Walking Dead's twisted mid-season finale lacks bite

SPOILER ALERT!

Walking Disclaimer: Just to be as blunt as a shovel to the brain stem, we're about to talk The Walking Dead mid-season finale to death. A mid-season finale? It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but in the age of fast-tracking, that's what we get, with season three of The Walking Dead about to go into hiatus, and the next episode not set to air until February.

Knowing this, the team behind the shuffling, biting action have given us a last episode (for a few months at least) worthy of the new term. The following could well contain more spoilers for the season to date than the "red zone" between the prison and the town contains biters. Read on only if you've seen the finale or want to know what happens.

So, The Walking Dead gets to the mid-season finale after an eight-episode run that has relentlessly killed off major characters, minor characters and actors who weren't around long enough to even be characters, so how do we begin?

Why, with a whole new set of survivors of course! And they're breaking into the prison through the hole in the wall that we've long known had to be there, but which Rick and his gang have oddly never investigated. In fact, the whole pre-credits sequence is dedicated to this band of five strangers: one of them gets bitten, and the response from the other four leaves us wondering how these people have survived a day, let alone up until this point.

The pre-credits sequences have been a real highlight this season, and it says a lot that the decision to start a new plot-strand at this point come as no surprise at all.

Meanwhile, at the town they call Woodbury, but which will forever be known to me as Unpleasantville, The Governor is still creepy, lying and all lovey-dovey with Andrea. They're all post-coital again and playing happy dystopian families – you know: surrogate Mum, psychopathic Dad and undead daughter kept under the stairs.

Still, it's only when he is left face-to-face with himself in a mirror that The Governor gets all stressed-out, reveals his true angry face and decides to chill-out by playing his favourite song and preparing for a quick round of "Release the Penny".

It's good to see the room of zombie heads again as Phillip (The Governor) hasn't visited in a while, and this is a set that is just too creepy to waste.

Newly released Penny-on-a-leash (with a figurine in stores just in time for Christmas?) isn't happy, though, as her straight jacket doesn't match the bow in her hair and Daddy keeps trying to hug her. Or perhaps it's just because she's undead, only possesses a partially functioning brain stem and can't get to the bowl of meat daddy kindly prepared earlier. So Daddy pops a pillowcase back over her head and locks her back up. That father of the year award is in the bag ... heh, geddit?

Glenn is making a better pitch for boyfriend of the year, as he makes Maggie a present to distract her from the hell-hole prison they find themselves in. It's her very own shiv made out of real walker forearm! Gosh, and she didn't get him anything. Hallmark really haven't got a card to go with that gift.

Sure enough, before you can say “incidental character”, one of the guards gets boned, but Merl and his sidekicks arrive to overpower Maggie and Glenn. As they prepare to summarily kill the lovebirds, Michonne leads Rick's team in to town so they can stage a rescue to save Maggie and Glenn from their own rescue. It turns out there is a good use for smoke grenades in a walker world, which we will soon learn is primarily to provide at least some justification as to why everyone suddenly has the aim of a drunken stormtrooper.

On a sidebar, Rick's little posse is consistently frustrating this episode. Yes, it's a hastily assembled plan, but they just seem to stumble around being angry with each other and overwhelmingly inept. For a team that has seemed like such a well-oiled machine this series, they're back to their bumbling ways at just the wrong time.

Still, you know what? It hasn't been awkward for at least five minutes. So we cut back to the prison where redneck ex-con Axel is hitting on 17-year-old Beth. He explains to Carol that he's doing so because it's been a long time and she's a lesbian – because of, you know, her short hair.

She explains she isn't a lesbian and then thankfully this weird scene ends. It's not entirely clear why this scene happened as huckleberry-con still doesn't seem threatening – more pathetic. But to be fair, it was funny. (Having set this up, it's safe to assume they'll go somewhere with this, right? Wrong. We won't see Beth or Axel again all episode.)

Back on storyline, Michonne has ditched the post-apocalyptic Scooby gang and sits in wait for The Governor. Her idea of a trap is to stare at the door while “hiding” in the middle of the room. Not quite the invisible ninja, but hey, she's already got her Japanese warrior style. She stays there for a good nine seconds until she hears something go bump, so opens the other door marked “Daddy's crazy room”, and finds The Governor's personal head collection and prize possession, Penny the pillowslip.

Just then, as all good script-writing demands, The Governor walks in and instantly sets up a surreal hostage situation. Michonne demonstrates that she feels a deep compassion for undead children in the same way a vet expresses compassion for a too-sick animal, before delivering her personal take on eye-for-an-eye justice. As she leaves we wonder if The Governor will give himself a promotion to The Captain, just as soon as he can find an eye patch, a parrot and a hook for Merl to wear on his stump.

As two of the most interesting characters in the show, it's good to see both Michonne and The Governor survive their stand-off while still finally having a good old-fashioned set-to. In many ways this is really the highlight of the episode, with a particular shout out to the innovative use of biters as potential weapons.

Everyone has a moment in their life when they have to make a decision. For Andrea it is when she walks in to a room with disembodied zombie heads biting the air, an impaled Penny on the floor and a one-eyed Governor weeping over his twice-lost daughter. Andrea chooses her side – and it's Phillip's left side as his vision isn't so good on the right just now.

Finally, the five new survivors from the top of the show make their presence felt in the main storyline as Carl both wears his Daddy's hat and fills his boots by first becoming the child messiah and leading the new flock to safety, then locks them into a separate area, just like his Daddy does with all prison guests. As new guy looks around the prison and describes it as the “best we've had in weeks” it all gets put in perspective: this world is grim.

And unfortunately, that's about where the episode begins to fall apart a little. Rick's gang gets smaller as they stumble around in the not-actually-that-thick smoke trying not to lose another major character, while also not escaping as that would let the air out of the drama. They are only partially successful, as the gunfight just gets tired when neither side actually tries to win – that is until the dwindling gaggle try to get over the wall, at which point Oscar fulfils a classic horror-film stereotype: he's the only black guy in the group and he's the one killed.

The group also manages to leave Daryl behind after he promises Rick he's going to follow him and not try to find his brother, and Rick takes on the role of the only person in the world who believes him. Rick's vaguely explained trust issues with Michonne then rear up again; he's angry she disappeared just when he needed everyone to run off half-cocked with him, and so he once again takes her sword away from her while not wanting to send her away or kill her. It's meant to be a tense moment, but instead feels like a bit of oddball standing around for no reason.

It's left to The Governor to bring the townsfolk – and the episode – back together for the big finale, and he calls a town meeting in the fight ring where he turns on Merl, reveals the now-captured Daryl and unites these brothers-in-lack-of-arms as the figureheads of hate that can really bond his people back together.

As the seemingly friendly townsfolk heave in their fervent calls of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” The Governor says to Merl, "You wanted your brother, you got him."

... And that's it.

For such an extraordinary half-season, it all ended on a bit of a whimper really. Half-way through this was looking like a top episode, but the need to keep something to deal with in the second half of the series made the last ten minutes seem oddly impotent. No one important could die. No one could win or lose. There weren't even any biters. Not even the girl from the top of the episode who got bitten hours ago.

By its own high standards, this episode of The Walking Dead was only OK – but it was still much better than a lot of TV alternatives at the moment.

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