The Grimes Gang loses one of its most valuable members, while the Governor gets ready for war
Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

The lovely people of Woodbury wanted blood, and lots of it. We began the second half of The Walking Dead‘s third season right where we left off a couple months ago. The Dixon brothers were back together, like in days gone by — and just like in days gone by, the good people of the community were united against them. (Everything we’ve ever heard about the Dixon Brothers’ pre-apocalypse lifestyle makes them sound like outcasts. I picture them as a grown-up backwoods Calvin & Hobbes, with Daryl as the reckless-yet-thoughtful youth and Merle as the pouncing homicidal psycho stuffed tiger.) The Governor loomed at the center of the arena. His citizens screamed, “Kill them! Kill them!” Andrea offered a pitiful defense for her old comrade: “Philip. He’s my friend.” But the Governor would not hear her plaintive cries of woe. “Brother against Brother,” he declared. “Winner goes free. Fight to the death.” And lo, for the first time in recorded history, Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon looked scared.

Merle initially wanted to get back in Woodbury’s good graces. “I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do to prove that my loyalty is to this town,” he declaimed, before punching his younger brother to the ground and kicking him a couple times for good measure. Daryl fought back; eventually, they were engaged in mutual strangulation. (According to popular folklore, the only person who can kill a Dixon brother is another Dixon brother.) But this was all just a cunning ruse by Ol’ Stabby-Hand. “Just follow my lead, little brother,” he said. The brothers rose and started gladiator-tussling with the zombies in the arena. It wasn’t the bloodsport the Woodbury Citizens wanted, but still they roared.

And then they fled. Rick had brought a small task force back to Woodbury to rescue Daryl. They shot the lights out; they threw smoke grenades; someone (Maggie?) shot The Girl With The Compound Bow, thus putting an end to all our theories that her and Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon were going to star in an archery-themed remake of Enemy at the Gates. The good people of Woodbury ran away screaming. Daryl got his crossbow back. Merle bashed a zombie to death with his arm stump. (Meanwhile, the Governor slowly walked through the smoke and shot a walker through the head, with all the nonchalance of a man swatting a fly.) The Grimes Gang and the Dixon Boys escaped through the fence, leaving it just open enough for a curious walker to come in.

Rick brought his people back to the rendezvous point, where the injured Glenn and Michonne licked their wounds and plotted vengeance. They weren’t too happy to see Merle. Merle, meanwhile, was extremely happy to see them. Really, Merle couldn’t have seemed happier about this whole situation. Truth Time: I think The Walking Dead has sort of bungled the reintroduction of Merle Dixon. It was always a stretch that Merle would just happen to find the Grimes Gang again, considering the sheer lonely expanse in the new zombie-infested world. But the show stretched that stretch even further: First, Merle found Andrea wandering through the countryside; then, he found Glenn and Maggie wandering through the countryside; meanwhile, Michonne found the Grimes Gang on her own, and at no point ever connected Rick’s Crew to her old traveling companion, Andrea.

This is all, in a word, insane. Fortunately, Merle is also insane, so this all makes sense to him. He sowed a bit of discord in the group. He told Rick that Andrea had become the Governor’s paramour. He told Rick that Michonne used to have two pet walkers. He told Rick that he was surrounded by a bunch of liars, thugs, and cowards. And then he just cackled: “All these guns, and no bullets in me!”

Merle was making a lot of good points. Rick had a concise rebuttal: He punched Merle in the face.

NEXT: Getting worse out there

Back at the Lori Grimes Memorial Prison, Hershel was getting to know the newcomers. Tyreese explained that he and his sister managed to survive because of their neighbor, Jerry, a survivalist nutjob who turned out to be a well-prepared survivalist nutjob. They lived off his emergency supplies until supplies ran out. (You got the vibe that Jerry had a bad death. But nobody dies well after the world ends.) They linked up with a big group of people. There were 25 of them at one point: Larger than the Grimes Gang has ever been, a community on the road to becoming a Woodbury-esque incorporated township. But their camp was overrun. And here we are: “I must be the first brother in history to break into prison,” said Tyreese. “Makes me the first white guy to not wanna break out,” said Axel. And then they laughed and gave each other a thumbs up, FREEZE FRAME! (I lay 10-1 odds that Tyreese has to hammer open Axel’s skull before the end of the season.)

Tyreese asked the big question: Could they stay? “It’s not up to me,” said Hershel. This time last year, Hershel held all the cards on the Greene Family Farm, and he didn’t want the Grimes Gang lollygagging around. Now, he’s a different man. Almost all of his 37 Wacky Children have died or disappeared.

Rick and the Melee Squad were having their own internal debate: What to do with Merle? Glenn and Maggie wanted him gone. Daryl couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Referring to Michonne, he said: “You’re gonna cut Merle loose and bring Last Samurai with us?” Rick tried to reason with him. Daryl has become his right-hand man; Rick is a smart enough leader to know that, without Merle around, he’s become Daryl’s surrogate big brother. “You’re part of the family. He’s not,” Rick explained. But Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon never turns his back on blood. “It’s always Merle and I before this,” he said. He asked Rick to take care of everyone: His son, his daughter, Carol. And then the Dixon brothers walked away into the forest.

I’m not sure how I feel about this development. On one hand, the prospect of seeing Daryl and Merle together in the wasteland, watching each other’s back and possibly driving each other crazy, is enticing. On the other hand: Surely, in the long run, they’re going to circle back around? Is this just a delaying tactic? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Rick to bring Merle to the prison and then interrogate him about the Governor’s forces? Then again, one of the running subtextual jokes of The Walking Dead is that Rick might not, in fact, be a very good leader. He’s good at short-term tactics; long-term planning, not so much.

In that sense, he’s the opposite of the Governor, who is all long-term planning — remember his notebooks, with the fifty-year-plan for restarting civilization? The back half of this season looks to foreground the contrast between the two men. There’s a sense that The Governor is like a great Roman Emperor, capable of organizing a whole society to do his bidding. But Rome was sacked, eventually, by barbarians — and the Grimes Gang, nomadic and violent and extremely hostile to newcomers, is essentially a crew of tactically efficient barbarians.

Rick is right to be skeptical about new people, though. Back at the prison, Tyreese and Sasha were preparing to bury dead-mama Donna. Their compatriot, the recently-widowed Allen, gave them a quick numbers game. Right now, the prison was currently being held by a wispy woman with a rifle and a little kid with a gun. They could take this prison. Tyreese made a plea for common decency; Allen pointed out that “This is survival of the fittest, plain and simple.” At that moment, Axel and Beth appeared, offering a pair of shovels that were just the right size to crush a human head. Tyreese and his sister grabbed the shovels, thanked them, and glared at their friends.

NEXT: Last Exit from WoodburyMeanwhile, Woodbury was in a state of societal breakdown. The good people of Woodbury were scared. There were casualties. There were cars trying to leave, and the security force — leaderless, without Merle — wouldn’t let them out. “Shoving a gun in their face won’t help,” proclaimed Andrea. “Shut up, Andrea!” said everybody. The curious walker who got in through the fence attacked a Woodbury Citizen. Andrea shot the walker; the citizen was slowly dying in the street. The Governor emerged from his gubernatorial estate, and he shot the dying man in the face, with all the nonchalance of a man swatting a fly. (The Governor is really nonchalant, is what I’m trying to say.)

Andrea walked into the Governor’s room. She offered him some free advice. The people are scared. They need you to lead them with stirring oratory. They don’t need you to go all Tom-Cruise-in-Collateral and gun people down without a word of warning. The Governor was dismissive. “They’re used to barbecues and picnics. That ends now. We’re at war. I should’ve seen that.” There are certain lines of dialogue in serialized shows that serve as roadmaps, and that’s about as handy a guide to this half-season as we’re likely to get. The question is: What kind of war? Will the Grimes Gang and Woodbury armor up? Will they lead guerilla assaults? Who will attack first? Between this and the arrival of Tyreese, will this finally convince Rick that they really should plug up some of the holes in the prison’s back fence? (ASIDE: I know, I know: They’ve closed off part of the prison, but other parts are still overrun with zombies and wide open to whatever homicidal road-gangs swing by. I don’t mean to second-guess Rick’s security tactics, but if it were up to me, I would have dug a moat around the prison and filled it with lighter fluid by now. END OF ASIDE.)

Andrea pressed on. Why wasn’t she told that her friends were still alive? Why did they wind up shooting each other? How come her boyfriend has become so distant? “You’re just a visitor here. Why should I tell you?” responded the Governor. Hurtful.

Rick and the Melee Squad arrived back at the prison. He assured Carol that Daryl was still alive, but that he had gone. “Is he coming back?” asked Carol. With Daryl gone, Carol has lost one of her two defining character traits — “Pining for Daryl.” (Her other character trait is “headscarf.”) Carl asked a simple question: “Oscar?” Rick: “No.” I kind of wish Rick had said “Who?” Everyone welcomed Rick back. Beth kissed Rick on the cheeks and gave him what strikes me as a meaningful glance, though maybe that meant nothing. (Although Beth has been more or less declared Stepmother for Rick’s Baby…) Rick held his week-old child in his arms, and crazy music played in the background.

Back at Woodbury, Andrea took matters into her own hands. The citizens were freaking out, and she delivered an impromptu off-the-cuff speech. “Every one of us has suffered,” she said, while behind her a young boy wearing a tattered baseball cap picked up his trumpet and began playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “The death never stops,” she explained, while a group of little drummer boys emerged from around the corner. “We will work together, and we will rebuild,” she continued, while the citizens of Woodbury all pulled out lighters and waved them over their heads. On Andrea went: “They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom! Today is the day we declare our Independence Day! Because that’s what living is: The six inches in front of your face! Ich bin ein Berliner!” In the distance, she could see the ghost of George Washington and Obi-Wan Kenobi, smiling and nodding at her. “When they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury!” The people cheered hooray, and they carried Andrea away on their shoulders, and the history books record that all of Woodbury joined in a two-hour-long rendition of “Do You Hear The People Sing?”

It was super inspiring. The Governor watched her speak from his window. Could there be a power struggle brewing in Woodbury? And if Andrea does attain some political power in Woodbury, how will that affect her relationship with the Grimes Gang?

NEXT: A tangentThere are two storylines to pay attention to in these final eight episodes of season 3. The first is obvious, and clearly stated: The brewing war between Woodbury and the Grimes Gang, and the minor internal skirmishes occupying both sides. There is also another storyline, more subtle, more behind-the-scenes, and of interest only to those Walking Dead fans who care about how the show gets put together — and if you don’t care about behind-the-scenes stuff, go on ahead to the next page. But if you are that kind of Walking Dead fan, then the story I’m talking about is arguably more interesting than anything that happened in tonight’s episode. I’m talking about the impending departure of Glen Mazzara, the man who is largely credited with bringing the life back to Walking Dead, who is leaving the show due to “creative differences.” This marks the second time that Walking Dead has lost a showrunner, after original creative force Frank Darabont departed midway through season 2.

It’s hard to assign credit on a TV show like Walking Dead. Robert Kirkman has been writing the original series for close to a decade now, and he’s a producer/writer on the TV show. Darabont directed the great series premiere and established a tone that veered wildly between stark retro-western, gory horror, and bargain-bin Ingmar Bergman. There are other producers — one of whom is Greg Nicotero, the man behind the zombies; you could argue that Nicotero is the real star of the show. And there is also AMC, a network thatcould have never imagined that The Walking Dead would become as successful as it is…and a network that has become extremely careful in protecting the show, now that it has become a megahit.

Mazzara’s time on the show was initially a mercenary rescue mission — he chopped out the bad characters, burnt the farm to the ground, and gave the fans the Governor-Michonne-Prison triple-shot they had been begging for. But with the third season premiere, Mazzara also gave the show a complete reboot; he reimagined the whiny Grimes Gang of season 2 as a lean, mean tactical squadron, operating mostly on well-trained impulse. It was a vision of The Walking Dead as a war movie — specifically, a Behind-Enemy-Lines war movie, except the whole world was behind enemy lines.

To be honest, I’m not sure any episode this season has entirely lived up to that vision. The show still runs into problems when the characters talk too much. The new people have been a mixed bag: David Morrissey is having a great time chewing the scenery as the Governor, and Danai Gurira’s thousand-yard-stare suggests a whole internal life for Michonne that hasn’t been even remotely explored by the writers, but every other new character is basically a walking Meatbag waiting to be chomped or sliced.

This is all important, I think, because the story of The Walking Dead is the story of very different leaders offering their own perspective on how humanity should function, while the story behind the show is the story of very different creative personalities offering their own perspective on how The Walking Dead should function. These final eight episodes have now become, perhaps inadvertently, Mazzara’s final statement on The Walking Dead. So it has to make you anxious that, with time running down on the clock, the show took a moment to reintroduce not one, but two of the worst running plotlines in the show’s history. The first was subtle, but noteworthy. Beth and Carol had a brief chat in the prison. Carol, mourning for the absent Daryl, said: “Sophia used to wake the neighbors.” That’s the first time Sophia has been mentioned all season, I believe — a nice departure from last season, when The Search for Sophia occupied about half the running time. Carol also mentioned Ed, her abusive dead husband, and how — if he walked through the door — she might still run to him. It was, on one hand, a nice reminder that all of these people used to have a different life. It was also, however, a reminder that these people’s lives used to be much less interesting. (It’s times like this that Walking Dead reminds you of Battlestar Galactica, and it doesn’t benefit from the comparison: While the characters on BSG decided to keep moving forward, the characters on Walking Dead appear stuck in their tracks, reliving the same traumas over and over. Will Andrea fall for next season’s villain, too?)

NEXT: My own sonGlenn and Maggie couldn’t quite look each other in the eye. Glenn was fuming over what happened to Maggie in the torture chamber: He was frustrated, emasculated, dangerously furious. He couldn’t quite look her in the eye. Hershel gave Glenn a nice little speech: “You’re like my own son,” he said. Will Glenn get his bloody revenge on the Governor? Watch this space for further developments.

Meanwhile, everyone was playing the numbers game. Carol pointed out that, with the loss of Daryl and Oscar, they were down two defenders. “We’re outnumbered and outgunned.” So it was time for Rick to speak to Tyreese and Co. Tyreese said everything right. He wanted to contribute. “You got a problem with another group? We’ll help you with that.” They just wanted a place to stay. Rick’s answer was simple: “No.” He reminded Hershel about Tomas and Andrew, and what happened with them. (Recap: Tomas tried to kill Rick, and Rick killed him; Rick let Andrew go, and Andrew indirectly killed T-Dog and Lori.)

Hershel took Rick aside and begged him to reconsider. This was a complete reversal from the Hershel of old. “You’re wrong on this. You’ve got to start giving people a chance.” But in this case, Rick has also staged a complete reversal. He used to give everyone a chance; he gave Shane one chance and then another and then another, and he still wound up stabbing his friend to death, and then watching his son shoot his friend into double-death.

Now, listen. I think Rick is a fascinating protagonist for a TV show. He was introduced, explicitly, as a cowboy, riding his horse through the open countryside. Later, he became the protector of a group of people — Moses leading his tribe through the desert. But he has made mistakes, quite frequently; he has lost people, and he’s been forced to kill others. When he puts his faith in people, they usually betray him. His wife is dead, and also might have given birth to the bastard child of the man who tried to kill him. It’s understandable that he might be coming unhinged.

But boy oh boy, I don’t think it was the best move ever to show the Spooky Ghost Silhouette of Lori haunting him in the shadows. Rick saw her, and began screaming: “Why? Why? Whhhhhyyyyyyy!!!!!” This was, really, a continuation of the ghost-fantasy PTSD we saw in the midseason finale, when he spotted Shane coming at him through the smoke. But it was also a continuation of that terrible “phone call from the great beyond” plotline. Look, let’s get down to brass tacks here: Lori was not a good character. The show killed her off: That was wise. The show has now brought her back in ghost form twice: That is not wise.

I know it sounds like I’m coming down hard on this episode. But Walking Dead has always been a show in transition, a story in the process of figuring out what its story is. At this midpoint of the season, there are all sorts of chesspieces scattered across the map: The Governor and Andrea, fighting a war for Woodbury’s soul; Rick, coming unglued at the prison, and the vacuum of power that will need to be filled if he abdicates; the Dixon Boys, wandering dangerously close to the Red Zone. I’m excited to see where the show goes from here. Is it too much to ask, though, that wherever it goes, it leaves the Spooky Ghost of Lori in the rearview mirror?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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