With one week to go until the midseason finale, "The Walking Dead" seems to be seeding the ground with gunpowder in anticipation. The impact of this episode comes less from violence than the threat of violence, which, as we see several times, can be just as effective as the real thing. Fear isn't pain, after all -- it's the anticipation of pain, an imagining of what might happen. The best way to make people do what you want isn't necessarily to do something bad to them; it's to make them think that you will.
The tactics of fear seem particularly relevant in an episode with no less than four interrogations with people locked in cells, starting with Glenn and Merle. Whatever misguided nostalgia you might have had for Merle will likely wear off in this episode, wherein he hurls racist insults at dead black characters, nearly cuts off Glenn's nose, and generally reminds you why everyone left him to die on that roof back in Season 1.
Merle is still pretty hung up on the whole losing-his-hand thing, and whines about it nearly the entire time he's beating Glenn to a bloody pulp. Unfortunately for him, revenge and sympathy are sort of mutually exclusive goals. You can't punch someone in the face AND ask them to feel bad for you. You only get to choose one.
PHOTOS: On the set of 'Walking Dead'
Although the rough stuff gets pretty unpleasant, this Glenn is also quite a bit tougher than Merle remembers. Remember Season 1 Glenn? Compare and contrast with Season 3 Glenn, who doesn't just kill a zombie with his bare hands; he takes it down while literally tied to a chair. Even Merle seems impressed.
"Walking Dead" is the most Darwinian of shows, and the progress of its characters can be seen almost as a form of petrification: The ones that survive are the ones that grow hard enough to endure.
In other stone-cold-killer news, Michonne is still lingering outside the gates of the prison, and gets rescued by Rick and Carl just as her zombie-entrails camouflage starts to wear off. Although she ends up getting medical treatment for her bullet wound, her reception from Rick and company seems a little too similar to Woodbury for comfort. The first thing Rick does is yank her katana out of reach, promising to keep it "safe and sound," and then locks her in a cell. From the look on her face, she doesn't like the sound of this any better than when the Governor did it.
There's a brief interrogation scene in which Rick attacks her, inexplicably trying to make her tell him all the information she can about Glenn's and Maggie's abduction while she is already explaining it. Regardless, they manage to get past their respective hardheadedness and put together a rescue plan that involves nearly the entire prison crew infiltrating Woodbury.
Back in Woodbury, Milton knocks on the door of the Governor, who greets him yet again in the plaid conjugal robe that signifies sex with Andrea. After learning that "Mr. Coleman is ready," the Governor tells her that he needs her zombie-stabbing help for a little experiment.
Milton is still convinced that the undead can retain "trace memory" after they turn, and has been priming the dying Mr. Coleman with various rituals: a favorite record playing, a painting, pictures of his (probably dead) family. Milton wants to trigger familiar responses after the man zombifies, a notion that makes Andrea highly skeptical, mostly because it seems so naive.
"You haven't seen this before," she says to Milton. And the answer is no, he's never seen anyone turn. Which is probably why he not only tries to interrogate an angry corpse, but foolishly unshackles it when he has trouble interpreting its non-responses. Only Andrea's quick knife skills save him from a fatal bite, and the death his stupidity deserves.
Finally, there is the Governor's interrogation of Maggie, which manages to be uglier than Glenn's not by committing violence, but by threatening it, with chilling statements like, "Take off your shirt, or I'll bring Glenn's hand in here." He terrifies Maggie into stripping down to the waist, pushes her head into the table, takes off his belt, and threatens to rape her if she doesn't give up the location of the prison.
It's awful, but she doesn't break. "You do whatever you're going to do," she tells him. He pauses for a moment, and then walks away.
A word, for a moment, about rape. Rape, as a plot device, tends to be extremely overused in movies and television, which I say not because rape isn't a super-prevalent crime that affects millions or people (it is), but because it is rarely portrayed in a way that deals with the reality of the act, or its impact. Instead, it treats rape as a cheap, easy emotional trick, a button that can be pushed to make bad guys seem bad and good guys feel angry. It makes rape into a tool and rape survivors into objects to be exploited, and worst of all it is almost never necessary.
Case in point: We didn't really need a rape to illustrate how manipulative and scary the Governor is, or to propel the plot forward, did we? And what did we lose? Nothing. Really, it is amazing how easy it is to not rape a character if you think about the alternatives for more than five seconds.
In the end, it isn't the threat of rape that compels Maggie to give up the information; it's the Governor holding a gun to Glenn's head. After she finally surrenders the information, the Governor creepily pulls her close for the ickiest of all possible hugs, stroking her hair and whispering that it's going to be all right. And then he goes home, kisses Andrea, and after a brief conversation about her difficult day of zombie stabbing, pulls her close for a hug, stroking her hair and whispering that it's going to be all right. Dating pro-tip: If your boyfriend is treating you somewhat interchangeably with women that he threatens to rape, consider it a red flag.
The Governor also dispatches one of his paramilitary crews toward the prison, just as the prison crew arrives outside the walls of Woodbury. With those two trains on their respective collision courses, we've got lots of questions in store for the midseason finale: What will happen when Rick and the Governor finally meet? After listening to Merle complain endlessly about being abandoned by Rick, what's going to happen when he comes face to face with the man who cost him his hand? How will Darryl react when he finds out that big brother Merle kidnapped and brutalized a beloved member of his adopted family? And perhaps the biggest question mark: Where will Andrea's loyalties lie when things hit the fan?