If the first half of the Walking Dead’s third season was about defining morality as care for your group, the midseason premiere took a step back to ask “what makes you part of the group?” In both the prison and Woodbury, the consequences of war shook the foundations of group structure, revealing seemingly unbreakable bonds to be fragile and calling into question the leadership structures everyone had been taking for granted.
The episode picks up right where the midseason finale left off, with Darryl and Merle set to fight for their lives and Woodbury’s amusement. The Governor’s decision to pit the brothers against each other gives Merle an opportunity to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a Woodbury man. Reassuring whispers to Darryl aside, it’s not clear whether he would have committed fratricide in a bid to rejoin the Governor’s team had it not been for Rick, Maggie, and Glenn’s assault weapon-equipped intervention.
But it turns out the Prison Expeditionary Force’s efforts were for naught. A rescued Merle proves as poisonous as he was in Season One — his racism reemerges, asking Darryl if he had “gone native” when he sees Michonne with the group, and he sets about spilling everyone’s Woodbury secrets (Andrea is there!) in the fashion most likely to set off a civil war. Rick, rightly recognizing the threat to be too grave, kicks Merle to the curb, but loses Darryl in the process. That Darryl won’t abandon the brother who almost killed him for the group that saved his life shows just how circumstantial the group bonds are. Blood trumps from the moment, though it seems from the preview that Darryl and Merle won’t be having an easy time of it alone in the walker-infested wilderness.
Back at the prison, Carol greets Darryl’s decision like a death (“He’s gone? He’s gone?”) It wasn’t just their cute, ongoing flirtation — Carol saw him as a kindred abused soul, damaged and controlled by Merle in the same way she was by her late, unlamented husband Ed. “Men like Merle get into your head,” she says. “If Ed walked through that door right now, breathing, and told me to go with him, I’d like to think I’d tell him to go to hell.” For Carol, Darryl’s decision makes her question whether her new family’s connection is strong enough to help her past the mental shackles put up by domestic abuse.
Tyrese and his group have a less introspective dilemma, locked away by strange, seemingly unstable people. There’s a beautiful scene of what looks like Tyrese and co. bonding with Hershel, only to end with Carl locking the door on what’s revealed to be the visitors’ cage. These four battered survivors, who increasingly resemble a “darkest timeline” mirror to Rick’s group, recognize how precarious their situation is. Two start advocating for armed revolution, but Tyrese won’t hear of it. “It’s survival of the fittest,” they say, but Tyrese simply says “this isn’t what we do.” Tyrese may be the last man on Earth whose moral code hasn’t been warped by the apocalypse, seeing his group as only a part of humanity rather than the only part worth saving.
So when Rick denies his bid to join the broader prison group in spite of Hershel’s advice, it stings. But it’s increasingly unclear how much sway Rick’s decisions hold anymore, as he collapses into hallucination-induced ramblings in the midst of the confrontation. Together with his earlier “phantom voices on the phone” episode, his vision of (presumably) Lori on the balcony suggests a growing break with reality that might require a reassessment of his role as group leader.
A similar reassessment is already underway in Woodbury, where an icily furious Governor broods in his office, refusing to take control of an increasingly terrified, anarchic population. So Andrea steps into the void, delivering an impassioned impromptu speech about Woodbury as a communal and moral ideal that seems to unite the residents. As the Governor, who just moments ago had dismissed “a visitor here, just passing through,” looks on, it seems as if he’s starting to see her a partner, the needed velvet glove for his hardening fist. As in the prison, the stage in Woodbury is set for big changes, with potentially explosive consequences as the conflict between the groups deepens.