If it hadn’t been for the last five minutes, I would have written this episode off as largely uneventful, which would have been unfortunate for a show coming off its midseason premiere. Thankfully, the writers pulled out a classic last minute adrenaline rush of a plot twist, giving us all something to be excited about until next week.
First up on the list of things that would have been more boring if the episode ended quietly: Rick’s not-so-gradual descent into madness. Visions of Lori in a white dress (her wedding dress, perhaps?) draw him first to her grave and then outside the prison fences right from the start of the episode. He spends the entire episode out there, wandering among the trees with no regard for his safety or the safety of the rest of the group. I’m just glad they chose to focus on everyone else for the most part; it gets tiring following Rick around as he makes crazy eyes at the air and occasionally hallucinates his wife and best friend.
In Woodbury, things are intriguing, but not terribly exciting either. The Governor pays a visit to Andrea in which he compliments her speech-making skills and says of course they aren’t planning to retaliate against her friends at the prison (yeah, right). He goes on to explain that he needs a little time for himself after everything that just happened, and asks Andrea to take charge while he’s absent. I had hoped Andrea was smarter than this, but she seems to have little to no inkling that the Governor is up to something. Granted, this is less a fault of her character and more an endorsement of how deliciously manipulative the Governor is, but still, I had higher hopes for Andrea’s instincts.
The only plotline I was really interested in from the get-go was the Dixon brothers roaming the woods. I just find Daryl so interesting, and I’ve been waiting for the show to explore his relationship with Merle ever since that beautiful plot twist of his return. Daryl tries to convince Merle to come back to the prison with him, but in an offhand sort of manner so Merle doesn’t realize how much it matters to him. He even attempts to spit the same way as Merle, and falls far short of his older brother’s standards. I feel like that moment, silly as it may sound, really encapsulates the type of adoration Daryl had for his older brother: no matter what, he wanted to follow him, he wanted to be like him, and he wanted to impress him.
In the prison, Glenn and Carl are trying to map out the weak spots in the prison as preparation for the Governor’s inevitable counterstrike. Glenn goes so far as to suggest to Michonne that the two of them sneak back to Woodbury and end this themselves, but Hershel, ever the voice of reason, reminds them that it didn’t go so well last time when they had the element of surprise on their hands. He thinks they should pack up and leave, but Glenn is all about making a stand. He’s de facto leader with Rick and Daryl out of the picture, and it’s gone to his head. He’s not a leader figure, and he’s so pumped up with masculine rage over his own treatment and the treatment of his girlfriend that he can’t seem to think straight.
When Glenn and Carl return from the “tombs,” they only have bad news: walkers have retaken areas of the prison that they’d already cleared. It’s at this point that I realized Tyreese and his group have disappeared since last episode; they don’t resurface for the entirety of this episode, so where are they? I was under the impression that they were still somewhere in the prison, but someone please correct me if I’m wrong on that count (Editor’s note: According to AMC and showrunner Glen Mazzara, Tyreese’s group did leave the prison after Herschel yelled for them to get out when Rick was shouting at the air. No word on when or if they’ll return).
Glenn tries to recruit Maggie to join him in scouting the far side of the prison to see what’s up with the structural issue allowing walkers back in, but she’s tucked away in her bed, dwelling on her experience at Woodbury, I assume. She’s snappy with Glenn, and ends up angrily recounting her experience with the Governor, ending with the assurance that no, he did not rape her. I guess there hadn’t been time for her to mention that to Glenn earlier, because he acted like this is genuinely news to him. She ends up physically forcing him out of her cell, and I’m having trouble sorting out her actions. Yes, she was absolutely violated by the Governor even if it didn’t go so far as rape, but she seems disproportionately furious with Glenn. Maybe it’s just misplacement, but in any case, I hope there’s time to explore this issue with more clarity in future episodes.
In Woodbury, the Governor has a similar conversation with Milton that he had just had with Andrea. He doesn’t ask Milton to take over for him or anything, but he does reiterate that they’re really friends and then asks him to keep an eye on Andrea for him. The Governor heavily implies that she had something to do with her friends breaking into the town, an attitude that seems to have spread to the guards on the wall: when Andrea asks one where the Governor is, she only gets icy non-replies. She even gets the brush-off from Milton, who can only say that he went on a supply run of some sort. At least Andrea has the good sense to look more suspicious this time.
Back at the prison, Carol and Axel are busy starting to fortify the place, and we get someone’s first real conversation with Axel that lasts for more than ten seconds. Turns out he robbed a convenience store with a water gun in his pocket, but the police ended up busting him for his brother’s weapon for armed robbery. It’s nice to get a little backstory on him for once (in hindsight, this should have been the first indication of things to come), and he makes Carol smile in a way she hasn’t since Daryl left. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t hoping they’d get together in the slightest; I just like when Carol is happy. She deserves these moments after all she went through last season with Sophia going missing.
The Dixons, meanwhile, stumble upon a group of four (well, three adults and a baby) fighting off a whole lot of walkers on a bridge. Merle would have left them, but Daryl springs into action immediately, and kicks a whole lot of walker ass with his trusty crossbow and then his knife. Merle joins in, a little more reluctantly, and helps take down a few zombies. In the zombie kill of the week, Daryl hauls a walker out of the station wagon where the woman and her baby are trapped and slams its head in the rear door. It was simultaneously gross and totally awesome, which I think is the only way to describe this show sometimes.
Merle tries to help himself to a reward from their car, taking full advantage of the fact that these folks only speak Spanish and don’t understand him, but Daryl stops him. The small group heads off to meet their fate in their station wagon, and Merle and Daryl fall to fighting amongst themselves. The real problem is that there’s now a fundamental divide between them: Daryl is officially on the side of Rick and the others and Merle is not.
The even deeper problem that comes out is Daryl’s resentment over Merle leaving when he was a kid. When they get into a physical altercation, Merle rips the back of Daryl’s shirt, revealing scars from where their dad beat him as a kid. Merle abandoned him to that treatment, and Daryl never got over it. I always wanted more Dixon backstory, and now we finally have some real emotionally-fraught backstory. Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker deserve so much credit for this scene; they walk the line of too-tough-for-feelings and incredibly wounded by each other perfectly. And when Daryl turns to leave with tears in his voice, correcting Merle about Glenn’s ethnicity? It’s not like I needed my emotions to be in check tonight or anything.
Anyway, all my Daryl feelings aside, I thought that scene was going to be the sole highlight of the episode. It’s still a great scene, and definitely an episode high point, but thankfully a lot more ended up going on. First, Hershel hobbled his way all the way down to the fence to try to talk to Rick, and Andrew Lincoln does a beautiful job of being wild-eyed and slightly incoherent as Rick tries to explain his visions. Axel and Carol are in the middle of what was shaping up to be another relatively heartwarming conversation when suddenly he’s shot through the head. Axel gets shot through the head halfway through a sentence. That woke everyone up who zoned out during Hershel and Rick’s conversation!
Of course, it’s the Governor wielding the gun, and he and a couple of his compatriots open fire on the prison yard. They even have one person up on a guard tower—who was supposed to be watching for this sort of thing? Everyone ducks for cover (Carol has to hide behind Axel’s body, how traumatic would that be?) and Maggie finally runs out with some weapons for them to fight back with.
The even bigger twist came when an unmarked van smashed its way through the prison gates and parked ominously in the middle of the yard. Surprise, it’s the walker version of the Trojan horse: a whole group of them pour out of the back, right at poor stranded Hershel, though thankfully everyone gets them under enough control for Glenn to come back in his truck and pick Hershel up. Glenn is too late for the real fight (You had one job, Glenn! Leaders should probably be there for the firefights), but at least he can help get Hershel away from the walkers. Seriously, guys, I don’t know what I’d do if Hershel died for real, I’ve gotten very attached to his wise grandfatherly self over the course of the season.
Rick, who’s almost walker food out there beyond the fence, is saved by Daryl and Merle, who proceed to kick walker ass per usual to help him out. Merle chuckles darkly when they’ve finished, which probably isn’t helping his case with Rick, and the episode closes on Rick’s wild eyes staring at the walker-filled expanse between them and the rest of the group within the prison.
The last five minutes were by far the most exciting part of the entire episode. Two and a half seasons in, and I’m still impressed by the writers’ abilities to pull off a crazy twist right at the end. There’s a lot of implications to deal with here, including Merle’s return, how to deal with the Governor going forward, and all the new walkers in the prison. I can only hope Tyreese’s group gets more screen time next week; it’s starting to look like Rick’s group will really need them if the Governor comes back.