The Woodbury army comes to the Prison. People die, and die, and die
The Walking Dead has always stuck the landing. The show has had low points and dull periods; it has had whole episodes which flail across a tenuous foundation of unsteady survival tactics, poor characterization, and ambient gore; it spent a considerable part of its third season insisting that the show’s least interesting character was actually its most important character; and it has less believable geography than a Monopoly gameboard. But it has always stuck the landing. The show wrapped up the go-nowhere Search for Sophia with the bleak-irony Discovery of Sophia. It ended a season on Hershel’s Boring Farm by burning Hershel’s Boring Farm to the ground and killing off the least essential members of Hershel’s Boring Family as collateral. Last week, it even rescued an incredibly aimless and nonsensical episode of television with the tearful showdown between Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon and Walker Merle Rooker Dixon.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of this half-season. But I was excited about the season finale. Because The Walking Dead has always stuck the landing.
This time, it didn’t. The third season finale had a couple bulletstorms and a few explosions; it killed off one main character, about which more later. But as a longtime fan of the show — a skeptical fan, but a fan nevertheless — I couldn’t help walking away from the season finale feeling a bit disappointed. This was not a Killing-level catastrophe, and it wasn’t it a Breaking Bad-level event. (It had elements of both, though — which is a compliment and a criticism.) The finale was a bloodless blood opera, filled with action and weirdly static. It ended the Glen Mazzara era with a bang and a whimper, and it gave very little indication of what lies ahead in season 4.
The episode began with a close-up on the Governor’s single eyeball, more brutal than any zombie retina could ever be. He was laying into Milton, once upon a time his right-hand man. He knew that Milton had burned up Woodbury’s zombie coalition, and he was not happy. Lacking any biters, the Governor lost eight men to Merle’s sneak attack last week. “You knew those men,” said the Governor. “They kept you safe. Kept you fed.” Milton stood his moral ground: “As long as I looked the other way.” The Governor grinned. “Well, it can’t be like that anymore. Time for you to graduate.”
The Governor was going to baptize Milton with blood. He threw Milton into the torture chamber that was currently holding Andrea. He told Milton to collect all his various torture instruments. “I’m not gonna need ’em anymore.” (Apparently he never needed them, making “the Governor’s torture instruments” one more utterly empty gesture.) Milton grabbed the tools, dropped them…and left a pair of pliers behind. The Governor didn’t see them, maybe because he always used to use his right eye to see Important Plot Points. He gave Milton a knife and told him to kill Andrea. Milton tried to stab the Governor… and wound up with a couple gaping holes in his chest. “I told you you were gonna do it,” said the Governor. “You kill or you die, or you die and you kill.” He locked Milton inside, dying. Andrea was staring her own death in the face.
But I want to focus on something the Governor said before that all went down. See, he tried to justify himself to Milton. Characters on The Walking Dead are always justifying themselves; it’s what sets the show apart from Game of Thrones, its brief timeslot competitor, which is filled with characters who want power and can’t imagine having to justify that desire. But even the Governor wants you to know where he’s coming from. “There’s a threat? You end it, and you don’t feel shamed about enjoyin’ it.”
Milton asked him what his dead daughter would think of him now. “She’d be afraid of me. But if I’d been like this from the start, she’d be alive today.”
NEXT: Tribe Grimes leaves the prison
Now listen, this is clearly a terrifying view of the world. It is also a view of the world that makes complete sense in the context of the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that The Walking Dead decided to confine this perspective almost exclusively to the most obviously villainous character: A one-eyed man who dresses like Snake Plissken in Escape from L.A., a hunter of women and a biter-offer of fingers. The broken promise of season 3, I think, was the idea that the Governor and Rick weren’t really so different; that Rick, in his caveman-war-chief melancholy, might actually be a less attractive authority figure than the Governor, a cultured charmer who kills bad people while you aren’t looking. (Maybe he actually kills some good people, too. But how often do you pay attention to casualty reports?)
Back at the prison, Tribe Grimes was making preparations. Not for war. They appeared to be setting back on the open road, loading up their cars and packing up all their belongings. Carl was in a bad mood. Michonne was in a good mood, thanking Rick for letting her into the prison. [Michonne Character Arc Season Grade: Michonne became one of the most instantly memorable characters on the show, a badass woman with a samurai sword and a bad attitude. One season later, here’s what we’ve learned about her: She’s a badass woman with a samurai sword, and her bad attitude has morphed into a rather genial attitude. Danai Gurira gives great samurai face, but Michonne is an important character with practically zero character traits. B+] Meanwhile, above it all, Ghost Lori lingered, looking vaguely bored.
The Governor led his men into the prison. They came in guns blazing, Call of Duty style. Martinez blew up a couple of prison towers. Bullets flared across the prison. Confusion: Nobody fought back. The Governor led his men into C Block. There was no one in C Block. There was no sign of life at all, really, except for a Bible left open to John 5:29 — “And shall come forth, they that have done good, unto the resurrection and the life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” The Governor was not happy. “Blast you, eerily appropriate Bible passages!” he screamed. “I won’t stand for your cheap irony! I won’t!”
Now, here is where things get a bit fuzzy, tactically speaking. The Governor led his men into the dark tunnels of the prison, apparently mad with bloodlust. This strikes me as a terrible idea, but it’s also something I can conceivably see the Governor doing. He knew he had overpowering numbers; he probably figured that he could handle Tribe Grimes, even though they could strike from the shadows guerilla-style. (It’s the same mistake the British army made in the Revolutionary War, at least according to The Patriot.)
But the tunnel tactic wasn’t just stupid on principle. It also led them right into a trap. A bunch of flashbombs went off, and the alarm sounded, bringing groups of walkers right to the Governor’s army. Now, for about one second, here is the thought I had: “My god, I’ve been wrong all along about Tribe Grimes’ inability to shut their own back door and prevent more zombies from coming into the tombs! They managed to create the perfect deathtrap for the Governor’s army!” But no, that wasn’t the intention at all; weirdly, after a season of building up animosity between Woodbury and the Prison, it appeared that the Grimes’ were trying to wage a bloodless war.
This is morally admirable and utterly ludicrous in the context of The Walking Dead; even more ludicrous is the fact that it actually worked.
NEXT: Morality and zombiesGlenn and Maggie were wearing the bulletproof armor, and from their protected vantage points, they shot all around various fleeing Woodburyites without ever hitting any of them. They all got in their cars and ran away. The only fatality, as near as I could figure, actually came along the outskirts of the fighting. Carl was watching from the forest, keeping Hershel, Beth, and Judith safe. A teenaged Woodburyite ran up to them, carrying a shotgun. Carl told him to drop it; the Woodbury kid held out his gun in the absolute creepiest and most threatening way possible, saying “Here ya go, man, take it! Take my gun! Definitely not gonna shoot it!” Carl made an executive decision and shot the kid in the face.
Here’s a question for you: Did Carl do the right thing? And is it even possible to answer that question, considering how completely the show stacked the moral deck?
Look, killing is wrong. Violence is wrong. I hate guns, although I love playing games where I fire guns, which I guess makes me roughly as insane as everyone else. But we aren’t talking real-world here. We’re talking about the world of a zombie apocalypse — a post-civilization frontier, and an incredibly hazy moral atmosphere. Or at least, it used to seem hazy, back at the start of this season, when the Grimes Gang had basically become an effective team of hunter-killers. (Heck, even a few weeks ago, the show’s moral stakes still felt intriguingly gray: Remember the backpacker on the road in “Clear,” screaming for help that would never come?)
But something happened to The Walking Dead. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when it happened, but with every passing week of this half-season, the show has seemed much less comfortable with making any of its main characters seem anything less than unambiguously heroic. (The one genuinely amoral character, Merle, was given a redemption arc that transformed him into a martyred saint.) This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least because it makes the characters seem radically less interesting. This time last season, Rick had learned a hard lesson from Shane and decided to start making hard decisions for the good of the many; flashforward to last week, and Rick was preaching a gospel of gooey communitarianism.
I’m not sure why this happened. I have suspicions. The Walking Dead is an incredibly popular show, and I’m sure the producers quite reasonably think people want to root for “the good guys.” (Anyone who has been to one of the show’s rousing Comic-Con panels knows that there’s a weirdly large demographic of pre-teens who watch the show.) So a character like Michonne, who was specifically introduced as a lone-wolf skeptic who questioned authority, winds up following Rick’s orders because he’s a nice guy, I guess. So a character like Tyreese, who initially seemed to be a guy who would understandably do whatever he had to to save “his” people, wound up taking moral stands against the Governor. Instead of talking, Tyreese could have just occasionally held up a sign that said “THIS IS WRONG!” a few times, and he would’ve had the same effect on the season. [Tyreese Character Arc Season Grade: Chad Coleman was so so awesome on The Wire. Tyreese was so so awesome in the Walking Dead comic books. So the complete inability of the show to do anything interesting with Tyreese the TV character counts as one of the show’s worst hiccups. D]
And so the Governor…well, what do you make of the Governor, in the end?
NEXT: The Governor will not be seeking re-electionFew characters have ever received a grander introduction than The Artist Formerly Known as Phillip. In the space of one hour of television, he practically stole the show away from the regular characters. He was a slithery charmer, an All-American politician, a homicidal gun-freak, a political despot, a man with a fifty-year plan, a man with a few dozen undead heads in his man-cave. At the season’s midway point, he became a flat-out Big Bad; he spent a whole episode hunting Andrea through the forest, basically doing his best imitation of an ’80s slasher villain.
Through all those permutations, there was one rough constant in the Governor’s mindset: The importance of Woodbury, of maintaining his curious kingdom by any means necessary. But that all went out the window, in the end. The Governor told his militia to turn back to the prison. The militia refused: They didn’t sign up for this, for killing actual real people. “Rabble rabble rabble!” they screamed. “Rabble rabble!” The Governor couldn’t take it. He had a headache. He was in a nasty mood. So he pulled out his big gun and shot everyone. Everyone. He killed every member of his militia, and for good measure, he turned around and shot Allen. (This all happened mostly offscreen — an incredibly effective choice by the episode’s director, Ernest Dickerson, who also helmed the brilliant season 3 premiere.)
The Governor didn’t even stop there. He slowly meandered over to the field, took out his pistol, and shot his dead citizens through the head. (He missed the only citizen who was still breathing, but only because he ran out of ammo.) He walked back to his truck, got in, and waited for Martinez and Lackey #1 to join him. They did, and off they drove into the sunset.
Now, this scene was terrifying on multiple levels, but it was also frustrating. It might have had greater heft if the Governor hadn’t already seemed like a mustache-twirling crazy person for half a season. It seemed to fly right in the face of everything we knew about his long-term intentions. The scene seemed designed to draw a line once and for all between the Governor and Rick. Certainly, it transformed the Governor once and for all into a complete black-hatted supervillain. But really, did this come as a surprise to anyone? In the Governor’s very first episode, he wound up gunning down an entire platoon of soldiers (in slow-motion!) More to the point: Did this provide you with anything approaching season-finale closure on the Governor’s character arc? And where does the show take him from here? The Governor, Martinez, and Lackey #1 don’t have many resources, and from what we saw, they didn’t return to Woodbury. Are they just setting off into the American wasteland? Will they just became a Mad Max road gang?
The Governor’s future is open-ended. The same can’t be said for another key character in the Deadverse, though.
NEXT: Farewell, AndreaWhile the bulk of the episode focused on the Woodbury/Prison Non-Showdown, Andrea and Milton were trapped in a neat, tense little one-act play. Milton was dying, slowly but surely. He told Andrea that he had left some pliers behind her. (Andrea apparently hadn’t noticed those pliers, because she lacked peripheral vision.) Andrea assured Milton that she would save his life. Milton told her very bluntly: “When you get free, you are going to find something very sharp, and you are going to stab me in the head. That is what you are going to do. [Milton Character Arc Season Grade: Milton was introduced as some kind of mad scientist, then was quickly retconned into the resident pacifist. He never had much to do, but I liked how Dallas Roberts played him with a low-key, awkward-yet-firm force. Also, he killed the show’s most annoying character, which practically earns him an entire extra grade. B]
Andrea apparently spent the next three hours trying to grab the pliers with her feet, while Milton watched. I like to imagine Milton, dying, staring at the utterly useless Andrea uselessly trying to do something useful, and pondering the tragic comedy of existence. At various points, Andrea even paused to tell Milton really passionate explanations for her incoherent behavior this season. “I wanted to save everyone,” Andrea said. “I didn’t want anyone to die.” Milton Mamet died watching Andrea fail miserably at freeing herself while soliloquizing about that time she almost killed the Governor. Then, right as Milton turned into a zombie, Andrea managed to use the pliers to free herself somehow. Milton moved toward her, and…
WE CUT BACK TO the prison, Rick tried to have a Serious talk with Carl about the boy he killed. Was he really handing the gun over? Did Carl really have to kill him? But Carl was having none of it, and he told Rick point-blank the smartest thing anyone has said on the show all season:
“I couldn’t take the chance. I didn’t kill the walker that killed Dale, and look what happened. You didn’t kill Andrew, and he came back and killed Mom. You were in a room with the Governor, and you let him go, and then he killed Merle. I did what I had to do. Now go. So he doesn’t kill any more of us.”
Somehow, Carl has become the only character on The Walking Dead capable of making tough decisions without waffling, which makes him a bit of a sociopath and which also makes him — post-Merle, post-Governor going full-crazy, post-Michonne becoming a kinder-gentler samurai — the most interesting character on the show.
Glenn and Maggie opted to stay behind at the prison, which meant just Rick, Michonne, and Daryl were going to Woodbury. “Just the three of us?” said Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon. “Awright.” They drove off…and found the Governor’s killing field. They also found the one woman he left behind. She was their key into Woodbury. Tyreese let them in when they saw her. Rick led Tyreese to the Governor’s prison pen. There, they found the doubly-dead Milton with a pair of pliers stuck in his head. They also found Andrea.
Now, I’m not a bloodthirsty person. I promise. But when I saw Andrea still alive on the ground, I thought to myself: “Nooooooooo!” And when Andrea revealed a big old walker-bite in her neck, I thought to myself: “Yeeesssss!“
And then, damn it, the show wound up making me feel a little sad for Andrea. Not that sad. Andrea never really made much sense as a character. She was suicidal and then she learned to love killing zombies, and then she was friends with Michonne but didn’t really care much about Michonne, and also she still loved killing zombies but gave speeches about how humanity needed to be more human, and don’t forget that she fell in love with Shane and the Governor.
But Andrea died well. She told Rick she wanted to kill herself, and she told him — in a deep callback to the early episodes — “I know how the safety works.” Michonne opted to stay in the room, crying. Andrea told Rick her last words: “I tried.” Rick gave her a simple epitaph: “Yeah, you did. You did.” The shot of Rick, Tyreese, and Daryl waiting outside of the closed door was a standout visual from the evening. This was the toughest, most brutal moment in the episode — a great send-off for a not-so-great character. RIP, Andrea: Please stay dead.
NEXT: What Lies AheadEvery season of The Walking Dead has been a reboot of The Walking Dead. Season 2 moved the action to the Farm and became a three-way battle of wills between Shane, Hershel, and Rick. Season 3 resettled the action even more radically, establishing the Prison and Woodbury. It also decisively moved the show in a brave new direction: “Fight the Dead, Fear the Living.” (In the process, it practically made zombies an afterthought: The defining zombie kill of the episode came when Michonne absentmindedly sliced off two zombie heads at once.)
Season 3 did not end with the promise of a radical setting change. The Prison is still standing; the surviving Grimes Gangbangers look even more dug in there than ever. The Governor is still out there, and it seems unlikely that he’ll just disappear. But the finale did end with a truly radical shift. All season, the Grimes Gang-turned-Tribe has been a tiny, tight-knit group of people, a family fronted by the Melee Squad, a church that accepts no new members. (Unless they’re carrying baby formula and a katana.)
But as the episode ended, Daryl Motherf–ing Dixon — wearing his Man With No Name serape, no less — led a bus full of people into the Prison. These were the remaining Woodburyites — the women and children who remained behind while the Governor massacred his own militia. “They’re gonna join us,” Rick told Carl, who stormed off — angry that he had not been consulted, angry that his father was suddenly changing his “no-new-people” plan, angry most of all that his father had opted for a diplomatic solution. But I find Rick’s decision compelling for a lot of reasons. At a certain base level, he must have recognized that the dwindling population of Tribe Grimes wouldn’t sustain itself for long. It may not be a smart decision in the long-term; it’s worth pointing out that the people they’re adding in are mostly old people and children, not necessarily the most productive members of any civilization. But it was a powerful, symbolic move towards normality.
(ASIDE: And yet, I have one important question. Namely: WHY THE HELL DID THEY BRING THOSE PEOPLE TO THE RECENTLY EXPLODED PRISON WHEN THERE IS A PERFECTLY LIVABLE TOWN SURROUNDED BY INCREDIBLY EFFECTIVE WALLS AND STOCKED WITH LOTS OF ARTILLERY? Or was it because they were worried the Governor would try to retake Woodbury? Isn’t Woodbury a more defensible location? Isn’t Woodbury way more comfortable, and also way less zombie-infested, and also weren’t there people with gardens growing fruit and vegetables there? Am I missing something here? And don’t say that they didn’t want to live in Woodbury because it would bring up bad memories. This is the zombie apocalypse; no time to be sentimental. END OF ASIDE.)
The point is: Tribe Grimes is no more. Welcome to New Grimes City, located in the unincorporated territory of Rickissippi. Unless there are radical inter-season changes, season 4 will see our heroes as members of a full-fledged community. It’s hard to know what, exactly, that means for the show. The Walking Dead has never seemed particularly interested in the mechanics of nation-building. The show has usually worked best when the characters have a clear-cut mission.
In hindsight, season 3 has been one long journey from caveman tribalism — from clearing out the prison one square foot at a time — to genuine civilization, protected from the outside world. That’s an ambitious story arc, and the best parts of this season will stand as a testament to showrunner Glen Mazzara, who decisively rebooted the show in an intriguing direction which led to the show’s best hours (and some of its worst.) When the show returns in October, it will be left to new showrunner Scott M. Gimple to guide the series forward. Whatever my problems with the back half of this season, I find myself ridiculously excited by the infinite possibilities of this show. I plan to spend the next half-year constantly googling “Walking Dead Season 4 News” whenever I get bored, waiting for whatever table scraps of information emerge from the AMC compound.
Fellow Dead fans, what did you think about the end of this season? Were you underwhelmed by the Woodbury/Prison showdown? Were you expecting more closure with the Governor, or were you happy to see him go off with his best buddy Martinez, ready and willing to strike again come October? Did Carl make the right decision? Should Rick have welcomed the Woodbury citizens into the Prison? Were you surprised Beth didn’t sing? Carol is still alive — thoughts?
(ASIDE: This concludes my rollicking experience recapping season 3 of The Walking Dead. It’s incredibly fun writing about this series. I sometimes suspect that The Walking Dead is the most American show on television, which I should qualify by explaining that I also suspect Spring Breakers is the most American movie in theaters. Whatever; whether you loved this season without reservations or with some skepticism, whether you loved the comic books or wish I would just stop talking about the freaking comic books so much, and even if your favorite character is Ghost Lori, I thank you heartily for taking this weird journey with me. See you in October. Unless the zombie apocalypse happens. In which case I’ll see you at the Prison. END OF ASIDE AND ALSO OF RECAP.)
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich
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