Our TV Roundtable on suspense, post-apocalyptic politics, and what to make of Season 3, Episode 14, "Prey"
The creative team behind The Walking Dead is clearly listening to the fans, because tonight, we finally got what everybody has been begging for: a whole episode about Andrea!
But I suspect that even the most ardent Andrea haters -- I'm looking at you, Jeff -- will find something to like about "Prey," a solid episode that started to set the table for the big prison/Woodbury showdown that show has been building up to all season. It's clear by now that The Walking Dead is just maneuvering the pieces into play before the main conflict actually begins, though I like that the show gave us another Woodbury-centric episode -- even if this entry doesn't live up to "Walk with Me," the episode that introduced the Governor last October.
The Walking Dead's latest act of character rehabilitation came in the form of Milton, who proved to be more interesting and sympathetic in "Prey" than he's been all season -- which, knowing TWD, means he'll probably be killed off next week. Though the show hasn't done much until now to establish a bond between Milton and the Governor, the hints we got about the longevity and depth of their partnership in "Prey" rang truer to me than the unconvincing "bond" between Andrea and Michonne. I can see why a milquetoast nobody like Milton would cling to a charistmatic leader like the Governor, and why the Governor would ally with a forward-thinking brainiac like Milton. The back half of The Walking Dead's third season has turned the Governor into a snarling cartoon, but "Prey" offers some reminders about why people would have followed him in the first place. The episode could really have used another flashback at its end, to bookend the look we're given into the early days of Michonne and Andrea; I'd love to have seen a younger Milton teaming up with the Governor when he was a hopeful, two-eyed man who called himself Philip, strategizing about how they could "beat this thing" and "claw their way back" together.
But I can talk about the show I want The Walking Dead to be all day; let's talk about the show it is. If The Walking Dead isn't going to give us a believable, three-dimensional Governor, it should at least give us a sinister, scary one, and "Prey" certainly delivers on that count. The extended, almost dialogue-free action sequence in the abandoned warehouse is among the series' best in both concept and execution. I like that the Governor has found a way to make the walkers just another sadistic tool in his box. It's a smart, legitimately interesting strategy to pull a Hans Gruber and smash all the glass, drawing any walkers in the area to do his dirty work -- even if Andrea does end up turning the tables and escaping.
But her escape is short-lived. In the end, "Prey" offers its own variation on Chekov's gun: The torture chair introduced in the first act is used by a sadistic maniac in the third act. As the episode ends, Andrea is at the mercy of the Governor, who recaptured her just as she reached the prison -- and in the episode's final moments, we learn that she's locked up in his private dungeon.
Which left me thinking: Would this suspense show benefit from a little more mystery? I was a lot more interested in the question "What did the Governor do to Andrea?" which the episode teased us with for about 5 minutes, than I am in the question "What will the Governor do to Andrea now that she's strapped into his torture chair?" -- perhaps because the answer is almost definitely "torture her." Say what you will about the infamous "Where's Sophia?" plot line, which dragged out over the first half of Season 2; I didn't know she was in the barn, and I wouldn't complain if The Walking Dead kept us guessing every once in a while.
What did you think, Jeff?
Scott, you're right -- I almost, nearly, not-quite loved this episode. I didn't even mind Andrea's dominating presence, because, at least for a long moment, she was a fully animated character, even more than the most animated walker. What we experienced over the preceding weeks was a tortuously long vamp; the stretch marks on this season are frighteningly visible. The apparent need to delay the final confrontation between Woodbury and the prison forced the writers to turn Andrea into a contradictory mush of a character. In "Prey," she has purpose.
She also has guts. I found the extended horror-movie set piece in the abandoned warehouse, in which Andrea nearly out-flanks the governor, riveting and nauseatingly tense, a reminder of the skill that the makers of TWD originally grabbed our attention with (it's hard to remember, given this generally flaccid season, but those first episodes of the first season were filled with genuine holy-shit TV moments).
And I'll also acknowledge that you're correct about the successful character rehabilitation of Milton (I'm hoping it's he who eventually puts out the governor's other eye, not Michonne), though I would point out that Tyrese is still tragically undeveloped as a character.
By the way, apropos of my obsession with proving that TWD has a not-so-hidden conservative agenda, I think I can declare victory now. Did you happen to notice that the Governor, in preparation for war, orders all the guns collected from the citizens of Woodbury? Wayne LaPierre could have written this episode. Of course, any form of entertainment about our post-apocalypse future buys in axiomatically to the preoccupations and fears of preppers, and preppers are predisposed to 2nd Amendment absolutism. But it's noteworthy that the Governor's despotism is illustrated by this dictatorial fiat.
The final, sequence -- Andrea strapped to the torture chair we saw in the episode's outset -- disappointed me most about this episode, for the same reason Scott found it wanting. It would have been so much more effective to show us the door, and not show us Andrea behind the door. Leaving something to the imagination wouldn't be the worse thing for this show. Still, for the first time in a while, I'm kind of hoping Rick manages to rescue Andrea in whatever raid he winds up staging. So say this for "Prey" -- it made me care, just a little, for our pathetic and confused civil liberties lawyer.
These are excellent points, thoroughly made. So let me add just two thoughts -- one related to why I think The Walking Dead doesn't, and can't, say anything compelling about contemporary political ideology; the second related to why I think the show struggles, as Season 3 drags itself to its conclusion, to be compelling at all.
It's one of the show's great strengths, and possibly among its few left, that it convincingly depicts a world that has been severed from everything that came before it as thoroughly as it has suddenly. The old social roles don't apply, the old individual identities don't apply, the old frameworks of meaning don't apply. Which is why I have again to dissent from Jeff's interpretation of TWD as having a "conservative agenda." Yes, the Governor collecting everyone's guns not only connects directly with the fears of Second Amendment absolutists; it's an act of unambiguous tyranny. But that's because in Woodbury, life and death depend on weapons and being unarmed means complete disempowerment. That's not the context in which we've staked out our positions in political debates about the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms. "Liberal" and "conservative" are predicates of civilization, not the zombie apocalypse; and I find no dissonance in the thought that my attitudes about arming myself would be utterly different in a world dominated by rapacious, undead cannibals than they are now.
It's meanwhile, though, one of the shows evolving weaknesses that it's creators just aren't consistent enough in respecting the defining rules of the world they've made. If the drama of TWD is ever to become and remain truly effective, it's producers and writers and directors have to become virtually OCD about the kinds of things that do and don't happen in this world. FOR EXAMPLE: In a sparsely treed forest -- just as on an open, empty road -- a pack of zombies cannot surprise and swarm you. NO. Too much on this show is said or done, or just happens, not because it's in a deep logic of the story, but because the creative team simply decided it; and every time that happens, the show undermines itself.
Even more than The Walking Dead should trust its viewers' intelligence enough to give us real suspense -- and I agree with Scott and Jeff on this -- it should fear its viewers' intelligence enough to know that Season 3 hasn't cut it. If it doesn't, if it doesn't care obsessively about doing justice to itself, down to the details, we won't be able to hold off the gnawing feeling that The Walking Dead is the Woodbury of TV shows: somewhere we're staying, despite ourselves, longer than we ought to.
Image: Gene Page/AMC