"The Walking Dead" has been at the top of its game in recent weeks, delivering one tense and taut hour after another. Sunday's episode, "When the Dead Come Knocking," was no different. It's just a damn shame that next week brings the midseason finale.
But we'll think about that later. Sunday's hour begins in the not-so-peaceful environs of Woodbury. Red neck Merle has abducted Glenn and Maggie and has them bound with duct tape to wooden chairs in separate rooms. Merle is about to interrogate Glenn, but first he wants to recall that fateful rooftop incident in Atlanta, where he was handcuffed to a pipe by Rick and abandoned by the group.
"People wouldn't do that to an animal," Merle snarls.
Glenn explains that they attempted to come back and retrieve him, but Merle wants none of it and wonders what's going on with T-Dog, that "big ol' spear-chucker" who had been on the roof with him.
Glenn tells him that T-Dog is dead and Merle, the tender-hearted soul that he is, says, "I hope he went slow."
And then the interrogation: Merle wants to know where his brother, Daryl, and the rest of the group, is. Glenn won't tell him. Merle then positions a knife, very precariously, against Glenn's mouth and repeats his demand. But Glenn head-butts him, leaving the red neck with a bloody nose.
Merle recoils for an instant, gathers himself, and then proceeds to turn Glenn's face into his personal punching bag, delivering one vicious hit after another. In the room next door, Maggie can hear it all, wincing in anguish with each punch.
After the opening credits, we cut to the prison yard and pick up where last week's episode left off: Michonne, bloody and woozy from her battles with Merle, is poised at the fence and surrounded by a clot of walkers as a bewildered Rick looks on. Michonne gamely starts to stab and be-head the animated corpses, but there are too many and she's too weak. She passes out and the remaining walkers close in on her.
Rick, now joined by Carl, fire away at the zombies with their guns and rescue Michonne. But she stubbornly tells them, "I didn't ask for your help."
Later, inside the prison walls, Michonne, is still wary of this man and this group. But she witnesses their compassion when Daryl triumphantly returns with Carol. The woman who was previously presumed dead embraces her comrades and expresses her misty-eyed sympathy for Rick, the new widower. Then she takes his baby daughter into her arms. It's a tender, touching scene that stands out even more against the violence we've been witnessing.
Rick tells Michonne that he'll have the doctor tend to her wound, give her some food and send her on her way. But first, he wants to know how she found his group. She explains that she saw Glenn and Maggie being abducted in town by Merle -- the same "SOB" who shot her. And then she tells them about the weird little place called Woodbury and of the "charming Jim Jones-type" who runs it.
That, of course, prompts Rick and Daryl to get a rescue team together. The plan is to have Michonne take them to Woodbury and retrieve their friends. But first, Rick has a little heart-to-heart with Carl. It's the first time he and his boy have spoken about the night Lori passed away.
"I did what I had to do," Carl explains.
"I know," Rick replies. "And I'm sorry. No one should have to go through that."
Then their talk turns to the baby. Carl reminds his dad that she still needs a name, that Daryl has been calling her "little ass-kicker." Rick wants to know if Carl has any ideas and he speaks lovingly of his third-grade teacher -- a woman named Judith.
"That's a fine name," Rick says. "Judith it is."
Meanwhile, back in Woodbury, Merle has turned Glenn's face into a bloody pulp, but Glenn remains defiant. His friends will be coming to save them soon, he says, while slyly lying about how many people are in the group. Glenn's courage is somewhat surprising -- and very admirable.
A frustrated Merle decides to change strategies. Now, he brings a hungry walker into the room and locks him up alone with Glenn, who apparently is about to become lunch. But Glenn doesn't want to be munched on. He scrambles to evade the walker, while still bound to the chair. Stumbling about, he repeatedly rams the chair into a wall until it starts splintering into pieces. Finally, he drives a sharp, busted chair leg into the walker's eye. My, how Glenn has toughened up. Don't mess with this guy!
While all this has been going on, the Governor has taken Andrea to meet Milton, who is conducting weird experiments in a room full of lovely paintings and peaceful music. There, lying in bed, is an elderly man named Mr. Coleman who is in the final moments of a long-running battle with prostate cancer.
Milton has asked Mr. Coleman, who can't speak above a whisper, to confirm the names of his wife and children (when he displays their photos) by raising his hand off the bed. Milton then explains to Andrea that he wants to ask Mr. Coleman those same questions in the moments after he dies and begins to re-animate. The idea is to see if early-stage walkers retain any kind of trace memory.
Andrea is skeptical. "When they turn, they become monsters," she says. Everything else is gone. And then she's stunned to learn that Milton has never witnessed a reanimation. Clearly, this nerd doesn't get out enough.
Meanwhile, the Governor has huddled with Merle about the interrogation and he's concerned that Maggie and Glenn know Andrea. He wants to question Maggie himself, and for a while, it appears that he's playing good cop to Merle's bad cop.
He removes the duct tape from Maggie's arms and speaks in soothing tones. This whole thing has been one big misunderstanding, he says. Just tell us where your friends are and we'll set you free. Maggie says she wants to talk to Glenn, but the Governor nixes that idea.
Then things get creepy and perverted. He orders Maggie to shed her shirt and if she doesn't he'll bring Glenn's severed hand to her. Maggie disrobes down to her bra. "Go on," he says, and she removes her bra.
The Gov calmly sheds his holster and approaches her from behind. He fondles her hair for a moment ... and then slams Maggie's head into the table.
"Do what you're going to do," she says. "Then go to hell."
The Gov thinks about it briefly, then reconsiders. Instead, he takes Maggie into Glenn's room. He announces that he's through playing games and points his pistol directly at Glenn's head. This prompts a terrified Maggie to finally reveal that their 10-person group has taken refuge at the prison. The Governor finds it hard to believe that 10 people could have cleared that entire facility. He locks Maggie up with Glenn and then goes to ponder his next move.
Meanwhile, in Milton's laboratory, Mr. Coleman has croaked and has begun to reanimate. Milton poses the questions to the walker-to-be and he swears that the man tried to raise his hand, but couldn't due to the bed-strap restraints. He wants to remove the straps. Andrea warns against it.
"He'll lurch," she says.
Clueless Milton removes the straps anyway and, sure enough, the walker lurches right for him. But a quick-thinking Andrea saves him by planting a knife into the walker's spongy head.
Now, the Governor is huddling with Merle again. He thinks Maggie and Glenn have lied about the number of people in their group. And if his hunch is right, it means a pretty "sizable force" has moved into their backyard. Moreover, he's concerned that Merle's brother, Daryl, is part of that force and could be out there searching for Maggie and Glenn.
"Blood is blood," the Gov says. "It makes me wonder where your loyalties lie."
Right here, Merle assures him.
The Gov., of course, is right about one thing: Daryl (along with a few others) is on his way there. On the advice of Michonne, the rescue party has abandoned their car about a mile or two outside Woodbury to make the rest of the trek by foot. They're forced into a brief detour to a hunter's little cabin when a horde of walkers shows up. The hunter, a cranky old man, raises a loud fuss after they barge in and pulls a rifle. Rick tries to talk him down, but Michonne shows the group just how ruthless she can be when she drives her sword through the man. They toss his corpse out the front door to appease the zombie throng and then quickly escape out the back.
Cut to Woodbury: The Governor is back home when a distraught Andrea shows up, in desperate need of a drink. The Governor asks: "Did Milton find what he was looking for?"
"No," she replies, before falling into his comforting arms.
"Hey, it's all right," he says in those creepy/soothing tones of his. "It's all over now."
But, of course, he knows it isn't. His eyes gaze off into the distance as he undoubtedly contemplates the major conflict coming his way.
So what did you think of the episode? Have you braced yourself for a monumental midseason finale? Please share with us.