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.)
Otherwise, I have no clue whom the call might be from, or, really, how the phone line could work at all -- even (given that the gang shut down the prison's auxiliary generator last week) if the call is coming from inside the house. Now if the call were coming from outside, it's hard to imagine that it would go through to such an apparently random phone on such an apparently random wall in the prison's bowels. So I'll say it's from inside -- in which case either the gang has found a functioning internal comms system or else ... were about to meet some new friends?
Scott, you remark that the maybe-temporary collapse of Rick's sanity that's accompanied/driven his zombie-killing rampage inside the prison seems forced. I'm not sure. The way he behaves when Glenn finds him? Maybe there (maybe?). But his walker-killing spree as such? Maybe not. I think we'll have a clearer read on that when we see where the writers are going with him in the coming weeks. One thing I'd say pretty emphatically about Rick's scenes in this episode, and the character's whole turn after Lori's death: Andrew Lincoln's performance in the last scene of "The Killer Within" was, to me, phenomenal -- as guttingly real as it was intense -- and has given the writers a lot of subsequent leeway. They may have cast Rick into an abruptly volatile emotional state, but so far my feeling is that Lincoln has kept that transition plausible and compelling.
I like what you say about how TWD is exploring the theme of mercy in the world it imagines; and I think that theme goes to the heart of a conversation we've been having here since the beginning of the season. Back in Episode 2, I found Rick's decision, after killing Tomas, to chase Andrew out to a horrible zombie death not just morally suspect but practically unnecessary and motivationally iffy. (Why would Rick do that? A prior Season 3 example of the writers forcing things?) But my first thought after seeing that Andrew had survived, only to set up last week's sabotage, was, Oh, turns out Rick was right; Andrew was fatally bad news after all. Possible-ally prisoners Axel and Oscar have meanwhile explicitly confirmed Andrew's bad-news-ness to Rick's group; but then, they know the group see Andrew and Tomas as having been mortal threats, and they're trying to make the case now that they, Axel and Oscar, are good guys by contrast. So who knows? It could be that if Rick had made the split-second decision to give Andrew a chance rather than effectively killing him, Andrew wouldn't have tried to kill Rick's group in turn -- and would now be as much a potential ally as Axel and Oscar are.
Extremity of circumstance may or may not change the moral complexity of mercy, but it definitely changes the practical complexity.
Completely with you on the ending of "Killer Within": Ample credit is due to Andrew Lincoln, who made Rick's grief utterly and believably heartbreaking. Lincoln has always managed to bring texture to a character that could, as written, tend to be a little colorless.
But after reading your take, it occurs to me that the tricky thing about asking "Why would Rick do that?" is that we don't really know Rick anymore. Killing Shane marked a permanent shift in his character, and Season 3 picked up seven or eight months after that, with very little information about what occurred during that lost time. This new season is built on a new status quo, but it's been so focused on the immediate problems presented by the prison and Woodbury that it's tough to guess at the series' long-term goals from here -- except, of course, for the inevitable meeting between our heroes and the Governor's people at Woodbury, which I suspect will be the point at which The Walking Dead will take its mid-season break three weeks from now. In the meantime, quibbles aside, I'm content to trust that showrunner Glen Mazzara and the rest of The Walking Dead's creative team know what they're doing this season, which is easily shaping up to the show's best ever.
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