Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Walking Dead: On Rick and the Governor in Arrow on the Doorpost

So The Walking Dead is churning out new episodes, new zombies and little twists and candid conversations and artificially dirty sweaty actors, and there's a lot to talk about with regards to the way it's written and paced. It's a messy show, afflicted by constant inconsistencies and missteps, and in a way, that aspect makes it even more interesting to talk about than a deliberate, immaculate show like Mad Men, or its widely acclaimed AMC brother, Breaking Bad.

After all, we can trust the critics when they tells us what's good, because they tend to all settle into agreement on the strengths of the show. Mad Men is good for its casting and production, its slow and discerning character evolution, its moments of neorealistic honesty, its self-conscious critique of its own nostalgic charm. What's bad about it? Who cares? It's not about those things. But with a show like The Walking Dead, there's this massive subjective tangle of opinions around the show... every merit and flaw is a point of contention. In any particular episode, a scene will hated by an army of fans, at the same time that select others see it as the redeeming point in an episode.

In last week's episode -- Arrow on the Doorpost -- you can go through the important scenes, one by one, and each one will have a significant number of bitter critics, but also a small group of enthusiasts who claim it's the best scene in the episode. Does the confrontation between Rick and the Governor drag on, or does it give subtle shade to their characters? Does the bromance between the henchmen provide a moment of welcome frankness and levity, or is it a crap cliché without any sticking power? Does the final scene give an extra layer of gravity to Rick's moral reasoning, or does it just ruin his credibility in the eyes of the viewer? It seems like the only thing people can all agree on is that they hate The Governor (in a good way), they hate Andrea (in a bad way), and they approve of Michonne and Herschel.

One of the reasons for this endless, widespread controversy on every nuance is that these characters show striking inconsistency, to the point where they seem to be mere plot devices, rather than characters. I mean, I don't entirely put stock in that criticism, as I'll get to... but I can certainly see where it's coming from. There have been long stretches of show, like almost the entirety of Season 2, where there didn't seem to be any guiding motivation or intelligible development for these characters at all. The show lost all its momentum, and at the same time, it lost any sense of intimacy that it might have used to cover its weakness.

In the last episode, Clear, there was a marked (I'd even say "massive") improvement in this tendency. The episode-spanning objective was simple: check out Rick's old hometown, collect guns and ammo. This framework allowed the writers to steer clear of the convoluted "Prison versus Woodbury" mess and focus on a few particular points of tension and backstory, and they used that opportunity to reinforce some important characters: Michonne as a struggling ally -- Carl as a kid still working on growing up and dealing with trust and authority issues -- and Rick walking that line between guarded optimism and pragmatic ruthlessness.

Back to this week, there were a lot of questions about pacing, but all the questions about coherence -- about the realism of the characters' behavior -- seemed to center on one question: why, after all the bad blood, were these men able to sit down and talk in private, albeit tensely and unproductively? Why didn't the Governor, being a demonstrably ruthless tyrant, just shoot Rick? And why didn't Rick, being a ferocious pragmatist who's convinced of the Governor's evilness, just shoot him immediately and stop the war from happening?

The Onion AV Club asks the first form of that question here: "Why the hell doesn't the Governor just kill Rick when he has the chance? He's demonstrated he has no compunction about betraying his enemies' trust when it suits him. I guess he might be worried that Daryl would put up a fight if Rick went down, but I still don't understand his motivation here. But then, that's nothing new."

To me, this question is less baffling than its reverse. The Governor doesn't kill Rick for a couple reasons... first, he doesn't entirely trust his henchmen to keep him safe from Herschel and Daryl, so he doesn't want to light the fuse that leads to his own pointless murder. Second, and more importantly, he's tipped his hand already this episode: he wants Michonne. Killing Rick wouldn't guarantee that he got to kill her, especially in the personal, painful way he wants to do it.

You could also easily argue that The Governor has more faith in his machinations... his ability to play on Rick's humanity... than he does in his own ability to get a fatal shot off. He sincerely thinks he can nail Michonne, and guarantee a clean, dominant defeat of the Prison leaders.

Andy Pants, a commenter on that Onion AV Club write-up, gave a great account of The Governor's character, construing him as a tyrant who thinks himself an absolute realpolitick juggernaut, and perhaps even a benevolent leader. It makes a lot of sense, although in my opinion, you still have to allow that he's a bit emotionally disturbed, as well:

"Since his introduction it's been made clear that the Governor doesn't want anyone knowing about or living anywhere near (and therefore potentially finding out about) Woodbury who aren't willing to submit to his authority. Hence why he killed the military guys (they would have taken over), welcomed in Andrea when it seemed like she'd likely join the town and sent Merle to capture and kill Michonne when she tried to leave. It's also telling that he never revealed any of these activities to the towns civilians. He knows they'll probably be alienated by this strategy of pre-emptive strikes and refusing to tolerate the existence of a potential threat.

His motivations make sense to me. He's egotistical and doesn't want to give up the power the post-apocalypse has brought him and twice as paranoid about outside dangers as Rick. The Governor has always been just a little further down that path than Rick has. I think the Governor has always suspected that even if the Prison Group might not have posed a threat at first, once they became hungry and desperate enough they would attack.
He's not crazy, so much as rational and extremely aggressive. Unlike his comic book counterapart all of his actions make sense when you really think about them. Even the fishtanks filled with zombie heads, as a commenter pointed out last week, were there for a logical reason, so the governor could directly confront and conquer his fear of the Walkers."

This speaks to the character's consistency, and in this light, it makes sense that he is trying to orchestrate a political betrayal that leads to a total defeat of the Prison group, with special consideration given to Michonne, his most dangerous enemy. In comparison to this master plan, Rick's assassination seems like a messy, incremental step.

The question is more valid, I think, when it comes to Rick. Why doesn't Rick use this as an opportunity to end the war and take out a dangerous enemy of his own group? Rick knows The Governor is ruthless... he knows what happened to Maggie and Glenn, he's seen the public fights, and he's endured an assault on his own home territory. Rightly, he's already come to the point where he considers The Governor an enemy of his group, at the very least, if not an absolute existential threat and abomination. I think we would all forgive Rick for killing Phillip, and even for killing the soldiers outside, given the circumstances. In this regard, I'm sure many of us can relate to Merle and Michonne, who kind of just want to go kill the guy and get it over with.

Rick's indecision on this point goes hand in hand with his later moral ambivalence, when he seems to consider The Governor's offer to take Michonne in return for an end to hostilities. Rick seems to have made the right decision – The Governor is not dealing in good faith, and they'd better prepare for a war – but lots of people are troubled by his talk with Hershel, thinking it inconsistent for a guy who's proven both his worth as a leader and his ruthlessness. I think some fans' discomfort with this waffling is linked to their misgivings about the whole development of the show, wherein characters seemed to lack any consistency, and seemed to act irrationally or incongruously simply to further particular contrived plot points.

It's important to note, though, since these episodes have gotten a bit better: the criticism needs to consider context. Rick's behavior (along with the apparently unstable behavior of some other characters) is erratic because that's how your behavior would become if you were stuck in crisis mode. Some other characters – Hershel, for instance – are clearly handling it better, probably because, it Hershel's case, he's older, more tested, and bears less pressure of being an active tactical commander. But Rick is struggling between two competing philosophies – humanity versus stone-cold pragmatism – and he's working with lots of unknown variables.

  • First, he hasn't absolutely settled on Michonne's membership in the group, despite Carl's sanction last episode.
  • Second, he's got lingering doubt about his own reliability, considering a hallucination about his wife recently caused him to make a major political decisions (re: Tyrese's group) entirely by accident. 
  • Third, the moral question that dogs all leaders – is the safety of each individual worth more than the safety of the largest number? – hangs over his head as a dark cloud, probably much more since he's the leader of a group full of family, that's become very close-knit.
These points of inner conflict articulate some of the differences between Rick and The Governor, a contrast that the show is obviously trying very hard to highlight (especially in this episode). The Governor makes decisions impulsively, tactically, erring on the side of ruthlessness so that he expands and upholds his power. If you're on his side, you see him protecting you at all costs; if you array yourself against him, you discover the nihilistic void of a manipulative, uncompromising aggressor. Rick, on the other hand, feels the weight of responsibility... not only to his own group, but to civilians involved on both sides, and even, to a steadily-declining degree, to certain higher moral standards. He creates space around him, giving the world a chance to pass over him and his loved ones, rather than forcing the world into a straightjacket of control.

The twitchy, violent indecision and inconsistency we see among decision-making characters may have seemed like a plot point for quite a while, but now it's settling into a form of workable realism. These characters are bound to seem erratic, when they're living under a 24/7 cloud of stress. The ethics of targeted assassination, the burdens of loyalty to a group: these should be difficult decisions, even now, after all the conflicts and conditioning. These are the uncertainties this episode is exploring, and rather than I weakness, I suddenly find that to be a strength.

So, for that reason, it worked for me. It wasn't as good as last week's, but I think it's by far the best episode in this Woodbury plotline.

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