Thursday, March 14, 2013

Walking Dead: Arrow on the Doorpost

Many of us have heard of the famous Christmas truces that happened on the front lines of the First World War during Christmas 1914. For one day, there was a ceasefire, and the Germans met their enemy in No Man’s Land, exchanged pleasantries, sang Christmas carols, shared cigarettes, and even played football. And then, the next day, they returned to their trenches and began firing. It must have been difficult to return to the shooting; in that briefest of moments, they were reminded that the people they were shooting at weren’t faceless enemies, but brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers. They were human beings. In No Man’s Land, they had found common ground.

And in “Arrow on the Doorpost” (which I can’t help but sing to the tune of “Mirror in the Bathroom”), the Woodbury folk and prison folk have a similar meeting of the minds, coming together in the No Man’s Land that is that shack, while each one of them finds common ground with the enemy. Milton chats with Hershel, and finds another philosopher and scholar, probably the first person he’s found on his intellectual level in a long time. Daryl and Caesar begin by having a zombie-killing contest to see who’s got the biggest dick (the winner: Andrea), and end when they find a common ground of loss, each empathizing with what the other henchman has gone through. The Governor and Rick meet in a shack, and they too find a common ground. They’ve both lost wives — Rick recently, as a result of the apocalypse, and Phillip, surprisingly, before the zombies had even arrived, when his wife died in an accident. Just as the Allies saw the Germans as pure evil before Christmas Eve and were shocked to discover they were human (with different accents), now Rick discovers that the Governor is also human. But their common ground isn’t just in losing wives and being leaders of their respective groups: it’s also in their inherent distrust of the other side.

Andrea, sadly, is the odd person out. She tries to be included in the meeting and is unceremoniously tossed out by her lover. She talks to Hershel outside and we see her weak and unsure of herself for the first time in a long time, and she admits that she now knows what happened with Maggie and that she can’t return to Woodbury. He kindly tells her the prison folk are her family, and she needs to come with them. But now that she knows what the Governor is capable of, she probably rightly assumes that he’ll shoot her on the spot if she chose to go with Rick and his people.

There was never another Christmas like the one in 1914; a year after this one, the fighting had become so hostile that each side no longer saw the other as completely human, and began to believe the rhetoric that what they were fighting over there was pure evil. They stayed in their trenches, and never had another armistice again after 1916. As Andrea climbs into the Governor’s truck, a look of resignation crosses her face as she glances over at Hershel. And he knows she’s chosen the other side for her own safety now, and is returning to Woodbury and the horror of knowing she is truly sleeping with the enemy. At the end of the episode, the sides return to their trenches and plot what they’re going to do next.

Despite seeing some tweets and posts from people saying nothing happened in this episode, I would say a lot happened here, and we’re finally driving forward towards the end of the season. Josh, what was your take on the ep?

Joshua: 'Arrow on the Doorpost' was another structuring episode, intended primarily to set up imminent developments and further ramp up the apprehension leading into the pending season finale. As such, it serves as a great example of just how far the show has come from last season, where a similar outing would serve to do little but spin its wheels, rehashing old arguments and trickling diluted conflict. In this case, what we get instead is a lean, subtle, well-managed series of vignettes, all of which center around a single event – the first meeting between Rick and The Governor – and use that context to inform and solidify the position and mindset of almost every character on the show, both major and minor, as well as creating some curious new textures in the process.

The Christmas truce is an excellent analogy for the way in which this episode played with our sympathies. Strangely, however, it wasn't so much the Woodbury contingent who had that effect on me. I liked the moments between Daryl and Martinez best, as we knew so little about Martinez before, and even these brief scenes did a nice job of shading his role with fresh dimension. But as for Milton, it had already been made obvious that he was a genuinely nice guy simply beholden to the wrong superior. Andrea's muted breakdown is just the latest stage in a sometimes maddeningly lethargic series of such occasions relating her dawning awareness of The Governor's corruption and flagrant insincerity. And of course we know The Governor can't be trusted, no matter what he might say, to the point that I couldn't even accept the relation of his wife's dolefully mundane demise at face value.

Remarkably, the character that I found my heart going out to this week was Merle. Ever since his arrival at the prison, the elder Dixon has surprised me with behavior that has been civil at its worst, and often – against all odds – downright helpful. In particular, Merle has been trying hard to impress upon Rick & Co. just what kind of lunatic they're dealing with, and though no one but Michonne seems to be paying much attention, he keeps prodding anyway. But with this meeting going down, and with the knowledge that Daryl was on point and directly in the crosshairs, just talking about it wasn't good enough any more, and his concern for his brother won out over what would seem a genuine desire to keep the peace.

Glenn was right, of course. An ambush attempt on their part would have likely been catastrophic and could easily have hurt or killed any one of the people involved in the meeting. That said, Merle's concern was more than justified, and I completely understand why he reacted the way he did. I continue to be amazed that this is the first time since his arrival that he's had any kind of hard confrontation with one of the others, and even after his dust-up with Glenn, he calmed down enough to be reasonable, though it didn't change his mind. Michonne didn't so much talk him out of his planned vigilantism as she reminded him that he really didn't have the choice of doing whatever he wanted. And to his great credit, he listened. The writers continue to do Michael Rooker a great service by fleshing Merle out the way they have this year, and I think the show is much the better for choosing to steer him away from the stale caricature he would surely have become in the hands of a lesser actor.

Nikki: Excellent point, and I agree, shockingly. (How are we possibly defending Merle?! Oh well, stranger things have happened. Wait, no they haven’t.) As Merle suggested just going to assassinate the Governor, I actually wrote down in my notes, “I don’t… disagree?” On the one hand, it just seems like the quick way to end all of this. Yet I added the ellipses and question mark because I hesitate to agree with Merle on ANYTHING.

The surprising thing about Merle’s character is that they haven’t pumped him for even more information. What are every single one of the Governor’s weaknesses? He’s not exactly on the inside like Andrea is, but he was his henchman. He knows how the Governor thinks, he knows what he’s like in battle. He knows he has his moments of eerie calm, he knows how phony that smile is, he knows there isn’t a genuine bone in his body, he knows that he promises one thing and then gathers his homies in the hallway and tells them he was lying. He knows how he invokes fear in people, and he knows how loyal the followers are. He knows about the zombie fights. He knows EVERYTHING about the Governor.

In fact, when it comes to the truce, perhaps Andrea isn’t alone. Over at the shack, we see her sitting on her own, thinking through everything she knows. And the Governor actually says at one point that Andrea told him Rick is raising what could possibly be Shane’s kid. She’s the one whispering secrets in the Governor’s ear, while Merle is over in the other camp telling them some of the things he knows about the Governor. Merle is actually Andrea’s pairing, even though they’re not together. But we haven’t seen just how much the Governor has asked of her: he doesn’t give a crap about her, really, and is just using her because of what she knows, so why not tie her down to a chair, torture her, and get everything out of her? And why not get Merle to do the same? He wouldn’t have to be tied down, because he’ll talk just to keep his baby brother safe.

One thing is for certain, and Rick should know this: The Governor always lies. He holds up his hands at the beginning of the summit meeting and says he’s unarmed, moments before the camera pans down to show us the gun duct-taped to the table. (A friend of mine tweeted at the end of the show that clearly that was just a red herring, but it wasn’t: it was an shot establishing that the Governor is lying through his teeth, as always, but it’s dramatic irony because WE know the truth, even though Rick doesn’t.) He lies about his intentions, and ultimately lies to Rick by asking for Michonne and then saying he’ll leave the prison folk alone. Of course he turns to his people after and says they’re gonna have to eliminate Rick sooner or later.

Rick knows this. He says to Hershel at the end of the episode that the Governor wants Michonne, that this all comes down to revenge, and then adds, “And he’s coming for us next.” And yet… he’s thinking about handing her over just to call the guy’s bluff.

What do you think of Rick’s thinking in this scene?

Joshua: I hate to say it, but I believe Rick's thinking like Andrea. He sees a carrot on a stick, and he's absolutely starving, and in those circumstances, it's hard to ensure one's wants don't win out over their better judgment. The poor guy is exhausted, traumatized, unstable. His people – the family and friends that have entrusted him with their safety and guidance – are vulnerable, and he is afraid. He is afraid he won't be able to protect them. He is afraid they can't win this war and that when they lose, their deaths will be his responsibility.

Being frightened and being helpless, however, are not the same thing. While Rick may be worrying aloud to Hershel about the possible legitimacy of The Governor's offer (and might even consider it for a moment out of sheer desperation), he knows it's too good to be true. But what he hasn't seen yet, and what he is bound to figure out before long, is that the mad dictator of Woodbury may be inadvertently giving them the upper hand with this scheme, if not at least presenting them with a golden opportunity to turn the tables.

They have a time and place. They have relative assurance that he'll show up in person. And they have two days to plan. If they approach the situation like a Woodbury double-cross is a given (and of course it is), then there may be no better time, and no easier way, to eliminate The Governor before this proposed war ever begins. Even if they don't manage to kill him outright, it still gives them the chance to start the fight on their own terms. And likewise, if they assume most of the best soldiers will be manning the ambush, then in theory it would also leave the town virtually defenseless. If all they did was plan an offensive that managed to destroy a significant part of the Woodbury barricades, much like The Governor's own delivery truck ploy, then that alone should be enough to shift the odds in their favor. And they could definitely use better odds.

Admittedly, part of what has me thinking this way is the manner in which this episode presented itself, specifically the way it served to be so specific in what it said and in how it said it. Whereas this show often plays deliberately vague to create tension, there wasn't much ambiguity in this episode. We saw The Governor offer Rick his ultimatum, and then almost immediately we saw him tell his men it was a lie. We saw both Andrea and Milton so certain of their involvement in actions they view to be irredeemable that, for the first time, we are left thinking that both of them are ready betray their chosen side to keep their conscience clear. We saw Rick and Hershel debate the possibility of handing Michonne over, but then we were very deliberately pulled away from that conversation before it ended. Each moment that played out during that last montage felt propulsive, magnetic and, above all, assured. It displays a lot of confidence in your endgame to be so transparent, and it's usually a good indicator not to take things at face value, that nothing's going to happen quite the way you think. I have the feeling we have something very special in store for this year's wrap.

Nikki: Thank you! When that scene happened, I looked at my husband and said, “WHAT IS HAPPENING.” Because I didn’t, for a second, believe Rick was that stupid. My husband simply said, “Rick’s a moron.” But I don’t think so. There’s something more to it, and as you say, they cut away before the real planning begins. I was convinced, and still am, that, as you say, the Governor believes he moseyed into that shack like it was High Noon, lied his ass off, hid his little gun behind the table, and pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. But not only did Rick see right through it, he knows the Governor’s weaknesses, he knows Andrea is vulnerable, and Hershel — wonderful, wonderful Hershel, who reminded the other side that there are human beings in that prison — gave Milton the idea that there’s something more out there for him. A place of people who might actually appreciate his intelligence rather than using it to scare the bejesus out of him all the time.

We’ve already been given hints, when we saw the Gov trying to put an army together and the ones he found were either arthritic, useless, or children. He had a group of about 20 who were actually good, but most of whom had never really seen combat. All Rick’s people know is combat. And if some people switch sides during the actual battle, Rick will become stronger and stronger. I do hope they redeem Andrea somehow in all of this. I hate being her apologist, but everyone is coming down hard on Andrea for not stabbing the Governor in the head when he was sound asleep, and those same people will come up with excuses for why it was OK that Rick didn’t take the shot the moment he had it in the shack. But then again, viewers always come up with excuses for Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Rick Grimes, and condemn Betty, Carmela, Skyler, and Lori as useless harpies.

But speaking of vulnerable, how about that scene between Glenn and Maggie? I loved that they’re back together, and their moment was so honest and sincere. Glenn wanted to give Maggie her space, and Maggie just wanted him to see her. It was a beautiful moment, eloquently stated. And then… they abandoned their post and I watched their entire scene with dread that something terrible was happening outside when they weren’t looking.

Only three more episodes left, and I think we’re leading up to one hell of a battle.

Final thoughts?

Joshua: I too loved the scene between Maggie and Glenn on the loading dock. Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan have such great chemistry, and I always look forward to their scenes together. Cohan, in particular, was incredible; “I'm with you; I'm always with you” gets my vote for best line delivery of the night. But HILARIOUS how simpatico was our thinking when the scene took a sudden turn for the scrompy. My viewing notes: “No no no no! You're supposed to be on watch! Dude, haven't you ever seen a horror movie before?!?” (The fact that Glenn couldn't do it in front of the zombies, however, may be the funniest thing I've ever seen on this show. And is making me giggle again right now just thinking about it.)

Overall, I thought this was one of the best set-up episodes they've ever produced. I know folks tend to be down on this kind of offering, but with a narrative backbone that's so predicated on simmering tensions, it's practically impossible to avoid them. When they're clever and well-balanced like this, they can be every bit as enjoyable for me as a viewer as the big, noisy, crazy stuff. This hour offered up real electricity with this first head-to-head between our two nemeses. I thought all their bits in the barn had a delicious, dusky old-west vibe, all glares and tough talk and creaking leather. And all the interstitial pairings – Daryl and Martinez, Hershel and Milton, Hershel and Andrea, Merle and Glenn, Merle and Michonne, Glenn and Maggie – were solid and significant as well. There wasn't an ounce of fat on this one, as they say, and as anxious as I am to see what Rick has in store for their next showdown, getting intermediate content as compelling as the last couple of weeks sure does make it easier to wait.

Bits & Bobs:

• Rick: “You're the town drunk. Who knocked over my fence and ripped up my yard. Nothing more.” Equals badass.

• Merle: “Must've been seduced by your sterling personality.” Takes one to know one, huh? But yeah.

• Guv: “Best way to avoid a slaughter.” Milton: “That is a slaughter.” Smartest thing I've ever heard you say, Milt. Just remember who you're lecturing. And watch your back.

Have a great weekend, everybody. And in case we haven't said so recently, thanks again for all of your comments and continued interest. I for one have been incredibly busy with real-life work stuff so far this year, and though I don't always get to spend as much time here as I'd like, it's great to be a part of this conversation with you.

Nikki: I second those final sentiments! What does everyone else see coming in the final three weeks? 


Efthymia said...

I, too, was seriously FREAKED OUT when Glenn and Maggie were making up and making out; I kept expecting a zombie or a bullet attack (NOTGLENNNOTGLENNNOTGLENN!!!).

I'm getting my hopes up regarding Andrea. She seems to have finally realised what kind of person the Governor is and what an idiot she's been, and I feel she will try to fight him from the inside, especially since Milton also seems to believe that the Governor has gone too far.

The Governor has been depicted as far from stupid, but only an idiot would think that Rick believed him. Then again, Rick kind of makes an idiot of himself even considering giving up Michonne.

They probably don't ask Merle questions because (a) they don't trust him the least bit and (b) they already know the Governor is a psycho from what Glenn, Maggie and Michonne have said.

Rebecca T. said...

The way they played the Merle/Michonne scene right by the Glenn/Maggie scene I was sure Merle was going to leave at that point and something was going to go horribly wrong! But it didn't.

I thought this episode was amazing and I love your parallel to the WWII Christmas Eve, Nikki. Perfect description.

It's going to be so much harder for both sides now, but I think particularly for Milton and Caesar - both who have quite a bit of influence in Woodbury.

(side note - I live right near a town called Woodbury and it cracks me up all the time - and freaks me out a little)

I loved the exchange between Herschel and Milton and the bits of humor woven in.

How great was it that it had to be Beth who came in and shot off a gun to get everyone's attention in the prison. Though I have to admit I yelled, "Don't waste your ammo!" at the screen when she did. I like the way her character has grown - even if it's been rather quietly in the background through small moments like this.

I feel like there was something else, but I can't remember it right now. I'll be back if I do!

(p.s. how glad am I that I am finally caught up and can actually comment on time!)

Anonymous said...

I agree that the season-ending battle will probably not happen in the way we think. Sort of like how Game of Thrones' first season pointed toward the Dothraki hoard invading Westeros which never happened either.

Also - I can't believe the Mad Men & Breaking Bad ever wanted us to do anything but hate Betty & Skyler IMHO.

Thanks as always for the recap!

-Tim Alan

SenexMacdonald said...

This episode was great with its subtleties, bravado and everything in between.

Let me begin as I, along with you guys, also kept looking at that garage(?) door, which was not all the way down, and thinking it was going to open on Glenn and Maggie. Boy, the tension watching them was raising hair on my arms and legs - and not because of the heat from the scene. lol

Merle is showing lots of layers now and I am really appreciative of Rooker's talent in taking what could have been a very one-dimensional character and adding a lot to it.

I feel sorry for Andrea - she is caught between Rick and the Governor but is definitely seeing that she will have no choice but to side with Rick. It will be interesting to see how she manages this choice, being as she has returned to Woodbury. She will need to keep her eyes peeled and ready to move (out/on the Governor?) on a moment's notice.

I can't anticipate what will happen in the next 3 eps but I am sure it will be high tension and screaming at the tv action.

My biggest questions will be who will change sides and at what point in all this. Will those who Rick threw out of the prison realize their mistakes and throw themselves behind Rick or discover their mistake in following the Governor in time or too late? What truths will be revealed that the characters have no knowledge of yet? Will the other residents of Woodbury decide to fall in with Rick and his group? What happens if the Governor falls and Woodbury does also? Can Woodbury maintain its' security if the Governor is gone or someone like Milton be the one to take control next?

Loads of questions and so little time. :)

Oh, I agree - loved that Beth was the one with the gun to break things up. She also is growing as a character. Should we all be worried now?