Building on the frenetic pace of the first half of its third season, the midseason finale of The Walking Dead followed the same breakneck pace that has kept the audience on the edge of its collective seat since October. Leaving viewers little time to catch their breath, this episode featured the incursion into Woodbury by Rick and his splinter group, as well as the first face-to-face meeting between Daryl and Merle since they were separated early in the first season.
The good news is that Glenn and Maggie were rescued, although Oscar was shot and killed in the process. The bad news is that the group lost Daryl and seriously pissed off the Governor, the fallout of which will have a huge impact on our favorite prison gang when the show returns in February. More than ever, the midseason finale emphasized how crazy the show has become without sacrificing the grounded real-world quality or going too far over the top.
A perfect example of the show striking that perfect balance was the Governor's final scene with his zombie daughter Penny. Desperate to discover that the soulless monster chained up in his closet still retained some semblance of his daughter's consciousness, he had his hopes dashed again when he realized that she was calming down because she was gazing at some meat on the table. (At least, I assume it was meat, because it was kind of red and for some reason, this show looks awful on my HD TV since our cable company only carries standard-definition AMC. At times, the picture looks like someone smeared vaseline on the camera lens.)
Screaming "Look at me!", his frustrated plea had a sad tone that was present again later in the episode when Michonne found Penny and he begged her not to hurt his little girl. Despite a growing relationship with Andrea, the Governor's last vestige of humanity was Penny and the hope that she could be cured. When Michonne slid her sword through the young biter's neck and gouged his eye out, she also severed his psychological tethers, which were clearly rather tenuous to begin with. The emotion behind David Morrissey's sympathetic portrayal of this character made these scenes as tragic as they were disturbing.
I often wonder how the character would have played out if we hadn't witnessed the scene in Episode 3 where the Governor and his henchmen assassinated the military unit, instead leaving it as an open-ended mystery with Michonne finding the blood and bullet holes. Ignoring that scene, the television iteration of the Governor really wasn't that bad of a guy up until a week or two ago, albeit eccentric with his daughter's undead corpse in the closet and aquariums full of zombie heads. There are somewhat rational, reasonable explanations for why he would keep his daughter and stare at the heads, and it remains to be seen if Andrea will accept his explanation that he was trying to desensitize himself to the horrors outside the walls of Woodbury. Although Andrea basically saved his life by showing up and pulling a gun on Michonne, she should start to realize that there is more to her new beau than meets the eye.
The fight between Michonne and the Governor was a hard-hitting, knock-down drag-out slobberknocker that served to amplify their issue and advance their rivalry to the next level. Immediately following the final death of his daughter, the Gov had completely snapped and I enjoyed his tactic of smashing the aquariums and trying to feed Michonne to the chomping heads. When Andrea stopped her assault and allowed her to leave at gunpoint, the look on Michonne's face was a mixture of sadness and disgust that Andrea would side with the Governor despite their time together. Right now, Andrea doesn't know that Glenn and Maggie were held hostage or that Rick was involved in the attack, so her reaction was believable considering the secrets she doesn't know.
Also of note were the tense and exciting shootout scenes in Woodbury, including Rick's hallucination that a bearded Shane was the one who shot Oscar. Even after shooting the man, Rick had to inspect the body to make sure it wasn't Shane, indicating that his mental state still isn't up to par. Jon Bernthal returned to reprise his role for the brief scene and had a beard because he was shooting a film at the time, but it actually worked and showed that Rick wasn't quite cured of his psychological afflictions.
While fans have been creating their own scenarios for the Dixon brother reunion over the past couple of years, assuming that either Merle or Daryl would be forced to make a choice, the way that the show finally brought them back together was a clever swerve that fell perfectly into place by the end of the episode. Merle's lie about killing Michonne a couple of episodes ago came back to haunt him, as the traumatized Governor held him responsible for the invasion and publicly branded him a "terrorist" before depositing him in the gladiator arena to square off against Daryl. That was a hell of a cliffhanger and ensures that the next two months will provide the longest wait ever to find out what happens next.
Can the two brothers unite and escape from this dire situation, possibly with help from Rick and his crew? Even if that were to happen, how could Merle co-exist with Rick and the group after everything that has occurred? Would Daryl choose to remain with his adopted family or head off with his brother? Not to give AMC any ideas, but that would be the ideal concept for a Walking Dead spinoff starring the Dixon brothers: have Daryl leave the group to join his brother on a cross-country zombie-killing biker road trip. Maybe he catches Carol sleeping with someone else, like Axel or one of the other new characters, and decides to go. Daryl and Merle are viewer favorites and they will be the main characters in the new video game being released next year, so it would be interesting to see them break away from the main cast and do their own thing, kind of like a zombie-apocalypse cross between Supernatural and Easy Rider.
Back at the prison, the episode began with the introduction of a new group of characters finding their way into the prison while on the run from walkers. This collection includes some characters adapted from the comic book series, such as fan-favorite Tyreese, played by The Wire's Chad Coleman, and a couple named Allen and Donna with a teenage son named Ben. There is also an original character created for the show named Sasha, apparently Tyreese's sister although initially I thought they were married. Sadly, the TV version of Donna bit the dust even quicker than her comic book counterpart, as she was bitten on the way toward the prison and died shortly after Carl discovered their group in the so-called "tombs" of the facility.
Of course, the debut of Tyreese meant that the other black male cast member had to be killed off, so Oscar was shot in the line of duty in Woodbury. At this point, it has to be a running joke among the writers, since T-Dog was killed off shortly after Oscar was introduced. Presumably, Tyreese will be sticking around longer than Oscar because he was a major character in the comics and the show has hired a very capable and accomplished actor to bring him to life. Long-time fans will appreciate that Tyreese was wielding a hammer, his weapon of choice in the comics.
Their arrival gave Carl the opportunity to take charge and be taken seriously as the authority figure in the absence of his father. Acting on the final words of his mother to do the right thing, Carl rose to the occasion and helped to bring Tyreese and his group to safety because he knew Rick would have done the same, but also made the wise and humane decision to lock the newcomers in their own cell block with food and water. That was one of the smartest choices anyone on this show has ever made and proves how much Carl has matured and grown, especially since Lori's death. The fact that Hershel deferred to the young boy when he stated his intention to search for the source of the screaming in the tombs reinforces that this is a much different world and a much different character than he was in the first and second seasons. Carl's evolution on the series has come along gradually, along with the young actor Chandler Riggs himself, and it seemed appropriate when Tyreese addressed him as "the man" while talking to Sasha.
Supplementing all the nail-biting tension and gritty action was a bit of humor at the prison. After Carol found Axel hitting on 17-year-old Beth and ushered him away, he explained that he had been locked up for a while without any women around and there weren't any other options, noting that Maggie is with Glenn and suggesting that Carol was a lesbian due to her short hair. This behavior makes Axel a more ambiguous and questionable character, since we know nothing about him or why he was incarcerated in the first place. I'm assuming there was a deleted scene in a previous episode with Rick asking Axel and Oscar why they were in jail, because there was a corresponding scene in the books and it doesn't hurt to ask, at least.
The third season of The Walking Dead has been equal parts horror, drama, and action with the occasional dose of dark humor, and the midseason finale had all of that and more. It's gonna be a long couple of months until the terror returns on Sunday, February 10.
FINAL GRADE: A