Andrea and Michonne run afoul of an old friend, and meet a mysterious new ally who has a secret or three

By Darren Franich
Updated February 27, 2015 at 07:45 PM EST
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Gene Page/AMC
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One of the most fun things about The Walking Dead is that it doesn’t really have any long-running mysteries. Almost every new genre series that’s arrived in the past decade comes equipped with a whole mass of questions. (Who caused the Flashforward? What is The Event? How did the world’s electricity suddenly turn off? Why did anyone ever remake V?) In this sense, The Walking Dead feels like a throwback to an older, far more straightforward form of science-fiction. “The zombies are here and we have to survive” — that’s the concept, simple and effective.

With one exception: The Helicopter, which appeared twice in the show’s first two seasons. In the series premiere, Rick followed the sound of the copter and rode straight into a downtown herd of walkers. In last season’s finale, we saw the same helicopter inadvertently caused another herd to migrate to Hershel’s Farm. In both events, the helicopter was a tantalizing glimpse of advanced technology. And if someone had a helicopter, then surely that same someone had food, shelter, and some kind of magic zombie-proof armor? To get really heavy for a second, the helicopter seemed like a window into a higher state of consciousness — the rough equivalent of seeing the occasional Dharma Initiative logo in the second season of Lost. The helicopter was proof that someone more powerful than our characters was out there, maybe even watching over them.

So it was immediately thrilling when the first scene of last night’s episode of The Walking Dead threw us into a helicopter flying over the wilderness. Soldiers were inside. They looked stressed out. There was some talk about “getting back in contact” with the other guys. There was some light turbulence. And then everything went to hell. The pilot told his boys to assume crash positions. The copter went down in the forest. Now, mind you, it’s impossible to know if this helicopter is The Helicopter. But, in context, the opening sequence felt like a sly statement of purpose for this series: In this world, the gods really are dead.

Andrea, Michonne, and Michonne’s mouthless pets watched smoke rising from the crash. An ailing Andrea wanted to check it out; Michonne wasn’t too sure. Naturally, it fell to the lady with the sword to investigate the burning copter, while Andrea stayed behind in the bushes to vomit. Michonne found one of the soldiers: He was cut in half, and his top half was hungry. Then a car arrived, and Michonne lurked in the bushes with Andrea. They watched as a group of men got out of the car. These men were well-armed and well-trained. They didn’t use bullets unless they had to. (Baseball bats are much quieter.) The man in charge took the lead in killing the soldier-zombies. He walked up to the half-man and stabbed his brain, methodically. In the bushes, the pets were acting up. Michonne did not hesitate: She pulled out her katana and chopped off both their heads, earning what could have been her third straight Zombie Kill of the Week award.

Alas for Michonne’s perfect record, the two women were discovered by one of the men. But not just any man. He was a man of great passion and great humor. A man who has suffered great trauma, and has emerged all the stronger for it. He is a gentleman and a scholar; he may be the last true American. I’m talking, of course, about Merle Dixon, the half-crazy redneck warrior played by full-crazy cult legend Michael Rooker. Merle was last seen preparing to saw off his own hand on an Atlanta rooftop; some Walking Dead viewers claim he appeared as a dream-demon in an episode last season that focused entirely on Daryl Dixon climbing a hill, but that didn’t actually happen and we’re never going to speak of that episode again. Dixon said, “Hi, Blondie! You look good!” There was a walker approaching behind him; without even looking, he stabbed it through the head with his new prosthetic bayonet-arm, thereby ensuring an easy victory for the Zombie Kill of the Week. “How’s about a hug for your old pal, Merle?” Heads up, people: Michael Rooker is back, and the government has officially declared a state of emergency.

NEXT: The Governor Cometh

The women rode with the men back to their base. A doctor attended to Andrea, and then Merle came in for a chitchat. “I bet you were wonderin’ if I was real,” he said — an indication, I think, that the Walking Dead writers also never want to talk about that dream episode ever again. “I guess this ol’ world gets a lil’ smaller toward the end,” said Merle. Ain’t so many of us left to share the air.” Merle pulled up a chair and sat down on it backwards, interrogation-room style. Andrea updated him on what’s been happening with the group. When she mentioned Rick, Merle grimaced: “He’s that prick that cuffed me to the rooftop.” Merle doesn’t know anything about the Ricktatorship; when he left the camp, the Grimes Gang was still living in a relatively benign and mostly-ungoverned commune. Michonne didn’t say too much, and the hard stare she flashed Merle’s way indicated bad things to come.

But Merle was just the advance guard for the man in charge. The leader of the gang came in. Andrea and Michonne accused him of killing the soldiers; they hadn’t been bitten, after all. But the man clarified that everyone becomes a walker, bitten or not. “I put them out of their misery,” he explained. He took them outside and took them on a tour of a lovely little All-American town: “Welcome to Woodbury.” He showed them the gates of the town, where Merle and his squad take out walkers who come to Woodbury, maybe because they can smell humanity, maybe by accident. Andrea asked if they were military, but the leader explained that they were self-trained: A militia, like the Minutemen who fought against the redcoats in the Revolutionary War. Merle told his boss: “Got us a creeper, Governor.” Andrea asked the man about that “Governor” stuff. “Some nicknames stick whether you want them to or not,” explained the Governor. He smiled, looking like a man who didn’t mind his nickname one bit.

The ladies wanted to leave, but the Governor asked them to stay. He offered them a hot shower, food, fresh clothes; he promised to give them keys to a car in the morning, if that was what they desired. In the morning, he had a sweet local lady show them around the community. Woodbury has a population of 73, she explained; it’ll be 74 soon, since one citizen is pregnant. It’s been months since any walkers have breached the gates. There’s a mandatory curfew. It became clear that Merle and his security force hold a place of significant authority in town: “Those men put their lives at risk every day to defend this town,” the local lady explained. The pitch on Woodbury was clear: This is a town that has somehow defeated the apocalypse and achieved a state of triumphant normalcy.

In dark rooms in a dark corners of Woodbury, however, dark things were happening darkly. The Governor paid a visit to the injured helicopter pilot, who spun a sad tale of woe. The soldiers had secured a zombie-free base; one of the walkers got in, and the place fell into anarchy within minutes. It was just like 28 Weeks Later, except without the bruised nobility of Jeremy Renner’s sad blue eyes. The pilot said that there were more soldiers out there. “Let me go find the rest,” said the Governor. “If they’re alive, I’ll bring them in.”

After his visit, The Governor consulted with a bespectacled colleague named Milton. (AMC completists will recognize Dallas Roberts, the actor playing Milton, from his role on the endearingly overcomplicated canceled drama Rubicon.) Milton was doing some kind of experiment on Michonne’s pets, keeping them alive with an apparatus that vaguely resembled the Martian technology that led to a headless romance between Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker in Mars Attacks! “Take away their ability to eat, and they lose interest,” said Milton. It’s not clear what exactly the nature of his experiments are, but it vibes a bit like Day of the Dead. Is he trying to pacify the zombies? Or, more intriguingly, is he trying to put them to work for Woodbury?

NEXT: Michonne explains that her s— never stopped being together, thank you very muchMilton joined the Governor for a lunch with the new arrivals. Andrea talked; Michonne glared. She noticed her katana lying in the Governor’s trophy case, and was not amused. She also didn’t like Milton’s prying questions about her dead pets. He figured out that she knew them; the more he asked about them, the more it was clear that he had really hit a nerve. Andrea, however, couldn’t have been more genial with her hosts. “You’re sitting pretty at the end of the world,” she said admiringly.

But the Governor didn’t look at this as the end. Far from it. “We will rise again,” he said, “Only this time, we won’t be eating each other.” This is a statement loaded with meaning: It implies that the Governor doesn’t really think much of the pre-zombie world, and also indicates that he views Woodbury in Messianic terms. His community is the face of the future, and he is the face of his community.

Michonne was not convinced, and Andrea was getting fed up. They took a walk down Main Street. They saw kids going to school and neighbors happily sharing vegetables. Andrea tried to get Michonne to open up. After long months of watching each other’s back, she still barely even knows the terse swordswoman. She asked about the pets, and noted how easy it was for Michonne to cut their heads off after traveling with them for months. It seemed like she did it without thinking. Michonne disagreed: She really had to think about it.

In a faraway field, a group of soldiers lurked, looking desperate and uncertain. They had big guns and battle-ready trucks, but they knew that wouldn’t be enough against a zombie herd. The Governor drove up in a car, waving a white flag. He talked to the guy in charge of the soldiers — a young man, barely even out of his teens. The Governor said that he found the pilot. He said he had a cute little settlement not too far away. And then he pulled out his gun and shot the young soldier twice. Gunfire rang from all sides; Merle and his security force had arranged themselves in prime positions for a slaughter.

NEXT: A possible homage to Futurama

The soldiers had no time. The Governor walked up to a fallen soldier and picked up his machine gun; then he beat the soldier’s head in. Blood splattered over his face, and the Governor looked like he was in ecstasy. One soldier made a run for it; the Governor picked him off, a perfect sniper shot. “Go put a merciful end to that young man’s days,” he told one of his men. The Governor has some kind of moral code, then: If you kill someone, at least have the common decency to make sure that they stay dead.

The squad returned to Woodbury. The Governor gave a passionate speech about finding the soldiers dead from a zombie attack. But like a good politician, the Governor managed to strike an optimistic note. The soldiers died because they didn’t have walls, like Woodbury. He explained that, in order to honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, the people of Woodbury must not take their safety for granted. (Another thing to not take for granted: The heavy artillery the soldiers left behind.)

Everyone cheered the Governor’s thrilling oratory. Andrea walked up to him, flashing bedroom eyes. She asked him for his real name, flirtatiously. “I never tell,” said the Governor. “Never say never,” said Andrea. The Governor listened to what she said. He smiled enigmatically. He looked into the middle distance, as if remembering something from the past. He laughed about it. And then he said, “Never.” It was an awesome moment, and also offered proof that David Morrissey has been taking lessons at Richard Gere Acting School:

I want to mention something important: Almost nobody from the regular Walking Dead cast appeared in this episode. Heck, the only character in the episode who’s been around for longer than two minutes was Andrea. Instead, the meat of this episode focused entirely on a new character. That’s a thrilling risk for a show to take — and if you ask me, it’s a risk that paid off for Dead. With Shane gone, the show needed to introduce a new human threat. And in sharp contrast to crazypants lovelorn Shane, the Governor has a complicated set of ethics. It’s clear that he believes everything he does is for the good of Woodbury — and, for that matter, it’s clear that what he’s doing for Woodbury is working fantastically well. But like all despots, he also fundamentally believes that his civilization couldn’t run itself without him.

And then that final scene happened, and something else about the Governor became clear: He is some kind of crazy. He was up late sipping scotch. The kindly tour guide from earlier lay on his bed, naked: If you’re the man in charge, it’s not too hard to find a ladyfriend. He looked at an old picture: A smiling Governor, with what appeared to be a cute wife and a daughter. Then he took off his key-necklace and opened a secret door. He sat down in an easy chair, bathed in light. He sipped his scotch. He finally looked up. His face shifted: He looked scared, but also just a little but turned on. We saw what he was looking at: A row of human heads, all still alive (or at least undead), stacked on top of each other. Michonne’s pets are there; so is the head of the injured pilot.

Fans of the comic book series were probably watching last night’s episode with extra tension: The comic version of the Governor is one of Dead‘s best characters, and he’s also considerably different (at least in presentation) from the version we met on last night’s episode. (David Morrissey explained that his Governor is intended to be a portrayal of the character between his origin story Rise of the Governor and his appearance in the comic book series. The thing to take away from that is that David Morrissey apparently read Rise of the Governor, and therefore, is awesome.) TV-Governor is less openly sadistic than Comic-Governor; I’m intrigued to see how they develop him from here.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Feel free to chat about the comic book in the comment boards, but if you do, kindly put a big SPOILER ALERT on top of your comment. Given that recap readers seem to enjoy talking about the comic book about as much as they enjoy anything Lori does, we might set up a separate space to chat about the differences between the comic and the TV show — let us know if that would interest you! END OF IMPORTANT NOTE.)

Lots to chat about this week, readers. Zombie experiments! Violence in the service of a greater good! Michael Rooker’s trademarked Stabby-Stump™, the perfect gift for your youngster this holiday season! Did you enjoy this first peak of Woodbury?

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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