If ever there was an episode that perfectly — perfectly — demonstrated everything that is both right and wrong with “The Walking Dead,” it was the eighth episode and mid-season finale, “Made To Suffer.” The good news is that the positivesfar outweighed the negatives. It was a gripping, tension filled episode that featured several things that we simply have never seen before in the show. It featured new characters, new problems, new conflicts. As for the bad… we’ll get to that too.
But first, the good. What I found so engrossing about the episode was that it reflected a new sense of purpose for Rick and company. There was a determination, a harsh and unyielding drive that possessed the group, and they are stronger and better for it. The search for Maggie and Glenn was harrowing and almost exhaustingly tension-filled. From their quick and brutal submission when they were hiding out in someone’s house to their daring, flash-bang rescue, it was all a gripping, riveting affair. Part of what made it so satisfying was that same group dynamic that we’d seen in the first episode coming into play. This group is experienced and now knows how to work together, playing off each other’s strengths, and as such the action was coordinated and fluid, even in its most desperate moments. All the while, in the back of our minds, we’re playing out the confusion that must be pounding inside the head of Daryl — realizing that not only is his brother alive, but that he may well be the enemy. And Rick, to his credit, had another moment of true leadership, forcing Daryl to make the right choice then and there, regardless of familial bonds, because the truth is that his family has changed, blood or not. Although with that ending, who knows what the future would bring.
Confession: I’ve always maintained that if this show really wanted to show some balls, they should kill off Daryl. Much as I love the character, it would be an absolutely beautifully devastating blow. Killing off Laurie, T-Dog, Shane, Dale? In the grand scheme of things, not actually that risky a play. They were all either unpopular or irrelevant. Killing off Daryl, though… now that would be something.
But I digress.
But this was also something different. This wasn’t a hack-and-slash your way through a herd of zombies. It wasn’t a fistfight or a couple of shots being exchanged. This was a battle, a war fought viciously and desperately. This same sense of furious, no-holds-barred violence was on full display for the brawl between The Governor and Michonne. What made the scene so effective was what happened before — early on, the scene with The Governor and Penny was one of the most awful, beautiful, twisted, tragic things we’ve seen. However hideous a person he is and has become, one couldn’t help but feel something there. It was perverse and insane and yet — and yet — in the pit of my stomach, that scene was one of the tougher ones.
But it was that scene that demonstrated the stakes of Michonne and The Governor’s fight. The final ending of Penny flipped a switch in him, and his rage was something frightening to behold. It was a unrelenting, frenzied fight, using any and all means. No one was trying to escape, no one was trying to subdue or capture. This was two people hell bent on killing each other with their bare hands, an ugly, wordless, bloody brawl that evoked a visceral, stunned reaction. There are many faults with Michonne’s depiction (we’ll get there), but the brutality of this scene showed us fully the physicality and power of character. And the glass through the eye — I’ll admit it, it got a “holy shit!” out of me.
Yet in some ways the most intriguing part was the introduction of Tyrese (Chad Coleman) and his brave, terrified companions. This particular sequence was excellent for a variety of reasons. Their chase in the woods was a tense, tragic setup, and then the discovery of the prison was actually pretty thrilling — the injection of new blood is always welcome. But what made it most impressive was, yet again, Chandler Riggs just running away with Carl, handling himself with a sad, burdensome maturity that goes both recognized and respected by Tyrese. The lockdown of the newest players was one of the more emotionally powerful scenes in the show.
That said, the other great scene at the prison was with Carol, newly confident and 1000% more interesting Carol, patiently lecturing Axle, the suddenly unpleasantly creepy hillbilly. Kudos to Melissa McBride for patiently waiting it out with her character and finally having a chance to flex a little acting muscle.
But. And the “but” is a sizable one here, folks. First of all, I’m stunned at how quickly my prediction would come to pass. I figured Oscar would last at least two more episodes after the introduction of Tyrese. But no, apparently “The Walking Dead” is incapable of having two black male characters at any given moment, and so this week, Oscar was lost in the firefight in Woodbury. It would be funny if it wasn’t so absolutely ridiculous.
But more so, is the dilemma of Michonne. This episode featured some of the best Michonne has had to offer, but honestly? From a writing and characterization standpoint, it’s simply not enough. There were two critical moments — and I do mean critical moments — where the writing completely and utterly fucking failed this week, and they both involved Michonne. First, her silent and inexplicable vanishing when the group arrived at Woodbury. It’s stupid, it’s dangerous, and it’s annoying as all hell. I get that she has a personal vendetta, but it was still another instance of forced dramatization, a boneheaded decision that seems uncharacteristic of a survivor like her. The second is after the fight with The Governor, and her confrontation with Andrea. “He tried to kill me, Andrea.” “He keeps a zombie daughter.” “I’m here with friends.” There are a dozen things she could have said that would have defused the situation. Yet instead, it was cryptic silence, and then disappearing.
And I know, you guys. I know that you can explain it away. We can chalk it up to the stress and difficulty of the situation, we can allow for the seriousness of her vendetta against the Governor. But at some point we have to realize that in the past eight episodes of television, the poorest decision-making has consistently been by Michonne. This is not because they’ve written a complex and unusual character. It is, unfortunately, simply bad writing. Bad writing that is all the more baffling considering how good virtually every other second of this episode was.
And now, a break. “The Walking Dead” won’t return until February, and unlike last season, I’m sorry to see it go this time around. The shows few flaws are becoming more and more glaring, yet at the same time the show as a whole has become so much better, so much smarter and more nuanced and more tragic and terrifying. “The Walking Dead” has finally found its way, and despite some frustrating, disappointing issues that cannot and should not be ignored, issues that extend beyond bad writing and into some genuine sociological questions — in spite of those things, there is a show worth watching here. And fortunately, a show worth waiting for.
See you guys next year.