This whole season, The Walking Dead looked like it was heading for yet another apocalypse. With a narrative as straightforward as this one (in the sense that “surviving” is the main, and often the only, objective) and the show’s heavy serialization, the arc seemed predictable. Rick and friends got set up in the prison, but just over the horizon was the lovely, seemingly idyllic town of Woodbury, where the charming Governor held sway. Even if you hadn’t read the comics (and I have, which I think colored my expectations somewhat), it looked like these two groups would have to deal with each other, and as the Governor became more and more blatantly threatening, that confrontation was inevitably going to be violent. There would be some sparring here and there and maybe a tenuous sort of peace, but eventually, someone would go too far. Which the Governor pretty much did when he kidnapped Maggie and Glenn last fall. Now all that was left was to determine just how many regular cast members would drop in the finale. Maybe all those years of watching Buffy and playing video games have rotted my mind, but I was expecting a boss fight, with explosions, small tragedies, and zombies.
Well, that’s what we got, but “Welcome To The Tombs” was smarter than a simple fight to the death, and while that meant sacrificing finality (the Governor surviving is something of a mixed blessing), it also meant telling stories that veered dangerously close to optimism. For once, the show ended on a not-entirely-despairing note, finding a compromise between utter despair and naive stupidity that helped to alleviate the unending grimness in a way that doesn’t come across as cheating. It wasn’t a perfect hour, and once again, there are characters behaving in ways that should’ve been better established over the course of the entire season, rather than just randomly getting pulled out of a hat in the last hour. But it still holds together, and it makes the arc of the season seem cleaner in retrospect. And hey, Andrea’s dead, so I guess that should make everyone happy.
Might as well start there, as it’s the best part of the episode: The Governor, having realized that Milton betrayed him, decides to kill two birds with one stone and stabs Milton in the stomach, leaving him to bleed to death locked in the torture room with Andrea. It’s a nasty piece of business, as the Governor first tells Milton he can walk out of the room alive, but only if he takes Andrea out first. When Milton refuses, he finds out that all his choices are gone, even his moral ones. As the Governor explains, “In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill.” Over the rest of the hour, intercut with scenes from the prison and around Woodbury, Andrea tries to free herself from her handcuffs with the pliers a pre-stabbed Milton left under her feet. This is about as rudimentary as suspense gets, but in a good way; the situation is stark and uncompromised, and it gives us a chance to spend a little more time with Milton and Andrea before the inevitable. Of the two, I think I’ll miss Milton slightly more, mostly because it feels like he died just as he was getting interesting. After seeing this episode, it becomes obvious that his arc was supposed to be “man of science turning a blind eye until he realizes there are some lines he can’t cross,” which wasn’t really clear for a lot of the season. At first he was just a polite, slightly creepy guy, and then he disappeared for a while. He had a few good scenes overall, and it was nice to be surprised by someone acting in a positive manner for once, but now, he’s dead, and a lot of potential has been lost. (Plus, Dallas Roberts was really good. Viva Rubicon!)
As for Andrea, she’ll be missed less, but the last couple episodes managed to make her somewhat more sympathetic. While I’m not sure I completely buy her assertions that she stuck around Woodbury because she was just trying to save everyone, it’s interesting how the idea fits back into one of the show’s main themes: Compromise kills. The Governor was a broken, evil man, and no amount of negotiation or pillow talk was ever going to set him right. Because she couldn’t accept that, Andrea dies, and points to the show (and Glen Mazzarra, who scripted this episode) for having it happen in a way that doesn’t make her or the Governor look like an idiot. Milton may have provided her with a way to escape, but the door was still locked. So Andrea got herself free just in time to fight back, but it wasn’t enough, because a lot of the time, that’s what happens. So she dies. Her final scene is a fine grace note for a character who never quite came into focus over the course of the series and fits in, oddly enough, with Carl’s lecture to Rick: If you leave the monsters alive, they will come back and kill you. Andrea couldn’t take out the Governor when she had the chance, and now, she has to pay the price.
Also paying the price: nearly everyone in the Governor’s armed attack on the prison. The show does a decent fake-out by making it seem like Rick and the others have left before the fighting starts, but it was all a clever ruse to lure the Governor and his people in, freak them out with zombies, and then attack them from on high. The ruse works, maybe a bit easier than it should, but when the Governor tries to order his people to go back, they refuse. So he snaps and starts shooting them. Given the show’s willingness to undercut any theme more complicated than “You will die” if it will lead to an effective shock, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of this beyond the very obvious: The Governor is a bad guy. But what drove him to this point? And what makes him different from Rick? On the one hand, this seems to confirm Carl’s speech, because if somebody had done the smart thing and killed the Governor when they had a chance, much of this would not have happened. But on the other hand, the problem with being ready and willing to kill anyone who becomes dangerous, or even suggests the possibility of becoming dangerous, is the same problem you get when you’re holding a hammer: Every problem starts to look like a nail. The Governor opened fire on his people because rage overwhelmed him and because he’s decided that the only way to survive is to take out anyone who stands in his way. It wasn’t a logical decision, and his victims weren’t posing a threat, but maybe if he wasn’t so inclined to kill outsiders to save himself the trouble of having to deal with them, he might not have gone so starkly mad. And maybe Carl, who shoots one of the Governor’s men even after the guy has surrendered, is heading down the same road.
But I mentioned optimism, right? Well, Glenn and Maggie are still with us, despite both seemingly offering themselves up for the slaughter last week by daring to share a happy moment. Michonne is cool with Rick considering giving her over to her worst enemy, so that’s nice. When Rick, Daryl, and Michonne head to Woodbury to try and take care of the Governor problem once and for all, they find Karen, the lone survivor of the Governor’s massacre, who provides them with an easy way to convince Tyreese and Sasha of their good intentions. (It helps that Tyreese and Sasha had both already decided they needed to get out of town soon.) And in the end, Rick takes all the Woodbury survivors, i.e. all the folks who were unable to fight, back to the prison. It’s a moment freighted with symbolism, contrasting a life of unearned peace built on lies, with a life of dread built on the truth, and while we don’t really know the Woodbury citizens well enough for this to really work, it’s a decent twist. The biggest problem with “Welcome To The Tombs” (and the flaw that makes it a mostly good episode, rather than a terrific one) is that even with Andrea and Milton’s death, it doesn’t really feel like a finale. While the Governor is temporarily stripped of his power, he’s still alive, out of his mind, and presumably very angry at our heroes. The Woodbury experiment is done for, but it’s been so long since that was relevant that its ending doesn’t come across as all that important. Another year dealing with the Governor running around sniping folks doesn’t sound all that promising. But who knows what next season will bring. It’s a lovely gesture of Rick to bring over all those people, for him to decide that he needs to try and help people, that he can’t just close everyone out. Yet these are still mouths he’s going to have to feed, and more bodies means more enemies, lurking behind a heartbeat.
- It hadn’t occurred to me, but Alan Sepinwall asked on Twitter why Rick didn’t just choose to bring his group over to Woodbury instead of locking everyone in a prison that arguably doesn’t have enough room (at least, not enough clean room) to support them. I don’t honestly know. I guess the prison is more defensible if the Governor decides on a surprise attack.
- Speaking of Twitter, apparently this episode upset some people. I liked it for the most part, but it really doesn’t seem like much of an ending. And the Governor should have died; this is not a show that can really handle long, drawn-out conflicts.
- It’s been fun. This season has been a significant step up from the last two, so let’s all pretend it will keep getting better next fall.