A Bloody Mouthful: The Walking Dead is Back with a Smoky BANG (Season 3, Episode 9)
Boy-howdy! Have you caught your breath yet? THAT, my friends, is how you bring back a series from mid-season hiatus! Last night's mid-season "premiere" of The Walking Dead (Episode 9: “The Suicide King”) launched with a hell of a bang, and on the heels of much anticipation. My facebook feed yesterday was replete with eager zombie beavers. Luckily, I steered clear of the spoiler minefield – and as a public service, BE ADVISED: SPOILERS AHEAD.
We, the audience, were looking forward to the dramatic tension in Walker World reaching a crescendo as the main, “good” group of survivors (what I like to think of as “OUR Survivors”) careened inevitably toward a spectacular clash with The Governor-led sheeple and mercenaries of Woodbury. We were also biting our nails to see the outcome of Tyreese's White-Dad-led mutiny (at a time when Our Survivors' adult male population were off storming the castle of Woodbury). None of these scenarios came to a head in Episode 9, but these threats remain clear and present.
The Governor's Cain and Abel exhibition quickly exploded into a full-on war zone. As Chris Hardwick from Talking Dead noted, Guv's supervillain status is firmly cemented; the satisfied smirk on his face as chaos and destruction reign says it all. (Kevin Smith, the guest from last night's Talking Dead, totally agrees with me on that. Yes, he agreed through the television screen. Stop judging me.)
As if Merle couldn't get any more tasteless, his taunts of “Nubian Queen” at Michonne, while rubbing Andrea's relationship with The Governor in her face make him downright nauseating. For her part, Michonne's barely contained silent fury does NOTHING to dispel the idea that Andrea found a way to break through Michonne's thick emotional armor and that they shared intimacy in some form (hoping for flashback sequences). When Rick finally knocks Merle out, the entire group seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief, Daryl included.
Daryl is forced to make the choice, under extreme time pressure, between the family he was born into and the one he created with Our Survivors. “Man, y'all don't know!,” the the only way he can express his impossible dilemma and frustration. “There's gotta be another way,” seems to be a recurring refrain, but, sadly, another way isn't sussed out in time and Daryl goes with the “moral” (family values?) choice of Merle, which is a booby prize any way you slice it.
One thing that TWD does better than most action dramas is maintain a sense of urgency that doesn't seem false or contrived. It's in that space of panic and adrenaline that so many choices (most often bad) are made that serve to further conflicts and/or the plot. Normally, such recurring “NO, YOU DUMBASS!” moments might cause an erosion of the suspension of disbelief so essential to serial storytelling. TWD, however, manages to not only keep extreme pressure “realistic,” but also allows its characters to make choices that, despite being horrible, remain true to their character. None of us want to see Daryl go with Merle – we've seen what a depraved monster Merle really is, and it's only a matter of time until he reveals that true nature again. Contrasted with his brother's evil, Daryl has “gone native:” Merle's jeer reflects his knowledge that Daryl has developed bonds of loyalty with Our Survivors, and has learned to care for others. Yet, it's Daryl's rabid sense of loyalty that makes him chose his brother in that split instant, and serves to even further underscore his moral strength. That is, of course, if you read choosing family as the morally superior road. For those of us who have chosen and fashioned our own families when rejected by families we were born into, Daryl's choice seems more like the perpetuation of internalized hatred than moral high ground. As Carol later says, “Men like Merle get into your head; make you feel like you deserve the abuse,” reminding us that she knows what the fuck she's talking about. Daryl is a survivor of Merle's (and their father's) abuse the same way she survived her husband's. TWD lets us draw our own conclusions on how to read Daryl's decision, and, in fact, gives us enough dimension to read it multiple ways.
Maggie's violation continues to haunt both Maggie and Glenn. “Thanks for looking out for her,” coming from Herschel must have felt like a knife twist in Glenn's heart. Glenn knows exactly how he wasn't able to look out for Maggie, and witnessed The Governor's sick violation. Herschel asking Maggie, “You got something needs looking at?” underscored in deep, hard relief how the trauma of Maggie's sexual assault, though it didn't leave physical scars, left real and deep wounds; their “invisible” nature making them all the more difficult to treat. Hershel’s still in the dark as to what his daughter went through – I anticipate when he finds out, The Governor is going to find himself on the receiving end of some seething, one-legged Herschel-rage.
Watching Tyreese's crew struggling with Donna's body, we really get a sense of both the grueling self-sufficiency that's required in this new world (until Axel and Hershel’s daughter came up to help, you got the sense that no one was going to) and the conflict between Then and Now – between “survival of the fittest” and “common decency.” You get a sense just how precarious and rare Our Survivors' coalition is in a post-civilization society – that delicate balance between survival and humanity in an insane world.
The episode ends with Rick losing his shit in a big and public way at a very crucial moment. Herschel counsels Rick on the folly of remaining isolationist, as Rick flatly rejects Tyreese and company joining Our Survivors' ranks. Herschel should know – his recalcitrance cost precious lives on his farm. Rick is not thinking strategically, he's only thinking emotionally, and really, “thinking” might be giving Rick's thought processes more credit than they deserve. As Stephen Yeun (Glenn) noted on Talking Dead, emotional ties are a liability in this world and Rick's brain is cracking under the toll of responsibilities. Our Survivors are going to need all hands on deck as The Governor assembles his troops, and Rick's knee-jerk banishment isn't a sustainable model for survival, despite his crushing emotional losses to date. On a barely-related note, WHEN are these fools going to realize Michonne's priceless worth? I am REALLY looking forward to the upcoming Glenn/Michonne Partnership for the Assassination of The Governor.
As Rick implodes, in a fun-house mirroring of The Governor's transformation, the emphasis on leaders, rather than coalition, seems to be a pretty huge mistake in post-apocalyptic political organizing. Did NO ONE pick up ANY anarchist or socialist philosophy pre-Walker-outbreak?
Meanwhile, AMC and TWD demonstrate exactly how much they know and love their audience by presenting the entire first season (wait for it....) in BLACK AND WHITE!! Romero purists REJOICE!
Overall, this episode turned out to be something of a slow simmer, despite its big, loud beginning. Next week promises to inch closer to confrontation between the still-human factions. Do you think Rick's going to be put on enforced hiatus from leadership duties? Will the power vacuum allow Tyreese and friends to be smoothly brought into the fold or will Our Survivors be further torn apart? I doubt the big showdown with The Governor will happen next week, but will Andrea finally get her head out of her ass? Predict away in the comments!
This week's mid-season collage artwork was generously provided by deviantARTist jover-design. Many thanks!