We pick up from the mid-season break exactly where we last let off, with brother against brother, Meryl versus Daryl, fighting to the death as the people of Woodbury egg them on. And by egg I mean swing their fists in the air in a back-and-forth manner. I don’t know why these good people, whose lives have been filled with nothing but tinkling laughter and sun-dappled strolls down that one main street, would be filled with such bloodlust for a man whose identity hasn’t adequately been explained to them, but boy, am I becoming obsessed with the extras who play them. Have you ever seen a ho-hummier group of background players outside of Waiting for Guffman?
I was hoping that we might be done with Woodbury by the end of this episode, but it looks like that won’t be happening. At this point, the town functions very much like that room in Six Feet Under that Nate discovers his dad rented; it’s a place where Rick and his crew can go whenever they feel like getting away from their families and girlfriends and responsibilities. It’s impossible for us to care about its inhabitants. The Governor isn’t even interested in them now that he’s in pouty mode. All investment I had in his character is gone, too, although I did giggle an awful lot when he sulked out of his house to shoot that guy. His strut has become so baggy. He’s not much more than a cartoon character now, with fewer dimensions than his comic-book counterpart. Andrea, meanwhile, has taken up motivational speaking. She even calls people by their names, which is salesman speak 101. What did this town do without her? Who oversaw Steven’s tending to the sick? Who kept Martinez in his place? I do wish she actually wore a handyman’s belt so that she could just tighten up a loose bolt on a leaky fire hydrant or something as she made her rounds.
I would love to lay off the jokes, but there wasn’t much to work with in this episode. Like the characters, the show is treading the same well-worn paths. I don’t know how many more fights about who's allowed to stay or go I have in me. There’s a new group whose found its way into the prison now. There’s Tyreese (Cutty from The Wire), his wife Sasha, newly single dad Allen, and his son Ben. Gentle, wise(ish) Hershel likes them but says they probably shouldn’t get too comfortable. Rick, their unstable leader with a history of both making the wrong call and answering calls from ghosts, has final say. With so much time on their hands and a scarcity of board games in their jail cell, the new group decides to go bury Allen’s wife in the yard. Last episode, he and his son seemed like sweethearts, but now they want to tackle Carol and Carl and take over the prison. Cutty brings up the baby, asks if they’re planning on smashing her head in with a rock. “What is your problem?” asks Allen, and that’s when I knew that at least this guy was going to survive. If there’s anything this show likes, it's to reward its people who storm into homes that are not theirs with an outsize sense of entitlement.
The whole point of Rick and Maggie going back to Woodbury was to rescue Daryl. They do so, with the help of Merle, taking down six precious extras in their wake. (I couldn’t breathe until I saw that the jean-shorted, cowboy-hatted woman survived.) Merle is back to being as poorly drawn as he was in the first season, starting in on the redneck speak the minute they’ve left the town. He makes fun of Michonne for her zombie pets, who kept her alive all those months and also are the same as the toothless zombies that Merle himself regularly caught and encaged in Woodbury. Michonne retorts with a … wait for it … silent glare. She didn’t speak once this whole episode, right? The anonymous, screaming mob was given more lines than her this week, right?
Rick is still against Michonne, too, because she disappeared after she successfully led him and his gang to an entire, living community they didn’t know about, where two of their people were being held hostage. The nerve. The only rational decision I thought Rick made this episode was putting his foot down when Daryl wanted Merle to come back to the prison. He’s dangerous and untrustworthy, and Daryl seemed pretty long-faced about having to choose him over the others. He can count on a whole lot of coon-skinning conversations in his immediate future or whatever the hell they have coming out of Merle’s mouth. It was one of the only times I agreed that Rick and the gang were the more appealing option.
In general, though, Rick’s arguments aren’t really making sense anymore, such as when he evokes his bestie Oscar as an example of why Tyreese’s crew can’t stay. It would’ve been nice if Tyreese had answered with a diplomatic, “You mean because Oscar was a decent man who you at first doubted and then led to his death?” Last season, Rick was too soft and people died. So the show decided this season to bring us a new Rick, one who realized that the only way to survive is by making the hard decisions. The problem is, they keep swinging him too far in one direction or the other. You might say there’s no room for nuance in a show about zombies, but that’s exactly why you need it most. Long, quiet scenes are the ones that make you jump the most when the monsters finally pop out. Grounded, complicated characters who don’t just make decisions based on what the writers find conceptually interesting are the ones who make you care whether those monsters get them or not.
There were a few moments when the show tried, once again, to find its footing, character-development-wise. We so rarely get a conversation that isn’t about who’s riding shotgun and whose carrying the shotgun that it’s nice when they happen. Carl expressing guilt about being mean to his mom before she died. Carol comparing herself to Daryl, saying they’re both prone to abusive relationships; she with her late husband and he with Merle.
If those talks were on one side of the believability scale, they were sent flying to the other side of the prison by the final scene of the episode. Hershel has almost convinced Rick to let Tyreese’s group stay when … I just sighed out loud while typing this … a woman appears on a catwalk above. She’s wearing a white dress. Her face is in shadow. Her hair is, of course, down. Rick starts clenching his jaw so tightly you worry he’s going to crack his molars and then blame maybe an underwritten minority for it. It’s Lori. She used up all her minutes on the magic telephone and had to pay a visit in ghost-person. “Get out,” Rick screams at her. “Get out!” And the viewers at home swing their fists in the air, back and forth, back and forth in solidarity.