If Glen Mazzara's short-lived period as showrunner of The Walking Dead leaves behind any guiding principle for incoming showrunner Scott Gimple (and those who will probably follow him), it is that the series functions best when the characters are in motion, dealing with the unbearable tension and life-or-death stakes of the inhospitable world they find themselves in. Mazzara's time should also inform any successor that this series has not demonstrated it is well equipped to handle the beats between such showcase moments, and therefore those should be kept to a minimum.
If anything, 'Home' does an excellent job of showcasing The Walking Dead's strengths and weaknesses in a single episode. When given the opportunity to slow down and ponder what's going on, the writers tend to have the characters engage in the same bickering that bogged down most of season 2 and derailed the midseason premiere, which was riding on the substantial momentum built by the previous eight episodes.
There was plenty of that on display early on in 'Home.' This week's collection of arguments are brought to you by Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Hershel (Scott Wilson), as they discuss Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) continued abandonment of his senses and, seemingly, his role as the leader of the group. Meanwhile, Andrea (Laurie Holden) and the Governor (David Morrissey) discuss his role in Woodbury and what he plans to do with the people in the prison. And finally, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and his brother Merle (Michael Rooker) wander the forest in search of squirrels to eat and wind up scratching at old wounds long enough that it appears Daryl leaves his brother in the woods to search for squirrels all by himself.
While the thought of Michael Rooker pursuing woodland creatures he intends to consume sounds like a wonderful one-off episode, 'Home' must attend to the notion that Rick and the Governor both seem to have abandoned their posts in favor of pursuing more personal quests (i.e. both their levels of madness appear to have skyrocketed off the charts). This leads to Glenn taking the proverbial keys to the Hyundai and proclaiming himself the next in line to shepherd the group into whatever future misfortune awaits, while Hershel attempts to steer the young man away from a sneak attack on Woodbury in favor of fortifying the prison against the imminent reprisal from the bloodthirsty folks in that quaint little burg down the street.
With the introduction of the cowed residents of Woodbury and their trophy-collecting leader came the realization that Rick's group would not just be pitted against them in a physical sense, but that the show would be weighing Rick's leadership ability against that of the Governor. Now, The Walking Dead wants to compare their mental states against one another.
On one side, Rick confesses to Hershel that he's been chasing Lori's ghost, which has been leading him further away from the relative safety of the prison. Rick tells the kindly old gent he's searching for "meaning" and that there's likely an answer in his hallucinations, but he just can't seem to figure out what it –or even the question, for that matter – is. On the other side, there's Philip, who's actually been crazy for a lot longer than his opponent, and, at least until he lost an eye and his zombie daughter, was a lot better at hiding it – provided you think putting on zombie-enhanced gladiator matches inside the otherwise picturesque confines of Woodbury counts as "hiding it."
While there is the option of the show using Rick and Philip to focus on a deeper examination of themes like what is good and evil in a post-apocalyptic world, such subtlety doesn't leave a lot of room for smashing zombie heads. Instead, 'Home' seems to put forth another question that's understated enough one questions whether or not it was deliberate. While the sweaty mess that Rick Grimes has become is busy vetoing new members for the group and yelling at empty prison walkways, Daryl manages to put forth the kind of heroic effort Hershel wants everyone to remember Rick was once capable of performing. It's not as nuanced, but the (hopefully unspoken) question of who is best suited to pick up the slack of Rick's leadership could have turned out to be a better fit for the Walking Dead's narrative. If anything, Daryl's moment in the episode displays the right kind of balance between dialogue with a purpose and the likely reason so many viewers consistently tune in to watch the show.
It may not be handled as efficiently as Daryl's brief subplot, but in the final moments of 'Home,' The Walking Dead gets to show off its undeniable strength of placing characters in a situation that forces them to react – like using Axel's (Lew Temple) body as a shield, for example. As the Governor and a few of his henchmen fire wildly into the prison yard, both Rick and the episode seem to lurch back to life. It is a brief, brutal encounter that shows how engaging the series can make these set pieces, but it also serves as a reminder how drab the moments in between them can sometimes turn out to be.
- No sign of Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) or Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) in the episode. Hopefully, they'll be back soon.
- The Dixon brothers' reunion made good use of what the audience knows about each character, and the differences that exist between them. The fact that what sets them apart has been brought to the surface in part by Rick serves to make their dynamic a little more interesting. As much as Merle is sometimes a one-note reminder of the guy Daryl could become, when he's around his brother the writers are able to use that to make character seems fuller.
- "I dunno. Something. I know it doesn't make sense. But in time, it'll make sense." This bit of dialogue is a perfect example of what can happen between events.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'I Ain't a Judas' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below: