Welcome to the next stage in Rick’s evolution. The Walking Dead has never been a show to be content with existing character dynamics, long one of the strongest draws of the show. Carl, Glenn, Hershel- they’re all nothing like the characters they started off as, and they group functions far differently as they evolve. We’ve seen Rick go from the good-guy cop that sought nothing but good for others to the dictator that sacrifices everything to protect his wife and child. Now we see Rick as an unstable leader, a wildcard.
How far can you take merciless dictatorship? How far can you take walled-off xenophobia before it destabilizes the group it’s meant to protect? These are the central questions that have driven Season 3 to be the most explosive, intense, violent and amoral of the series so far, and tonight’s mid-season finale hints that it’s gone as far as it can go. We’ve known since Tyreese and his gang showed up that we’d have yet another “do-we-keep-them” moral dilemma, and suffice to say it doesn’t come with the same kind of deliberation and conflict that we’ve seen time and time again in this series. We do, however, get a solid lead-in to the second half of Season 4, but not much more than that.
The mid-season finale ended promising the showdown of the century and the impending collapse of Woodbury, and this episode takes no time in tackling these promises head-on. It perhaps tackles them too quickly and simply, however. We’ve seen that Rick’s gang of survivors can handily take on the armed guards at Woodbury pretty easily in the cathartic rescue of Glenn and Maggie, but the encore invasion in The Suicide King seems like little more than drawn-out tension manufactured to string along viewers from one half of the season to the other. Instead of the cathartic invasion that rocked the first half of the season, we get simple, quick, and downright unsatisfying takedown that just seems sudden and forced. The ensuing panic and discord in Woodbury seems equally half-baked. Masses of mindless townspeople act as nothing more than yes-men or no-men, simple sheep without the complexity or moral gray area that defines the show. When some of them want to escape the town, they all want to escape town. When some of them are inspired by a speech (a poor performance of a lackluster speech, at that) from Andrea, they’re all inspired. They all echo simple little phrases and over-act responses to plot developments in a disappointingly shallow fashion, especially given the promising first half of the season. I, for one, can’t wait till the show moves on from Woodbury.
The Suicide King largely follows the emotional trajectory of the characters, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. We got conditioned to these types of internal-conflict episodes in Season 2, but I was really hoping that the show had moved on. On the positive side, Darryl’s conflict over whether to abandon the group or stick with Merle is effective, satisfyingly brisk, and most certainly in line with each character’s development. Merle is still the same incorrigible jerk he was in his first appearance, and the show makes no effort to soften his character, or convince us that Darryl has any reason to stick with him besides his status as a brother. Glenn’s reaction to this dilemma, as one who almost lost his life at Merle’s hands, is satisfyingly cathartic, and proof again that he is one of the most dynamic, likable and essential characters in the series.
Far less satisfying is Andrea’s absolutely idiotic response to the appearance of her old friends. We spent three seasons with her as a primary, if not particularly likable, member of the group. We then spent a couple episodes with her as a rogue character wandering the countryside with Michonne. What followed was a largely unconvincing love story with one of the most detestable characters the show has yet produced. The last several episodes have offered her plenty of evidence that she should not remain in Woodury, and that the governor is anything but a good character, from the gladiator fights in zombie pits, to the attempted murder of Darryl, to Michonne’s deeply felt distrust. Yet when she learns that the governor imprisoned and tortured her old friends, she responds by desperately trying to remain an emotional confidant, begging him not to shut her out. I never liked Andrea very much, but this is just too much. There’s no reason to believe she’s that blinded by the governor’s waning charisma.
The Walking Dead was never a show for subtle scripting, and it’s most effective when the show is at its most cathartic. It’s when the show gets mired down in extensive internal conflict that the sudden and unprompted monologues on “The way things used to be” and “We have to be good people” become grating and unnecessary. The Walking Dead really should have come out guns blazing with an engaging mid-season premiere, especially after last December’s show-stopping mid-season finale. Instead the writers opted for a slower transitional episode, one that didn’t fire on all cylinders, but left Rick’s group in a good deal of conflict and dissension, certainly enough to fuel the rest of the season. Here’s hoping.