Our TV Roundtable on what to make of Season 3, Episode 13, "Arrow on the Doorpost"
Let me begin by stating what's actually on my mind, even though what's on my mind isn't charitable, or profound, or faux-profound, or analytically sophisticated: I sincerely wish Andrea would get eaten already. Seriously. Enough. I find her unbearable. This is not the fault of the actress Laurie Holden, who is serviceable in the role, I suppose. It's the role itself. Andrea is a completely incoherent character. She makes Lori Grimes seem well-written by comparison. Andrea knows exceedingly well the immutable despicableness of the Governor; she has no connections to Woodbury. Why is she possibly interested in staying? The clean sheets? Wouldn't be the worst reason. But there's got to be a reason. So tell us.
The obvious question raised by Andrea's fundamental disjointedness is, Are the writers of TWD scripting her this way on purpose, as some sort of (unwieldy and caricaturish) attempt to show us the internal struggle of an ostensibly complicated person as she chooses between two forms of government, or are they doing this because they've lost control of the story?
Andrea is so incoherent as a character that she make Lori Grimes seem well-written.
I'm voting for the latter. If we were allowed to see something -- anything -- of Andrea's life in Woodbury, other than her shtupping-related activities, we might be able to understand better why she stays. But her motivation is missing. Now that we're moving, at last, toward the final confrontation between good and evil, I assume that Andrea will be provided with the opportunity to prove her essential goodness by saving Rick from death at the hands of the Governor. I'm also assuming that Michonne will ultimately be granted the privilege of stabbing the Governor in his remaining eye. I might be wrong, particularly on the first prediction, but it hasn't been so terribly hard to forecast upcoming episodes lately.
If I sound a bit weary, it's because I am. TWD is leaving too much reality out of each episode. The show seems smaller by the week. (By reality, by the way, I mean the things I could imagine the three of us talking about, if we were trapped inside a prison surrounded by zombies and fascists.) We know less and less about these characters with each passing episode. There is so little talk about the past, and so little talk about the future. And also, so little about the day-to-day practicalities: When will their food run out? Where are they finding water? Do they ever question their existence? Do they ever even wonder what happened to the world? I need explication!
In the meantime, I can't deny that a part of me is looking forward to the big fight.
You're right: Andrea doesn't work here, and hasn't worked all year. In a season (and, if we're being honest, a TV series) that has suffered from lazy writing, Andrea has gotten spottier characterization than anybody from the very beginning, when the writers asked us to accept that Michonne and Andrea have an intensely close bond -- even though we never saw any of it, and even though the actresses have absolutely no chemistry together. Then again, The Walking Dead's writers somehow managed to redeem Carol and Michonne, two characters that I might have written off as irredeemable -- so I'd hesitate a little before making Andrea zombie chow just yet.
But this was hardly the Andrea hour. Everybody got some screen time in tonight's "Arrow in the Doorpost" -- which, incidentally, derives its title from the opening lyric to Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." (The next lyric is "this land is condemned," if you're in the market for some foreshadowing.) I'm as sick of this show's habitual wheel-spinning as anybody, but I dug the both the idea and the execution of the parlay between the prison and Woodbury -- even if the writers were way too on-the-nose with their Bizarro-world versions of Rick and the gang.
After three seasons, I want to start caring about these characters.
In fact, I dug the parlay more than its inevitable resolution, when both Rick and the Governor return to their bases to rally their troops for war. Despite the season-long buildup, I'm actually not looking forward to the big fight, which feels so telegraphed and inevitable at this point that I'm already kind of bored by it. I really hope the third season's endgame doesn't play out like Jeff is describing, but other than mixing and matching some of the players (I say Andrea will kill the Governor to protect Michonne or Rick), I suspect he's right on the money. The Walking Dead's story has become painfully predictable, and at this point, the only way to add some unpredictability back into the mix is to alter the fundamental structure of how that story is told.
And that makes me hopeful for The Walking Dead's fourth season, which will be guided by showrunner Scott M. Gimple -- the writer who broke with the status quo for last week's terrific, unexpected "Clear." I'm less interested in the practicalities of post-apocalyptic life than Jeff and John are, and I'm perfectly content to accept that our heroes are dealing with the food/water questions whenever they're not on camera -- but after three seasons, I do want to start caring about these characters. In the past, I've advocated that The Walking Dead adopt Lost-style flashbacks to show us what these characters were like before the zombie apocalypse hit; it's an inelegant solution, but at least it would give us a sense of what these people are like when they're not just struggling to hang on at the bottom floor of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. But assuming that blunt option is off the table, there has to be a way to plumb deeper into these people -- if only for an episode -- and I think "Arrow in the Doorpost," despite its strengths, was a missed opportunity to do so.
Let me play devil's advocate. If, as Jeff complains, the show is going to get "smaller," why not go all the way and get really small for an episode? I, for one, didn't need to see this week's cursory quota of zombie killing, and while I'm happy that Glen and Maggie have kissed, etc. and made up, I never really bought into their fight in the first place. How much more interesting would "Arrow in the Doorpost" have been if the entire episode had been set in that claustrophobic room with Rick and the Governor? Let them spend 45 minutes playing mind games, feeling each other out, and plying each other with truth and lies -- and more importantly, giving us the chance to know them. Last week's episode showed that The Walking Dead can work unexpected wonders by cutting the fat from its narrative and giving a character the spotlight, and I'd be happy to see a similarly stripped-down approach going forward.
What do you think, John?
I think ... well, let me start with saying that I liked "Arrow in the Doorpost" more than any episode of The Walking Dead this season, including "Clear" -- which I found solid (I particularly appreciated the character and theme development) but a little overdone (Morgan's INSANITY was a little bug-eyed and cliched for me; the framing device of the inhumanely forsaken hitchhiker and his backpack, a little heavy-handed). Here, the story goes small: Rick and the Governor sit down to hash things out together in an abandoned barn while their posses wait outside. But the drama feels tight. For me, the immediacy and focus of the story helped it go bigger, in part by bracketing out the general incuriousness toward / lack of engagement with the reality of a zombie apocalypse that the show has exhibited this season -- or possibly since our gang raced away from an exploding Center for Disease Control facility in Atlanta at the end of Season 1.
I actually take encouragement from the writers' treatment of Andrea in "Arrow in the Doorpost": Andrea has become, in every way Jeff and Scott illustrate, a ridiculous character. The best thing to do with her at this stage may well be to openly recognize her as a fool and then marginalize her (or as Jeff would prefer, get rid of her altogether -- without, presumably, losing the opportunity for an oh-no-the-zombies-have-eaten-another-regular-character scene). Here, Andrea brings, literally to the table, everything that's preposterous about her inner and outer turmoil over the conflict between Rick's group and the Governor's. And? They totally dismiss her, angrily in Rick's case, casually in the Governor's, with all her willful ignorance and naivety exposed. Which I guess is one way you can start to clean up your show after writing it into a bad place.
Why does the show struggle so much to live up to the compelling horror it's predicated on?Scott, you may be right that this episode could have worked (even) better pared down to a two-man play: Rick and the Governor in the barn, no walkers, nothing else. Now that you say it, it's not hard to imagine something like that being a serial-drama masterpiece. The scope of an individual episode is, after all, I agree, a separate thing from the scope of the drama. I tend to think you're probably not right that The Walking Dead would benefit from Lost-like flashbacks, though. Maybe I'm wrong, but my sense is that this show works very differently from Lost: Lost used multiple lines of disorienting mystery to keep us guessing about everything. (How well did that turn out in the end, by the way?) The Walking Dead uses the zombie contagion as a single background mystery. Not knowing what happened, not flashing back, keeps us closer to the story, vicarious members of the group of survivors we're watching.
But overall, I think the show still has a long way to go if it's to realize its potential; and I think the only way it will get there is if it commits itself relentlessly, in a way it just hasn't yet, to writing and directing that lives up to the compelling horror at the center of The Walking Dead experience. TWD can adopt better or worse storytelling devices, meanwhile. But it can't really save itself without a deep commitment to saying: Yes, this story is derived from a pop-culture horror genre; but the plotting, the characters, the dialogue, everything about it can be on par with the best drama on television -- and the best drama on television, let's remember, can be non-absurdly compared to the better achievements of the Victorian novel.
Photo: Gene Page/AMC