by Kat Rosenfield
"The Walking Dead" was back in action last night, returning from its midseason break just in time to resolve some cliffhangers, shatter some psyches, and break the hearts of every dedicated 'shipper who was hoping we'd finally get to see Daryl and Carol give in to their passion and totally make out. (Oh, please, like you weren't.) But despite the lack of happy endings, it was still an auspicious beginning for the second half of a season that promises much more drama before it's all over. Here's what went down.
And let's jump right in, 'cause you knew it was coming: with the Woodbury crowd demanding blood, the captive Dixon brothers are officially on for a two-man, family-style edition of "The Hunger Games". Where, despite a few punches and kicks, their loyalties still lie with each other. In fact, they even seem poised to try for a daring escape... which is just something we'll always have to wonder about, because that's when Rick and Maggie return with big guns and smoke bombs. The hail of automatic fire takes out several townsfolk, and Merle and Daryl escape in the confusion. And if the Governor thinks he's peeved now, he's gonna be even more peeved when he realizes that one ambitious walker has managed to slip through the gap left open by his enemies.
Not surprisingly, this whole business has been too much for the sheeple of Woodbury: they crowd at the gates the next morning, demanding to leave, and protesting loudly when the Gov's goons refuse. The Governor, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found — but the hubbub does attract the attention of one hungry walker! And down goes some lucky extra, who gets to writhe on the ground in just-bitten agony while the crowd gapes and gawks uselessly, until the Governor comes out of isolation just long enough to shoot the poor sap in the head. Yeah! Picnic on that, Woodburians!
Andrea confronts her man, demanding he comfort his people, and gets hit with a one-two punch to the feelings: first the Governor informs her that Glenn and Maggie were hostages just next door, and when she asks why she wasn't told, he scoffs and tells her that she was just a pass-through slampiece. Yowch. But Andrea is determined to stand by her man, and to prove it, she goes outside and delivers the best townsfolk-placating stump speech ever... during which the camera keeps lingering on one the same nameless black gunman who we saw throwing stink-eye at Michonne during previous episodes. (Theory: This guy is going to be significant, right? Or is all the angry glaring just a natural response to TWD's abysmal track record for keeping its black characters alive? Discuss!)
And that's it for Woodbury; the rest of the action takes place outside its high walls, where it's a Season 1 reunion for Merle and his old frenemies. But alas, it isn't all hugs and sunshine for the survivors; it's a multi-party confront-a-thon, with grievances and mistrust galore, compounded by Merle pushing everyone's buttons with yucky sexual innuendos about Andrea's relationship with the Governor. (The trying-not-to-vomit looks on everyone's faces suggest that they feel the same way about this romance as we do.) And from all the drama, an ultimatum emerges: Daryl says that either Merle's in, or he's out. And when Rick doesn't relent, Daryl ousts himself from the group and bam, it's the Dixon boys, party of two. Reunited, and it feels so... bad.
Meanwhile, back at the prison, Hershel's patching up the newbies (in a scene we saw teased last week) while Tyreese explains that he and his pals were part of a larger group but were overrun by walkers several weeks ago. He's obviously hoping to join up, but Hershel warns him not to get too comfy — and not everyone in the new group is feeling the love, either. The moment they're alone, shifty-eyed Allen is all, "Hey, let's ambush the women and children and take their guns!", although Sasha and Tyreese have the decency to look horrified at the suggestion. Either way, they'll have to wait to make the case to stay; when Rick, Glenn, Maggie and Michonne return, it's in a cloud of angst. Michonne has been promised medical treatment to be immediately followed by a boot out the door; Glenn is in a state of face-stomping rage over Maggie's almost-rape and Rick's decision to let Daryl go; and Rick seems to be right on the brink of... well, something. Beth hands him his baby, and as he peers into her face, everything goes kind of fuzzy. UH-OH. Is this the moment at which the Sheriff's sanity finally goes kablooey?
Answer: No! That moment comes a few minutes later, when the group led by Tyreese makes its plea to stay. Rick, forever mistrustful, refuses, saying, "I can't be responsible."
Tyreese replies, "You turn us out, you are responsible."
Which is actually a really good point, and which might have been the beginning of a beautiful discussion, if not for the fact that Rick looks up at this exact moment to see Lori, wearing an extremely tasteful white evening gown (in full compliance with the Grammy Awards dress code!), lurking like a spectral angel of death on one of the prison balconies.
At which point the inevitable happens: he loses it, yelling and screaming and waving his gun at the ghost only he can see, right there in front of everyone. And with the entire group now aware that their leader is losing his marbles, someone's gonna have to step up in time for the inevitable, gubernatorial visit. Right?