This week’s episode of The Walking Dead shows just how far the show has come since last season. "When The Dead Come Knocking" is a straight up filler episode, one that exists only to get everybody into position for next week’s mid-season finale. It has one other small function, which is to forcibly move the Governor into the full-on bad guy position (which it did very clumsily, in my opinion), but otherwise this is a housekeeping episode.
If this had been last season, "When The Dead Come Knocking" would have been insufferable. Much of season two was housekeeping, moving characters around, but done with such a lack of energy and fun that everything dragged. Always. Always dragged. "When The Dead Come Knocking" flies by, trading in the whispered arguments of season two for lots of zombie action. Last week Meredith couldn’t stop talking about how much she likes seeing stuff happen on this show this season, and even an episode where nothing really happens is filled with stuff happening, or the illusion of it anyway.
In a lot of ways this episode sums up what season three has been for me. It’s kind of a stupid episode, but it’s a stupid episode where lots of activities occur, and there’s plenty of violence. The Walking Dead spent two seasons thinking it was a serious drama; this season it’s finally realized it’s dumb fun.
The biggest problem I had with "When The Dead Come Knocking" was The Governor’s sudden growth of a mustache he can evilly twirl. The show had created yet another intriguing villain, a new Shane, and while Glenn Mazzara and the writers have been willing to break away from Robert Kirkman’s poorly-written source comic, they occasionally feel the need to circle back to it. And so the Governor needs to become a Big Bad, and it has to happen fast.
The way The Governor dealt with prisoners in the past was to be charming, sly and ingratiating. He lied to their faces. He has played good cop, attempting to seduce all newcomers (sometimes literally, as in the case of Andrea). But here he suddenly becomes a raging asshole, sexually humiliating and threatening Maggie for the purpose of... well, the purpose of letting us know he’s a bad guy before Rick and friends show up.
Which is too bad. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a truly morally ambiguous scenario at play here? The show has already changed things up; in the comics life at the prison wasn’t as hardscrabble and icky, while life in Woodbury was less bucolic, so why make the conflict as black and white? The Governor and Rick aren’t that dissimilar, as shown in the weird crazy hobo scene last night - both men are willing to do anything to further their own agenda. The show tries to make us think that Rick’s agenda is touchy feely (see Michonne all but melting at how the people in the prison love each other. Blech) while The Governor’s is more power-mad, but I don’t see any real difference between these guys. Would Rick abdicate his authority in a situation like Woodbury? Doubtful. And more interestingly, it’s doubtful he’d be as good a leader as The Governor, totally unable to present that sort of happy face.
The polite, sweet Big Bad has been done before - see Buffy season three. I wish the show’s writers had looked to that, because Whedon et al created a character who was a small town values kinda guy who was also evil without ever having to radically correct his course. The Governor, as presented in the rest of this season, should have sweet-talked Glenn and Maggie, after letting Merle play a bit of the bad cop. Why would The Governor, as he’s been portrayed, do that weird rape scene... except that in the comic he’s a rapist, and so that element gets shoe-horned in.
Speaking of the crazy hobo: WTF, as the kids say. What a weird bit of filler. I’m assuming this is a set up of some kind - maybe the use of the dead hobo as bait will come back to haunt Rick - but as presented in this episode it was simply an excuse for some needed action. There’s a kernel of an idea in that scene - what if they stumbled on a hermit who doesn’t even know the zombie apocalypse has happened - but the show doesn’t do anything with it. The scene actually came when I was asking myself a question: why the hell are there so many walkers wandering in the seemingly isolated woods? Somehow this hobo didn’t know the cops were all dead... but his cabin is surrounded by zombies.
Still, it was a good bit, and I was happy to see it there. It kept the sense of bloody fun that the season has been able to maintain so admirably. It didn’t make sense, it structurally didn’t quite fit, but it was a good bit.
The episode also has two George Romero shout outs - or at least one shout out and one lift. Rick’s new baby is named Judith, probably after Judith O’Dea, the star of Night of the Living Dead. The other is the Woodbury doctor’s continued experimentations on the dead, taken directly from Day of the Dead. In that film Dr. Frankenstein discovers that zombies respond to music, and that they can mimic actions from their past lives, like shaving. It’s still unclear if the show is going to go all the way with that concept - in the film, Doc Frankenstein had a zombie named Bub who went so far as to be able to shoot a gun - but I certainly would like some kind of in-show acknowledgment that they’re riffing on this (I’m being kind by saying ‘riffing on’ and not ‘stealing’). It’s the development I’m most interested in following, because it’s the only place for a longform zombie story to go. George Romero has realized this - check out Survival of the Dead for an underappreciated look at an attempt to live with the zombie menace - so I expect at some point the show’s writers will realize it as well.
Because here’s the secret of The Walking Dead: this show will never end. AMC owns it complete (unlike shows like Mad Men, where they have to negotiate with studios), and it’s incredibly high rated. They will run this series for ten seasons, at least. And ten years in there will have to be big changes. Zombies have no meaning on this show - they are not a stand in for anything except ‘villains;’ they’re the 21st century version of Indians on old Western shows. They appear to add action and danger, but they contain no thematic meaning, no deeper subtext. Each of Romero’s films recast the dead as something larger, but The Walking Dead has no interest in that. However, the Woodbury experiments could be the beginning of a change in that. What if it’s discovered they have memories? How does that impact the heroes who have been surviving by coldly killing every walker they meet? What if the dead began to represent the ghosts of the world they survivors have outlived?
I doubt the show will get there - it hasn’t even been able to create grey area morality in the Rick/Governor scenario - but it would be cool. In the meantime, as long as the show keeps chugging along as fun, dumb pulp, I’ll be satisfied enough.
Next week it's the mid-season finale. Who lives? Who dies? Will this wrap up the Woodbury story or are we just getting started? For the first time... ever?... The Walking Dead has me wanting to tune in and find out.