It’s odd. There were times last season when I would have been thrilled had The Walking Dead stepped away from Rick, Lori and all the overwrought shenanigans at the farm to give us a glimpse at what was going on elsewhere in a zombie-filled America. But now that the main group’s storyline has been streamlined into an effective horror thriller over the current season’s first two episodes, I actually found myself missing Rick and the group when they failed to appear for even a single scene this week.
What we got instead was the introduction of Woodbury, a seemingly idyllic, nearly zombie-proof community of 73 ruled by a man known only as the Governor. For fans of the comic, this is the storyline they’ve been waiting for, as it’s pretty much universally accepted as as being one of the book’s most memorable arcs. It’s also a good episode to reflect on exactly how The Walking Dead goes about adapting its source material, not to mention how unique this particular adaptation is in the first place. After all, what we’ve got here is an ongoing TV series being adapted from an ongoing comic book — sometimes directly, sometimes extremely loosely — where the guy who writes the book, Robert Kirkman, also serves as a writer/producer on the show. Off-hand, I can’t think of another series that offers a close match (though you’re welcome to try in the comments), which makes it a fascinating case study.
Take, for example, the Governor storyline. Yeah, it’s derived from the comic, but it’s already wildly reconfigured from what appeared on the page. In the book, it’s Rick, Glenn and Michonne who track a downed helicopter and stumble across Woodbury. Here it’s Andrea and Michonne who find themselves being taken inside its guarded walls after being discovered by Merle near the crash site. That’s right, kids. Michael Rooker is back! And not in some hallucination his brother is having. He’s returned in the flesh, with a nifty spring-loaded bayonet where his hand used to be. While the story Kirkman originally conceived had things in Woodbury going to shit for our heroes almost immediately, Mazzara and his writers — including Evan Reilly who scripted this episode — have elected to allow a false sense of complacency to fall over both the viewer (if only for most of one episode) and the characters (who don’t learn of the disturbing things we see in the closing moments and thus remain in the dark).
In the show, Woodbury looks a lot like the type of reborn suburbia that Rick and company have only dreamed of. Children go to school. Adults go about their lives, supporting the community in whatever way they can. Even Merle seems to have learned the value of good manners! There are no immediate warning signs that things may not be entirely what they seem, such as the comic’s violent gladiator-style games that entertain Woodbury’s citizens. Michonne doesn’t trust the Governor, but that’s just because Michonne doesn’t trust anyone. (I’m pretty sure Danai Gurira is only ever given one direction on this show: “Look suspicious.”) Andrea, however, is clearly impressed by what the Governor has managed to build, and why wouldn’t she be? At first, Woodbury seems totally swell!
But over the course of the episode, the curtain is pulled back. First, it’s revealed that the Governor has a shady scientist named Milton doing zombie experiments in some top-secret lab. (There’s also a Doc Brown-esque scale model of the town down there for some reason.) Then we see the Governor and members of Woodbury’s armed guard murder a military unit that was serving alongside the soldiers in the downed helicopter. Finally, in the closing seconds, we learn that the Governor has a locked room in his living quarters filled with aquariums stuffed with still-living zombie heads, including the head of the one soldier who had survived the helicopter crash and had been receiving medical treatment by Woodbury’s doctor. So, yeah … the Governor is not a nice dude. But, as of now, the viewer is the only one who knows.
The changes from the comic are likely for the better. Allowing the Woodbury storyline to occur in tandem with what’s going on in the prison, rather than moving sequentially from one to the other, should ensure that the series remains flush with dramatic momentum and doesn’t get too bogged down with one thing. (Again, can you say “Hershel’s farm”?) And forcing the viewer to consider the question “when will the good guys find out that the Governor is a bit of a psycho?” — even if only briefly — seems more compelling than the comic’s question of “what will the good guys do about the fella they know is a psycho?”
So despite the fact that Rick and most of this show’s leads are AWOL this week, “Walk With Me” ends up being a crucial episode as it lays the groundwork for a conflict that will play deep into this season, especially once the characters in Woodbury and the ones in the prison start brushing up against each other, as they inevitably will. (The Governor is already urging Merle to pry information about Rick and company out of Andrea.) In that regard, it worked as well as it needed to, largely thanks to David Morrissey, who seems to have his two faces down pat as the Governor. For this season to work, viewers are going to have to end up really hating this guy. From that standpoint, I’d say the show got off to a good start.
Some other thoughts on “Walk With Me” …
— The soldier ripped in half at the helicopter-crash site is one of the goriest images The Walking Dead has yet shown. And the fact that he was just a man, not yet a zombie, when torn apart somehow makes it more ghastly.
— I thought the scene at the helicopter crash at large was poorly staged and directed. It almost looked like Andrea, Michonne and her two zombie buddies were somehow successfully hiding from the Governor and his men by standing behind a tiny bit of shrubbery ten feet away.
— Line of the night goes to Merle, upon bumping into Andrea: “I guess this old world gets a little smaller toward the end, huh?” Also, Andrea seemed way to eager to give up information on the main group to Merle. Woodbury’s secrets may be well hidden, but she already knows Merle is a world-class bastard.
— My one big nitpick so far this year is that the show spends way too much time going over basic zombie rules. Yes, I realize that this stuff isn’t supposed to be common knowledge for the characters, even if it is for we horror fans watching at home. But it’s still just endlessly repeating information that the viewer doesn’t need. In this ep, Andrea and Michonne are the latest told that even if you’re not bitten, you still come back once you die. Hopefully, everyone now knows how zombiefication works because I don’t want to hear it explained ever again.
— We do, however, learn some brand new zombie lore this week, including the fact that if you remove their jaws (as Michonne did to her rotting compatriots), they lose the desire to eat and become complacent — “lurkers” instead of “walkers.” I don’t know what all Milton is working on in that lab, but my feeling is the less we learn about the zombies, the better. They don’t need to be treated like some big scientific mystery that needs unraveled. They’re friggin’ zombies, and it’s dramatic to see humanity fight to survive when they’re everywhere. That’s good enough for me.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor