You'd think that in a zombie apocalypse, one of the most exhilarating images would be the sight of another human being. It's the dead versus the living, after all, and despite regional differences, ethnic divisions, and sports-team affiliations, humans should be banding together to put expired humans in the ground, brainless, like they belong. Plus seeing another human, particularly one of the opposite sex, means one thing: repopulatin' awww yeah.
But the first half of The Walking Dead's third season didn't go that route, instead painting a picture of a land where only the toughest and assholest survive and creating a world full of untrusting factions where the innocent are often declared guilty until proven worthy through combat or a zombie eats their face. Whichever comes first. It makes some sense, as the further along into zombie land you go, the more the gullible get gulled into giving up their resources. It's survival of the fittest, where "fit" means being overly cautious because unearned trust could cost lives. "You can't be too careful" has never been truer.
Last night's terrific mid-season finale, "Made to Suffer," reiterated just how dark the world of The Walking Dead can be. The great showdown we expected between Rick and The Governor only sorta happened as they never faced off with each other, but the show is saving that for later. Instead, other characters mixed it up as Rick's rescue squad busted into Woodbury and stole some valuable prisoners right out from beneath The Governor's one good eye.
The episode was loaded with action and sneaking, which doesn't really lend itself to great over-the-Internet discussion, so I'll hit the parts I thought were important. I'm not gonna lie, I don't know how they got into Woodbury as easily as they did after bitching about how hard it was going to be to get in, but Michonne found a weakness in the defense and everyone just crawled through a window. Hey Governor, maybe put some security bars on buildings that you leave unsecured? If there's one thing this season could have done a bit better regarding Woodbury, it's showing the scope and security of the place. How big is it? How are the areas that aren't the front doors protected? I had it in my mind that it was damn near impregnable, but they sure impregnated that thing pretty easily. (Side note: impregnable and impregnate mean opposite-ish things! Language, you so weird.)
Tension built up during Glenn and Maggie's all-or-nothing escape bid involving the pointy end of a zombie ulna and the subsequent smoke-grenade assault by Rick to rescue them, but come on, nothing was better than Michonne snooping around The Governor's office. Their fight was one of the greatest one-on-one TV scuffles of all time! We're so used to the show concentrating on human-on-zombie violence, which basically amounts to a slack-jawed extra lumbering up to a man with an axe and getting its skull exploded, but this was visceral, primal scrappin' between two awesome characters. However, for as great as the head-smashing, choke-holding, and eye-stabbing was, the best part about their confrontation was the unexpected character development that happened just before the fight. The Governor's reaction to his zombie spawn Penny being held at katana-point (btw, THAT is how you hold someone at swordpoint, Miles Matheson of network TV's Revolution) was surprisingly disarming! He was a groveling, pleading, weak-kneed mess who finally showed that he cares for something other than himself. And then there was Michonne, who had plenty of reasons to seek revenge on The Governor in the comics, but not so much in the show. True, The Governor sent Merle and that guy with the difficult-to-pronounce name after her to kill her, so there's that, but if I'm Michonne, I'm happy just putting enough distance between me and The Governor as possible. The fact that she came all the way back just to screw with him says a lot about her character: She's kind of a spiteful one.
It's this decision of hers that's really going to come back and bite Rick in the ass. Prior to Michonne poking a hole in the back of sweet little Penny's head, the prison group was but a mere nuisance to The Governor, their name on his whiteboard with a list of other threats that needed to be checked off his to-do list at some point. In killing Penny, Michonne made things personal and elevated the total slaughter of everyone in that prison to number-one spot on The Governor's list of priorities.
The Governor wasted no time in getting revenge, either. Eye socket still oozing eyeball juice, he rallied the townfolk against the awful prison group by blaming everything on Merle. Why Merle? Well, Merle showed some weakness by displaying fondness for his brother Daryl, who is part of the prison group, instead of total allegiance to The Governor. Merle was also the man who told The Governor that Michonne was dead when he knew for a fact she was not. Next thing The Governor saw was Michonne re-killing his daughter Penny, so that's obviously going to be a sore spot, and the look he gave Merle when he asked "What happened?" after the fight nearly killed him on the spot. Luckily for The Governor, Daryl came wrapped up in a nice bow, and now we're left wondering what The Governor has planned. A Star Trek fight to the death? A public double execution? Thirty minutes in the Chair of Shame? We have to wait until February to find out, but if you hung around for the "Next on..." segment at the end of the hour then you have a basic idea. I'm guessing Daryl and Merle somehow break out of Woodbury and rejoin the prisoners, making for a really awkward reunion. If only T-Dog were still around to see his old pal Merle.
Back at the prison, we got a good look at how the world isn't all terrible times and groups waging war against other groups. A new batch of survivors stumbled upon the prison, led by Tyreese (The Wire's Chad Coleman) and consisting of a few people and some girl who will not stop screaming. I mean seriously, girl, it's been months. Do you still need to scream ALL THE TIME? She got bit, which probably increased the group's lifespan by at least 15 years. Apparently she was the mother of one of the other survivors, even though she looked like a high-school senior and could have just easily been dating her son. Point is, when she got bit, this group was not ready to put her down quickly like Rick's group would have, and young Carl was quick to make sure they were locked inside a cell.
Somehow this remains fascinating. There are individual bubbles of people developing at different rates; Tyreese and his group are slow to adjust to the harsh ways of survival whereas The Governor picked up quickly. And now look at them. Tyreese is running through the forest with a hammer in a panic and The Governor is sipping Scotch and banging blondes. Rick's group is somewhere in between, but slowly marching toward where The Governor is at. This is what The Walking Dead is doing quite well that other apocalypse shows don't. When all hell breaks loose and people get disconnected, there are no rules and no common page for survivors to be on. It's like the Galapagos Islands and the varied evolution among its resident critters. There's a clear advantage that That Walking Dead has in starting its story not long after the apocalypse, whereas the initial impulse is to start at the beginning or several years after. The greatest change among people will occur between a few months and a few years in, and that's where you'll find the most interesting stories. As The Walking Dead continues to expand its universe, it also gets to show the disparity among the evolution of survivor groups, and the show is better for it.
"Made to Suffer" didn't pack the wallop that "Pretty Much Dead Already" (zombie Sofia walking out of the barn) did as a mid-season finale, but it was a strong episode on its own. It's great prep for the inevitable battle that lies ahead and it established enough motivation to understand that these two sides will do whatever they can to finish each other off. We're no longer dealing with shades of "good guys" versus "bad guys," these two sides now straight-up HATE each other.
– Hot damn I really appreciate how honest Axel is. He was so forthcoming about hitting on a 17-year-old girl because she was the only one not spoken for and more than a few days old. (I'd still keep a close eye on Judith just in case.) And the exchange with Carol's reaction to Axel thinking she was a lesbian and Axel realizing she wasn't a lesbian (How YOU doing?) was great. I may bum out some Daryl-Carol 'shippers, but I would not complain about an Axel-Carol coupling. Someone please get Carol in the sack! Please!
– I know this has been pointed out several times over, and personally I think it's hogwash, but dammit it continues to happen. We meet Tyreese the same episode Oscar dies? We met Oscar and not much later T-Dog dies? What is it with this show's weariness of having too many black men on-screen at the same time?
– I know I wasn't alone in waiting for Andrea to recognize the rest of her former group or even shooting one of them. It's going to be a fascinating scene when she finally realizes who's next on The Governor's murder list.
– Rick seeing Shane shooting seemed a bit unnecessary, but since I miss that guy so much I was glad to see him. What was even more unnecessary was Rick hovering over the body IN THE MIDDLE OF A GUNFIGHT. Duck or something!