It’s a credit to the writers of The Walking Dead, post-Darabont, that they’ve been able to keep an audience. Prolonging the seasons and slashing the budget has created a series that can’t hold a steady pace, that shambles along, stumbling every few episodes much like the titular walkers. This season has had a number of good episodes (most notably “Clear”), but the writers keep tumbling into the same pacing trap. The last few episodes have unsteadily balanced a number of storylines whose interest is waning. Andrea finally chose a side, even as the Governor remained a static, iconic villain (he’s like one of those creepy clown punching bags – you hit him, he doesn’t stay down). Glenn and Maggie made up and provided a little, suspicious ray of sunshine in the midst of death and destruction. Rick waffled and moaned and still isn’t the hardass he tries to be. Michonne is still a frighteningly observant hard case.
In “Prey,” Andrea faced off with the Governor, proving she’s a force to be reckoned with. Tyreese and his sister are unconvinced of the Gov’s total insanity – and wouldn’t you be in denial, too, after someone let you in and gave you warmth and safety? But I hope they see the light. Andrea breaks through the two guards, leaving a distraught Milton behind. Milton, who demolished the Governor’s outpost full of experimental walkers, has also chosen a side – and it isn’t the Governor’s. But he can’t seem to break away, telling Andrea, “I knew him when he was Phillip, before he was the Governor.” Nonetheless, the Governor knows what’s up, and Milton probably isn’t long for this world.
The Governor meticulously sets up a torture chamber, whistling as he works, carefully arranging tools of blood and death, gently setting up sutures to ensure maximum pain to the intended victim. He’s sick, he’s deadly, and he’s becoming so one-dimensional it’s a little hard to watch. Even Andrea can’t deny he’s beyond help. After she escapes, she sprints toward the prison, stopping on the way to play a protracted game of cat and mouse with the Governor. She leaves him for dead, surrounded by a cadre of walkers, screaming for his life. She reaches the prison, stumbles toward the chainlink, raises her arm in greeting to Rick, who’s on the guard tower – and the Governor attacks. In the final scene of “Prey,” we pan through the confusing, twisting hallways of the Governor’s demented torture chamber (a metaphor for the maze of his mind, certainly) and zoom into Andrea, strapped to a dentist’s chair, bound and gagged, ready for playtime. (As a side note, in the books it was Michonne who was brutally tortured – I wonder how they’re going to play this.)
In last night’s episode, Rick continues to waffle over whether or not to surrender Michonne, finally deciding it’s the only way to keep everyone safe. When he approaches Hershel and Daryl for advice and assistance, the two are justifiably unsure of his decision – but Rick is the leader, after all. Daryl acquires Merle’s help, but Merle is always a wild card.
Michonne, as it turns out, is full of brilliant ideas to help the little prison colony – and Rick knows she’s a much more valuable asset than he can afford to lose. She asserts, “We don’t have to win, we just have to make their getting at us more trouble than it’s worth.” This is utterly pragmatic; she supplies a cool head in the midst of emotional landmines. Rick also knows this guy, the one who gives up a friend to a villain, isn’t who he’s supposed to be – the prison company are supposed to be the good guys, right?
Carol pauses briefly to examine Merle, to ask him straight out if he’s with them. Merle can’t answer that – but notes, truthfully, that Carol has changed. All of these people have changed. Carol isn’t the same timid woman we first met (she says, coolly, “It wasn’t my shadow I was scared of, it was my husband’s,” reminding us of her initial plight and the devastating loss of her family). No one is the same, and that includes Merle. He points out the obvious: that while everyone looks at him like he’s the devil for what he did to Glenn and Maggie, here they are doing the same thing to Michonne. Who are the good guys here, really? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, guys. (Dear writers: we know this, and can do without the speechifying.)
After Rick chickens out (as we – and Merle – knew he would), Merle takes the situation into his own hands and captures Michonne to take her to the Governor. He knows perfectly well what’ll happen to her at the hands of that sadistic madman, and describes the outcome to Rick, who to his credit barely flinches. Having successfully captured Michonne, Merle walks her away from the prison and searches for a viable car. The two flounder about, each trying to divine the other’s motivations and perhaps seeing each other clearly for the first time.
Merle is a hired hand, and he’ll do the dirty work for whoever asks it of him – and where his brother is concerned, that work can’t be dirty enough. After he accidentally sets off a car alarm in the process of hotwiring it, Michonne, tied to a post, proves she’s an asset yet again. With only her limbs and a piece of twine, she takes out two walkers before Merle cuts her free. The two of them may hate one another, but they recognize one another. She notes, incisively, that if Merle really wanted to be a part of his brother’s group, he wouldn’t have done this by himself. Further, if Rick liked and respected Merle, he wouldn’t have asked him to take on this dirty little gig.
Michonne says, yet again with a nearly creepy emotional intelligence, that if Merle were truly evil, he would feel no guilt over the deeds he’s committed – and he wouldn’t resent the Governor for making a killer out of him. He’d be “light as a feather.” He isn’t – and thus he isn’t the villain everybody thinks he is. As a result of this little pep talk, Merle does something entirely unexpected (and frankly unbelievable): he lets Michonne go. He dumps her out of the car, hands her the katana, and drives on, telling her he has something to do on his own. That something, it turns out, is to draw and slowly lead a herd into the Governor’s outpost. It’s clever and even heroic – neither traits we would’ve attributed to Merle prior to this episode. Unfortunately, it’s a failure.
Once the Governor gets hold of Merle, it’s all snapping bones, crushing larynxes, and breaking ribs…and finally, a gunshot. Unfortunately, Daryl runs into Michonne on her way back to the prison and decides to go after his brother. As a result, he doles out Merle’s final end.
In the midst of all this drama, Glenn asks for Hershel’s blessing to ask for Maggie’s hand, and Hershel gives it willingly – knowing all the while they’re entirely unlikely to make it through the end of the week. In a grotesque touch, he slices the ring finger off a walker and offers the ring to Maggie, who of course accepts. (Ew.)
Rick makes a speech to the prison crew, the gist of which is “this is democracy, not a dictatorship.” It’s a cliche, and again unnecessarily expositional writing. We get it. Rick is a little screwy in the head, and he doesn’t want to be a leader, and he’s a good guy. Yeah, yeah. I don’t buy Merle’s sudden change of heart, his abrupt teariness and decision to go after the Governor. This man is no martyr. You can’t make that kind of a motivational switch believable over the course of a few episodes. Michonne’s and Carol’s words couldn’t have had that immense an impact on him. It’s sloppy – much like the rest of the season has been. The pacing is jerky, and they needed to kill someone off for shock value. I’m not particularly shocked, though I am annoyed.
The season finale is nigh, and now we’ve lost Merle. The complex dynamic Merle created, his obvious love for his brother and pleasantly evil demeanor, was one of the only truly interesting things still happening for the show – so what now?
Andrea is still strapped to the Governor’s torture chair, and the Governor is more pissed off than ever. So how do you think the finale will go down? Further, am I the only one who thinks either Glenn or Maggie is going to bite the dust in the near future? They’re too sappy right now – something bad has got to be coming down the pike.
How did you feel about the last few episodes? What do you think the season finale will hold for our villains and heroes?