Now that's more like it.
Entitled "Home," the second episode of the second half of The Walking Dead's third season was a big step up from last week's midseason premiere. While we saw Rick continue to deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress, the narrative moved forward in a big way with a display of aggression from The Governor and his goons against the prison. Coming near the end of the episode, the Governor's attack was the catalyst that tied together the various storylines that were focused on throughout the hour.
Despite his obvious severe psychological issues, the group still allows Rick to roam free as the episode begins, carrying a gun without any supervision. Once again seeing visions of his dead wife Lori, Rick abandons the safety of the prison gates to approach her and not only carries on a conversation with her, but they caress each other as well.
Now making her home in the prison bus in the yard, Michonne is the only witness to Rick's bizarre behavior and regards him with concern and empathy. Although everyone in the world of The Walking Dead has lost loved ones, it is perhaps Michonne who best understands what he's going through. The two characters actually have quite a bit in common, something they would realize if only Michonne would speak up.
In the absence of Rick and Daryl, Glenn steps up to assume a leadership role and fulfill the destiny laid out for him during Season 2, when Maggie told him he had what it took to be a leader rather than a follower. He proves her right when he carefully weighs the pros and cons of sneaking into Woodbury with Michonne to assassinate the Governor, ultimately deciding that it is too risky to leave the prison, even though he desperately wants revenge. Glenn also makes the correct call to fortify and defend the prison instead of fleeing for the road again, as Hershel suggests. With a crying baby and a one-legged old man in tow, Glenn surmises that it would be impossible to survive on the run.
Glenn's character shines in these scenes when he is living up to his potential, while the other side of his personality is also showcased during the argument between him and Maggie. His anger toward Maggie for not telling him she wasn't raped is justifiable, if not inadvertently selfish. Knowing what a good guy Glenn is and the kind of loving relationship they have built, why wouldn't she have told him? It's not completely unreasonable for him to be upset initially, and keep in mind this is his first serious relationship, as far as we know. He is bound to react like an immature asshole, just like most of us have at some point, but most of us haven't had the added pressure of surviving in a zombie apocalypse while figuring out how to behave in a relationship.
Although it seems odd for these two characters to push each other away when they need each other the most, Maggie's resentment toward Glenn for questioning her is also understandable. Regardless of penetration, she was still sexually humiliated by the Governor and felt just as violated. She realized that Glenn was more concerned with retribution than comforting her, and chose to deal with it on her own. By the end of the episode, they both seemed to realize their mistakes and were brought together by the Governor's attack.
The relationship between Rick and Hershel is another strong bond developed through mutual experiences. Acting as Rick's consigliere since they left the farm, Hershel tries to bring him back from "Crazy Town" (a term coined by Glenn) because the old man feels that Glenn is too "reckless" to lead and needs Rick back in charge. Rick acknowledges that the visions aren't real, but nevertheless believes they have a deeper meaning and isn't ready to return to what passes for civilization these days. Hershel has no alternative but to accept Rick's response and once again cuts him some slack because he understands Rick's state of mind after losing his wife. However, Rick is snapped back to reality when the Governor and his elite squad arrive and lay siege to the prison.
Throughout the episode, Carol and Axel open up to each other and develop the beginnings of a relationship while securing the prison together, but The Walking Dead uses that false sense of security to deliver a visceral gut punch. Just when we were finally getting to know him, Axel was the first casualty of the Governor's assault, shooting him straight through the head. I was hoping to see more from Lew Temple, the actor who played Axel, but he was reduced to a background character for his run on the show; his increased screen time this week should have been a clue that he was being killed off.
Arguably the biggest feel-good moment of the entire series took place when Merle and Daryl popped up at the prison in the nick of time and rescued Rick from walkers. Merle is an unpredictable wild card, exhibiting contradictory behavior that remains true to the character. He abhors the idea of looting a house, but has no problem rummaging through a Latino family's belongings for a reward after he and Daryl help them fight off a group of walkers. Making up for lost time, superb performances from Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus establish an authentic relationship between the brothers Dixon. Their interactions make it hard to believe that,aside from the Season 2 episode in which Merle appeared to Daryl in a hallucination, the two actors haven't shared any screen time until they were thrown into the gladiator arena at the end of the midseason finale.
The turning point came when Daryl, disgusted by his brother's treatment of the terrorized Latino family, chose to leave Merle and reunite with his new family at the prison. Adding to their off-screen history, Merle wondered how Daryl's new family would feel if they knew the truth: the Dixon boys had planned to ransack the original camp before Merle was handcuffed on the roof in Atlanta. The desperation in Merle's voice represented another side of the character, one that is possibly starting to realize what a terrible human being he is, as he explains to Daryl that he can't go with him because of what he has done to "that black bitch" and the "Chinese kid." The contrast between Daryl and Merle is a clear "nature vs. nurture" argument, as Daryl has risen above his roots while Merle is still mired in his ignorance and prejudices.
When Merle later turned up alongside Daryl to save Rick, it felt right for the progression of the character. It won't be a smooth road, but Merle seems to be on the right track and adds a new element to the prison gang. Now that the group has experienced a taste of the Governor's firepower, Merle may reluctantly be accepted to help defend the prison. The Governor certainly seemed to be enjoying himself as he rained bullets down on the prison, testing the defenses of our heroes in preparation for a potential all-out assault. He still has a wealth of military equipment at his disposal and a sadistic streak that was only hinted at in the first half of the season. Will Rick and his reunited group be ready if and when the Governor returns to finish the job?
FINAL GRADE: A