After last week's stellar performance, there was almost no way that this week's episode, "Arrow on the Doorpost" would be able to maintain that level of quality. But we get something pretty close.
This episode is almost entirely devoted to a tense negotiation between Rick and the Governor, and as such, the script has to be tight. Ryan C. Coleman provides a very strong effort, especially given that this is his first credited script for any television show. He's been current showrunner Glen Mazzara's assistant since 2008 and he takes this debut opportunity to craft another character-driven episode where nothing much happens plotwise, but there is a tidal shift in characterization from earlier in the season – particularly with the supporting characters.
The title is interesting on a couple of levels (the original title, "Pale Horse" was maybe a little too straight-forward), as it both references a song lyric by Bob Dylan and is a Western film tradition for a Native American declaration of intent to go to war. The Dylan quote is evocative, declaring "This land is condemned/ All the way from New Orleans/ To Jerusalem," and ending with "Well, God is in His heaven / And we all want what's His/ But power and greed and corruptible seed/ Seem to be all that there is."
So it should come as no surprise, as if it would have been anyway, the Governor isn't really negotiating. He's posturing and has no intention of giving up anything to Rick and his crew. The negotiation scenes really only serve to finally let Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey come face to face in an intense, insane-male-lead smolder-off, complete with the sipping of whiskey, the telling of emotional tales of loss, the revelation that Andrea talks too much, and another appearance of the Governor's nasty eye-hole.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't really accomplish a whole helluva lot besides allowing Lincoln and Morrissey to add some nice monologues to their show reel. The real meat of the episode is in developing relationships between the supporting characters on both sides of the conflict. Hershel and Milton have a wonderful couple of scenes together as the main advisors to madmen sit and share information about the zombie plague. Dallas Roberts' Milton is as flinchy and weird as always, especially when asking to see Hershel's stump – you know, for science. Scott Wilson plays the comedy perfectly and we get an honest moment of humor and a relaxation of tensions. We don't get those very often and it was a natural and welcome breathe of fresh air.
Norman Reedus and Jose Pablo Cantillo gave shippers a whole new angle of approach for their fan fiction, as Daryl and Martinez (Caesar, if you're nasty) had a zombie kill-off filled with sexual tension and gore, followed by the expected pragmatic male bonding over loss and inevitability. Plus they even share cigarettes afterward. Not to be funny, but if they had leaned over and kissed it would have been a watershed moment for the show and I'd say it would have bested last week easily.
But we can't have that, can we?
But all that subtextual sexual tension has to be released somehow, so we get a pretty hot sex scene between Maggie and Glenn (you know, the only hetero-normative couple still together on the show) when they should have been on guard duty. The scene climaxes the graceful conclusion of the awkward and unnecessary friction that's been imposed between the characters since surviving their time in Woodbury. Lauren Cohan and Steven Yeun get to share an intelligent and believable romantic moment before giving in to lust and it was another realistic and welcome break in the unrelenting anxiety and depression we've had for week after week this season.
Even Michael Rooker and Danai Gurira get a nice moment together as Merle tries to convince Michonne to come with him on an assassination run. With the Governor isolated in negotiations with Rick, it's the perfect opportunity to take him out, and I found myself agreeing with Merle. If anyone could get it done, it would have been a Merle/Michonne team-up. How amazing would that have been? Especially if after killing the Governor, they too, had gotten down and dirty.
Basically every pair of characters who faced off this week should have just fucked and gotten it over with. And Coleman's script seems to be hinting at that. The only person who didn't get any sexual tension this week (if we count Milton asking to see Hershel's stump as sexual tension) was Andrea, who instead was kicked out of the barn so the grown-ups could talk, and was then shut out of the Daryl/Caesar masturbatory kill-off.
As the episode wrapped up, we discover the Governor's actual plan. After working through all the obvious posturing with Rick, he finally suggests that if they just give up Michonne he'll call off his troops. And we discover why last week we finally got some movement in the scripting and plotting for Michonne. Now that she's finally accepted (for the most part) as part of the group, Rick has to decide whether or not to believe the Governor and sacrifice her for the greater good.
It's all bullshit, of course. We are shown this almost immediately. And Rick knows this almost immediately. But the temptation is there, just in case. And the only person he tells is Hershel, in the hopes that his advisor will talk him out of agreeing.
We're moving into the final three episodes, so this moral quandary is a very nicely orchestrated bit of maneuvering that should pay off violently in the next couple of weeks.
I really can't see them stretching out the Governor's story into next season. That would be a mistake, based on everything we've seen so far. But a very interesting shift that I could see working would be to jump a couple of storylines from the comics and let Woodbury substitute for Hilltop. Nothing builds dramatic tension in a storyline like this than having the people you feared most (our heroes) suddenly living with you and becoming your front line of defense against an even mor
e violent and crazy threat.
I doubt that this is where things are heading, given that we've only barely scratched the surface of living in the Prison, but they've not done a lot to make the Prison seem workable in the long run. But with an already established walled-up city with a timid populace looking for safety, it would be a logical development while also allowing for the further psychological fracturing of Rick as he essentially steps into the Governor's shoes.
Sounds good to me.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s, coming in April. Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.