(The following contains spoilers for last Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead” so if you haven’t seen it yet, AVERT YOUR EYES!)
I was all ready to believe that The Governor had really turned on Merle, the man who does all of his dirty work, because it made for such a delicious surprise twist in what had seemed to be a rock-solid working relationship. That is, until one of my co-workers pointed out that it could also be a trap set up to have the elder Dixon infiltrate the prison, get some reconnaissance on Rick’s group and then return with all of the information Woodbury needs to take out these troublemakers. He’d also chop off Rick’s hand and bring it back to his boss as equal parts payback and war trophy. It all made perfect sense in my mind and through each episode for the last seven weeks, I’ve waited to see this scenario play out. Then on Sunday... it didn’t.
As it turns out, The Governor really did believe that Merle had some involvement in the attack on Woodbury due to Darry’s presence and he meant for the two of them to die in zombie combat in the midseason premiere. Now I did like the way that they handled his potential integration into the group with Glen completely freaking out at the idea of adding the person who tortured him and put Maggie in some very uncomfortable circumstances. The creators did find a credible way around it and Merle spent the next six weeks not acclimating well to his new surroundings at all. Though his death in Sunday’s episode wasn’t hard to see coming -- it’s a genre rule that whenever a member of the supporting cast gets additional focus, they’re going to die (just ask T-Dog) -- everyone involved did a good job of making it seem like the only way his story could have ended.
The most surprising thing about the episode for me, though, was the realization that this plot twist I had so anticipated didn’t pan out at all. I can only wonder if they planned it this way; after all, they did have The Governor suggest in the midseason finale that it’d be great if they could get one of their own men on the inside. So they’d get people thinking that there was going to be a surprise revelation later on when in fact they were doing exactly what they had advertised (anti-misdirection as I call it). Some people may have been disappointed by the end result, as there’s no shock value or surprise in making your twist not a twist at all.
I’m not one of them. Far too often in the stories I consume, I see the creators throw the kitchen sink at their characters in terms of the troubles they face with the thought that doing so automatically equates to a commensurate increase in drama and excitement. It doesn’t work that way. “The Walking Dead” comics were guilty of that for a while during the “prison arc.” Yes, the zombies are an ever-present threat, but you also had the predictable threat of The Governor breathing down their neck as well. Throw in his removing of Rick’s hand, Michonne’s rape and torture, Rick having to kill a man in cold blood to keep his people safe, and it all just becomes numbing after a while. That’s why I liked how the inevitable confrontation played out in the comics as we got to see that The Governor and his crew didn’t have it all together and that the two sides were more evenly matched than we had been led to believe. There’s how you generate good drama.
We saw that again in Sunday’s episode of the TV series as Merle takes out several of The Governor’s men before fate intervened, bit off two of his fingers and shot him dead. Rick’s group is still outnumbered, but their opponents are now weakened, on edge, and faced with attacking a fortified structure. Of course, it may not come to that as Rick announced to everyone that the era of the “Ricktatorship” is over and that it’s time to embrace democracy again. There was some awkwardness as he had to explain what had gone on with Michonne (that’ll be an interesting conversation for the two to have in the season finale), yet it was a nice acknowledgement from the character of the visible stresses of leadership he had been showing and the differences in leadership between the prison and Woodbury. So if everyone wants to run, then the option is on the table.
Personally, I think that we might actually see it happen. While next week’s episode is sure to be bloody I can’t see them doing justice to the conflict unless they super-size the event by at least half an hour. If they run, then that keeps the conflict to a minimum and paves the way for them to keep The Governor around as an ongoing threat for the next season. The main reason I can see them doing something like that is because while the comics have been consistently good since leaving the prison, they don’t really offer much in terms of a directed story other than “Let’s head to D.C.” This season clearly benefitted from the title’s extended stay in the prison, the conflict with Woodbury, and a clear villain in The Governor and got some really worthwhile material out of it. While I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the TV crew handle the cannibals from “Fear the Hunters” (and it would really suck if they didn’t) there’s not much of a clear direction for season four right now.
That will likely change next week, and I can’t wait! This season has been consistently excellent so I’m hoping they’ll be able to keep the momentum going for the next one. Yes, showrunner Glen Mazzara will be out of the picture, but I’m encouraged by the fact that Scott Gimple will be taking his place. In addition to last week’s episode, he also wrote this season’s standout “Clear” and having him at the reins certainly sounds promising. After all this, my optimism is running high.