Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 8 of AMC's "The Walking Dead," titled "Made to Suffer."
"The Walking Dead" is like a snowbird headed for Florida; it is taking its annual winter break. But before departing, the AMC drama left us with a few disturbing parting gifts.
To be clear, I intend the word "disturbing" to be a compliment. During the long wait for the show's February return, one moment will linger in my memory and in my nightmares.
It won't be the Governor's tender scene with his jaw-snapping, undead daughter. It won't be the sight of a walker snacking on one of the unfortunates who stumbled into the prison complex. (Please, by "The Walking Dead" standards, that moment was practically reminiscent of "Sesame Street") It won't be Andrea's face as she silently observed the worst-timed family reunion ever. It won't be the Governor's references to "terrorists." (As Andy Greenwald pointed out, this show can't really spare the braiiins to turn the Woodbury compound into a political allegory, and this one is already teetering into heavy-handed territory.) And it won't be the somewhat anti-climactic Battle of Woodbury, which was so full of smoke that I half-expected a Whitesnake video to break out.
No, it'll be that bloody, mesmerizing confrontation between Michonne and the Governor in his home office of ultimate horrors. Truth be told, I'm not sure the show did an ideal job of making us care about Michonne's hatred of the Governor. Sure, he'd pissed her off, but to the extent that she'd risk her life by breaking off from Rick's group to assassinate the small-town dictator? The writers have relied too much on Michonne's innate charisma; I wished they'd filled in the blanks a bit more and made her attempt to kill him seem not only righteous but inevitable. I didn't quite feel it was either, and I do wish, not for the first time, that Michonne had tried to explain herself a little more to Rick's group -- there's being cagey and then there's being unneccessarily withholding, and Michonne has gone a little too far in the latter direction.
In the next thee months, though, those mild complaints will fade, but the memory of Michonne's horrifying confrontation with the Governor will likely remain vivid. This is what "The Walking Dead" does when it's cooking: It creates scenarios that are squirm-inducing, yet you can't look away. I literally twisted and turned on my couch as that struggle played out, and part of what made it so compelling is that I knew the show wasn't going to hold back: One of the characters could well have died. Any show that slices into a zombiefied little girl without much fuss is not going to hesitate to kill off anyone else.
At its best, "The Walking Dead" imparts an awful relatability and immediacy to the characters' dilemmas. It's the mundane details that make the world seem so real: The ruffles on the sweater worn by the Governor's unfortunate daughter, the ribbon in her hair, the way the Governor's apartment looks both cheap and -- in comparison to the rest of the survivor's world -- well-stocked and well-tended. The furnishings may have come from a thrift store, but they were homey. And yet, in that office, the hominess gave way to queasy revelation.
Michonne always knew there was something rotten in Woodbury, but even she was not prepared for the most alarming episode of "Cribs" ever. (Every house on that MTV show had an aquarium or two, but how many singers or ballers had a wall of preserved zombie heads, huh? Take that, Blink 182 bandmember.) Danai Gurira has played Michonne's surprised horror perfectly, and when something scares Michonne, you know it's terrifying.
The physical fight that followed the arrival of the Governor was bone-crunching ballet; every blow hurt, every grunt put the viewer right there with the combatants. I may wake up with nightmares of snapping walker heads all around me as an endeavor to stab a murderous dictator in the eye, but that's the point.
When it works (which it generally has during this taut season), "The Walking Dead" gets in our heads like a shard of glass through an eye socket. This down-and-dirty apocalypse is soaked through with sweat and caked with blood and all manner of other fluids. It's a sensory experience meant to lodge in our subconsciousness and fester there like a virus, and I for one am looking forward to being made entertainingly, sickeningly uncomfortable again.
To top it all off, the show has done a good job of redeeming or at least de-annoying some of its characters (even Carl). Here are my current assessments of some of "The Walking Dead's" characters, with one chomp equaling Shane-level annoyance and four chomps denoting the highest approval: