Finally we begin the downward slope of this season’s arc. Throughout this third season of “The Walking Dead,” we’ve seen these two disparate groups demonstrate their similarities and their differences, we’ve seen their leaders rise and fall, their lieutenants fight for their position and standing, and their supporters break away and hold fast. And it’s been part of the inexorable march towards the final conflict. That there would be such a conflict was never in doubt; the only question was where it would start, and who would start it.
The problem, of course, is that the show has stumbled a few times en route to this battle, and this episode, while overall a decent one, was not without its share of stumbles. The glaring one, of course, is Rick’s mental breakdown and hallucinatory trip to Crazytown. Now, I’ll say this for Andrew Lincoln — he’s acting his ass off for these sequences. But they’re so hammily presented, and with such obvious intent, that it detracts from what could be a solid character development tool. Instead, he’s staggering around on some sort of sweaty, deep-woods vision quest, where he knows how damn crazy he’s become, and yet continues with the crazy. That self-awareness and the ensuing lack of subtlety make the entire affair less affecting and more annoying.
Of course, that entire plot thread is merely the justification for a couple of other ones to slowly begin to move and re-solidify. Perhaps one of the more unusual stories and journeys has been Glenn’s, and this week was another solid performance from Steven Yuen. He’s got a lot going on right now, and the exploration of both his difficulty understanding how to lead as well as his insecurities regarding Maggie and her experiences at Woodbury were surprisingly astute. There’s a certain prurience to his rage, something bordering on a twisted kind of jealousy that is awful and stomach-turning, yet also very human, and Glenn is teetering on that edge. While I wasn’t crazy about the moments of silent treatment from Maggie, her eventual confrontation with Glenn, an unflinching staredown that was equal parts sadness, anger and bitter disappointment, was another solid turn by Lauren Cohen.
There were other pieces to this week’s puzzle that were completely and utterly predictable, some of which were enjoyable in spite of that, and some of which were simply tedious. Daryl and Merle’s adventure — was there ever any doubt as to how it was going to end? I suppose the only x-factor was whether or not Merle would live or die, but frankly Michael Rooker’s performances have been too deliciously psychotic to let go of quite yet. Whether or not that will result in a successful redemptive arc — and whether or not that’s even something we’d want — remains to be seen. Merle’s been quite successful as one of the darker grays of the moral spectrum of “The Walking Dead,” and I’m not certain he isn’t better avoiding the side of the better angels. Yet there’s a newfound joy in watching Daryl and Merle 2.0, now that Daryl has established himself as a wholly realized character with a strong moral code and sense of compassion, and watching the interplay between them was rather fun.
What was decidedly not fun was, of course, Andrea, who continues to be weakly written, ineffectual, and tedious. She continues to be nothing more than a sap, a sucker, a lazily constructed character who exists primarily as an opportunity to demonstrate the conniving nature of The Governor. Now, on the one hand that’s fine — because David Morrissey had yet another excellent episode, showing all of his myriad faces throughout the episode — the manipulative bully when dealing with the spineless Milton, the smooth-talking operator when dealing with Andrea, and the psychopathic lunatic when storming the prison. Yet Andrea’s continued, pathetic dependency and gullibility has exited the land of pathetic and is now flat-out stupid. So while she serves as an excellent prop for Morrissey to act around, she’s become the character I’d most like to see get a zombie to the face.
Overall, the episode was one that I enjoyed as long as I don’t think about it too deeply. It was fairly gripping, well-paced, and the episode’s climax was a balls-out doozy replete with extended gun battles and zombies-as-crowd-control. But if I think about it too deeply, then we’re forced to begin to contemplate the ones left behind. The stories that didn’t get told. And when that happens, things start to come apart. I felt a little pang at the death of Axel, another secondary character slain in the name of emotional manipulation. It’s typical “Walking Dead” — give us a little nugget, a little moment where a character becomes just interesting enough, just charming enough, to make us feel that pang when he abruptly dies. Then there’s Beth, who lives but is little more than the pretty white girl version of T-Dog, a barely-realized background character who pops up periodically simply to remind us of her existence.
But the two most egregiously insulting plot lines for this week belong to Michonne and Tyrese. For Michonne, I’m starting to think that the writers feel that if they simply have a black woman who kicks a lot of ass, that’s somehow enlightened of them, regardless of the fact that she is utterly devoid of personality or charisma. Michonne glowers and cuts zombies up, and then even when she finds someone who agrees with her (Glenn, this time around), she still just glowers. She has about as much depth and intensity as the sword trapped to her back — she’s beautiful, deadly, and completely inert when not engaged in violence. As for Tyrese? His insult was in some ways worse, for despite an episode that focused on smaller character vignettes and digging into each character’s persona, Tyrese and his crew were literally completely ignored, as if they randomly ceased to exist for a day. Sometimes, I think “The Walking Dead” should just kill off 50 percent of the cast and focus on no more than 7 or 8 people, because working with any larger a group is too steep a hill for the writers to climb.
“Home” was an episode that was relatively solid, with a couple of goofy missteps that built up to an absolutely riveting climax, even if the road to that climax felt forced at times. This arc that has been building all season long is finally on the downward slope, with the differences between the groups having solidified and the battle lines being drawn. The show continues to stagger under the weight of its own ambitions, yet it keeps us drawn in as well because what it does well, it does so well. If there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s that “The Walking Dead” does conflict and bloodshed well, and as such these final episodes have great promise. If the show could only learn how to fully realize each character, it could make this season’s sure-to-be-bloody end that much more satisfying.