Alright. We all know the defining feature of The Walking Dead is the zombies, but the return of The Walking Dead on Sunday gave us vignettes capturing the fragile state of the human condition and tests of loyalty and community instead of a mass-zombie-killing scene.
We open with the conclusion of the Daryl/Meryl/Woodbury confrontation. Daryl and Meryl are forced to fight to the death by a scarily blood-thirsty Woodbury crowd (who upon seeing “non-controlled” bloodshed from Rick’s ambush freak out and abandon those savage urges – more on that later); the one-eyed Governor passes the point of no return having just seen his daughter killed for good and recognizing Meryl’s betrayal (remember – Meryl lied about having killed Michonne… imagine the shock once that sword plunged into his eye at the mid-season finale); and Andrea finally sees there’s more than meets the eye (no put intended, Guv!) in Woodbury, especially now that she knows the Grimes camp is still kicking it. Rick and Maggie successfully create enough of a diversion to save Daryl… with Meryl riding his coattails.
The ambush becomes a catalyst for a kaleidoscope of rash and, for some of the characters, unreachable emotions to finally burst out. These raw and previously untapped feelings reveal themselves within different clusters of characters for the remainder of the episode, each group showing different sides to how deeply the apocalypse has shaken one’s foundations. Let’s look at each cluster separately:
Daryl and Meryl
Unfortunately for those on Team Daryl, Daryl makes his escape from the action early on in the episode. Rick, Maggie, and Glenn put Daryl on the spot, deliberating how to deal with Meryl having survived the escape from Woodbury. The only one rooting for Meryl is Daryl. Rick tries to dissuade Daryl from hanging onto Merle, emphasizing that in this crazy new world, the Grimes camp should be considered more of a family to Daryl than Meryl had been. Daryl plays the traditional card and sticks with his unsavory brother. Daryl’s decision to defend his brother is a pretty messy one to uncover. Meryl is still a pretty unpredictable and untrustworthy variable in The Walking Dead world. We don’t know what’s going through his mind as the fight in Woodbury begins – he puts on the show Woodbury asked for, agreeing publicly to fight his own brother to the death. But once they pull in close, right before the ambush truly began, Meryl shows loyalty to his own blood – he wants to get them both out of the hell he’d already seen (and arguably perpetuated) in Woodbury. Meryl’s real motives are still unclear – remember Daryl didn’t come to find him the first time he was left behind, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Meryl had something up his sleeve. For now, all we know is the reunited brothers are happily gallivanting in the woods of Georgia. Yay?
Glenn and Maggie
Woodbury introduced a major challenge in Glenn and Maggie’s post-apocalyptic romance. We know it wasn’t easy for them to undergo the level of torture they had, but at that point they were still doing fine. Upon returning from the ambush, Glenn is set off. For the first time, we’re seeing the capacity for his anger and rage. He felt the stabs of disloyalty, as he watched Daryl walk away from the group with very little hesitation or deliberation, upon realizing that revenge was not taken for how the Governor treated him and Maggie. Glenn’s American History X-style stomp-out of the zombie in that random pick up truck is probably one of the most harrowing images of the episode – no one wants to see the nice guy get tortured as he did before the season break, but NO ONE wants to see the nice guy simply lose it. His wild emotions in the aftermath of Daryl’s create an immediate rift between him and Maggie. Upon returning to the prison, Hershel senses the rift. We leave them off with Hershel acting as patriarchal therapist. Let’s hope his words sink into Glenn a little bit come next week.
Rick’s last attempt at convincing Daryl to stay with the group was name-dropping Carol. Daryl’s decision to walk away rattles Carol. She meets Rick as he enters the gates of the prison, and there’s an incredible shot of Rick, Carol, and Carl walking into the prison together like a family. Carol has become the de-facto matriarch, and that shot of them walking in together would almost seal the deal… if she hadn’t just heard the news about Daryl. She is the most affected by his departure, and as a result of trying to soak it in becomes herself detached. Beth muses about how Daryl and Meryl are getting on by themselves, and there seemed a hint of desire from Carol to be out there with them. It makes you wonder how much longer Carol will be vested with the group, since splintering off seems to be the popular thing these days in The Walking Dead.
This season has definitely highlighted the politics of introducing a new group among already established communities. Whether it’s something as established as Woodbury, or remaining prisoners with ignorant motives, the remains of humanity in The Walking Dead world undergo compelling tests of faith when established cliques are forced to confront the existence of others. The Walking Dead definitely does a great job showing that humanity can be scarier and more unwieldy than the predictable zombies (although, that lingering shot of the zombie deftly pulling back that fence to unleash MORE zombies into the otherwise hermetically-sealed Woodbury seems to imply that the zombies are maybe evolving? Eek!) Though Tyreese expresses the desire to cooperate and be accepted by the Grimes camp (and I thoroughly believe his intentions to be genuine), you see the sparks of panic set off the other half of his group – Ben and Allen. Instead of figuring out a way to cooperate, they immediately conspire on how to take over the prison themselves. (Remember: they’re fresh off the death of Donna, Ben’s mother and Allen’s wife. They didn’t take kindly to Carl’s suggestion of leaving her behind/killing her for good) Tyreese tries to push the idea that combining forces will be a more productive way to survive, but Ben and Allen are clearly not convinced. Their loyalties are surely to be tested in the coming weeks. I kind of imagine a similar end for Ben and Allen as the prisoners (except for Axel. God help his awesome mustache)
Andrea and Woodbury
The brotherly brawl and ambush/resuce creates panic in Woodbury. It’s amazing how quickly the community decides they’re ready to throw away their otherwise safe environment after an attack from other humans. The Governor put it plainly and kind of accurately – these people have been sitting pretty with barbecues and the easy life. What’s to stress if you know how to handle zombies, so long as they’re your only threat? But the times are a-changin, and Woodbury is looking less like a utopia. Innocent people died in the ambush, and the zombie walls have been breached. And the Governor is nowhere to be seen. While Milton tries to calm Woodbury, Andrea looks for answers from the Governor. I’ve always been iffy on Andrea ever since her arrival at Woodbury. She’s a survivor, but she nestled into the easier life Woodbury offers. She confronts the Governor, and for the first time her trust in him wanes – she couldn’t believe the Governor would keep a huge secret like holding Glen and Maggie captive. Sorry, Andrea – even casual relationships can be complicated in the apocalypse! For the first time since her arrival, Andrea truly asserts her abilities and successfully calms the people of Woodbury. The Governor watches her inspire the community from his window. You know he’s got to be scheming something now that he sees Andrea in action. AMC shows tend to make their fans dislike major female characters (think: Betty Draper in Mad Men, Skylar in Breaking Bad). It’s interesting that Andrea (who I otherwise don’t like much) is in a seat of power here. Knowing the Governor, we know that won’t last for long. The question for the remainder of the season is how is Andrea going to play her cards now that she knows more of the truth.
When we saw the first semblance of Rick’s hallucinations in the first half of the season, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Though the motivation for this to happen is definitely understood, spending an entire episode on his fixation with his hallucination felt counter-productive to moving along the story of his group’s survival in the prison. It was a red herring at the time – those hopeful phone calls bargaining with some other group “out there.” Hey, maybe that hallucination contributes to Rick’s immediate distrust of any other group these days – he’s in a state of doubting his own reality. “The Suicide King” treated us to a visual manifestation of Rick’s fragile psyche. Just as Rick confronts the presence of Tyreese’s group on his turf, Lori, a shadowy vision in white, haunts him. The first sign this episode of Rick continuing to crack was the wonderful sound design as Rick held Judith for the first time since the ambush – her cries were fuzzy, confusing to him. At this climactic moment in the last act, Rick just freaks out, in front of everyone, scaring away Tyreese’s group (for now). It just makes you wonder if he’s in the right state of mind to make major decisions, and deconstructing Rick seems to be the theme for the upcoming weeks.
Not enough scowl! She is underplayed in this episode, but still represents the idea of the level of distrust rampant in this world. Michonne has always shown herself to be distrusting of any large enterprise. She bolted from Woodbury as fast as she could. You could probably say her feelings about new people are about the same as Rick’s at this point. Especially with Daryl leaving them, Rick sure as hell ain’t throwing down the welcome mat for Michonne. He wants her out as soon as she heals. Well, we’ll see how THAT plays out next week.
It’s been a lot of ground to cover, but the mid-season premiere has set so many things in motion for the ever-expanding universe of The Walking Dead. Guessing from next week’s previews, this is just the start for all hell to break loose!