The basic rule of coincidences in fiction is, if an improbable turn makes life easier for the characters, it’s bad writing; if, on the other hand, a contrivance turns everything from sunny to shit, that’s pretty much a-okay. There are exceptions, of course, but I’d say Maggie and Glenn running into our old pal Merle while out on a supply run falls well into the latter category. If you actually stop and think about it, the odds of Merle just happening to show up at the same time as one of the group’s rare forays into the outside world (made less rare by the supply demands a baby puts on everyone, but still) are high, especially considering how little we know about the geography of the area. Merle was on foot, Maggie and Glenn in a car, so there’s enough wiggle room to believe that the prison and Woodbury aren’t close enough to know about each other, especially when you take Merle’s comments about the “Red Zone” into consideration. If the Governor and his people have labeled a certain nearby area too dangerous to explore, and if the prison is either in or on the other side of that area—that makes sense. But it’s still unlikely that this small group of people would bump into each other, even if you take into account that Michonne more or less led Merle there.
None of that matters, though, because Merle’s appearance is an incredible piece of bad luck for the survivors, and “bad luck” is prevalent enough on this series to count as a running theme. Plus, Maggie said it was a good day, the Walking Dead equivalent of saying “Bloody Mary” three times at a mirror. Michonne’s presence mitigates the disaster somewhat; she’s too injured (and too caught off guard) to help, but she does hear enough of Maggie and Glenn’s conversation to realize they came from somewhere, which ultimately leads her back to the prison. (Which is kind of amazing, but Michonne is a superhero, so I’ll allow it.) Hopefully, if Rick doesn’t shoot her—and he won’t—she’ll be able to provide information on where Merle took the other two. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the Governor is going to find out about the prison. This was inevitable from a plot perspective; you don’t spend this much time establishing another group of characters and keep them tangential. But it’s bad news. Maybe the Governor will decide to play nice, and invite Rick’s group to the town, but I doubt it. Especially seeing as how he sent a posse after Michonne, maybe for security reasons, maybe because he’s just a son of a bitch. The Governor needs control, and he doesn’t take well to anyone who goes against his rule.
“Hounded” picks up the pace from last week, cramming three stories into the hour and cutting between them in a way that never lets the tension entirely drop. Rick’s thread is the strongest, as it continues (and seemingly concludes) the major fallout from Lori’s death. The phone call turns out to be an hallucination, but while I’d be surprised if anyone was taken in by it, the writers tell the story through Rick’s eyes, playing everything straight until the gut punch reveal near the end. So Rick spends his first scene talking with a supposed survivor, a female representative of a group that’s some place safe where nothing can harm them, where there are no zombies, where violence doesn’t lurk around every turn. He has a number of conversations with various members of this “group,” and it becomes increasingly clear that these conversations aren’t just in Rick’s mind—they’re Rick’s way of dealing with the trauma. These voices he hears are the voices of the lost, speaking to him from beyond the grave, offering him a safety which can only be found in death. It’s a device which could’ve seemed trite or forced, but doesn’t. In a way, it even points to how this show can go forward—if all The Walking Dead is about is the grim, agonizing struggle of staying one step ahead of what will inevitably catch you, the only way the show can be worth watching is if it finds different and engaging ways to make its characters’ suffering both fascinating and sincere. In other words, Rick just moping around over his dead wife is honest enough, but not much fun to watch; Rick immediately swallowing the pain and being completely fine is fun, but not honest. But making him go just a little mad? That’s excellent, and it helps convey his loss, and the stakes he faces going ahead, in a way that doesn’t come across as completely nihilistic.
The episode also works to solidify the threat the Governor represents by sending Merle and his band of bozos after Michonne. It gets a little cartoonish here, as Michonne uses some zombie corpses to send the boys a message, thus tempting them into stopping just long enough for her to carve up most of the group. (Maybe she would’ve been better off just running, given how things turn out, but Merle and the others do know the area more than she does, I guess.) Michonne gets shot in the leg in the fracas, escapes, and Merle and the only survivor, a guy Merle calls “Neil” because he can’t pronounce his actual name, take off in hot pursuit. This section is considerably less wrenching than Rick’s scenes, and plays out roughly as you’d expect it to, right up until the point where Merle finds Maggie and Glenn. If you guessed that Merle ends up killing Not Neil, you win all the points, although Merle’s actual motivations seem to shift a bit to justify whatever the story needs him to do. But that’s probably intentional; for all the Governor’s calm planning, Merle is a hothead, an asshole who thinks he’s a leader, and so he’s going to keep making impulse decisions until one of those decisions gets him killed. Michonne, on the other hand, plans ahead. We still don’t know much about her, but at least this episode gives us more chances to see things from her perspective, like learning that zombie guts provide effective camouflage, or being frozen in rage and fear as Merle kidnaps Maggie and Glenn. I wonder what she’ll say to Rick. I imagine they’ll have a lot to talk about.
The other main plot in the hour is Andrea trying to settle into Woodbury and finally giving in to the Governor’s low-key seductions. These scenes are the weakest in the episode, seeing as how Andrea is, as ever, not the most fun person to spend time with. Still, the scene with her and a younger woman at the wall, trading stories about zombie kills before Andrea breaks protocol to kill an approaching walker, isn’t bad, and Andrea’s confession to the Governor that, despite her protestations to the contrary, she actually really liked the pit fights, is excellent, and goes a long way toward making that idea more interesting. It makes her more interesting as well; her running commentary on Woodbury makes a lot more sense if you think of it in the context of someone who is attracted to something (and someone) she knows she shouldn’t be attracted to. What works best about these scenes is the way they suggest the very real possibility that Andrea may decide to side with the Governor permanently. It would be an unusual (and interesting) direction for her to take, and given that she ends up in the man’s bed just as Merle arrives with Maggie and Glenn, her loyalties are going to be tested soon enough. But then, the Governor decides to keep the arrival of her friends secret from her, which isn’t really a good step in terms of trust-building. I can’t imagine Andrea still wanting to stick with the Woodbury folks once she finds out her new beau is set on torturing (and killing?) people she knows, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Apart from Rick’s story, the best scenes in the episode aren’t really enough to be considered a main plotline, even if they end on a big event. Daryl, Oscar, and Carl go walking around the prison looking for supplies and whatnot, and Daryl bonds with Carl over dead moms. This is a good scene, but the real money moment happens when Daryl finds Carol’s knife stuck in the throat of a still moving zombie. They’d passed a cell earlier which had something moving inside, but Daryl had decided to pass on. Now, though, it seems like he has horrible confirmation that Carol’s been turned, that she’s waiting behind that door, and that he’s going to have to kill her. Given the number of hits the ensemble has taken lately, there seems every chance that he is right, and that the episode will end on one more awful sacrifice; that makes it all the sweeter when Daryl finally opens the door and finds Carol, half out of her mind but alive, waiting inside. Death and despair are always going to be this show’s bread and butter, but it’s good to know that, occasionally, things can start looking up when we least expect it.
- I wonder how this would’ve played if we’d just stayed with Rick the whole time. I realize there probably wasn’t enough story for that, especially considering the shortness of the show’s seasons and the amount of plates the writers need to spin, but some of the claustrophobia of the scenes is lost when we keep cutting away from them.
- The dialogue is consistently better this week. And we’re at the halfway point through the season, and the show is still going strong! If anyone has champagne, now might be a time to put it on ice.
- I don’t think Carl’s “Shot my mom” is supposed to be a laugh line, but the abruptness of it made me chuckle. It’s like a really sick version of the scar competition from Jaws.