It’s another episode of naval gazing and tension within the group – for the first half hour, anyway.
It looks like the quality reached during the first half of season three hasn’t dipped during the show’s winter break – this was a thrilling, smart episode, teaming nice character beats with zombie decapitation by car boot. We opened with the Governor playing various people against each other in Woodbury to restore order. David Morrissey is excellent yet again, manipulating Andrea so expertly that for once she doesn’t come across as a complete idiot.
Over at the prison, Rick is still hallucinating dead people in the least interesting sub-plot of the episode. Watching Glenn take control in Rick and Daryl’s absence was far more intriguing. Glenn has always been the heart of the show, a loveable and endlessly relatable figure. But his torture at the Governor’s hands has believably reshaped him into someone more proactive and sharper round the edges. His scene with Maggie was raw and powerful, and with Glenn welcoming Michonne into the group and taking Hershel’s advice you can’t help but think that he makes a better group leader than Rick. Speaking of Rick’s questionable leadership skills, Tyreese and his group were nowhere to be seen this episode. Surely we haven’t lost them already?
Thankfully, though, we haven’t lost the Dixon brothers, and they got a lot of the best meat of the episode to work with, bickering and revealing that they planned to rob the group when they originally teamed up with them (which pleasingly fills the plot hole of why two loner survivalists would team up with such a uselessly domestic group). They also get what you assume will be the big action sequence of the episode, with Daryl storming in to rescue a family trapped by walkers on a bridge. It was real bone-crunching action, and a nice showcase for Daryl’s moral growth and his mad crossbow skills. The falling-out between the brothers came much sooner than expected, in a clumsily-written scene that dragged up their childhood abuse and was saved only by a subtle wave of guilt and uncertainty on Michael Rooker’s usually leering face. Merle can often be a bit one-note, but that one expression already makes him far more sympathetic.
This was a good episode for character growth, with even Axel opening up to Carol about his past and displaying a pleasantly charming – oh. In one of The Walking Dead’s best-played shocks, Axel bought it with a bullet to the head mid-conversation in a mundane scene. TWD has kissed goodbye to delayed gratification – the Governor has already retaliated against the prison. The shoot-out was tense and cinematic. Carol using Axel’s body as a human shield against the bullets was a stand-out image, and went even further towards making her The Walking Dead’s best character. The Trojan Horse/van of zombies was a nice, inventive method of attacking (taking out the gate that keeps them safe in the process), but why the Governor left rather than continuing his attack didn’t make sense. The group fought off more walkers than that when they took the prison – finishing them off won’t be a problem, especially with Daryl and Merle’s entirely predictable in-the-nick-of-time arrival. Nonetheless, a move from the prison might be necessary now, if they want to stay safe.
This episode will probably be remembered for the shocking speed with which Axel was dispatched. He hadn’t been around for long but Lew Temple gave a charismatic and ever-so-slightly-sinister performance, leaving you wondering if he was being set up to take the lead in a very different prison story from the comic. His death was a jump-out-of-your-seat moment, and leaves the show with even fewer disposal characters. Any deaths from here on out will hurt.