For all the anticipation and careful setup over the last several episodes of The Walking Dead, the show’s mid-season finale was somewhat anticlimactic. Many burning questions were introduced leading up to the episode. What will Andrea (Laurie Holden) think when she finds out about the zombie daughter the Governor (David Morrissey) keeps hidden inside a cage and all those heads floating inside wall-length fish tanks? What will Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) reunion bring? How is Rick (Andrew Lincoln) going to get Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) out of Woodbury? All of these are answered, if not in a particularly satisfying way. We do, though, get bombarded with more questions. “Made to Suffer” delivers on tension, action, and confrontation, but it’s all pivot and no release.
The episode’s primary focus initially seems to be Rick’s mission to penetrate Woodbury and rescue Maggie and Glen. He remains suspicious of Michonne, who disappears after helping Rick’s group sneak into the town. Meanwhile, the Governor scampers around trying to manage the residents’ fears that their haven’s been infiltrated. He also wants to keep Andrea away from the action so she can’t learn that the intruders are members of her former group. He’s away from much of the episode’s action until his confrontation with Michonne in his quarters, where his cool surface disappears when Michonne kills his zombie daughter and the two engage in an intense fistfight that ends with him likely losing an eye. Afterward, he weeps and hunches over his lifeless daughter with a shard of glass protruding from his eye—the defining image of the episode and likely the defining moment for the character going forward.
Michonne and the Governor’s violent confrontation is tensely executed, and the subsequent meeting between Andrea and Michonne is intriguing for how the latter’s suspicions about Woodbury burn beneath her silence and icy glare. But other storylines distract, one of which concerns a band of new survivors introduced at the start of the episode. After finding their way into the prison, Carl (Chandler Riggs) helps them escape from walkers and then locks them in a cell, clearly so they can be vetted. While the spotlight on Carl’s budding sense of leadership and quick-fire decision-making, so obviously inherited from his father, is a fresh angle to the character, we’re merely teased by the episode’s introduction of these new characters, whose only point of interest so far is how differently they react to their being imprisoned.
Back at Woodbury, a long stretch of gunfire precedes Rick and his group’s escape from town. Absent from the gunplay, however, is a sense of risk. Given the episode’s focus on the doubts and secrets that underscore the relationships between Michonne, Governor, and Andrea, everything else seems to amount to nothing. There’s a clumsily executed moment where Rick hallucinates that one of his attackers is Shane (Jon Bernthal), but the scene feels random at best, as there’s never a sense of the internal strife that’s clearly led to Rick’s confusion at this moment, and so many months since his friend’s death.
The episode concludes with the Governor addressing the town with a newfound sense of vigilance after the loss of his zombie daughter. His decision to make Merle the scapegoat is initially shocking, but not at all out of turn for the man. He’ll do whatever it takes to assert his power and satiate the townspeople’s bloodlust and desire to see someone suffer for the invasion and death of their friends. The betrayal of Merle’s loyalty to the Governor notwithstanding, seeing Daryl thrust into danger also makes the final scene a strong one. The character has become an audience favorite as the series has evolved, but he’s rarely been allowed to take center stage, and his life has never been in such jeopardy before. In the end, that he’s been reunited with Merle is incidental. The sequence is an effective tease for what’s to come, though it caps off an episode that fails to meet the expectations promised by the setup of the previous episodes and the general quality of the entire season until this point.
Weighed against this season’s vast improvements, “Made to Suffer” is a disappointment. From the start, this season was leaner and more purposeful in how it introduced and maneuvered around new settings, characters, and plotlines. To put it more simply: it moved. That each episode carefully managed these threads in such a way as to maximize their eventual collision later on was obvious, but it worked because the writers had recognized last season’s flaws and handled the character drama with more nuance and assuredness. However, one thing last season got right was the mid-season finale, which in its closing moments (the highlight of which was Sophia’s emergence from the barn) delivered a remarkably lyrical climax to the season’s long and frustrating first half. This season is showing the reverse of that pattern. Although it’s been more decisive and absorbing, the series enters a two-and-a-half month break on an ambivalent note.
Flashy marketing terms like “mid-season finale” and the expectations they carry aside, “Made to Suffer” lacks the gusto that the confrontations depicted within it deserve. It leaves you with the sense that The Walking Dead may have nowhere else to go, a looming quandary for the series that no amount of confrontation and bloodshed will conceal going forward. No doubt, bigger and nastier confrontations await the show’s characters in the season’s second half. But as the inevitable combat plays out alongside with the devouring of more human flesh, don’t be surprised if you find yourself ever more suspended in a state of numbness wondering why any of it matters.
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.