About midway through the climactic clusterfuck of “Too Far Gone,” I realized I was in the show’s groove again. This happens from time to time, and it’s one of the few reasons I can think of to recommend The Walking Dead. For all the clumsy, repetitive dialogue and go-nowhere character development, the writers and directors and cast can, on occasion, conjure up a striking image or gripping set piece that makes all the wasted space, if not justified, then at least somewhat easier to endure. And the Governor’s doomed attack on the prison was just one of those moments, a massive chunk of violence and death (Two major characters gone! Three, if you count that poor baby) that managed to be both hopeless and kind of bad-ass. I mean, Daryl killed a tank. That doesn’t make up for a dead baby, but it’s still pretty cool.
Really, though, the main reason the assault sort of worked as a dramatic gambit is that it was just so massively stupid. One of the core tenets of the zombie story, going all the way back to when George Romero basically created the genre in Night Of The Living Dead, is that in times of great stress and danger, people rarely make the right choices. Actually, that’s not quite right. People have instincts, after all, and those instincts kept the species alive until we figured out the whole “fire” thing. What Romero did is demonstrate how a threat is at its most deadly when it gives the victims time to debat,; to talk amongst themselves, to doubt, to second guess, to grow bitter over proposed strategies, to resent the leader, to tear each other down, so that when trouble does arrive, no one is in any position to deal with it. It’s not that Romero considered team-work impossible. Just that it’s a lot more difficult than the Boy Scouts would have us believe, and that death doesn’t automatically bring out what’s best in us. That’s why it’s important that zombies move slowly. The longer it takes them to get here, the more of a chance we’ll have to fuck everything up on our own.
Which brings us to the Governor. (He doesn’t like it when Herschel uses that name, but I’d say he’s stuck with it.) His big plan was stupid. Sure he had more firepower, and a freakin’ tank, and even a pair of hostages. But the whole value of the prison was that it offered protection, and as Rick points out, that protection isn’t going to mean much of a damn once the Governor’s men start blowing everything up. As the big fight wore on and a bunch of people who we didn’t have any emotional connection to got shot, it became obvious that this was a suicide run, whether the Governor meant it to be or not. There’s something perversely satisfying in that. The status quo is once again destroyed, our heroes are divided in half a dozen different ways, and we won’t have to worry about anyone trying to come back and retake the prison. It was a nice place, but it wore out its welcome, and now we can get some new threats. Oh, and the Governor is finally dead! So that’s nice.
So’s Herschel, which is less fun. But hold that thought, because as enjoyable as it was to watch a bunch of idiots shoot each other to death, “Too Far Gone” inadvertently exposed one of the big problems with the season so far, a problem that’s been lingering since the season three finale. Namely, this is what we should’ve been watching last winter. (Or was it spring? You get me.) This attack, which ends with Michonne finally stabbing the Governor through the chest and then him getting shot by the woman he loved, is the natural conclusion to the Governor’s story, and by dragging it out as long as they did, the writers robbed it of a good deal of its power. This half-season has had flashes of intelligence, the structure has made sense (the plague leading into the prison attack was smart, in that it meant our heroes were already at reduced manpower when the Governor and his team arrived), and there have even been some good character moments. But in between all that was the not good stuff that robs story arcs of their tension. Yes, if the Governor had died in S3, we wouldn’t have had Lily or Tara or Megan (two dead kids in one hour, is that a record?), or even the plague, but the positives would’ve more than outweighed the negatives.
The natural arc of the Governor’s story is that of any Big Bad. We meet him, we learn why he’s a threat, he fucks up our heroes’ lives for a while, and then our heroes find a definitive way to deal with him. There’s a reason so many shows take this approach; it’s predictable, sure, but it provides a good spine to structure a season around. If you’re going to resist that structure, if you’re going to try and tell a story in a different, unexpected way, that’s great, but you need to bring something more to the table. The Governor looked like a one-season baddie. He wasn’t interesting enough to last as a regular character, but he had enough resources and firepower that it made sense it would take a season to deal with him. Instead, it took a season-and-a-half, and the end result isn’t a more satisfying finale or a more tragic end. It’s just the clear understanding that this should’ve been taken care of ages ago. The previous two episodes tried their hardest to justify this delay by trying to get into the Governor’s head; this attempt was moderately successful by the end, but so what? The Governor’s death was not a sad one, and his decision to attack the prison was no different than if he’d simply attacked the prison at the end of last season; I guess this time around, he could better justify himself by wanting the buildings, but the justification didn’t make the sequence more suspenseful or compelling. If it had happened when it should have, the prison assault could’ve played out like the natural conclusion of a season long plot. As is, it’s practically an isolated incident. It works okay, but this is definitely a parts greater than the whole type deal.
And those rare times that the writers do manage to dig deep and try and provide a theme? Pure nihilism. This week’s message: Hope is for morons. Herschel struggled and saved as many people as he could during the plague! He gets his head cut off. Rick finally believes it’s possible to come back and be a good person, which, whatever, but that’s still a nice message! He watches Herschel get killed, and then he loses his baby daughter. Lily and Tara decided to trust someone! Oh look, he managed to get a lot of people killed, and inadvertently led Megan to her death. And so on, and so on. The only positive message is that the children are our future, and our future is well-armed and a crack shot, so I guess that’s a happy thought to cling to. There are plenty of stories and even television shows with downbeat themes, and it’s to be expected that a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t be the happiest place to live. But once again, we see characters being forced to learn the same lesson they’ve been learning since the first episode: You are fucked. Everyone is fucked. Every happy thought you have will be taken away from you, and you will suffer for it. That’s a fine theme for a two-hour movie, or even a novel, but for an on-going series, it leaves us in a story where every ending is always the same. Every situation, sooner or later, will end badly.
It’s not even a “theme,” really. The writers try and tart it up as such, giving Rick a big speech that the Governor can then contradict by murdering a nice old man, but it’s all for the shock value, because that’s all the show has. Every nice moment, every happy exchange, every positive connection is an investment that will pay off in misery down the line, because that is the only currency available. And so the writers will dig more deeply to try and catch us off our guard. Dead child not dark enough? Hey, how about a baby carrier soaked in blood. Are you not entertained? Don’t worry. Next time it will be worse.
- About that grade: I have no idea. Call it a “B” on the curve but a “C” in real life? I dunno. Ignore the grade. Embrace life.
- The “biter” that killed Megan appeared to be on loan from an Italian zombie flick (maybe Fulci?), which was neat.
- So we still don’t know who the crazy person was who was feeding zombies rats and dissecting animals in the prison. And Tyreese still doesn’t know that Carol murdered Sasha. Maybe they’ll run into each other on the outside.
- Hey, Rick, I’m glad you’ve decided on the path of peace and all, but why the hell wouldn’t you just leave the prison? Yes, your group is bigger now (much bigger than I realized, as I thought the plague had wiped out most of the new folks), and it’ll be dangerous being out in the wild again, but you know what else is dangerous? A psychopath with a tank.
- Speaking of the plague survivors—some of these people lived in Woodbury, didn’t they? Wouldn’t they have opinions about seeing their old boss show up? I mean, I guess that would’ve meant getting to know even more forgettable secondary characters, but the complete disconnect between storylines is odd.
- The baby could be alive, I guess. We’ll see.
- That’s it for this year. See you in February, when hopefully lots of crazy stuff will happen and nobody will need to talk for a while.