This post discusses plot points from the March 17 episode of The Walking Dead.
What a mess.
While the last two weeks of The Walking Dead saw the show restored to the first half of the season’s strength, this Sunday’s offering (“Prey”) was a giant leap backwards, marking the worst episode to date of the already-uneven post-break batch. But “Prey” was, at least, a clarifying failure. The episode was a case study in how a show loses dramatic force when it forgets its thematic core — a problem that became clear during the Governor’s full-on slasher turn Sunday night.
Let me first back up and run through what, thematically speaking, made The Walking Dead‘s best moments tick. Back in Season One, and in this season’s exceptional “Clear,” it was existential horror. The show’s harshly bright aesthetic, shot through with haunting images, hammered home the sheer terror of being alone (or nearly alone) in a world newly become alien and dangerous. The central antagonists weren’t, properly speaking, characters: herds of walkers, the need for scarce supplies like food and clean water, and psychologically coping with a scary, dirty, and uncertain way of life constituted the core challenges for the crew of survivors.
At the beginning of Season 3, the show broke firmly with that approach, backgrounding the zombie apocalypse and placing the problem of internecine human warfare in a world without a central authority front and center. It was, at first, a well executed switch — it forced the characters to confront basic moral dilemmas (like “who should we care for?”) and develop what is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign policy. The Walking Dead episodes that succeeded here were less about individualized terror, and more about the moral and political challenges people face when attempting to create a stable social order out of whole cloth.
The Governor was the key to executing this thematic shift. He was the show’s first villain in the most classic sense (no, Merle and Shane don’t count), but what made him so effective is that it wasn’t always obvious that he was “evil” in a similarly traditional fashion. Sure, the Governor was always a brutal, authoritarian, but before the mid-season break, it was possible to read his actions (save one) as rational responses to an irrational world. Killing everyone who could pose a threat to your group is an extreme, but not necessarily crazy, response to the fact that you can’t trust others to remain peaceful. His authoritarian decision-making procedure can be seen as the extension of Rick’s “this isn’t a democracy” declaration to a larger community. The challenge to Rick’s group (and the viewers) was to make the case that there was, in fact, something morally wrong with the Governor and to develop the appropriate response to the political challenge he poses.
Which is why last night’s episode was such a total disappointment. The Governor’s long slide away from sanity after his midseason battle with Michonne culminated in a Jason Vorhees-style hunt for an escaping Andrea. He even chased her around a dark room with an improvised-but-scary weapon (a shovel rather than a chainsaw, if you’re keeping score). The scene was shot, scored, and acted precisely like the climax of a slasher flick: Andrea ran around and tried not to make noise while the Governor growled chilling threats and clanked his shovel against shelves to make that unnerving “clink-clink-clink” noise psycho-killers appear to be so fond of. It ended with Andrea tied up in the Governor’s torture dungeon, built at the beginning of the episode to hold Michonne.
It was textbook horror — and a total failure. The Governor becoming an archetypal serial killer takes all of the challenge out of him; instead of a world where the right thing to do was hard to discern and the outcome uncertain, we’re now in a world where the Governor simply must be killed. The “hard” moral choice set up in last week’s episode — trade the Governor Michonne for peace — is now fully deflated. You can’t negotiate with Charles Manson or reach a political “modus vivendi” with him. Flattening the stakes for Rick and co. into kill-or-be-tortured-to-death pulls the thematic rug out from under the show; what else is there to say but “I hope they get the bastard!”
The quote in this post’s title isn’t, as per usual, from this Sunday’s episode. It’s from a promo for this week’s installment of the surprisingly popular Talking Dead panel — “he’s a terrible monster” was one of the panelists’ description of the Governor. His point seemed to be that the Governor is evil, but it betrayed a brilliant, seemingly unintentional double meaning: the Governor, as a character, makes a truly terrible monster.