating is that this should be tragic; maybe not Shakespearean, but at least on some basic, “It is sad when friends become enemies” kind of way, Andrea’s position should be heartbreakingly untenable. Instead, it’s kind of interesting. The scenes in which she confronts the group, realizes the distance between herself and her old friends, and tries (and fails) to re-establish connections are, for The Walking Dead, good character beats. The show even manages a brief, if subtle, reaction to Carl’s gun-toting ways; one of the reasons Andrea is so determined to make peace is the Governor’s plan to turn nearly everyone in Woodbury into soldiers in his army, including the teenagers. (There’s a fun beat where he mentions he wants to include 12 and 13 year olds, and Milton isn’t sure what to call them; “Adolescents,” the Governor says. “It’s a 20th century invention.” Somebody has decided his dreams of civilization aren’t worth keeping, I guess.) And then she sees Carl toting a rifle, and we all get to feel a bit uncomfortable. The moment passes, and Carl is still an unnervingly competent, robotic little soldier, but it’s something. Just like Andrea’s conversation with Carol, in which Carol tells her to give the Governor the night of his life, and then cut his throat. Even Michonne gets to show a slightly different side of herself. The value in throwing characters against each other is in getting to see people from another perspective, and there’s some of that here. Not enough, but it at least feels like there’s point.
Right now, it’s possible to see the outlines of what the writers are aiming for, and yet not entirely achieving. Unless I’m completely off the mark (and, obviously, that is totally possible), we’re building to a big confrontation between the prison and Woodbury, some war which will almost certainly cost lives on both sides, and play off the difference between Rick and the Governor’s leadership styles. There are set-ups small and larger throughout “I Ain’t A Judas.” Like the fact that the prison folk are short on ammo and supplies, and the Governor’s last assault left them in a tricky spot, outmanned and outgunned. Or, again, the Governor’s decision to throw everything he has at his enemy. Andrea’s decision at the end of this episode is part of the build, as is Merle’s continued presence, which, to be honest, still weirds me out. (He’s doing the “uneasy bedfellows” story arc, but the speed with which he’s gone from barely-accepted frenemy to “guy we trust to mingle with everyone and carry a gun” is nuts.) Sides are being drawn up. Which leads to the episode’s other big character movement: Tyreese and his group end up at Woodbury, and in a quick, not completely forced conversation declare their allegiance to the Governor over crazy man Rick.
It’s hard to blame them, but it’s also hard to get worked up about who they fight with, given how little of a connection they have with the prison folk, and how little we still know of them. As important as ambiguity can be to great storytelling, that’s not good. If the writers are trying to make some point about Rick and friends, about how hard and pitiless they’ve become from their time in the zombie wasteland, that would be one thing, but right now, we have a crazy guy and his group of inexplicable loyalists facing off against a different crazy guy and his group of slightly more explicable loyalists. The contrasts aren’t sharp enough to have much impact, and while it’s easier to root for Daryl and Carol and some of the others, nothing is revealed in the fight between these groups beyond the immediate physical dangers. Again, we’re back to the limits of the show’s narrative arsenal; there are high stakes, but it’s just too much emptiness when those stakes aren’t immediately present. It’s the easiest thing in the world to introduce a character, put a gun to his head, and expect the audience to hold their breath. But what happens after we exhale? And shouldn’t there be some lasting difference between the click of an empty chamber and the bang of a fired bullet, beyond the sound of a corpse hitting the floor? The Walking Dead is good at the most basic mechanism of suspense there is, but there’s more to great storytelling than body counts.
- Hershel’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold the group together are bordering on dark comedy. “You’re slipping, Rick.” No, slipping is shouting too loud in an argument. Chasing visions of your dead wife is something else.
- Carl wants Rick to step down as leader. Which seems like a good damn idea.
- Did I hear right? Did Andrea accuse Michonne of “poisoning” the group against the Governor? She is horrible.
- Beth’s impromptu performance of Tom Waits’ “Hold On,” which segues into the actual song, is lovely.