The residents of Woodbury reveal their curious source of entertainment, while Rick goes on a grief-stricken rampage

By Darren Franich
February 27, 2015 at 07:40 PM EST
Gene Page
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Violence is bad. Violence is sometimes necessary. Violence is fun. Violence in all its variations has always been at the core of The Walking Dead, but in its third season, the show has turned random acts of violence into a fundamental and recurring part of the show’s rhythm. A metaphor: If The Walking Dead is music, then the killing of a zombie used to be a soaring guitar solo. Now, it’s just the percussion, a nice regular backbeat that keeps the show moving along. (Last night, two different characters had their own private zombie-massacre kill-combo sequence: This is the equivalent of a Keith Moon Drum Solo.) Or, another metaphor: If The Walking Dead were basketball, then the killing of a zombie used to be a three-point shot; now, it’s just dribbling.

Pretty much everyone has praised The Walking Dead for this new, ultraviolent direction. It feels like, between seasons, the show magically transformed from a southern-Gothic melodrama into a never-ending war movie: From The Sound and the Fury into All Quiet on the Western Front. The Grimes Gang evolved from a crew of mopey conversationalists into a tactical Delta Force kill squad, capable of clearing out a field full of walkers with videogame precision. You could say that the show has become the grungiest action movie of the year: At a moment when actual American action movies trend towards bloodless PG-13 melancholia, Walking Dead regularly achieves death counts that rival the final sequence of Commando, except with roughly ten times as many detached limbs.

This has made The Walking Dead a much more fun show. There is an aspect of pure pornography to it all now: The adoring close-ups of bashed-in zombie heads, the CGI blood splattering across the frame, the “can-we-top-ourselves?” brinksmanship of every new zombie sequence. Last night’s episode was directed by Greg Nicotero — arguably the real star of Walking Dead, since he’s in charge of the makeup and prosthetics — and it featured some of the show’s best-ever auteurist flourishes, like that moving close-up on Rick where we saw him kill two or three walkers without ever actually seeing the walkers. The show makes violence look so bad, and therefore, so good.

This ought to trouble you at least a little bit. At this point, it feels like our culture has just about retired the idea that watching violent acts in movies and TV shows will create violent people. Or rather, we’ve had to retire that idea, if only because a few generations of children have been raised watching people get fake-killed hundreds of times. But I do wonder sometimes if we’ve gone too far in the other direction: If we just accept ridiculously violent imagery, without really wondering why we enjoy it so much. Is it okay if The Walking Dead is just a violence-delivery mechanism? Does the show just want to be the most grown-up cartoon on television? And should we even worry about that? (I’m not pointing fingers here, by the way. I’m the guy who hands out a Zombie Kill of the Week Award.)

Last night’s episode of Walking Dead featured the usual array of walker-massacring action, but it also featured a daring attempt to grapple with some of these questions; indeed, without getting too meta, the show seemed to throw these questions right out to the audience. The episode got off to a running start with an off-handed revelation that immediately complicated everything we thought we knew about the Governor. We saw him brushing his heretofore-unseen daughter’s hair, a doting father. The daughter was making some familiar drooly-roar sounds. She grasped at her father’s arms with sharp nails and bit at his hands with corroded teeth. She is a walker, and the Governor treats her inveterate cannibalism with cooing and light tut-tutting, like a parent chastising a child going through the Terrible Twos. “Daddy still loves you, you know that, right?” asked the Governor, lovingly covering his daughter’s head in a protective sack.

Even though the Governor and Rick haven’t met yet — and easy money says they won’t meet anytime soon, except maybe as a midseason-finale cliffhanger — the show has been smartly setting them up on parallel tracks. So we cut straight from The Governor tending to his daughter to Rick, dizzy and half-mad, listening to his own newborn daughter crying. While Rick stood in a daze, his designated Riker took command. Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon announced that the baby needed something to eat, and planned an expedition to a nearby preschool. He also played matchmaker and told Beth to take care of the newly-matricidal Carl. Sensing that this was no time to be low-key, Daryl put on his serape and drove off with Maggie. He would not let this baby die.

NEXT: Rick unleashes an old-fashioned berserker barrageRick, meanwhile, decided to deal with his grief in a positive fashion, by which I mean he picked up the sharpest object he could find and set off into the caverns of the prison. He killed one, two, three, four walkers; he split the last one’s brain in two, roaring like a madman. At this point, no one on the show considers the zombies to be real people anymore — killing them is a blessing, really — but there was something disturbing in the raw, remorseless fashion that Rick set about his bloody business. He was just letting off some steam.

The Governor is not an openly violent man, like Rick. While Rick was hacking away, the Governor was giving a speech to Woodbury about how far they’ve all come. (He mentioned a time when they were just nine people in a boarded-up apartment — his own version of the Grimes Gang.) While he was speechifying, Michonne snuck into his room to get her sword. Inside, she found the Governor’s journal. The early pages contained what seemed like a remarkably precise plan for Civilization: In the split-second Michonne was looking at those pages, you could see words like “judiciary,” as if the Governor was looking at the zombie apocalypse as an opportunity to play real-life SimCity.

Then there was a list of names, which ended with “Penny”; after that point, the journal became a series of identical lines. The message was clear: “All work and no play make The Governor something something.” At that moment, the Governor came in with the bespectacled Milton and the be-stabhanded Merle. Milton was talking about an experiment he’d been working on, and asked why “The festivities” had to be tonight.

Michonne was intrigued. She went poking around, and found six walkers caged next to what looked like an abandoned parking lot. She let the zombies out, and smiled. She sliced them and diced them and thriced them; she chopped one guy completely in half through his midsection. I think this might be the first time we’ve ever seen Michonne smile. Even though we know, as viewers, that Michonne is fundamentally right to be suspicious of her new home — there is something rotten in Woodbury — this scene made you wonder if Michonne is really serious about her plan to go and live on an island somewhere. If it’s fun for us to watch people kill zombies, it follows that it’s also a lot of fun to actually kill zombies. Could Michonne ever pass up a high like this?

The Governor sat her down for a meeting and chastised her. He said that she was acting out in order to get kicked out of Woodbury. She was poking the Governor specifically in order to get him to show his bad side. He wouldn’t take the bait. “We’ve enjoyed havin’ you,” he said, all genial. He asked her to join the Research Team. In response, she held her katana to his throat. “She’s all personality, that one,” the Governor explained to Merle. Something had to be done.

So the Governor called in his crush Andrea and explained the situation. Andrea was a bit put off by the revelation that he had captive zombies. But she’s fundamentally happy here in Woodbury. She found Michonne packing, and tried to talk sense into her. She even called her by a nickname, “Mish” — I was surprised that Michonne didn’t immediately cut Andrea in half for that one. Michonne stood firm: “This place is not what they say it is.” As if to prove her point, we cut 0utside of town, where Merle and Milton were checking on their zombie trap. They seemed to be looking for something specific: They threw back a couple of walkers, and by “threw back” I of course mean “stumpstabbed.” (Milton was wearing a jacket with sleeves that appeared to be made of duct tape; Why oh why is Halloween 51 weeks away?)

NEXT: A visit to the local preschoolThis episode focused so heavily on the Woodbury community that the few scenes we got with the Grimes Gang felt almost out of place, like brief snippets from a very different show. Glenn started digging three graves, offered a nice memory of T-Dog which doubled as the first thing we have ever learned about T-Dog’s life, and told Hershel that he wished they’d just killed all the prisoners. (ASIDE: Another interesting aspect of the Rick/Governor duality is how different their philosophy is with regards to newcomers. Since Rick is nominally the hero and the Governor nominally the villain, you’d expect Rick to be a humanist welcoming new people while the Governor would turn them away. But that’s not really true. The Governor welcomes new people, unless — like the soldiers or Michonne — they seem like they could overpower him. Rick just doesn’t welcome anybody. END OF ASIDE.) Meanwhile, Daryl and Maggie visited a preschool to find some baby formula, which led to an eerie shot of a wall of hands with names of children on them. Also, Daryl shot a possum — at least I think it was a possum? — leading to yet another opportunity to award him the Adorable Woodland Animal Kill of the Week. Watch your back, squirrels!

Michonne and Andrea marched right up to the walls of Woodbury. Merle fretted that they couldn’t leave; they would need an escort; it was almost escort. Michonne took this as proof of her conspiracy theory: “See? There’s always a reason why we can’t leave yet.” Surprise! Merle opened the door and showed them the way out, mentioning that they might want to consider finding shelter from the entire zombie-infested planet. The cards all went on the table now. Andrea told Michonne that they had barely survived for eight months on the move: “I don’t have another 8 months in me.” Michonne didn’t even blink: “You’d just slow me down, anyways.” And with that, Michonne set off back into the big bad world, looking for all the world like the last samurai left on an empty battlefield.

Here’s the interesting thing: I don’t think it’s really possible to say whether Michonne or Andrea was right in that moment. Us viewers know that Woodbury is a society built on the back of horrific violence: We saw the Governor and his security squad gun down a whole crew of innocent soldiers just a few episodes ago. But it’s not like Michonne is a pacifist fleeing a totalitarian state. She’s a warrior — not to say murderer, because we’ve all agreed that zombies aren’t people — who is fleeing a warrior nation that she doesn’t quite agree with. Even if you suppose that there are worse things going on in Woodbury than we’ve seen so far, the show seems to be arguing that this is the best possible civilization Michonne could possibly find.

So Woodbury is a society built on violence: You could say the same about every society that has ever existed long enough to defend itself. I guess you could argue that Michonne is a good person because she doesn’t kill human beings. But you could also point out that Michonne could have never built a Woodbury because she is such an individualist; heck, she can’t even maintain a single friendship, much less a community. It almost seems like Michonne wanted to show everyone in Woodbury that they’re all evil; but if everyone is evil, what does it really mean to be good? (Further reading for your next plane flight: Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

NEXT: Happy Birthday, Little AsskickerDaryl and Maggie arrived back at the prison, where Carl was holding his newborn sister in a daze. Daryl held the baby up and fed her, a moment which I can only imagine caused a mass epidemic of swooning across this great nation. He asked Carl if the baby had a name yet. Carl mentioned that he had been thinking of Sophia. Or maybe Carol. Or Andrea, or Jackie, or Patricia, or even Lori — the names of all the dead women came to Carl’s lips so quickly, a catalogue of horror. In yet another impressive feat of strength, Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon actually managed to climb out of that depressive spiral by suggesting his own name: “Little Asskicker.”

Inside the prison, Rick finally found his way to his wife’s birthing chamber. We were all braced for a shot of Lori’s dead body, with a big gaping hole where her head used to be. What we got was even worse. Rick found little bits of human chum scattered on the floor, ambient viscera that could have been skin or intestine or brain or big toe. Over in the corner, a fat and happy zombie lay against the wall, rocking what appeared to be the world’s most comatose food coma.

What happened next felt like something you don’t often see on television: A moment of genuine madness, at once utterly logical and completely inexplicable. Rick stuck his gun deep into the zombie’s mouth, screamed, and pulled the trigger, earning this week’s Zombie Kill of the Week Award partially for the sense of catharsis and partially for the unmissable erotic undertone. And then Rick started stabbing into the walker’s stomach, as if he could fish Lori out. Everything about this was crazy, right down to the weird parallelism of the walker’s bloated stomach and Lori’s pregnant belly. (In this week’s chapter of our essential Clark Collis-Robert Kirkman interview series, Kirkman outright admits that that scene doesn’t have a clear message, which makes the brute force of its impact all the more intense.)

Dark times at the prison, but happy days are here again in Woodbury. Everyone gathered together for an exciting show on a set of bleachers. Andrea had no clue what she was about to watch, but she was assured by The Governor that they had the best seats in the house. The lights came up on an arena, with a gang of chained zombies on all sides. Merle and one of his head security guys ran out, preening and prancing and showing off for the crowd. “Merle! Merle! Merle!” cheered the crowd. A referee whistled, and Merle started fighting the security guys. The seemed to be following basic UFC rules, except with more zombies and more clothes. Occasionally, they loosened the chains on the walkers, just to make things interesting.

Andrea was horrified. The Governor looked genuinely surprised. “It’s a way to blow off steam,” he said. “It’s barbaric,” Andrea responded. The Governor smiled and told her a secret: “It’s staged.” All the walkers had their teeth removed; heck, for all we know, the two fighters have the whole fight choreographed before they even walk into the arena. So forget the UFC; the real comparison here is the old-school WWF. (ASIDE: If Michael Rooker time-traveled back to like 1987, I’m reasonably certain that he would become the greatest champion in WWF history. For all we know, he already is. Ever notice how you never see Michael Rooker in the same room as Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock or Triple H? What if he is all of them? What if we’re all just lesser clones of Michael Rooker: A whole species of Danny De Vitos to his Arnold Schwarzenegger? END OF ASIDE.)

NEXT: Are you not entertained?“People need entertainment,” said the Governor. And in this moment, I would argue that this season of The Walking Dead reached the next level. It almost seems like the Governor was responding to people who think the show is too violent. What’s the problem? It’s all staged! They’re just killing zombies! It’s all in good fun! Greg Nicotero! Intriguingly, the Governor took it one step further and argued that the fights had an actual social utility. “You’re teaching them that walkers aren’t dangerous,” argued Andrea. “We’re teaching them not to be afraid,” said the Governor. You could argue that Woodbury, then, is built on a slippery slope: A peaceful society which thrills to violence. (Andrea actually said, “It’s a slippery slope.”) Then again, you could also argue that Woodbury is a fairly typical society. It was born in violence; it has now achieved peace, but there is something in the genetic memory of its citizens that demands violence; hence, gladiator fights; hence, boxing matches; hence, first-person shooters; hence, football.

Again, I’m not sure any of this means that Woodbury is a fundamentally bad place. Everyone there seems pretty happy. Besides the Governor and his security squad, none of them are bad or sinful people; heck, they’re practically a model of selfless community. If the dark little secret of their happy community is a bit of violence now and then, is that such a bad thing? (Further reading for your next subway ride: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Motherf—ing Guin.)

This was probably the quietest episode of the season so far. It amounted to a deep dive into various characters’ psychology — albeit with plenty of zombie-killing along the way. Appropriately, the episode ended with a couple of quiet little moments. Daryl set a flower on Carol’s grave, a reminder of a conversation they had long ago in simpler times. (We didn’t see any sign of Carol in this episode, which brings up the basic question: Do we even care if she’s dead?) Meanwhile, Rick heard a phone ringing inside the birth chamber. He picked it up: “Hello?” Are the phone lines working? Is someone from Woodbury checking in? Is Destiny calling, and will Rick accept the charges? (This is where I remind everyone that, if you want to talk about any plot lines from the comic book, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TYPE “SPOILER ALERT.”)

All in all, a great and brainteasing episode. Fellow viewers, what did you think of this week’s shenanigans? Was Michonne right to leave Woodbury? Where does “zombie-decapitating” fit into the stages of grief? What would you name Baby Grimes? Is it weird that a peaceful society would be addicted to violent entertainment, or is that just human nature? And if it’s human nature, are we fundamentally immoral, meaning that Michonne is probably right to go and live in the woods by herself? Can Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon be our stepdad?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Ask me stuff about Walking Dead, or possums, or the psychological history of human violence!

 

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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  • 10/31/10
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