OK. So, The Governor starts off the midseason finale of The Walking Dead by doing a pep talk, hoping to inspire his new camp to take the prison. Cause that worked so well last time, right? Governor is pretty much being rap game General Custer about this, and no, the added detail of capturing Michonne and Hershel does not really make his plan that much better.
It’s clear from the get-go that nothing will convince Governor to abandon the warpath. His pride is too intense, his need for vengeance – or his version of “justice” – too deep. A much-more-rational-than-expected conversation between him, Hershel and Michonne does nothing to change that. Even his admission that he knows his daughter was dead all along and that he doesn’t blame Michonne for it, which is indicative of increased cognizance, can’t derail his inherently psychotic self. It’s basically a fucking shitshow brewing.
We don’t get much time checking in with the people at Chez Prison before Governor arrives. Most importantly, there’s the confrontation between Rick and Daryl about how he abandoned Carol – which is way less tense than expected, because Daryl is the best and most sensible character on this show. (Given the chance, he’d probably get more angry, but what would that really accomplish? He’s calmed down enough to understand that.) And when they’re about to tell Tyreese about Carol, he’s discovered an eviscerated rat that looks like “Wound Man” illustrations as done by Francis Bacon. Clearly the saboteur luring walkers to the gates with dead animals wasn’t Carol or The Governor/his people – soooo, who was it?
Not that it really matters because OH YEAH, THERE’S NO MORE PRISON AND EVERYONE IS SCATTERED. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple gave us the confrontation between Rick and Governor that everyone wanted in season 3, and it was not only satisfying in a fan-service way but also remarkably emotionally affecting, which I didn’t expect. It takes about 25 minutes for the episode to get right down to the killing, and once it’s at full steam it isn’t in the least bit exhilarating (minus some awesome Daryl things that I’ll get to in a moment) – it’s ugly, confusing, vaguely incoherent and most importantly lacking the bullet-ballet sensibility that big- and small-screen action scenes sometimes rely on. It’s just violence, and only the fate of Governor (and maybe that vicious idiot Mitch) is the least bit satisfying. This was the right way to portray it.
In the moments leading up to that, we have Rick’s trademark indecision put to its ultimate test. I didn’t mind him being marginalized in the Chez Prison power structure early during this season, because his bipolar approach to morality invariably has atrocious results. The new version of Rick that was emerging seemed more like the oldest one, from season 1, who was resourceful yet also compassionate.
But with the tank-equipped militia of The Governor at the gates and Michonne’s purloined katana at Hershel’s throat, he tries to have it both ways, proposing a two-state solution where Rick and company would have one cellblock and Governor’s people would have another. Ideally, they’d never see each other. It’s not an entirely bad idea, in theory, and Hershel pitched it earlier in his conversation with Governor and Michonne. Rick legitimately doesn’t want to fight, out of weariness and a genuine if misguided sense of pseudo-pacifism. Conversely, Governor has turned into a man who lives for nothing but conflict and violence. He did legitimately try to be another way, as we saw two weeks ago, but it didn’t take. That bloodlust was always going to be there.
And it found its most brutal expression yet in the beheading of Hershel. While we all knew the death was coming, it hurt more than I – and I think many – expected. It was the end of a character who began as an annoyance and was transformed by Scott Wilson’s performance into, at his best, something approaching a true voice of reason, one not didactic but compassionate and instructive. Not to mention he was more than capable of fighting, even if he took a while to regain his agency after a season (YOU KNOW WHICH ONE) of inaction.
Predictably, the logical consequence of this was, as Willem Dafoe would say in The Boondock Saints, that “THERE WAS A FIREFIIIIIIGHT!” It’s pointless to try and recount the action beat by beat, so let’s go over the highlights. The Governor and about half his militia remain waylaid at the fences themselves, while the other half follow the tank and bust through to the prison courtyard. Epic noisy clusterfuck leads to walkers. Walkers lead to suuuuuffering, but most of the damage is human vs. human. Rick and company have the advantage of being better shots and vicious fighters, while Governor has more warm bodies.
The leaders of these two camps finally have a chance to go at each others’ throats, and they do exactly that. Governor quickly gets the upper hand, because he’s fueled by crazy rather than grief, and crazy inevitably wins in such situations. Unless of course said grief-stricken man is backed up by the fiercest sword-wielder of them all, although Rick’s windpipe is practically crushed before Michonne skewers The Governor. (I figured he’d get a more gruesome end than he did, but being impaled by your nemesis and then shot in the head by Lilly, the woman you supposedly did all this for, is pretty bad, I guess. But I was legitimately expecting grossness on the level of what happens to the character Barry Convex at the end of David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome. Don’t watch if you don’t want spoilers, I suppose, or if you’re squeamish. Suffice to say it’s disgusting.)
Daryl does a bunch of awesome Daryl things, as expected, but I think DROPPING A GRENADE DOWN THE GUN BARREL OF A TANK to kill its operating crew and USING A ZOMBIE CORPSE AS BODY ARMOR AGAINST SIX ENEMIES are both next-level shit. I feel like I can’t say enough about how a character who started as a sop to fanboys evolved into one of the more complex small-screen action heroes of the past decade. His calm, subtle preparations of arming people during the Rick-Governor conversation standoff and getting an evacuation bus ready are just as remarkable as his fighting, as is the way he talks Carl down from trying to snipe Governor before the battle happens (albeit that might not have been the worst idea). Significantly, he is an entirely original creation of Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman and the show’s original writing staff, and has nothing to do with the noxious comics.
The Walking Dead did three major things that ensure the back half of its fourth season will be worth watching. (The jury remains out on whether that extends to weekly recapping, but not because of show quality.) Most importantly, it scattered its survivors. A handful of Governor refugees are alive, strewn who knows where. As far as prison people go, Beth is with Daryl. Bob Stookey (D’Angelo from The Wire, in case you forgot) is with Sasha and Maggie. Tyreese might be on his own, or he may be with Lizzie (whose infected father Carol had to kill back in the episode “Infected”) and the other prison children not named Carl.
About them kids. They have guns now, and while that fact did save Tyreese’s life and kill Tara’s annoying, posturing girlfriend, it is also very, very scary. I’m hoping that after they ran the wrong way, Tyreese gave them a stern talking-to. Something does not seem quite right upstairs with Lizzie. Understandable, given her trauma, but she shouldn’t have any weaponry. Ever.
Finally, the show brought Rick and Carl into what seems sort of, for once, like a somewhat ordinary father-son relationship, on the run from the prison together, Rick whispering, “Don’t look back,” as he tries to comfort the boy and hold back his own grief. (Y’know, rather than a relationship predicated on, “Son, I’d really rather you not grow up to be a serial killer, so stay away from guns, and I’m probably going to as well.”) Brutally, it did so potentially at the expense of Rick’s infant daughter Judith, who is unaccounted for, her baby-carrier soaked in blood. Let’s hope that’s not some cruel fake-out shit, if only because it’d be cheap.
Splitting everyone up is wise. It’ll allow Gimple to try more bottle episodes and storytelling experiments that weren’t possible when all the main characters were together, as well as tonal divergences. For example, one arc could be blackly comic, another tragic, still another action-packed, etc.
From among this batch of eight episodes, “Internment,” where Hershel took the wheel, was probably the best of them. After that, “Infected” and this midseason finale would come in second and third. None were demonstrably bad, even though “Live Bait” and “Isolation” both dragged in a few spots. All in all, I must admit I didn’t expect the landing to get stuck here, and The Walking Dead managed to stick it. Some disliked the pace of season 4’s first half, but to my pleasant surprise, I more often than not found it to be a relatively well-done mix of action, genuine character development and occasional doses of true horror.
And in a rare example of fanboy joy, I invite you to do all of the clapping at the image presented below.
Liam can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter (@liamchgreen).