Review: 'The Walking Dead' - 'Arrow on the Doorpost': A drink before the war
A review of tonight's "The Walking Dead" coming up just as soon as I bring my butler...
Often with serial television, there's a debate over which is more important: the journey or the destination? "The Shield" (where Glen Mazzara used to work) was a show with a memorable journey, but what ultimately elevated it was where the story finished up. "Lost" (which Mazzara talks often about admiring) is a show where the final destination angered many, but where others could fall back on how much fun they had along the way.
With "The Walking Dead," on the other hand, I'm finding myself oddly more interested in the detours than anything else.
I found last week's "Clear" to be probably the show's best episode since the pilot. It was an hour that had precious little to do with the arc of season 3 — any excuse at any point in the series could have been used to send Rick back to his hometown to run into Morgan again — but the character stories it told and the sense of creeping dread throughout had me much more engaged than I've been lately by the impending war between the prison and Woodbury.
"Arrow on the Doorpost" is an episode that's even talkier and more contemplative than "Clear," which had several action scenes compared to essentially one here. (And this one was treated mainly as an excuse for Daryl and Martinez to bond; there was never meant to be any sense that the characters were in danger.) There's tension throughout — Can Rick and the Governor broker a peace? Will the Governor pull that gun he has taped to the table and just put a bullet between Rick's eyes? Will Merle show up with a duffel full of guns and make everything worse? — but it's constructed as an opportunity for our hero and his chief antagonist to spend their first real time together before the killing resumes.
And it mainly made me realize how little I care about the Governor, because I kept wishing the episode was taking place primarily outside the parley room. When we got a few minutes with Martinez (a complete non-entity before this episode) being human and reflecting on who he was before the plague (and complaining about Daryl's choice of cigarette), or Milton interviewing Hershel for his history of early post-apocalyptic life, I was engaged and entertained. I even enjoyed Andrea realizing she's a woman without a country; as with the way Lori was written in the episodes leading up to her death, it was a case of the show acknowledging that they had sent a character down a path where most of the audience had grown to hate her.(*)
(*) It's a useful trick, but a better one for the long-term creative health of the show would be to take these characters off that path long before they reach the point where they have to be ostracized by their peers to reflect the feelings of the viewers.
The Governor, though, feels like a character the show still doesn't entirely have a handle on, even in his 10th episode as part of the series. At times, he's held up as someone who's simply approaching the apocalypse differently from Rick — and who, based on the relative health of Woodbury, might have the right idea. And then there are other times where he's just a two-dimensional villain, with an added layer of crazy to make sure we don't start rooting for him ahead of Rick. Shane suffered from this kind of inconsistent characterization, too: some weeks, you were meant to question whether he had the right idea about things and Rick was too stuck on the days gone bye, while in other episodes, he was just a glowering bully looking to take what he felt was his. David Morrissey's doing the best that he can to weave these two sides of the character into a cohesive whole, but it's not really working.
"Arrow on the Doorpost" spends a lot of time trying to draw parallels between Rick and the Governor — notably how each man lost his wife without having a chance for one final conversation — but even though Rick is crazier and colder than he used to be, he's still not at the level of the many things we've seen the Governor do (or, in this episode, plan to do). Last week, Rick didn't save the hitchhiker, but nor did he kill the guy just so he could take his pack. It's a minor distinction to the hitchhiker, but a major one for those of us with a global view of the show.
And now this season's endgame hinges on Michonne, who's also been a cipher for much of the season, albeit better integrated these last few weeks. It's possible the remaining episodes will bring back the momentum of the fall installments, but "Arrow on the Doorpost" and "Clear" keep leading me to imagine alternate versions of the series (albeit ones that will never exist so long as the ratings are this enormous), whether a Morgan-centric story or simply a zombie apocalypse anthology offering very different kinds of stories set in the same universe — one where, for a week, someone like Milton can be the most important character, rather than an accent to the Rick/Governor showdown that's supposed to be the most compelling part of the season.
Some other thoughts:
* The zombie apocalypse doesn't lend itself particularly well to prolonged sex scenes, but we got one between a reconciled Glen and Maggie. (And it was preceded by a darkly funny joke about how Glen can't have sex with the walkers leering at them.) Was I the only one, though, who spent that entire sequence waiting for some kind of attack (be it by walkers or by the Governor's forces) to happen while nobody was on watch?
* On the streaming screener, I didn't get a very good look at whatever prosthetic they duct taped to Hershel's leg so he could walk and drive the car. Anyone get a better sense of what they rigged it out of?
* Last week, several of you said it looked like Rick and Michonne wound up taking several bags of guns from Morgan's stash, and that was clearly correct based on the arsenal set up in the prison common room.
Once again, let me remind you again of this blog's No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I've had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:
1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.
2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources — and, yes, that includes anything Mazzara and Kirkman have said in interviews.
3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with "Game of Thrones," the goal is to treat "The Walking Dead" TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com