The Walking Dead sets the stage for things to come
‘The Walking Dead’ characters react to the aftermath of last episode’s devastation, as the writers position their players for the inevitable confrontation between the prison gang and Woodbury.
The word of the night on The Walking Dead’s episode “Say the Word” is transition. Well, technically I think it was “hello” when Rick broke his rage-filled silence to answer a ringing telephone, although I would also accept “Lil’ ass-kicker.” This episode has garnered some criticism, but I think this is an example of a necessary evil when it comes to series storytelling. For every amazing episode, like “Killer Within,” there needs to be transitional episodes to tie the story together while advancing the narrative.
Screenwriters use a system of “bombs and talk” to propel a storyline forward; detonating a story bomb to shake things up and allowing the characters time to react to that bomb through calmer, “talking” scenes. Last week’s episode was a bomb and this week’s was a talker, ironically of course, since the two characters doing the most reacting, Rick and Michonne, were relatively mute throughout. Audiences need time to process those big dramatic moments of major plot points, so there needs to be inbetweener episodes that give the viewers a period of (relative) quiet to digest what came before and prepare for major dramatic episodes to come. This contrast of show pacing enhances the drama of the major plot points more than if the entire season were filled with non-stop action and conflict.
These episodes also allow the writers to take care of necessary business in regard to the overall story arc of the season. A good example of this is the episode “Triangle” from season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode centers around Anya and Willow fighting over Xander’s attention and in the process they release an ogre, played by Abraham Benrubi (he’ll always be Kubiac to me), who wreaks havoc on the city of Sunnydale. This episode airs right after Buffy not only discovers Riley’s betrayal, but he then abandons her and she is left alone caring for her ailing mother and whiny sister. When I first watched it, it felt like a throw away, “talker” episode; just a comic relief filler show to satisfy the twenty-two episode season requirement and give the audience a breather after a heavy, drama-filled episode. But the writers were clever enough to use the ogre’s hammer, left behind during this episode, as a major plot point in the season finale, thus utilizing this “throw-away” episode to enrich the story.
Now, I’m not saying that “Say the Word” is a throw-away episode, because a lot did happen, but it was a transitional episode meant to give the viewer a chance to digest the events of “Killer Within” while setting up the rest of the season. Lil’ass-kicker was born and with her came a whole bundle of practical problems, such as finding formula, diapers, and medicine for a newborn baby. And who knows where they’ll be able to find a Sophie the giraffe teething toy in this post-apocalyptic, zombie filled world. Daryl and Maggie rode off to deal with that logical plot point while Glenn and the newbies dug graves for the fallen friends. Although with Carol still MIA and Lori’s (apparent) final resting place being inside the stomach of a lethargic walker, I’m not really sure what they buried.
Then there’s Rick. The entire run of TWD has followed Rick’s journey to protect his family, so for him to lose Lori without even the opportunity to defend her pushed him to the brink of insanity, if not beyond. His rampage through the prison hunting for Lori was visually gratuitous, but completely in line with what that character is going through. He has nothing left to really survive for, so his rage has replaced common sense. Sure he still has Carl, but his son has grown up so much since last season that he doesn’t need Rick’s protection the way Lori and the coming baby did. Lori was also the main thing keeping Rick grounded in this new reality; to borrow a concept from LOST, Lori was Rick’s constant (that’s right, brother). Even throughout all the tension and difficulties between the two, Rick’s actions were influenced by what he needed to do to protect Lori as well as what he felt was consistent with the man he was with Lori before the zombie outbreak. But now without her, there is no one really linking him to his old life and no one to offer support of his decisions that has that knowledge of his true character, even if that support were only a consenting glance before he rushed off on another life or death task. Without that tie to his past humanity, I expect to see a tougher and more distant Rick throughout the rest of the season.
In regards to the gratuitous violence of this episode (and all season), I think it’s less about adding gore for the sake of gore and more about creating a stark contrast between their hopeful life on the farm versus their struggle for survival now in the prison. After the herd destroyed their safe haven, these people have been running for seven months desperate to find a sanctuary to give them refuge from the mayhem of the outside world. Last season was about hope and faith, finding a place where they can build a real life for themselves. This season seems to be the reveal that building that new life is a far off dream. When they took over the prison, they talked of turning it into their new home, complete with planting crops in the yard much like they had on their farm. But this new safe haven has been marred by violence and death, and I think the showrunners are using the noted increase in gore as a visual indicator to the audience that the survivors will never find the safety and security they thought possible while on the farm. Woodbury serves the same purpose, showing a mirage of an idyllic shelter but peppering in scenes showing the gruesomeness needed to maintain order within the town. It’s the contrast between the townspeople partying in the streets and Merle pulling out walker teeth that hits home the point that these people may never find a true safe place to start over their lives.
Michonne sees this truth, which is why she urges Andrea to leave with her (albeit in the most taciturn way possible). Andrea, blinded by that hope for a normal life, chooses to stay in Woodbury as Michonne heads out alone. Embracing her new world, Andrea accompanies the Governor to watch the town’s festivities. But, this is where I don’t understand the Governor’s motivations even though I recognize why the writers chose to structure the storyline in this way. What I don’t understand is why after all the calculated charm the Governor has employed during his courtship of Andrea does he completely change directions by taking her to the arena revealing one of Woodbury’s dark secrets? Andrea is justifiably horrified and I would think the Governor, who is a master manipulator, would have assumed that to be her reaction, so I found that interaction to be a bit out of character given his interest in Andrea. I realize from a story point of view it makes sense to reveal to Andrea that her decision to stay in Woodbury was a mistake right after Michonne left, instead of waiting a week or so to do it, especially since the audience already knows the Governor is a pretty sick man. So what is Andrea’s next move now that the curtain has been pulled back and she knows Michonne’s concerns were justified?
The writers are getting their players into position for the coming episodes. We have Andrea isolated inside Woodbury, Michonne alone on the outside, the prison gang caring for Lil’ ass-kicker, and Rick grieving the final death of his old life. These characters are primed and ready for the next bomb to go off and I, for one, am looking forward to what blows up next.