Last night’s midseason finale of The Walking Dead brought yet more new faces, pitted brother against brother and sister against sister, and ended with a fabulous cliffhanger. Smoke and mirrors keep our characters from seeing one another’s true nature, and from seeing the overarching truth…until it’s too late. Dear writers: You’re doing it right.
In the opening scenes, we meet another group of survivors led by Tyreese (Chad Coleman), the hammer-wielding badass readers of the books will recognize. They’re struggling to exist in the same cruel world in which Rick’s group has grown grudgingly complacent. After one of their own is bitten, they carry her atop their shoulders, just like Rick’s group would have in the months preceding. (Now? Not so much.) They enter the prison through a blown-out part of the fence, coming perilously close to where Carl, Beth, Hershel, Axel, and Carole are waiting like lame ducks.
Andrea is also, unbeknownst to her, a lame duck. The Governor is taking very great pains to keep Glenn and Maggie hidden from her. She smiles into the mirror at him, reverently telling him that all the people he brought together, they’re not just surviving – they’re helping each other through this mess. Indeed they are – but helping Dr. Mamet cremate a body is different from helping the Governor kill her old friends, as she’s shortly to understand.
The Governor is teetering on the very edge of madness, but hiding it well. In the room behind his apartment, surrounded by fish tanks full of zombie heads, he struggles to train his undead little girl. Every unsuccessful encounter fuels the spark of insanity behind his eyes. In his infinite wisdom, the Governor tells Merle they have no choice but to take out the group at the prison – “We’ll white-flag ’em just like the National Guard,” he says with a modicum of glee. Meanwhile, the group at the prison is already inside.
Glenn and Maggie, still trapped in Woodbury, prepare to make a stand against the inevitable execution. Glenn’s resourcefulness leads him to the only available weapon: the walker’s radius and ulna (note to anyone who hasn’t watched yet: don’t watch while eating). With this grotesque weaponry, Maggie is able to overpower Merle’s accomplice when the executioners come. Unfortunately, Glenn isn’t able to overpower Merle in his weakened state.
Throughout this battle, Rick, Michonne, Daryl, and Oscar creep closer to where Maggie and Glenn are being held; once they are on the other side of the wall, it’s bombs away. As the room fills with choking fog, Daryl and Merle are only feet apart, but no one can see through the thick veil of self-imposed smoke. Suddenly the two POWs are back in safe hands. When Glenn gets a moment to catch his breath, he tells Daryl who’s responsible for his terrible beating. “I gotta work something out, I gotta talk to Merle,” Daryl pleads with Rick. His face, so harsh and stoic throughout season one and into season two, now betrays his emotions. His heart is on his sleeve more often than not, and in my opinion that’s because Merle hasn’t been there to torture him. (Speaking of torture at the hands of your brother, at one point during the shootout Rick is certain he’s seeing Shane, ghostly in the smoke, and shoots his best friend again only to realize it wasn’t Shane after all, couldn’t have been.)
Back in the prison, Carl takes up the mantle and investigates the shrieks coming from Tyreese’s group a few cell blocks over. Carl does exactly the right thing – and exactly what Rick would do – by saving as many as he can, leading them to relative safety, offering to do the heinous deed of shooting a woman before she can come back (shades of Lori), and then locking them behind bars. As if to pound the point home that this child, well, isn’t a child, Tyreese instructs his friend to “let the man go.” Carl is the man now. “We’re in his house.” Perhaps the Carl of the show won’t turn down the same dark path as the Carl of the books.
Carole notices Axel paying lecherous attention to Beth, and tells him, no dude, not cool. Axel, to be fair, has been locked up for ages and just wants to get laid. He doesn’t strike me as the type who’d go about it by force, but who knows? In this world, no one is completely innocent. Carole shakes her head as she tells him she’s not a lesbian (“But you have the short hair!” cries Axel, confused), and no, she won’t sleep with him either. Even in the midst of these epic battles, humans are always concerned with sex…and one has to admit, in the zombie apocalypse, somebody better be having it, or else humans are in serious trouble.
The preceding episodes sailed our characters perilously close to one another, then let them drift apart again. Michonne didn’t tell Rick’s group about Andrea, or Daryl about Merle, not because she wanted to keep them secret, but because she just didn’t know. This episode uses literal smoke and mirrors to keep Daryl and Merle apart, to keep the Governor’s true goals hidden, and to keep Andrea from seeing the truth. In a firefight in the street, you’ll wait for her to catch a glimpse of a familiar face – but instead, she only sees Oscar, whom she’d have no reason to recognize. The writers have done a brilliant job of intertwining the actions and activities of two independent – but completely dependent – groups of people.
Once Glenn and Maggie are (relatively) safe again, Michonne splinters off to take revenge on the Governor. With sweat beading on her forehead, she yanks out her katana (that satisfying “whish!” noise is becoming synonymous with her character) and waits. In the waiting, she of course discovers the fish tanks, and then poor, undead Penny, dressed in her clean clothes and hooded like a bird. Before she can end it for Penny, the Governor catches her. Danai Gurira is the essence of perfection in this scene; Michonne so rarely speaks, her expressions tell you everything. As she sees the Governor’s genuine desperation, she understands him. And in the next moment, you watch the veil of cruelty slide back into place. “You f*$& with me,” that expression says, “I f$&% with you.”
She starts a war by slicing through Penny’s head. Writhing around on the floor with the Governor in a sea of broken glass, waiting for the heads in various stages of decay to bite her, she grabs hold of the only thing available – a shard of fish tank, the last shred of the Governor’s failed experiments. Into the Governor’s eye it goes. Before she can end his life, who should show up, but Andrea? Sister is pitted against sister, gun against katana. After a long, stressful pause, Andrea lets her go.
In the aftermath, Daryl is lost in the fray, but not lost to all. The Governor calls all of Woodbury out of their hidey holes to address them, and suddenly the people of Woodbury don’t look so clean anymore, don’t look so flawless and summery. Subtle shifts in costuming and makeup cause them to appear dark, ugly, barbaric in the firelight. Mercenaries point guns into the darkness. The “terrorists,” the Governor says, his eye patch bleeding through, “want what we have, want to destroy us.” He tells the good people of Woodbury Merle led the “terrorists” here and let them in…which is true, but not really. It was his lie that left Michonne alive, certainly. But Merle had no idea Daryl was among the interlopers. It could be his end.
The episode cuts off with the Dixon brothers staring helplessly at each other in the center of a gladiatorial arena, surrounded by shrieking demons who want their heads on pikes. What a magnificent way to lead us right up to the edge without dropping us over. Michonne has set off a chain of events that will change the entire show, and Daryl and Merle are in a bit of a spot. And now we wait through the darkest depths of winter for the rest of the season in February.
What are your thoughts? Why did Michonne do what she did? Why did Andrea let her go? Do you think Merle will see the light? Share in the comments!