When it first started, The Walking Dead was about the immediate sensation of living in a post-apocalyptic world. In the shadow of a crumbled society, survivors adjusted to the violent realignment of their lives by banding together, struggling to stay human. Now, because of all they've seen and suffered, the characters who've made it this far are shells of their former selves. Survival is no longer simply a matter of avoiding being eaten by zombies; it also requires a frigid sense of detachment and perhaps even cruelty, both of which course through “When the Dead Come Knocking.” No one anymore seems to know what it means to be human.
The opening shot of Merle (Michael Rooker) scraping a splintered table with his knife-arm immediately sets the tone for what follows. With Glen (Steven Yeun) shackled and refusing to give up the location of his group, it's not long before Merle begins torturing him. When Merle sets a walker loose in the room, Glen's ensuing struggle to get free and kill exudes a striking primal ferocity. Such a desperate struggle for survival hasn't been seen since Andrea (Laurie Holden) was being chased through the woods at the end of season two. It's a key moment for Glen, too, who until this point in the season hasn't had much of a presence.
The Governor's (David Morrissey) interrogation tactic with Maggie (Lauren Cohan) is subtler, but no less disturbing. After forcing her to disrobe, his decision not to rape her is curious. Whether its mercy on the part of the character or restraint on behalf of the show's writers, the scene is nonetheless difficult to bear. And yet it's unlikely that we've seen the full extent of the Governor's psychosis. The restraint he's exhibited in past episodes is evident here, but we're also starting to get glimpses of what's beneath the surface when his control slips.
Elsewhere in Woodbury, Milton (Dallas Roberts) wants to prove that walkers remember their human selves, experimenting on an elderly man nearing death, though Andrea serves him up a lesson after it all nearly goes wrong. The premise of “curing” the walkers through a form of Pavlovian remembrance of their pre-zombie state is intriguing. It represents another attempt of the series to investigate the difficulty the survivors have with accepting the notion of a zombie, i.e., a person without thought or memory operating for nothing other than survival. But the writers fail to develop the material in a new way, and thus, unless these scenes are leading to a new revelation, they do little more than reinforce the same basic juxtaposition of humans and zombies the series has long been concerned with. If anything, these scenes are a distraction from what's brewing elsewhere, particularly Michonne's (Danai Gurira) arrival at the prison and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) learning about Woodbury.
Speaking of Rick, the episode marks his full return to form and to his band of survivors. In fact, he seems to have achieved an even keel that he lacked before he lost his wife. He engages everyone more clearly and with more emotion, and though the conversation with Carl (Chandler Riggs) about naming the baby is the type of stock emotional exchange the writers have yet to improve on, the gratitude Rick shows Daryl (Norman Reedus) is the kind of quiet moment that The Walking Dead could stand to have more of.
The episode's strongest moments are toward the end, when Rick takes a small team and heads off to Woodbury under Michonne's lead. In particular, their encounter with a crazed man at a shack deep in the woods offers beautiful tension and an ironic payoff. Michonne doesn't hesitate to impale the man, and equally unnerving is the promptness with which Rick decides to feed the man's corpse to the walkers as a distraction so his posse can slip out of the house unnoticed. While not as outright grotesque as the interrogation scenes at Woodbury, these scenes intimate a more unsettling truth: that those who have survived this long have done so because they're willing to kill without reluctance.
The episode's tantalizing closing moments, with Rick and the crew arriving at the gates of Woodbury, suggest that next week's mid-season finale will deliver a major showdown. Yet, aside from all its careful setup, “When the Dead Come Knocking” is more significant for revealing how ugly all of these characters can be, not just the Governor and Merle. In a way, it's a measuring stick for how much The Walking Dead has evolved. Few would deny that dialing down the personal backstories and moral dilemmas has yielded a more economical, potent, and overall more effective series. But the ostensible tradeoff is that viewers may now be just as jaded to the acts of savagery as the characters committing them.
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.