Only the survivors determine what is sane. Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 5, "Say the Word"
After last week's bloodbath, it's no surprise that The Walking Dead took a bit of a breather for this week's table-setting "Say the Word." Watching the new episode, it occurred to me that last week's "Killer Within" represented the death not just of a major character but of a prior version of the show: a version in which the primary character drama was built around Rick's relationship with Lori (and by extension, both their relationships with Shane); a version in which our protagonists could generally afford to take the moral high ground; and, most importantly, a version in which the line between the heroes and the villains was clear.
We're not watching that show anymore. Tonight's episode accelerated a theme that I've briefly touched on before: that the series' most outlandish characters -- from Michonne, with her pet zombies and her sword, to Merle, with his spring-loaded knife hand, to the Governor, with his zombie daughter and his aquariums full of heads -- represent both an evolution and a backward step for the human race. These are people far, far better equipped to survive in the new world order than anyone else around them. But in return, they've given up some qualities -- mercy, empathy, fear -- that define us as human.
But judging by "Say the Word," these people will be the status quo soon enough. If dehumanization is The Walking Dead's second virus, it's clear that the virus has begun to infest everyone -- including perennial voice of reason Glenn, who admits that he would happily trade the lives of strangers for "one of ours" any day. The cost of mercy on The Walking Dead keeps getting higher, and the line separating a just killing from an unjust killing keeps getting blurrier.
Take the plot developments in Woodbury, which continues to be the creepily cheery Stepford of the post-apocalypse. The Governor gently chastises Michonne for "getting off" on killing the zombies from the cage -- but her clear satisfaction in the act of killing isn't a far cry from the Governor's defense of the bizarre zombie-wrestling spectacle at the episode's end. "We're teaching them not to be afraid," he says, defensively, to Andrea. But that's not a lesson that Michonne needs. When you think about the major characters who've been killed by zombies -- Amy, Jim, Sophia, Dale, T-Dog -- they have one thing in common: They've taken no pleasure in slaughtering the walkers themselves.
But if the Governor has learned to be completely unmerciful, our heroes are quickly catching up. Take, for example, Rick's decision to leave prisoner Andrew in a courtyard full of zombies, which unwittingly enabled Andrew to engineer the horrific zombie attack that killed T-Dog and Lori in last week's episode. There are two ways to interpret the mistake Rick made, and both viewpoints have enormous ramifications for The Walking Dead going forward. One: Rick was too ruthless when he left Andrew to die, and the penalty for his ruthlessness was Andrew's revenge. Two: Rick wasn't thorough enough, and the penalty for his decision not to kill Andrew personally was Andrew's revenge.
Whatever the answer, Rick learned it the hard way, as evidenced by his descent into (temporary?) madness in tonight's episode. On that subject: I didn't really buy Rick's kill frenzy, which felt a lot more like what the writers wanted Rick to do than something a human being would actually do. But the way that the rest of the survivors instantly filled the void Rick left raises some interesting questions. From the way that both Daryl and Glenn instantly stepped up in tonight's episode, I'm not convinced that the survivors need Rick's leadership to keep going. (In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that The Walking Dead needs Rick to keep going, but we can save that for another roundtable.)
Before I turn it over to you, John, let me dispense with The Walking Dead's headier themes for something a little more concrete: What was the deal with the phone call Rick answered at the episode's end? I was irritated by the cliffhanger, which felt very abrupt and very forced, but I have to admit, I have no idea who's on the other end of that call. Thoughts?
I think the phone call was from Jeff Goldberg, who's been trying to reach AMC to complain about Walking Dead screeners being inaccessible from the Middle East. (Not everyone knows this, but in addition to being a TV critic, Goldberg also occasionally reports and writes on global affairs.)