Season three of The Walking Dead started out strong with a couple of slam-bang episodes that presented a leaner and meaner version of a show that was a slog to watch for much of season two. But in the episodes since Lori’s death — including “Made to Suffer,” Sunday’s serviceable but not exceptional mid-season finale — that focus has given way to vague characterizations, some sloppy plotting and a sense that the show’s writers never cracked the right way to develop the Governor as the season’s big bad. I don’t want to spend too much time on the latter. I feel like I wrote about it enough last week. But I will say that this was the episode where we should have seen the Governor reveal his true face. This was where all pretenses should have been dropped. Instead, “Made to Suffer” spends more time continuing the show’s misguided mission to make the guy always sympathetic, first by giving us another tender scene between the Gov and his zombie daughter and then later by offering up a rationalization for the zombie-head aquarium wall — “I made myself look at them … prepared me for the horrors outside” — which Andrea readily accepts, of course. Hell, the Governor doesn’t really do anything all that despicable in this episode besides play more mind-games with Andrea, and the final scenes are written in a way that would have you believe that he’s only going to go full-on evil now because RICK FORCED HIM. There was a right way to make the Governor a multidimensional villain worthy of Rick’s fears and the audience’s contempt, but because the writers have been more interested in balancing out the character rather than showing us why we should loathe the guy, he’s yet to gel into a memorable antagonist. Okay, I’ve said my peace on that matter. Moving on …
The final hour before the mid-season break is a weird time to introduce new characters, but the first thing we see in “Made to Suffer” is the sight of Cutty from The Wire bashing in a zombie’s head with a hammer. Except it’s not Cutty, but Chad Coleman playing Tyreese, one of the heavy-hitters from The Walking Dead comic book (whose author, Robert Kirkman, also wrote this episode). Tyreese and a small group of survivors stumble across the prison, where Carl’s been left in charge while Rick and company storm Woodbury. Carl quickly goes into action-hero mode — which I guess he’s now authorized to do all the time since his mother’s dead — and saves the group from a zombie horde before locking them in one of the cells. Tyreese seems understanding about it, which is nice of him. Maybe he respects Carl’s hat. Anyway, it’s mostly just a tease of the role Tyreese will likely play in the season’s second half.
The majority of this episode, of course, deals with Rick and the away team’s mission to save Glenn and Maggie, who I have now decided to officially declare The Walking Dead‘s power couple. First, both Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohen sell the shit of a scene where Maggie assures a rattled Glenn that the Governor didn’t rape her. And then, once his mind is eased, Glenn starts planning their escape by crafting shanks from the arm bones of the now-dead zombie that Merle had unleashed on him … which is FANTASTIC. Before long, Glenn and Maggie have hooked up with Rick and crew, and they all need to find a way to get out of Woodbury alive. Last week, I wrote that everything was set up for a series of “Hey, what are you doing here?”-style revelations, although, surprisingly, things didn’t quite play out that way. I thought for sure Michonne didn’t name-drop Merle at the prison so the writers could squeeze extra drama out of Merle and Daryl coming face-to-face in this episode. Instead, Glenn breaks the news to Daryl that Merle was behind his kidnapping, so the two brothers are already aware of each other’s involvement once Daryl is captured and the Governor turns on Merle at the end of the hour. Additionally, Andrea spends the episode wanting to take some shots at the “terrorists” invading Woodbury, but she never finds out what’s really going on, at least until the very end we she sees that the captured intruder is, in fact, Daryl. (Still, I’m sure the Governor will pat her on the head have neat answers for all her questions when the season’s second half kicks off. Remember, she still has no idea Glenn and Maggie were being held prisoner.) Odd, though, how the episode leaves Andrea in the dark and immediately puts Merle and Daryl on the same side opposite the Governor without some kind of face-off between the two. Odd and not very satisfying.
What was satisfying was seeing Shane turn back up this week, as Rick briefly glimpses his old partner’s face on a Woodbury guard who’s trying to kill him. The brief bit hints that Rick’s mental break from “Hounded” hasn’t quite healed, a bit of a worrisome proposition long-term, but damn if I didn’t get a kick out of seeing Joe Bernthal’s mug on this show again. And I enjoyed the throwdown between Michonne and the Governor, which resulted in the katana-wielding warrior slicing through the head of the Governor’s undead daughter. Michonne still has crippling communication issues, though. “What have you done?” Andrea asks her, as she walks in on the fight just after Michonne shoves a shard of glass through the Governor’s eye. The correct answer would have been: “Stopped a madman who’s got a room full of aquariums filled with zombie heads.” But Michonne just bails on the scene instead.
Ultimately, it was a decent enough episode to take this series into the break, even if some of the conflicts the show seemed to be building to over the last few weeks really weren’t paid off in any significant or memorable way. But we’re still only halfway through the season. Daryl could find himself having to choose between his brother and the group yet. Andrea may eventually wake up and figure out that Woodbury ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And if not, then I’ll just keep rooting for Glenn to continue his transformation into the full-blown action hero that The Walking Dead is now bizarrely (and successfully!) positioning him to be.
A few final thoughts on “Made to Suffer” …
— How strange was that scene where creepy-prisoner guy hit on Hershel’s teenaged daughter? I’m going to assume it was there to set up some drama for the back half of the season because, otherwise, what was the point? Unless it was just to see the look on Carol’s face when the guy insisted she was a lesbian, which was indeed kind of hilarious. Let’s just say it: Carol is awesome now and needs to be given much more to do on this show.
— There was a surprisingly low body count for this episode. The only death that even approached notable was Oscar’s … whose name I just had to look up, so that tells you just how important he was. (His reign as The Walking Dead‘s token black dude — an embarrassing trend in itself — was awfully short-lived. Better watch your back, Tyreese.)
— This week’s best zombie kill: Michonne going in through the head and out through the mouth of the Governor’s daughter.
— Never before has one man sucked so much air out of a dramatic cut to commercial. You think long and hard over the next few months about what you’ve done, Chris Hardwick.
— Hopefully, I’ll be back reviewing the second half of the season starting in February, but that could depend on whether AMC and Verizon (my cable provider) work out their current contract dispute. If they don’t, I’ll suss out my options and try to find one that works for me. (Maybe I should just start begging AMC for screeners now.)
Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor