At last, we return to the world of “The Walking Dead.” A million years ago, when season three broke, it left us hanging in the most terrible of ways, with lives in the balance and revelations left and right. In spite of some of the show’s awful missteps when it comes to race and gender, this season has been a powerhouse, and we were left wanting more. With “The Suicide King,” the ninth episode and mid-season premiere, we got more and then some.
There was certainly action to be had in this episode, though it was sparing — short and brutal was the game of the night. In fact, the action was the game of the night, the Thunderdome-esque madness of the Governor revealed as he pitted brother against brother in his own twisted gladiatorial games brought to life. Yet it wasn’t those games that were the most disturbing as much as it was the twisted bloodlust of the slavering denizens of Woodbury, a group of people living in such secluded isolation that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be real human beings. Their shell of protection, and the resulting devotion to the Governor, has made them fools to his madness, and it was made clear in the opening sequence. Yet even more intense and brutal was the daring rescue by Rick and company, replete with Maggie sharp-shooting their way to freedom and Merle showing that despite all of his psychoses, he truly is his brother’s keeper. And perhaps what made this episode so riveting, so smartly executed was how all of these moments from the first five minutes would come into play for the remaining fifty-five.
This was an episode fraught with subtext, and the strongest theme flowing through it was that of family. In this new nightmare that our survivors scratch their way through, family has become something brand new, less defined by blood and more defined by common cause, and yet in the end, sometimes the blood still won out. Perhaps the greatest shock of the episode came the earliest, when Daryl abandoned the group in order to stay with Merle. It was a stunning, poignantly rendered moment, made all the more gripping by the desperation of Rick and Glenn as they tried everything to make him stay, yet also refused to yield (rightfully so) on the issue of Merle. One of the refreshing things is that this was one of those great moments where the decision-making processes made sense, even when they infuriated you. Daryl’s leaving with Merle was disappointing, but did we really think it would go the other way? Carol, in a moment that rounded out her character and provided it with some much-needed depth, explained it perfectly in her quiet little conversation with Beth. It’s not just family… it’s that a man like that gets in your head.
Yet the idea of getting into someone’s head wasn’t restricted to Merle and Daryl, either. Glenn was another one who is beginning to crack under the pressure, and his explosive confrontation with Rick was not only powerful and affecting, but also in some ways necessary for Glenn to grow as a character. He’s always been a favorite, but he’s also always been a little too easy to go along and get along. Yet now the stakes for Glenn have changed, and he’s having difficulty dealing with it after living through the horrors of the Governor’s not-so-gentle stewardship, particularly after witnessing their treatment of Maggie. Everything changes when the ones you love are threatened, when you’re part of a family, and his raw, nerve-rattled, unfocused fury at Rick was in many ways the perfect reaction when dealing with something new and terrifying, because just as you fear for the ones you love, sometimes you lash out at them in your weakest moments.
Back at the prison, there was a whole other kettle brewing — perhaps not as intense, but certainly still engaging. Herschel is being given some truly solid dialogue this season, after season two’s boring collection of pithy wise councilor pablum. There’s still an element of the wise elder trope to him, but it’s grounded in a revitalized sense of realism that makes the character more whole. He’s not just there to deliver platitudes, and his role in dealing with Tyrese’s group shows that. Not just in how he showed them kindness, but also in his unflinching willingness to isolate them (which also showed an ominous element lurking within Tyrese’s companions). He also brought the torment of Glenn and Maggie down to earth in a believable and relatable fashion.
Tyrese himself is proving to be an interesting character who will hopefully take up a larger role as the show progresses. There’s a quiet, patient strength that Chad Coleman brings to the character, a weariness coupled with dedication that makes for a leader who is potentially the equal of Rick. His handling of his too oddly and surprisingly sinister companions was solid character-building, and bodes well for the future. Which is just as well, because clearly Rick Grimes is coming apart at the seams. The progression seemed abrupt in some ways, yet Hershel’s comment on his lack of sleep and his hallucinatory phone calls from a prior episode all lead to a meltdown of possibly epic proportions at a time when things could not be worse, and when the group could not be more vulnerable.
That’s not to say that things in Woodbury are copacetic. Their leader is going through his own brand of meltdown, though one that’s scarier in its own right. David Morrisey continues to impress and terrify, from his opening, dead-eyed stare into the the face of chaos during the escape, to him completely shutting down and abandoning any pretense of the gentle leader, while also eschewing responsibility he has for how dependent and desperate his townspeople have become. They’re complacent because of the lies he’s told them, and the blood on his hands that he’s hid from them, and when the wheels start to come off, he begins to lash out in a vicious, inchoate fashion, as if he’s wholly unprepared for the possible destruction of the world he’s built. Once the ship begins to sink, and they start to try to abandon, he simply tunes them out. It’s amazing to watch. Andrea, on the other hand, continues to be underwritten and disappointing. Despite a couple of strong moments where she tries to keep the townspeople together (the same ones crying for her friend’s blood the night before, mind you), she’s still a mess of a character, pouting and resorting to “don’t shut me out” lines that are far too derivative and cliche for moments like these.
And then, there was Michonne. Stupid, stubborn, silent Michonne. I just can’t, you guys. I can’t right now with her. How are you supposed to be affected by a character who is given next to nothing to say?
Despite a couple of conventional missteps, “The Suicide King” was a strong return to this season’s form, one where there was surprisingly little action, and yet a great deal happened. Because the truth was, after that opening salvo of blood and smoke and bullets and brutality, this episode was less about the the arterial spray of zombie-related chaos, and rather more about the bonds of family and friends, and the lines drawn by blood. This was a period where we dug a little deeper into each character, and with a couple of exceptions aside, each character came out the better for it.