* Spoilers ahead *
That deafening sound you just heard was the last of whatever passes for peace in the god forsaken, walker-infested apocalypse that the ragged remnants of humanity call home, shattering it into a million jagged, bloodied pieces.
It was not so much that we didn’t see it coming; given that the Governor is on an even more extended trip to “Crazy Town” than poor, visions-of-his-dead-wife-Lori-glimpsing Rick, it wasn’t so much if, but when the psychotic hand of Woodbury’s unhinged leader’s unmeasured revenge would be visited upon the prison and those who call it home.
No, it was the quiet but deadly way it arrived.
One minute Carol and Axel, fresh from shoring up the jail’s fortifications, are bonding over tales of the former inmate’s preference for life inside prison walls; the next a bullet whistles in and Axel drops instantly to the ground, a steely-eyed Governor peppering his body with bullets while Carol shelters helplessly behind.
And then, as they say, all hell broke loose.
The almost bucolic, though tension-filled first half of the episode when Glenn and Maggie possibly-but-didn’t-quite talk through what happened to them at Woodbury, Glenn’s simmering rage grew almost past boiling point till Hershel possibly found a way to begin diffusing it, and Rick got even more bat-sh*t crazy, was suddenly replaced by action on a grand and epic scale.
In fact, it all happened so fast that I am fairly certain I didn’t draw breath for a good 20 minutes.
With Rick trapped outside the jail walls (on account of another “Crazy Town” excursion to see a white-dressed Lori who rather inconveniently popped up where the walkers like to roam), Glenn scouting for breaches on the far side of the compound and Hershel completely exposed out in the grassy enclosure (after a futile attempt to talk sense into Rick), the Governor had picked the worst time possible for our plucky band of survivors to attack, and the hail of gunfire that seem to erupt from every direction made it hard for Rick’s scattered group to mount any sort of effective response.
To add to their woes, one of the Governor’s goons drove a van load of walkers at high speed, through all their precious gates, into the grassed area, and released them, complicating by a factor of a million any attempt to repel the merciless, cold-blooded onslaught from the Governor and his minions.
That they managed to regroup at all with all that going on was nothing short of a miracle.
In short order, Maggie and Beth rushed out with guns from within the prison building, including one to a still unarmed Carol who had been rescued by Carl and ??, Glenn drove the pick up truck like a madman into the compound through a path cleared by a determined Michonne to scoop up a very vulnerable and exposed Hershel, and Rick, aided by the just-in-time return of Daryl, and yes a still sneering Merle, fought his way back inside to rejoin the group.
It was frantic, intense, bloody and one of the best 20 minutes of full-on television I have seen in quite some time.
What was most impressive was that departed showrunner Glen Mazzara (he oversaw all of season 3 including these episodes) managed to make an event that everyone knew had to happen sooner or later (with the exception of Andrea who continues to be either wilfully ignorant or just plain dumb; while she did look sceptical when the Governor plied her a line about being the one who should be in charge while he is absent, his almost immediate disappearance seem to catch her unawares) a total and unexpected shocking surprise that began and ended with brutal, jarring suddenness.
Now that, that is accomplished storytelling my friends!
But before all this mayhem was unleashed and the maxim that survivors have more to fear from the living than the dead was reinforced once again, the episode spent some quality time giving various characters room to breathe, and in part setting up the events to come.
We finally got some insight, for instance, into why Daryl would walk away from the group to stay with Merle, even though the relationship between older and younger brother is clearly abusive, and not one that benefits Daryl in any way, shape or form.
It was not simply a “blood is thicker than water” dynamic.
It was far more layered than that.
It emerged, as Merle savagely scorned every suggestion made by Daryl (including sensible ones such as finding shelter and food in nearby abandoned homes or heeding his geographically spot on sense of direction), to the point where they finally came to blows, that they had both spent many years living in fear of their drunken, abusive father.
Watching Merle’s shocked recognition of the same scars on Daryl’s body that he carried, and Daryl’s pained and anger-laden denunciation of his older brother’s selfish decision to flee the family home and leave his defenceless younger brother at their father’s mercy, was painful to watch but a necessary step forward for our understanding of these two characters and the toxic dynamic that binds them.
It explained why Daryl, who felt abandoned and betrayed by Merle, would stick by him even at the cost of his new family of fellow survivors, and also why, after one too many abusive put downs, would also leave Merle to fend for himself out in the wild, claiming, quite correctly, that it wasn’t Daryl leaving him so much as Merle not having the guts to stick around and face a difficult situation if it mattered to someone close to him that he do so.
The fact that Merle did stick with him and go back to the prison even though there are people there who could make life very uncomfortable for him, indicates that maybe Daryl’s raw outpouring of grief and betrayal had some, albeit temporary, effect.
Still he was as cocky as ever when they helped Rick fight off some walkers, and his actions on the bridge when they rescued a family caught by a herd of encroaching walkers solely at Daryl’s compassion-driven instigation (he rifled through their car looking to loot what he could till Daryl forced him to stop, crossbow pointed at his head), would indicate that he probably too far gone to be redeemed in any meaningful fashion.
Which makes Daryl’s sensible, and as it turns out, timely return to the prison, all the more fitting since he will never have a true home with his brother.
Overall it was a powerful, masterfully-executed episode that deftly mixed character reveals and interactions with heart-stoppingly full on action and showed once again that, on its very best nights (and even on some of its more lacklustre efforts), The Walking Dead is one of the most compelling, emotionally-charged and narratively-compelling shows on TV at the moment.
But then we all knew that didn’t we?
Even crazy Rick, I would wager.
* It’s going without saying that next week’s episode “I Ain’t No Judas” will be a corker! Here’s the promo and two sneak peeks of the episode that will air 24 February US time/25 February AU time.