*Yes there are spoilers … and walkers … and bloodbaths and mayhem*
And so the end has come – well the mid-season end anyway with no new season 4 episodes till February 2014 – giving us two wholly different but emphatic answers to the great thematic question of this first half of the season – is it possible to come back from the dark and terrible places a person must journey to in order to survive the apocalypse?
There was both ample, spectacularly bloody proof that you can never come back, and also heartening confirmation that it is possible to claw your way back somewhat from the abyss, all of it wrapped up in one action-packed, Shakespearianally epic tragic episode.
In the former camp, The Governor (David Morrissey) – with the murderous events of “Dead Weight” in which he dispatched any viable alternative leadership aspirants with brutal efficiency all but placing his adopted Brian Heriot persona in a virtual grave – stood as Exhibit A, his overriding need to protect surrogate daughter Meghan (Meyrick Murphy) at all costs driving him to use all manner of lies, damn lies (but not statistics thankfully) to convince the members of his camp to attack and acquire the prison, supposedly as the only viable way to safeguard their future.
It could be done, he cooed with all the wolf-wrapped-in-sheep’s-clothing seductive power of a cult leader trying to get his followers to drink the Cool Aid, with no real loss of life … unless of course, you know, they had no choice but to spill some blood (which of course translated as I will be killing people just you wait and see, and frankly it’s giving me a dark twisted thrill just thinking about it).
Using every manipulative propaganda tool at his disposal – Rick and the prison crew are murderers, thieves! They killed my wife! My daughter! Our dogs! Everyone in Woodbury! And just because they felt like it! On a whim! – he got their assent but any fervour was desultory at best, the lack of enthusiasm palpable, proof that they weren’t really buying what he was selling but weren’t strong enough or equipped with enough viable options with which to oppose him.
It was frighteningly clear at that point that he was The Governor incarnate once more, the dictator supreme pretending to offer his followers a choice but in reality giving them none, all vestiges of the caring sharing family man consigned to the fictional, idealised world from which they sprang, the darkness borne of single minded purpose overtaking him once again.
The only indication that Brian Heriot still lurked in their somewhere, or at least the idea of him, came when he hugged Meghan goodbye, caring not that she covered his jacket with mud, holding her as close and with as much love as any father would.
Even so, with the darker angels of his nature taking him over once again, even this sweet, innocent act took on a darker hue, given that it was the all consuming desire to protect this little girl that was reawakening his barely dormant psychosis and which would likely doom the entire group he purported to care about.
Ironically, only Meghan’s mother Lily (Audrey Marie Anderson) was game enough to challenge him, finally aware she was essentially sleeping with the devil.
But he brushed off her “I don’t know who you are” with a glib “I love you” and a halfhearted hug, his pretence to nobility of purpose failing to convince Lily who, like her fellow survivors had no choice but to acquiesce with his plans since she knew more than anyone that you cannot bargain with a madman.
And so he led his forces, like a motley bunch of lambs to the slaughter in what almost looked like a repeat of the season 3 finale “Welcome to the Tombs” to the wire fences of the prison, having previously seized Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Hershel (Scott Wilson) as hostages while they burned walker bodies outside the prison.
He paraded these two supposed murderers and thieves (one of whom, Hershel, had done his characteristic best to talk the Governor out of his murderous plan; Michonne for her part calmly vowed to kill him) in front of a shocked Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who he summoned, along with the rest of the prison crew, with a building-shaking blast of the tank gun.
And thus, facing Exhibit A of the You Can Never Come Back camp, stood Rick, Exhibit A of the You Can Come Back Somewhat (and even grow broccoli) camp, his options limited and growing more so by the second as the Governor gave him and his band of survivors till sundown, an hour away, to leave the prison for good.
Confronted with more firepower that he could ever counter, Rick set about trying to argue, with a desperation borne of being placed with no notice in an impossible to win situation – he knew it wasn’t simply overwhelming superior firepower he was facing but the Governor’s deteriorating and dangerous state of mind – his way through to a compromise that everyone could live with.
But Rick, a changed man if ever there was one, who newly proved you can fight for your survival without selling your soul in the process, was doomed to failure from the start, his earnest, heartfelt and dare I say stirring speech failing to elicit so much as a flicker of emotion from the Governor, even if many in the former Brian heriot’s party seemed inclined to be swayed by Rick’s reasonable, conciliatory words:
“We’ve all done the worst possible things to survive but we can come back. We’re not too far gone … we can change.”
The Governor’s response to this eloquently argued olive branch (one which by the way exposed his earlier I mean no harm to anyone words as the PR dross they always were)?
“I’ve got more people. More firepower. I’ve got a tank and I’m willing to let you walk away from here. What else is there to talk about?”
And with his patience, and any pretence to calm reason evaporating like water in the humid Georgian sun, he killed Hershel with distraught daughters Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily Kinney) looking on from afar , precipitating a no holds barred shooting match that saw the tank level the fences, the buildings, person after person in the Governor’s camp fall to the ground while the prison crew did their best to fend them off long enough to evacuate via a pre-arranged route out the back of the prison in a big old school bus.
It was an epic, it was undeniably brutal with high emotion every bit as prevalent as a high body count:
* Rick, bashed to within an inch of his life by a (yet again) out of control Governor and rescued by Michonne just in the nick of time, desperately searching for Judith (still missing at episode’s end) and Carl (Chandler Riggs, saving dad from a walker with well-aimed shot), and weeping along with his son when they come across her bloodied baby carrier.
And their desperate flight from the prison into the hills that surround it, presumably to a pre-arranged meeting point
* A stone-faced Lily walking into the midst of battle with a clearly lifeless Meghan in her arms, the victim of an unexpected walker attack from beneath the mud, watching with cold-burning rage as the Governor shoots his adopted daughter before she can turn, before despatching her fatally injured former lover with a well-deserved shot to the dead, correctly blaming him for the death of her daughter.
* Lily’s sister Tara (Alanna Masterson), survival status unknown but likely alive, cowering under the gunfire after farewelling her lover Alisha (Juliana Harkavy), appalled at the Governor’s actions, looking for all the world like a lost little girl.
* Tyreese (Chad Coleman) diving for cover, pinned down by gunfire and beset by the walkers who came in droves once the very loud gun and tank fire started, saved by Carol’s twisted protege Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) who clearly paid attention in weapons class. (An “A” for you Lizzie in survival by gunfire but a looming F in basic humanity I fear).
And on it went, people falling like flies and the prison reduced to non-protective, walker overrun rubble good for no one, just as Rick predicted.
Quite where everyone goes from here is unclear – wetpaint.com has some ideas – but the loss of Hershel and the safety of the prison will be felt keenly by the other (presumably surviving) prison crew.
It was a masterful piece of writing by The Walking Dead team, powerfully brought to impactful life by talented new showrunner Scott Gimple who has proven once again he knows his way around a compelling, utterly engrossing tale, marrying high drama with Hamlet-sized emotional arcs, and bearing only a passing resemblance to season 3’s finale.
This battle was far more personal, visceral and real, with far more for everyone to lose and the balance between the epic and the intimate impressively executed, investing what could have simply been a lot of shooting and blowing up with real pain and loss and the capacity for lasting damage writ large.
Quite how everyone will regroup from this is unclear but it was a powerful reminder to everyone that while you might be able to come back, there’s no guarantee the world, or any of your fellow human beings will come along with you, possibly rendering the whole exercise a manifestly bloody and ultimately doomed exercise in restored humanity.
We will have to wait ’til 9 February 2014 to see if the journey back from darkness pays any dividends at all for Rick and his now homeless, on-the-run band of survivors.
Oh and this meme pretty much captures how I feel at the moment …