HOLY SHIT. The rematch between Rick and the Governor arrived not with a bang, but with several bangs, which if you reacted anything like I did tore your face off with craziness. The end result: A mid-season finale that was exciting, shocking, brutal (so brutal) and better than any actual TWD finale. It was, legitimately, great.
You want to know how great it is? I'm writing this right after watching "Too Far Gone," and there's a knot in my stomach and all my brain wants me to write is HOLY SHIT over and over.
We begin with the Governor giving a speech to Woodbury 2.0, telling them about the prison, that it can provide safety their makeshift camp cannot. He goes on a bit of a tirade about how the people at the prison took his eye, killed his daughter, and are generally bad people, but the thrust of his speech really is that better for them to have the prison than other people. This is excellent — and possibly the first — true proof of the kind of charisma that the Governor has, that he can basically turn people into his army. But it's even better because the Governor has a way to take the prison without firing a shot — he's taken Michonne and Herschel hostage, and, of course, he has Kirk Acavedo's tank — so his plan is to give Rick's group until sundown to exit, or he will kill his friends and storm the prison. This plan even sounds kind of sane when the Governor says it — and the best part is, the Governor clearly believes he's only doing this to protect Daughter 2.0. Maybe subconsciously he wants revenge on Rick and the rest, but in his head he's the benevolent hero here, more than he ever was at Woodbury — mainly because he only plans to kill everybody as his back-up plan.
Meanwhile, at the prison: I had forgotten completely where we left after the two Governor side-story eps, but Rick tells Daryl about Carol's dalliance with double-murder and that he sent her off. Daryl is upset, obviously, and he says she couldn't have done it (which now makes me believe maybe Carol was covering for somebody, but who? More on that in Assorted Musings) but he doesn't snap, he doesn't do anything rash or stupid, and he even agrees to go with Rick to tell Tyreese, because Daryl is the best goddamned man left on the planet.
But they don't get a chance to tell Tyreese, because Tyreese has something he needs to tell them first: Someone has dissected a rat, nailed it to a board, and left it as zombie chow. They all remember the rat portions left at the fence, and Tyreese says what they're all thinking: Someone in the prison is a psychopath. And then they're interrupted by a psychopath outside the prison… and he has a tank.
The Governor returns to the prison, and demands Rick come talk. Rick tries to tell him he's no longer in charge because they have a council, but the Governor wheels out Herschel and Michonne and points out his council is missing a few members. Rick comes down to the fence to talk, and the Governor makes his offer: abandon the prison by sundown, or he's killing the prisoners and storming the prison.
What follows is a showdown that's almost all talking, and better and more tense than literally any other fight scene, zombie or otherwise, that The Walking Dead has ever done. Rick tries to talk the Governor out of it. He says they can join them. That his group won't give up and leave what they've worked so hard to achieve; they'll fight, and the Governor's forces will have to tear down the fences to get to them, and then the prison will be ruined for everybody. The Governor remains obstinate. Rick begs the people the Governor brought to join them in the prison, that they can live in separate cellblocks, that either everybody can live in the prison together, or nobody can. And Rick tells Governor that they can forget the past between them and start over. They can change. People can change.
And the Governor mutters "Liar" and slits Herschel's throat.
And then everything goes to hell.
It is literally impossible to describe this gunfight; I know The Walking Dead has had a million of them, but none of them of as chaotic, as exciting, or with such dire consequences as this one. All I can do is list some of the highlights:
• The tank crushes the fences and starts taking shots. Everyone starts shooting at everybody.
• Herschel begins crawling away, despite a good chunk of the throat being cut open. The Governor walks after him, and finishes cutting off his head. It takes several strokes. It's not a clean kill. They made Herschel's death pretty much as painful for the viewers as possible (although I doubt Herschel enjoyed it either).
• People try to round people up on the bus to escape, but Maggie leaves to go get Glenn, and when she puts the still pretty sick Glenn in the bus, Beth has left to find her, so Maggie searches for Beth. Then the bus leaves.
• Meanwhile, the Governor has left Wife 2.0 and Daughter 2.0 back at the camp to be safe. You know what that means — it means that midway through the battle, Wife 2.0 shows up with the dead, bitten body of Daughter 2.0. The Governor takes the child, cradles her body in his arms, and shoots her immediately in the head. With his sole motivation for being a hero gone, he decides to kill 'em all.
• The creepy little girls of the Carol Squad decide to "be strong" and help, which they do by finding guns and shooting Wife 2.0's Sister's Girlfriend right before she's about to kill Tyreese. It's still very creepy.
• Daryl single-handedly destroys the tank by dropping a grenade down its turret, because Daryl is The Best.
• Rick manages to tackle the Governor from the back of his group, and they engage in a fight that is impressively brutal, because it goes on forever, but also because the Governor wins, and because it legitimately looks like David Morrissey is choking Andrew Lincoln to death.
• Right before Rick is about to die, Michonne, having freed herself, stabs the Governor through the chest with her katana. Andrew Lincoln continues to act, perfectly, like he was literally nearly choked to death. His gasps and wheezes are horrible. By that point, the group is scattered, and the zombies have come running to all the noise and the prison has been overrun. Glenn left on the bus, but Rick, Carl, Michonne, Tyreese, Carl, Maggie, Beth, the Carol Squad, Bob — all these people didn't make the bus, and are gone god knows where. Rick tries to shout for Carl (man, I cannot tell you how awful he sounds) and of course Carl shows up to shoot a zombie right in the medulla oblongata before it eats his weakened dad. They embrace, then immediately look for baby Judith… only to find her car seat… with a pool of blood in it. They both completely break down, but Rick pulls himself together to get his son out of the prison into safety.
And the Governor, somehow still alive but unable to move after being stabbed in the whatever, uses his one good eye to watch as Wife 2.0 walks over to him and puts a bullet in his brain for all the destruction he's caused.
Here's what made this episode work, beyond the shock value of killing major characters (and losing the prison): First, this showdown was everything we wanted the first one to be. It was tense. It was action-packed. It had real stakes. The Governor was a real and VERY credible threat. In fact, it was better as a Round 2, because even though season 3 was a bit of a bust, that previous conflict, however dumb it ended up, brought even more weight to the rematch.
Second: It was wonderfully built up. I thought the last two Governor-centric episodes were boring, and I stand by that. But having two episodes of that much calm made "Too Far Gone's" storm so much more powerful. In retrospect, I still find those two episodes dull, but that same lack of tension helped make this episode almost unbearably tense and exciting at times, and I can definitely respect that decision. Additionally, it also gave time for the Governor to make his transition back…
Because the third and best thing this episode did was create an actual dichotomy between Rick and the Governor, at least one that mattered. Through season one and three, Rick has lost pretty much everything but Carl. In season three, he snapped, and forced himself to become cold, to begin his Ricktatorship, to worry about survival at all costs, to ignore pleading hitchhikers on the side of the road on the chance they may pose a threat. It literally drove him mad (only a crazy person would want to hallucinate Lori). But Rick came back from that in season 4; he backed off, he let the Council take charge, he worried about living more than just surviving. And he found a sort of peace.
Meanwhile, the Governor definitely lost everything after the Woodbury debacle (admittedly because he gunned a lot of it down himself). Two episodes ago, he found a new purpose by finding Wife 2.0, Daughter 2.0, and Wife 2.0's Sister. Then last episode, his nature superseded what he'd found, and he started his crusade to "save" his people. He's not wrong — the prison is certainly the safest place around — but he's worried about surviving, not living. There's a reason he says like four times he's doing all this so Wife 2.0 and Daughter 2.0 can survive — he wants them alive, no matter the cost, to others, to them, to himself.
Rick has come back from that precipice. He thinks living is important, not just surviving. He thinks the prison, and more importantly the life his people have built there, is worth fighting for. You can say the decision to stay and fight a superior force is dumb, but it's the same reason anybody has fought against a superior force — some things are worth fighting for. This position doesn't do Rick any good, but he has something worth defending — he and his people have a life at the prison and they don't want to loose that. Season 3 of The Walking Dead suffered because Rick was like a less successful version of the Governor; now Rick is someone we can root for, someone we hope can succeed. And the Governor, who can't move to that level, who can't change — that's the bad guy.
And that's the key, isn't it? Rick has changed. He changed in season from a cop with a marriage problem to a survivor, he changed to become a leader of men, then he changed to become a controller of men., Season 4 is about Rick coming back from that, changing back. But the Governor can't change, not really. He can have lulls, he can wander with a hobo beard through the post-apocalypse, he can find a new family to love him, he can find a new group to win over — but his basic inhumanity will always return, along with his distrust of distrust of humanity, and his inability to care beyond that which is his. This will always be just as fatal as Rick's optimism. So isn't Rick's hope actually the better way?
Look, The Walking Dead is going to be tragedy porn. There's a reason that 99% of zombie movies have unhappy ending, and that's because George Romero pointed out that living humans were even more dangerous than undead monsters in Night of the Living Dead. He set the rules. Rick and the group are always going to be in danger from zombies, and they're always going to be in more danger from people, and whatever they life they manage to build for themselves, one of those groups will destroy it. If that's not for you, I understand. It's bleak as shit.
But the flip side to that is that despite all those hardships and violence and death and everything, Rick Grimes is trying to find a way for him and his son and his people to live, not just survive. He achieves it once in a while, like at the prison, and then it gets taken away, but the hope, Rick's hope, our hope, is that somehow Rick can find it again. In a way it's also optimistic — that someone can persevere against such Job-like tragedies and still have hope that things can get better. It's almost preposterously optimistic, from a certain point of view.
And so while Rick and his group have lost so much — the prison, Herschel, Judith, each other — The Walking Dead has finally gained the conscience it's always needed to be great. It's given us real stakes, and then taken them away; it's made characters useful and beloved, and then taken them away; it's made its villains relatable but given us a hero to root for; it's trimmed its fat, so we no longer feel like most sub-plots are wasting time, that they're building to something; that all the depressing shit and horror and tragedy we're watching actually means something.
The Walking Dead is now officially great. Period.
• Here's how good tonight's episode was: I had a few niggling problems at the beginning, but immediately forgot them with all the craziness. Look, I don't expect things to be perfect. But if your show/movie/whatever has crappy bits, I need the other bits to be so good/entertaining/mind-boggling that I either don't notice the problems or forget about them. Such was "Too Far Gone."
• I had to think really hard to remember them, but here were my two problem: 1) I thought bits of Rick's pleas to the Governor were a little on the nose, and 2) I thought Wife 2.0's immediate change from firm believer in Brian to suddenly suspicious of every single thing he does to be a bit abrupt.
• Seriously, who is the psychopath that was leaving rat snacks for the zombies? They most obvious candidates are those creepy girls, but I don't have any idea about how secretly attracting zombies to the camp jibes with the Carol Squad's credo of being strong; plus, they're a bit too obvious. But who else could it be? Who could've snapped?
• Here's the thing about The Walking Dead: Whenever they kill a major character, they like to make them as great and likable as possible just before killing them. Who saw Glenn and Maggie's lovey-dovey shit at the beginning and thought one of them was marked for death? But no, Scott Gimple is more clever than that — he kills the nice Mall Santa who saved all the sick people's lives three episodes ago.
• The Governor has the distinction of possibly missing the first headshot in The Walking Dead history: He shoots a zombie in the jaw, and then has to fire again to destroy the brain. That's how you know he's not to be trusted.
• The look on Wife 2.0's's Sister's Girlfriend when she sees the Carol Squad with their guns trained on her is great. It's not even fear — it's like she just can't process the sight of two cute literal girls getting ready to kill somebody. Even her.
• Seems the Governor's Wife 2.0 went to The Lori Grimes School of Parenting: "Yes, honey, you can go play 30 yards away from me, in the mud, with your back to a heavily wooded area where I can't see anyone approaching from."
• That said, that whole scene — the zombie trying to cross the river, the mom staring in panic, the zombie slowly getting swept away by the current, the daughter finding the "WARNING FLASH FOOD AREA" sign in the mud, the mom relaxing as a zombie slowly bursts from the mud and takes a big bite of Daughter 2.0 — was masterfully staged.
• Also exceedingly well-done: The cutaway when it looks like Daryl is half a second away from being bit. You know the cutaway probably means he's safe, but the zombie is so damn close and the episode is so damn crazy by that point I'm sure I wasn't alone in worrying for a bit.
• I know baby Judith was a huge narrative problem, and I know she also died brutally in the comic, but I wasn't sure the TV show would have the wherewithal to actually kill a baby (even off-screen). And then they showed the blood-soaked infant car seat, and IT WAS THE MOST UPSETTING GODDAMN THING I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.
• Making it even more devastating: Andrew Grimes and Chandler Riggs, who knock it out of the goddamn park with their acting — unbelievable loss absolutely wrecking them both. It's brutal.
• Technically, we didn't see a body, so Judith could still be alive — it could be someone else's blood in the seat. Which means the show could still cop on out this and bring her back, which, I don't know. On one hand, bringing back this thing that's such a narrative hindrance; on the other, not being the show that killed a baby. I can honestly see the show going either way.