Even though 'Arrow on the Doorpost' puts the pace of The Walking Dead back into a more familiar mode, the episode manages to have something in common with last week's better-than-expected episode 'Clear,' by delivering a concise episode that clearly defines the direction of the rest of the season.
'Clear' was a much-needed break from the incessant infighting of the previous post-hiatus episodes, but more than that, it was intent on telling a complete story (within the larger framework of the season's overall plot). And even with the intriguing character elements that were on display, it was that level of focus that might have been its greatest accomplishment.
While 'Arrow on the Doorpost' doesn't go in for the same kind of storytelling (it's much more about setting up what is yet to come) the episode manages to move with a similar purpose from beginning to end, while still shifting gears between multiple character groups.
To that end, the episode opens with Rick, Daryl and Hershel scoping out the proposed meeting place with the Governor, only to find out that he's already arrived and made preparations in case the meeting with Rick goes south. So far, this season has invested a considerable amount of time comparing Rick and the Governor, and in this episode it seems one thing is certain: they both like tight-fitting, rugged man-jackets (though the Governor goes for the flashier look of a quilted vest).
But more than that, season 3 has been intent on offering the audience two leaders at odds with one another, who also seem to be battling their own shifting levels of sanity. Strangely, the mental instability of either man tends to go on and off as the necessity of the scene (or episode) dictates, so the Governor is presented here in one of his more equitable moods, while Rick saves all his frowns and dagger eyes for his adversary, and not ghosts in white dresses.
Despite the apparent psychological steadiness of each man, the meeting doesn't go down nearly as smooth as a glass of the Governor's never-ending supply of whisky. For starters, it turns out the whole dialogue was set up by Andrea, who appears to be taking her role as mediator quite seriously until she's thrown out of the discussion entirely to join Daryl, Hershel and the others.
Outside, the pairing off of Daryl and Martinez, and Hershel and Milton offers some of the better moments in the episode. Milton has appointed himself the chronicler of the post-apocalyptic history, and his conversation with Hershel affords him the opportunity to see Rick's group as something more than just the terrorists they'd been painted as by the Governor. That, along with Philip's admission that he plans to wipe them all out at their next meeting, seems to be the first signs of a crack in Milton's yes-man persona.
Meanwhile, the most appropriate discussion goes to Martinez and Daryl, who share a smoke after some competitive zombie slaying. Martinez earns Daryl's sympathy over the loss of his wife and child, and essentially states that the meeting is just a bit of futile stalling on behalf of Rick and the Governor. The scene centers on the fact that both men agree on the inevitability of where this dispute is headed, though despite this knowledge, they seem stuck in the same frame of mind perpetuating the discord.
Back at the prison, Glenn is still positioning himself as the man in charge, combating Merle's more assertive suggestion that they take the new weapons Rick brought and attack the Governor and his men outright. There's a continual unease around Merle that the episode wants to get across, and even though he's not directly antagonizing anyone besides Glenn, the writers seem to be suggesting that Merle has now taken on the role of loose cannon – since Michonne managed get in with the group (or at least Rick and Carl) during the events of last episode.
There's also the reconciliation between Glenn and Maggie that had been hanging in the air since they'd both fallen victim to some unpleasantness while being held captive in Woodbury. It's the kind of thing that leaves seasoned horror viewers waiting for something to go immediately wrong. Nothing drastic happens, of course, but it lends to the general feeling of apprehension in regard to the rapidly approaching season finale.
But the main focus is the face-to-face between Philip and Rick, and considering it was destined to go nowhere from the start, the initial moments of the meeting are little more than some catty attacks on one another's character – highlighted by the Governor saying, "I thought you were a cop, not a lawyer." While Rick counters, "Either way, I don't pretend to be a governor." The rest of the meeting plays out in the same back and forth until Philip delivers a monologue about losing his wife in an accident before the zombie outbreak.
It's a moment that's handled nicely by Morrissey and one that offers a brief glimpse at his character's view of the world. Whether or not it does anything to better inform the audience of what makes the character swing between being a man of the people, and a single-minded psychopath is uncertain – but it is something, at least. At any rate, the importance of the meeting is boiled down to a bogus offering of lasting peace, as long as Rick is willing to sacrifice Michonne.
This might have been a more compelling notion to end the episode on, leaving the audience to wonder just how much Rick valued one life over the survival of the group – but any tension created by the question is essentially undone in the abovementioned scene where Philip informs Milton of his true plan. Still, 'Arrow on the Doorpost' does a decent job of preparing the characters and the audience for what's to come. As Rick tells Hershel, the others "need to be scared" as part of their acceptance of the carnage that is undoubtedly on its way.
At this point, it appears the potential consequences are as established as they're going to get – the end is basically waiting to tally up the score of which side loses more people. With just three episodes remaining, the wait is on until the conflict officially erupts and inevitably takes out a character or two in the ensuing chaos. With any luck, Milton will be on the sidelines, keeping score for future generations to read about.
The Walking Dead returns next Sunday with 'Prey' @9pm on AMC.