It is time to stop thinking of The Walking Dead installments—which now arrive in eight-episode chunks in late fall and early spring— in terms of standard television arcs. The comic series depends on sustaining the existential dread of an increasingly dangerous world in perpetuity. And that's pretty much how the television show operates now, moving the story along at a unique speed, before plopping down a huge glut of violence during each midseason and season finale. It's dependable in that odd timing, and entertaining when something badass happens like Daryl taking out a tank on his own. But the clockwork timing of big battles has rendered The Walking Dead predictable, verging on boring. We may not know who exactly will die, but we know major characters will fall, residences destroyed, and still the walkers will press on. Aside from the in-the-moment tension right before someone dies or walkers spring out of nowhere, there's not much left in the creative tank.
The Walking Dead is mainly entertainment, given all the jump-scares and explosions, but in its quiet moments, the morality play scenes in the middle of each season, it's clearly trying to be something more meaningful. So what is this eight-episode stretch of The Walking Dead about? For five episodes, it's about punishing the hubris and comfort of Rick's group, living in semi-ignorant bliss about the dangers pressed up against the prison fence. The survivors are tested from within, thanks to the sudden outbreak of illness that could spring walkers on everyone else at any time. This is an existential crisis, and one that tests Rick's desire to remove himself from a sole leadership position, the ability of the others to form an oligarchical leadership, Carol's emerging role as a frank and violent caregiver, and Herschel's faith and compassionate views of humanity in a world with dwindling numbers of the species.
But then once the Governor showed up outside the gates, it became his tragic fixation on total control and violent vengeance once again. Five episodes in, after the disease scare in the prison, the Governor to standing outside makes me think that the illness was simply an extended way to thin out Rick's herd and make it a more destructive second battle. And that's too bad, since another odyssey of the Governor attempting to change his stripes, devolving into tyrannical murderer again, and dragging yet another group of survivors down with him as he leads them to slaughter and fails to protect anyone isn't as interesting, fiery though David Morrissey may be in the role.
Last season's conflict with The Governor concluded with the end of Woodbury because the Governor was so distraught—after Michonne violently ended the walker that was his daughter—that his anger erupted into an all-out assault on the prison. Rick's group rebuffed that attack, with many casualties on both sides. This season ups the ante, with The Governor kidnapping Michonne and Herschel, and surprising Rick with superior numbers and a tank.
For me, the confrontation comes down to the speech given by the Governor to open the episode and Rick's plea before the fighting begins. The Governor needs to convince the group he just took over that attacking and potentially killing another group of survivors is their only path to certain survival. And with very little resistance, he does just that. Tara agrees, and over Lily's protestations, all the Governor sees is victory over Rick. I don't care that he tells Lily he loves her or says that her and Megan's continued survival is the only thing that matters. He's a lying tyrant, hell-bent on victory over those who defeated him the first time. He sees the world in a binary, alive or dead, and the prison offers the best place to live now that he burned Woodbury to the ground. It's all self-serving, making him the one everyone credits with survival. When he captures Michonne and Herschel, tying them up in a camper, he outlines his plan, tries to convince them he's changed and wants the prison with no bloodshed "This way you get to live and I get to be…" implying that he wants to be the hero, but knowing he's the villain.
Rick is trying to unite people; to find a way for survivors to keep surviving, since they've all made it this far. Fighting among the living when the undead overrun the world is a senseless proposition, selfish and vile and, if it's all right to get a bit snooty, uncivilized. Rick and his group, with a council, some farming, and the all-important fences, have staved off the outside world for a longer stretch of time than any thought imaginable. But the place has been going downhill since the first episode of the season. The Governor's bitter betrayal—slicing Herschel's neck with Michonne's sword—sets off the chaos, a bloody and fruitless battle that claims many lives. The Governor beats Rick into a bloody pulp until Michonne shows up with her sword again to stab the villain through the heart.
And as if to prove the Governor's motives false over again, a walker attacks Megan while the assault begins. The Governor promises that the area by the water is safe, and to a certain extent he's right, the current carries any slow-moving walkers downriver. But he doesn't know the area is susceptible to flash floods. Megan finds a sign warning just that while digging in the mud, but unearths a buried walker, and Lily is too late to save her. It's an obvious move, but one executed with a lot of tension, as Lily watches the danger she can see across the river, fixating on a problem that nature will take care of, trusting the Governor's word that their location is safe. That's the problem with a lot of the people left in the world of this show: they pay too much attention to the danger far away, trying to think a few steps ahead, at the expense of the hidden dangers right behind them.
But the most disappointing thing about "Too Far Gone" is one that has been inherent in The Walking Dead comic and television series since the initial arcs. It relies too heavily on simply repeating past conflict with increased intensity. The walkers overrunning Herschel's farm in season two left the area burning and covered in walkers, Andrea separated from the group, and everyone else on the run for a new place. This time, the prison is on fire, fences destroyed, overrun by walkers, with bodies everywhere and the survivors separated into many small groups. The bus with Glenn leaves, Maggie's fate unknown. Tyreese is presumably with the kids who went all City Of God on two of the Governor's new soldiers. Rick and Carl are on their own after discovering Judith's carseat empty and bloody. (From their reaction, Judith may be dead, which is heartbreaking and severely dark, but as with many characters on this show, unless there's a body…)
At the end of all this, I'm left wondering why repeating the Governor's downfall in three episodes was a better option than walkers overrunning the prison and forcing Rick and the rest to flee. What the Governor's second rise to power, second failed assault, and death by Lily's gun showed is the antithesis of Rick imploring the Governor's soldiers that people can change, that they can live together with a common goal. The sixth episode, "Live Bait," showing how the Governor acquired a new family, turned out to be the only episode that justified delaying the Governor's fate until this season. Now that he's dead, and Rick's group scattered to the surrounding woods, I think it would've been better for the Governor to die last spring.
Daryl continues to be the most valuable fighter around, taking out way more than his share of foes.
I don't think it would have been possible for the Governor to take out that other camp of survivors on his own last week, but that's a dangling threat that still has me questioning what the purpose of that was.
I guess this means no Michael Cudlitz until February or later. I'm really looking forward to his presence on the show. He's a fantastic actor, every bit as great as David Morrissey, and I hope he's around for a long while.
That's it for The Walking Dead in 2013. Thanks for following along, I'll hopefully meet everyone back here next February!