It seems that while The Walking Dead suffered in the wake of Frank Darabont’s unceremonious departure (hence the slog of last season), writers, composers, and actors have seriously stepped up their game for season three. Last night’s episode was one of the best acted, most nerve-wracking, suspenseful episodes of the series thus far. It’s remarkable (and actually plausible) just how small this post-apocalyptic world is.
In the establishing shot, Merle’s stump, armed with his favorite knife, pounds onto the table in front of Glenn, who stonily gazes ahead. Merle has separated him from Maggie and is interrogating him to find out where the prison crew is. Maggie, on the other side of a thin wall, can hear each and every punch as it hits Glenn’s face. The focus here is not on the violence done to Glenn (at least not yet), but on Maggie’s anguished expression, her flinches – it’s a brilliant way to get such a brutal scene past the TV censors and still make a gigantic impact.
At the prison, we pick up with Michonne as she leans against the chain link, staring at Rick. The walkers, for some reason, begin to sense her, and just as she’s overtaken, Carl rushes in to save the day. Upon waking from her swoon, Michonne first grabs for her sword, her security. Rick scoots it away and gently tells her she’s not in danger. She stares at him for a barely comfortable length of time; we’re left wondering what, exactly, she sees there. Rick isn’t the same person anymore, but does she see someone inherently good?
Rick leaves Michonne behind to find Carole, resting after Daryl brought her back to the cell block. Carole is overjoyed at the sight of a healthy baby, but immediately bursts into tears upon realizing, from Rick’s face, that Lori’s gone. Rick, uncharacteristically, allows himself to be held briefly, releases emotions gently. Carole is now the mother figure here. In this scene, the actors tell us everything we need to know without speaking, simply with expressions and gestures. In a smart move this episode, the writers stayed far away from the drama. Carl suggests a name for the baby (Judith, a former teacher of his), and Daryl shrugs off Rick’s brusque thanks for taking care of his family. “It’s what we do.” This is important: How do we tell our prison clan apart from the rest of the humans in this world? They’re the ones who try not to hurt others, who still strive to save lives, even if it means their undoing.
When Rick, Daryl, and Hershel return to Michonne, we suppose she’s seen something good in Rick – after only a brief struggle, she tells them about Woodbury and the Governor, a “real Jim Jones type.” When Rick asks, “He have muscle?” you just ache for her to say Merle’s name, or Andrea’s. Alas, the connections that are so vivid to us are still veiled to our characters – and it’s bloody nerve-wracking.
After beating the living daylights out of Glenn (here the makeup artists got to go the distance – his battered face is awful to behold, the bloody spit neverending), Merle asks him who’s been with him. Glenn, thinking he’s saving the lives of his compatriots, tells Merle “Rick, Shane, Dale, Andrea.” Oh really? Merle knows now he’s lying. He sets a walker on him. Even duct taped to a chair, Glenn is a badass. He has learned resourcefulness, hardness. Watching him utilize everything in the room, as well as his own body and the hindering chair, is a thrill. Duct tape comes in handy at the oddest moments, you know?
Meanwhile, Andrea slides out from between the sheets with the Governor and straight into his lab, where Dr. Milton Mamet (not Dr. Stevens, as in the books) is waiting for a prostate cancer patient to die. He’s performing experiments to see if newly transformed walkers regain any memories or sense of humanity. In this scene, we get a glimpse at the real Dr. Mamet, a complete loner who was an orphaned only child. “I telecommuted to work, I never really – ” had friends, you know he’d finish if Andrea had given him the chance. It’s no wonder this guy is here, why he’s so desperate for acceptance, why he’s under the Governor’s thumb. It’s probably the first time he’s had personal connections, maybe ever.
After recovering slightly, Michonne sets off to lead Rick, Oscar, and Daryl to Woodbury. They encounter a herd, and upon escaping to a remote cabin, discover its inhabitant. The man, an evident recluse with a dead dog and liquor bottles strewn around his rustic cabin, causes a little too much trouble, and when he tries to escape, he dies at the tip of Michonne’s sword. It speaks to the necessity of such killings that we hardly raise an eyebrow anymore – and it also draws a direct parallel between Rick’s desire to conserve human lives and Michonne’s knowledge that it just isn’t possible, not always. They toss the recluse out the door as bait for the walkers and manage to escape while the zombies rip apart the poor dead man (awesome guts in this scene). These people have learned some serious survival skills – it’s no wonder Merle underestimated them.
The scenes that put me on edge in this episode, made me cringe, are the ones with Maggie. In a phenomenally spooky bad-guy-good-guy technique, instead of sending in Merle, the Governor goes to see Maggie. He’s too polite, and she knows it. Lauren Cohan puts in her best performance yet, first listening to Glenn’s beating, then stripping down as the Governor first sniffs her hair, strokes her cheek, then bends her over a table. Her strength is fantastic, her face telling us all we need to know about the humiliation, the pain, the anger, of even the possibility of sexual violation. (There isn’t any physical violation, not yet.) When the Governor and Merle bring her to Glenn, topless and clutching at herself, they put guns to both of their heads, and Maggie breaks. Before he thrusts her back into Glenn’s arms, he tries to grab her, to comfort her, to hug her into his arms – is his lack of a daughter getting to him? She struggles against him, staring at Glenn over his shoulder.
In a creepy parallel scene, Andrea comes straight back to the Governor after ending the walker Mamet created, and walks into his arms, nestling into his chest. Knowing what he’s been up to since she was gone, knowing how badly she needs to trust someone, this scene gives me the creepy-crawlies. When he asks her how the experiment went, she tells him it was terrible. The closer he comes to the knowledge that he can’t get his daughter back, the crazier he becomes. This scene also contributed to my already building rage: Andrea is so damned frustrating right now…
Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Oscar arrive outside the gates of Woodbury just as Maggie tells the Governor about the prison – could we be in for another accidental exchange of people?
Composer Bear McCreary is also upping the ante this season. The entire episode is scored by, alternately, a single monotone, building tension until it’s near bursting; or pounding, intense, low register thuds to keep us on edge. All of the actors put in top-notch performances, the writing stayed far from the kind of piddling drama that mucked up last season so badly. If the tension continues to build through next week’s mid-season finale, the series will end up back in the saddle completely.
What are your thoughts on this episode? Where do you think it’s going next? Share your thoughts in the comments!