Following last week's brilliant friend-finding shopping trip, "Clear," The Walking Dead once again ignored the stale format of alternating between "Meanwhile at the prison..." and "Meanwhile at Woodbury..." that has, for better or for worse, dominated Season 3. Instead, the action, (well, "action" might be too strong a word) of "Arrow on the Doorpost" took place at a neutral site that brought together the two opposing sides in the soon-to-be-historic Battle of Meriwether County in an attempt to broker peace.
I suspect that half of The Walking Dead's audience, while they probably dug seeing Rick and The Governor face-to-face, might resign to label "Arrow on the Doorpost" as another episode in which "nothing happened." Others will savor the high-stakes game of diplomacy between Rick and The Governor and the parallels drawn between the opposing forces meeting for the first time, and see "Arrow on the Doorpost" for what it was: another aim at establishing character that mostly hit its mark through something other than repetitive arguments and stomping around. At times, especially in the first half, "Arrow on the Doorpost" was outstanding drama that humanized characters who needed to feel like real people (Martinez was the biggest benefactor). But the episode did taper off toward the end, particularly during the "Meanwhile at the prison.." segments. Still, I'm seeing a show that is improving not only from its recent midseason lull, but as a character drama with more to offer than piles of undead bodies. (Note to producers: Please don't stop with the piles of undead bodies, though.) For those of you wanting less jibber-jabber and more stabby-stabbing, don't worry, that's coming, too, and the hour went out of its way to make sure you know that. When Season 3 is all said and done, people will die and you will be sad.
Someone on the writing staff is a big history buff, because "Arrow on the Doorpost" was The Walking Dead's version of a Civil War Re-Enactment Society's Hampton Roads Conference, only if Abraham Lincoln was fighting zombies (and not vampires, that's just silly) instead of slavery and secession. Through their confused mutual friend Andrea, Rick and The Governor found themselves in a shed in what Rick thought was an attempt at brokering peace, but The Governor approached the meeting as an opportunity for Rick to surrender... like a little bitch. For the millionth week in a row, perspective played a big part in things, as Rick and The Governor based their stances on what they think they know of each other, mostly through intelligence gathered while trying to murder each other and Andrea's loose lips (grrrl shut yo' mouth), and this led to some great lines from both of them. (Seriously, a lot of the dialogue in this episode was pretty good, much better than it has been.)
"You're the town drunk who knocked over my fence and ripped up my yard, and nothing more," said Rick. Oh snap! The Governor countered with a real blow to Rick's nuts by dropping the fact that he knows Shania—sorry, Judith—might be Shane's baby and HOO BOY IT WAS ON. Imagine if President Lincoln casually told Jefferson Davis that Davis's wife's boobs tasted good; you'd need a passport to cross the Mason-Dixon line right now. "Restitution for your own lack of insight. Failure to see the Devil beside you," The Governor explained, trying to class up his stage-three burn about Lori's infidelity. But that was The Governor's plan all along, to put Rick on a roller-coaster of emotions (I think?), because after that he told Rick a story about his wife dying in a car accident and how he's still nagged to this day about what she meant to tell him before she bit it. Did she need him to DVR The Bachelor? Did she want him to pick up some Jimmy John's on the way home? Did she butt-dial him? As with everything that dribbles out of The Governor's mouth, we don't know what's true and what's grade-A Georgia bull manure. As he told Rick all of this, his eyes were locked on Rick like he was going in for the kill and we weren't sure who to feel bad for. He didn't tell it like a sob story, he was showing off his wife's death like a scar. It was even more interesting to see Rick's reaction to the story: He was barely able to make eye contact with The Governor and I don't know if it's because he was commiserating, thinking about his own dead wife, or calling The Governor on his bullshit. Great acting and editing on both sides. This was probably David Morrissey's best work on the show so far.
What made this sequence of negotiations between Rick and The Governor work was that we didn't know who was screwing who. It was like watching a UFC fight for the first time and seeing a bunch of limbs and what may be two men rolling around on the ground but having no idea who actually had the upper hand. Their chat was a mental wrestling match, Rick's raw strength against The Governor's skillful technique as they sized each other up. The only certain truth to be taken from their back-and-forth was that The Governor wanted Michonne, and he was going to do horrific things to her if he got his grubby mitts on her.
Requisites for peace laid out accordingly (hand over the crazy lady with the sword and I'll let you ants have your little playpen, said The Governor), the two left The Love Shack with more than whiskey on their breath. See, both Rick and The Governor were also sipping on each others' barrel-aged lies. Though The Governor said bringing Michonne to him was a choice Rick had to make, he used the old "save your son and daughter" line and assumed that he had made the choice for Rick. And if and when Rick showed up with grumpy Michonne zip-tied and ready to be handed over, The Governor would kill everyone and end things right there. Yer pantaloons on fire, Gov'nah!
Rick, on the other hand, chose to bring his lying game back to the prisonfolk, telling them that The Governor was going to murder everyone in sight. I'm not sure why someone there didn't raise their hand and say, "Umm... well why did he tell you that? Why didn't he just kill you right there?" Because if I'm a bloodthirsty maniac I don't give my victims a heads up. Anyway, big fan of the episode exposing both of their true intentions by the end, because it reignited my faith in Rick as a leader since he sniffed out the right decision to prepare for war. "WE'RE GOING TO WAR!" It's a ballsy call, and even though he has his doubts, we're patting Rick's back through the screen and egging him on from our couches. The attempt at a treaty may have been moot and brought us back to where we started what with all the lying and doubting, but we learned more about these two men which made it worth it.
But let's be honest here, the best part of "Arrow on the Doorpost" was watching the lieutenants from both camps interact. Daryl and Martinez together was far and away the highlight of the hour, reluctantly finding a bond between them through bow and bat badassery and ending their performance of Annie Get Your Gun with taunts and a shared cigarette break (Daryl calling Martinez a "pussy" for preferring Menthols was THE BEST). Martinez told Daryl that he lost his wife and kids to zombies, Daryl replies with a "sucks," and for a split second we wonder why we're fighting each other instead of the undead. With just that quick interaction, Martinez all of a sudden became a real person not just to us, but also to Daryl and we'll be sad when Daryl puts a crossbow bolt through his eyeball (but not THAT sad). Hershel and Milton also had their moment, proving that centuries-old jokes ("At least buy me a drink first") are new again in this post-apocalyptic world. Both interactions were touched with such effective black comedy, and that's exactly what this show needs more of. We saw it last week with Michonne, too.
Back at the prison there wasn't much going on, but we learned a few things:
– Glenn is horny, but not SO horny that he would have sex in front of zombies. His horniness only goes so far. And that "far" is abandoning his lookout post and endangering the lives of his friends for a quickie with Maggie. In his defense, it's Maggie.
– Merle is still a dick and the writers didn't know what else to do back at the prison except make Merle a dick. Again. Also, Merle was right and Rick should have just killed The Governor.
– Beth knows how to use a gun and will shoot someone if she has to. GO BETH! I am currently shipping Beth with me.
– Carol needs something to do. Badly. Right now she's just... Carol.
– The prison is officially boring. Evidence A) last week's episode ruled. Evidence B) every scene at the prison this week was the worst scene of the episode.
If things weren't tense enough for you before, "Arrow on the Doorpost" should have done the trick. There's a war coming, Rick (said in your best Robert Baratheon voice).
– Andrea slowly continues to dig her way out the hole she's been in, and this week while the boys (Martinez and Daryl) balked at taking on the first zombie, she shook her head at them and killed the zombie WITH A POCKETKNIFE! Very impressive. But then later she pouted by herself after Rick and The Governor said, "LEAVE, the men are talking," so let's call it two steps forward, one step back. I still think she'll do something awesome towards the end and will be redeemed.
– The opening with Rick at the table waiting for The Governor made me want to rewatch the opening of Battlestar Galactica, when the human is waiting for the Cylon. Okay, now I'm going to go on a Battlestar Galactica marathon.
– One thing I learned from this episode: every surviving husband's wife was eaten by zombies or killed at some point or another. I think Carol is the lone widow, right now. Is anyone still married in this show? Is The Walking Dead some complex metaphor for failed marriages?
– What are the chances that Merle and Michonne do pull out some covert op and strike first on The Governor? And if it happened, as Merle seemed to convince Michonne it should, would it make sense given their past history of, you know, trying to kill each other?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom