After last week's episode of The Walking Dead ushered in a new level of intensity with the deaths of two major characters and the birth of Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) baby, "Say the Word" is comparatively stagnant. This makes it consistent with the narrative rhythm that the writers have committed to since the show's second season: After a dramatic turn of events, everything slows down, often for several episodes. "Say the Word" fits comfortably within that broader framework, but it makes better use of its quieter interludes than similar episodes and also offers a handful of isolated standout moments.
One of these is early on, when the Governor (David Morrissey) is listening to soothing classical music and brushing the hair of his zombie daughter in his secluded second-floor abode. She struggles, but the Governor wrestles the girl's contorting body into a position in which he can safely hug her and tell her how much he loves her. The scene is somewhat of an extension of last season's thread involving Hershel's (Scott Wilson) insistence that walkers are human. Though given what we already know about the Governor, like how he watches the jangling severed heads floating in water tanks for his own pleasure, his hair-brush routine conveys more than simply denial. Rather, the Governor's secret fixation on reliving the past signals a deep level of psychosis masked by his seemingly fair-minded leadership of the Woodbury community.
"Say the Word" allows Morrissey a fuller range of emotion, as the Governor uses faux vulnerability to further exploit Andrea (Laurie Holden) and turn her against the ever-suspicious Michonne (Danai Gurira). We also see the extent of Woodbury's operation outside the town walls, when Merle (Michael Rooker) and some of the Governor's other henchmen leave town to retrieve walkers from elaborate traps. All this reveals the precise level of control the Governor holds over the community and its members. But perhaps more revealing of his leadership is the cage match-style fight he stages at the end of the episode, wherein chained walkers surround two human fighters. As the crowd cheers on, Andrea doubts the morality of the event. In response, the Governor, calm as ever, explains the necessity of spectacle as a means of giving folks an outlet. His justification for trivializing the nature of the outside world and entertaining the masses with violent misrepresentations marks a potential new avenue The Walking Dead may be headed down. It could also be construed as the show's first bit of reflexive commentary on the nature and gratuitousness of its own violent expressions.
However you interpret the Governor's actions and account for them, one thing for certain is that the portrayal of Woodbury continues to stand in stark contrast to the group back at the prison. With a new baby requiring care, those who remain in the dwindling group come together in a way that's beginning to resemble a family. Their need to protect and help each other has become almost instinctive, emphasized by several tender exchanges born out of their mutual lament for those they've lost. In particular, Daryl (Norman Reedus), who, despite keeping his emotions mostly in check, appears to be growing into an active leader figure through subtle acts of loyalty and persistence that resonate with the others.
The one missing element amid the familial bonding is Rick (Andrew Lincoln), whose guilt and despair have swelled to such a level that he refuses to engage anyone. For much of the episode, Rick prowls about the prison's interior, his face caked in blood, chopping through walkers on his way to locating Lori's remains. His final encounter with the zombie who alone appears to have benefited from Lori's corpse represents perhaps the show's darkest chapter yet. Rick's impulse to see his wife is a clear juxtaposition to the Governor's own unfettered drive to regain some semblance of a life long over. But the most chilling moment arrives in the closing shots, with the inexplicable ringing phone that Rick hears and answers. Real or imagined, this moment tacitly illustrates the intimate degree to which we have become bonded to Rick's withdrawal from the group.
"Say the Word" lacks the thrills and broader emotional palate of the previous episode, and thus its significance in the broader story arc is somewhat low. Nevertheless, within the scope of the show's accepted limitations, the episode is a measured accomplishment. Its vision of human descent into madness, while not terribly original, resounds in small, palpable doses.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.