'The Walking Dead': Ring Ring

Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 6, "Hounded"

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Gould:

Last week, in "Say the Word," The Walking Dead left us with a cliffhanger when a common household item suddenly functioned normally. Welcome back to the post-Apocalypse.

At the end of, "Killer Within," the previous week's episode, after Rick had seen Carl and Maggie emerge from inside the prison with Rick's newborn baby, but without his wife Lori, he'd understood within a few mortifying seconds that Lori was dead. The next single minute of Andrew Lincoln's performance was so wrenching that, I thought, it gave the writers the latitude to take Rick into more-or-less as extreme a state of grieving as they wanted. And they took it: Rick went on a walker-hacking rampage in "Say the Word" that ended with him in the boiler room -- where Lori had died and his baby had been born -- slumped against a wall, exhausted, covered in zombie blood, when ... a phone rings. A disoriented Rick answers. Cut to black.

Now, in "Hounded," Rick speaks with the calling strangers. They say they're in a place that's safe, that's "away ... from them." Rick serially pleads to let him and his group join them -- "we're good people ... we're dying here ..." -- but they only ask questions and say they'll call back later. There's a Lost-like sense of mystery in this whole sequence. Who are these Others at the other end of the line? But the clues come early that Rick is imagining them, the clearest being when Hershel offers to wait with him for the next call and Rick declines. The final time the phone rings, Rick recognizes the voice of Lori, who tells him he'd earlier been speaking with others from his group who'd also died.

Scott, when you asked last week who I thought had made that cliffhanger call, I had no idea but figured it must be coming from inside; I just didn't realize how far.

The show plays Rick's psychological crisis for thrills by bringing us through his delusion without bringing us through the inner state of mind that created it.

Well, this is all a tricky conceit for a plot, and I'm not sure how well it ends up working. Could a spell of post-traumatic madness really play itself out in such an orderly, sequential, reality-approximating way as this series of phone conversations does? Maybe? (Maybe I'll ask Dr. Hamblin.) But I'd be sympathetic to anyone who found the progression of the writing here forced.

The problem is that the show is playing a protagonist's psychological and emotional crisis for mystery and thrills by bringing us through his delusion without bringing us through the inner state of decompensation that created it. For this to work as a story frame, everything about the delusion has to feel not just plausibly, but presumably, real to us, who are watching it from outside, with only the hints to the contrary until the end. I guess there's a limit to how dramatically satisfying that can be.

But there are aspects I liked anyway. I think the writers wanted this to be a genuine, close-to-literal crisis for Rick -- a crisis in the epidemiological sense of a moment when he would either die from his condition or recover from it. Leadership and loss in a world of escalating horror have fragmented him, and Lori's death pushed him to the brink of coming apart entirely. This is when Rick chooses whether to let that happen or to put himself back together in a way that's functional in his now categorically more brutal new reality. It's striking that his first decision is to run into the prison among the walkers with an axe -- to run toward death, to kill -- but what happens next maybe be a more frightening extension of that decision: He connects with the dead themselves, pleading to let him join them.

Here, in this moment, is Rick's psyche, despite everything that had defined the Rick we knew, asking for permission to kill himself and those he's responsible for. We could say a lot about the contours of the psychological path that brought him to the final choice he ended up making; but the choice was to hang up, to clean off the blood, and to embrace his newborn daughter and the group's living symbol of hope for the future.

It was also, I reckon, timely: Merle has now abducted two of Rick's people. Michonne has shown up the prison, knowing where Merle has taken them. Rick is about to meet the Governor, in the season's inevitably defining conflict, and the writers seem to want to have Rick back together for the occasion.




Meslow:

The prison-phone reveal actually worked for me, even if it was pretty obvious what was really happening by the end of the first call. It was nice to see that The Walking Dead hasn't forgotten its roots (Hi, Jim and Jacqui!), and as you said, it offered an artful but concise way to force Rick to the breaking point. Our main character has walked right up to the edge of insanity, but stepped back again. There was obviously some necessarily brief storytelling at work here -- after all, there are only two more episodes left before The Walking Dead's midseason break, and, yes, the show needed Rick in top form for the group's eventual meeting with the Governor -- but I bought the depth of Rick's trauma, and the strength it took him to fight through it.

But the telephone twist also made me think about some of the hurdles The Walking Dead faces in the transition from page to screen. I didn't make it far enough into the comics to know the truth behind Rick's otherworldly callers in advance, but I suspect it was more suspenseful on the page, which offers a lot more ambiguity than a TV episode. Comic books -- which are released episodically and place a heavy emphasis on the visual -- resemble TV more than any other medium, and consequently The Walking Dead has enjoyed a generally smooth transition to the small screen. Nevertheless, the transparency of the twist served as a reminder that there are some things that comics can simply do better than television can.

I've been wondering if the writers would be able to find an organic way to bring Rick's group and the Governor's together. They found it.
But given the table setting this episode had to do for the remainder of the half-season, I'm impressed by how well it came off. This episode was written by Scott M. Gimple, who also wrote two of the Season 2's standout episodes ("Save the Last One" and "Pretty Much Dead Already"), and he found a way to make plot machinations work when they could have felt clumsy. I've been wondering if The Walking Dead's writers would be able to find an organic way bring our heroes at the prison and the Governor's Woodbury gang together, and I think they found it. We're now set up for a stellar two-episode run, with at least two embedded conflicts on the horizon: Will Andrea's budding relationship with the Governor convince her to turn against her old allies and Michonne? And will Daryl's loyalty to Meryl make him turn against the group that has become his makeshift family over the past year? These are the most interesting conflicts The Walking Dead has introduced since the power struggle between Rick and Shane, and the series has set them up with enough complexity that the writers could plausibly take it either way.

Which brings me to that question: Where do you think we're going from here? Glenn and Maggie are trapped behind enemy lines. Michonne seems likely to enlist with our heroes. There's a major, major clash on the horizon, and The Walking Dead has maneuvered all its chess pieces to a point where anything could happen, and no one is safe. Do you think the series has any more big surprises in store before the midseason break?



Goldberg:

For what it's worth, I'm glad the writers didn't extend this business of the phantom phone call too long. As a self-contained, fleeting moment, it's fine, but there's no Walking Dead if Rick becomes a perpetual delusionist. He can't go nuts until Carl gets tall enough to mate with Hershel's younger daughter and assume his role as head of the clan. Which, I assume, is the development that will mark the end of the series. That, or a miracle cure for zombification. Like, echinacea. Wouldn't that make for a great plot twist? Vitamin C would be even better.

As you know, I've just been catching up on my Walking Dead viewing. I was in the Middle East, which is an actual horror show, and so I just saw Lori die. I'm not quite past that yet. What a terrible moment for an actor: not the C-section dramatics (was she laying it on a bit thick there, or am I just cynical?), but the moment when the producers call you in and say, "By the way, we know you thought you were a mainstay of our series -- are you enjoying the fat paycheck? -- but, listen, we're going to kill you off in the next episode. So, good luck! Of course, the pain of prospective unemployment is mitigated by a heroic death, and both Sarah Wayne Callies and IronE Singleton, who played the underused T-Dogg, were sent off in inspiring fashion. (I once met an actor from The Sopranos who was forever pissed-off that the show killed off his character by giving him a heart attack while sitting on a toilet.)

As horrifying as Lori's death was, I found the last two episodes more harrowing, in large part because the Governor is more frightening than any zombie. I'm with Scott: The show has found a way to bring the two story lines together in a plausible way. And I'm loving Michonne more and more, by the way. Also: Do you think they've made the story's civil-liberties lawyer its most unappealing character on purpose? The Walking Dead is very conservative in some ways (from its tragic view of human nature to the underlying message that only those who know how to use guns can survive), and it's clever to have ACLU Andrea fall in love with a fascist, and admit to being titillated by gladiator battles?

To answer your question, Scott, I'm assuming something big is coming, because something has to give. What I assume will give is the Governor's head, courtesy of Michonne. Another plausible confrontation: Daryl takes down his brother. The show moves frenetically this season, which suggests that the producers learned from last season's languid pace. And so it's safe to assume they are planning more surprises.



Gould:

So we agree the show's done a fine job of setting up the integration of it's two parallel story lines. Still, you guys expect too little from television! The writers have nicely resolved some elements of the plot that they needed to resolve in order to hinge the season in a way we're expecting them to hinge it -- in a showdown with the Woodbury gang -- but let's not forget that they've been writing the whole thing from the beginning ... or be overly impressed when they find an okay device-y solution to a timing problem they created themselves. To me, this, the patent device-i-ness of the episode's psycho-telecommunications mystery was, for all that worked about it, distracting: I like a lot of what it accomplished for aligning Rick's character arc with the exigencies of a fast-moving plot; and it was in some ways artfully done; but it was ultimately too conspicuous as a writer's trick to keep me feeling immersed in the story. Not too conspicuous to keep me from being right back in it next week, though. I can't hardly wait.

I see we've meanwhile started drafting for our Who-Kills-the-Governor pool. Goldberg takes Michonne. Scott, you pick next. I hope you choose someone other than Rick, 'cause otherwise I'll have to go with Andrea. And Andrea killing the Governor would just be too big-irony not to suck.



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