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‘The Walking Dead’ review: Meeting of the minds

It’s two steps forward and one step back for The Walking Dead, as AMC’s ratings darling continues to sluggishly lurch like its undead predators in both quality and momentum. Last week’s stellar, simmering meditation seemed ripe to finally unveil the explosive showdown between Rick and the Governor this entire season has built toward. Unfortunately, Sunday’s installment, “Arrow on the Doorpost,” failed to maintain the thematic depth and intensity buoyed by Morgan’s brief resurgence and left our survivors every bit as befuddled as they’ve always been. Viewers, meanwhile, get the sinking feeling this much talking hasn’t taken place while accomplishing so little since season two’s unending search for Sophia. At least Glen and Maggie have realized the most effective method for making up involves hardly any conversation at all.

Things begin promisingly, as the prologue drops viewers in the middle of a strategic mission for which there is no setup or explanation. Rick, Daryl and Hershel carefully enter an unknown warehouse lot with the kind of unspoken logistical understanding not seen since the pre-prison days when the whole group maneuvered like a stealth squadron through the woods. Daryl and Hershel keep watch while Rick enters a doorway and discovers a table and two chairs waiting for him on a platform. The setup is akin to a makeshift stage and helps create anticipation for a meeting of theatrical proportions. Episode scribe Ryan Coleman was most likely envisioning an exchange rife with gritty Mamet speak, but instead we’re delivered something closer to the absurdist minimalism of Waiting for Godot. The Governor emerges from the shadows with effectively commanding intrigue, but most of the episode’s suspense ends here. “We have a lot to talk about,” Guv smirks. Indeed we do.

RickRick reluctantly lowers his gun but fires a round of verbal zingers to which Guv surprisingly wimps out. He reassigns blame for the harsh tyranny bubbling beneath Woodbury’s friendly façade upon anyone but himself. “I know about the raids. The heads. Maggie,” Rick snaps. Guv is blank-faced. “Merle did that,” he shrugs, his nonchalance assisted by the fact he has a pistol strapped to the tableside away from Rick’s view. Outside, Milton, Andrea and Martinez have driven up to be surprised with the news Guv has not only arrived ahead of schedule, but is already sitting down with Rick. Andrea joins their powwow with a pitiful attempt to point out both men’s common strengths, but only succeeds in enabling her own deluded hope for compromise.

Rick is ready to get down to brass tacks and uses a map to show Guv where proper boundaries could be placed between their communities. “Woodbury gets west of the river, prison takes east,” he announces. Andrea shows enthusiastic support, but neither one of them appears to understand the unrealistic expectations such a plan places upon a maniacal sadist like our Guv. He all but laughs in their faces while refusing the idea, finally explaining in pure layman’s terms what he has in mind. “I’m here for one thing only: your surrender,” he drawls.

On that note, Andrea is promptly tossed out of the boys’ club and proceeds to pout on the stoop and twirl her hair. It’s a good thing she’s not in the room when Guv pulls a few tricks of his own. Rick may know a few secrets, but Guv unleashes a doozy when he reveals his knowledge of Shane and Lori’s affair and the subsequent uncertainty about who really fathered baby Judith. Clearly, Andrea’s pillow talk is a bit chattier than others. He bristles for a moment, but Rick doesn’t break his resolve and sticks to his line of questioning regarding Guv’s lack of accountability. For someone embracing a title like Governor in a lawless society, Rick wonders, why is he so quick to dodge liability for the collapse of his own community? Even Guv is taken aback by the direct nature of Rick’s interrogation and muses, “I thought you were a cop, not a lawyer.” Heh. Knowing he’d better soften Rick’s edges a bit, Guv’s eyes light up with a sudden realization. “I brought whiskey!” he sings. Uh oh.

Rick and Guv might be resorting to increasingly desperate measures to get their conversation moving, but outside, the Woodbury drones and our prison gang are beginning to see eye to eye more quickly than anyone anticipated. Initial tension between Daryl and Martinez is interrupted when a horde of walkers descends upon their turf. The two engage in a rather juvenile one-upmanship to display their superior walker-bashing skills, but eventually the competition shifts toward a more jovial tone. The idea the dueling groups are really Bizarro versions of each other is driven further when Martinez wields his trusty baseball bat with the same character-defining gusto as Daryl does with his crossbow. Once the threat from the walkers (and each other) has been decidedly eliminated, Daryl breaks the ice and asks Martinez if he has military experience. Turns out, his motivation is rooted in a desire to seek vengeance for his wife and children’s death. Daryl is duly impressed, perhaps even moved, and offers Martinez a smoke, the official Dixon equivalent of an olive branch.

Hershel and Milton, meanwhile, bond over a mutual respect for historical accuracy and recorded data. Not everyone is the skull bashing type, after all. Milton is a little too fascinated with the story of Hershel’s amputation and excitedly asks to examine his stump. “At least buy me a drink first,” Hershel scoffs in jest, offering the heartiest laugh any post-apocalyptic human ever could. Even Milton warms up a little, fondly remembering this lost art of humor Hershel has so kindly rekindled.

Andrea can hardly crack a smile as she later whines to Hershel about her perpetual indecisiveness and conflicted allegiances. In a remarkable display of progress, however, she acknowledges she can’t go back to Woodbury after what she’s learned about the Governor. Hopefully the answer to her next question will outweigh the allure of clean linens and running water once and for all. “What happened to Maggie?” she asks wearily. “The Governor is a sick man,” Hershel responds, and assures Andrea she’s still welcome back into her old gang on the grounds she agrees to sever ties with Woodbury and Guv once and for all. But the warm bed, Andrea’s doubtful expression appears to convey. And the whiskey!

The charm used to wile Andrea is proving to work almost as well on Rick, as Guv begins to let the hooch do the talking and recount the story of Mrs. Guv’s accidental death shortly before the epidemic. It’s incredible to think his loss would have much of an impact on anyone, given the odds all survivors at this point have experienced incredible grief and hardship. Maybe Guv’s demeaning job with a pipsqueak boss elicited Rick’s sympathy the most. In any case, it’s worked, and Rick foolishly reaches for his glass and takes a mighty swig. Come on, sheriff. You should know better! Have you not seen The Princess Bride?

Despite suspicious evidence to the contrary, Guv apparently isn’t intent on poisoning Rick and instead capitalizes on his newly vulnerable state to finally offer a real negotiation. It’s a steep one, and timely. Guv unsheathes his injured eye to supplement the offer with a gruesome glimpse of his festering wound. The deal now on the table is Michonne, and nothing else. If Rick forks her over, Guv will let bygones be bygones, simple as that. Rick considers this option and posits the very real possibility Guv will hunt the rest of them down regardless. This plan, he tells Guv, is “beneath” someone like him with grander aspirations. Rick, of course, might not know Michonne didn’t just impale Guv’s eyeball with a shard of glass, but also shoved her katana through his daughter’s zombie brain. Guv allows Rick two days to make a decision, and with that, the meeting is over. So, that was…it? Apparently that was it.

Back at the prison, the gang has been passing the time trying to keep Merle from going rogue and assassinating Guv on his own. Glen insists on keeping their word to stay put until Rick’s return, and Michonne agrees. Merle tries to sway her by privately pointing out no one else in the group is the kind of killer needed to properly handle Guv. Michonne shuts him down again, citing such examples as the time Carl blew away his own mother. Doesn’t count, according to Merle. Mercy killings still come from the heart. He has a point, but what Merle may not realize is that the Governorpresence of emotion can be a bigger asset than pure sociopathic tendencies. Guv’s bloodthirst for Michonne, after all, is a direct result of her destroying the only connection to his wife and former existence. Even Merle’s irrationality and scuffle with Glen is rooted in an unconditional loyalty to Daryl. No one in Woodbury holds that kind of devotion to the Governor.

Even Milton begins to show signs of doubt when Guv admits he’ll lay waste to the whole prison group whether they sacrifice Michonne or not. Yeah, we thought so. Guv tells Milton he’s simply trying to avoid a slaughter, but as Milton can’t help but point out, “That is a slaughter.” Looks like Guv has finally crossed the dealbreaker line with both Milton and Andrea, and the two briefly acknowledge their mutual wake-up calls. Welcome back to reality, guys. There’s no electricity or espresso, but at least it’s honest.

Rick returns to inform the group he’s met with the Governor, but withholds the deal in play. He opts instead to tell them Guv’s main objective is to take over the prison at whatever cost, and war is inevitable. Once Rick can get Hershel in private, he explains the truth about Guv’s offer and intent. Hershel argues Michonne’s past examples of worthy behavior that solidify her position in the group, and Rick can’t help but agree. The problem is, he doesn’t need to be convinced of Michonne’s merits. “I’m hoping you can talk me out of it,” Rick explains, revealing he’s considering the deal despite overwhelming concern and precedent Guv will break his word. No matter what his decision, Rick had better figure it out long before the two-day deadline. After all, Guv is known for favoring the element of surprise.

“Arrow on the Doorpost” serves as a maddening example of the plot development snags with which Walking Dead has sabotaged itself in the past. The success of last week’s focused and compelling character study soared in comparison to the clunky presentation of Rick and Guv’s remarkably unproductive meeting, despite both episodes lacking in overall progress. Morgan offered his own sob story in the same climactic vein as Guv’s, but elicited far more sympathy and genuine pathos and carved new depths in the existing story arc. If Rick is the Bizarro Guv, perhaps his consideration of Michonne’s expendability serves as an example of his own tyrannical tendencies. In an episode rife with allusions to the importance and meaning of family, just what constitutes a dealbreaker for Rick?

Were you enraged or enthralled with this episode of The Walking Dead? Are you annoyed we already have confirmation Guv’s deal is bogus? Should the prison gang have let Merle go? Is Rick going to get everyone killed? Will Michonne catch wind of what’s up? Where do you think Guv worked before the apocalypse? Only three episodes left this season – sound off on all things Walking Dead in the comment section below!

Season 3, Episode 13: “Arrow on the Doorpost” (originally aired March 10, 2013)

The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC

Images courtesy of Gene Page and AMC

One Comment

  1. You’re right, it was slower and a lot talkier. But I stayed with it until Rick just quit negotiating. He was realistic and tough and called the Guv on the lack of any security guarantees after Michonne is given up. Then he folded. Left the one-sided proposal on the table. The obvious question for the Guv was, “If I give you Michonne, what believable, enforceable security do you give my group?” But nothing, nada. And then to tell Hershel that he is considering the non-deal? Unbelievable.

    I checked out then and there.

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