“Do you think they remember anything? The person they once were?” a man asks in the latest episode of The Walking Dead. This is the kind of question you’d expect from someone in a George A. Romero zombie film, specifically one of the more recent ones, wherein zombies exhibit traits of their pre-zombie selves. Here, though, the significance of the question doesn’t concern zombies so much as how the human survivors of a zombie uprising project their own fears and insecurities onto the living dead. “Walk with Me” is a notable change of pace for The Walking Dead for several reasons, most clearly its shift in plot trajectory to initiate a new storyline with a new group of survivors. More importantly, however, it’s about unearthing the past and recalling a distant life. This becomes clear at the outset, when Andrea (Laurie Holden) and her travel companion, Michonne (Danai Gurira), are discovered by a familiar face at the site of a helicopter crash.
After the first two episodes of the season focused so intensely on Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) fleeting humanity and the group’s strategic actions to gain asylum, “Walk with Me” introduces a new survivor group that takes Andrea under its wing. Unwittingly abandoned during the group’s escape from Hershel’s farm, Andrea came under the protection of Michonne, and together—along with two armless, jawless walkers—they survived the winter. Following an encounter with Daryl’s brother, Merrill (Michael Rooker) at the start of the episode, Andrea and Michonne are plucked from the dystopian wilderness and end up in a place that would seem to be its opposite.
The town is Woodbury. Barricaded from the world outside, the people of the town attempt to lead a relatively normal life with minimal fear of death. Their leader, known as the Governor (David Morrissey), runs a tight operation of protecting the Georgia burb. He talks nostalgically about a sense of community at Woodbury, referring to it as a place where people can return to who they are and what they’re really about. Given the unsettling reality that much of society has crumbled outside of this place, Andrea appears ready to buy into the Governor’s alluring utopian vision. But things aren’t what they seem, as we learn of the lengths the Governor is willing to go to preserve the town’s isolation. By the end, his calm, welcoming demeanor is revealed to be a calculated ruse to exploit others to his gain.
Many of the exchanges in the episode relate to memory, from Merrill’s past ties to Andrea, to reminisces of each of their siblings. For the Governor’s part, he’s obsessed with learning about “biters.” His mad scientist-esque subordinate dissects and studies walkers, looking for clues about not just their weaknesses, but how they came to be this way. Asked about whether she thinks the walkers have any memory of their past lives, Andrea quickly responds that she doesn’t think about it. Afterward, when she prompts Michonne about her connection to the pair of walkers she used as camouflage, it’s clear that Andrea is as dogged by her past as the others are by their own. But for all of the implication of past hurt throughout the episode, much about the histories of the Governor, Michonne, and the other inhabitants of Woodbury remain concealed beneath their cool surfaces.
Although “Walk with Me” forgoes the main storyline involving Rick and the band of survivors now hunkered down at the prison, the obvious parallels between the two threads show themselves in various places throughout the episode. Rick’s outfit is smaller and not nearly as well equipped as the Governor’s, but both men appear willing to compromise their humanity in order to ensure survival. In addition, Merrill has sunk into the same role as an enforcer with the Governor as Daryl (Norman Reedus) now occupies with Rick. However, the contrasts between the two are also striking. Where the Governor ostensibly employs benevolence as a veneer to manipulate allies and enemies, Rick’s diminishing compassion is perhaps more a sign that he has retained his humanity somewhat even if he’s ever distant from those he protects. Rick may desire unfettered control, but “Walk with Me” shows signs that the Governor’s similar ambition is only a means to a more sinister end.
The writers’ decision to limit this episode to Andrea and the Governor heightens the contrast between the two divergent plots, presumably in anticipation of their eventual collision in episodes to come. More broadly, however, “Walk with Me” expresses the fraught tensions born out of the convergence of past suffering and future building. Laying a fresh thematic groundwork inevitably forces the writers to revert to the kind of exposition that the previous two episodes sharply eschewed. Nevertheless, to gain sight of a different shade of this world through Morrissey’s galvanizing portrait of the Governor represents The Walking Dead’s most promising direction since the series began.
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.