That is a Slaughter
So it comes down to this: two white men presuming the right to trade a black woman as their property to settle their own disputes. The racial politics of this show have been so messy and messed up that I can’t quite tell if this image is intentional with its racial charge. If this moment is finally digging into the race themes of the show, then it has the potential to be quite brilliant. My hope would be that Michonne would upend the whole thing somehow, revealing the hubris of these guys for what it is. But my sense is that she will remain little more than a pawn in the game playing out between the Governor and Rick. My sense is that we are now supposed to have picked our sides – Gov.=evil because he’s setting a trap and Rick=good because he wants Herschel to talk him out of giving Michonne over. My sense is that the deeper question of why these men think they even have the right to trade in and offer gifts of black bodies to save white bodies to each other will go unanswered.
My prediction – Rick’s group will head to Woodbury with Rick undecided on what to do. There will be some mix of Michonne doing something heroic and the Governor being revealed as having no intention of sticking to his agreement. And then war will ensue with losses on both sides.
In other words, the story will move along in ways that eclipse the racial questions once again.
I know we complain a lot about this show, but I actually have found the last two weeks to have been much stronger than the first few of this season’s half. I didn’t get to chime in last week, but I thought the tight focus on a handful of characters paired with a new location, some more interesting aesthetics (how little we see written words in this show, I realized…and what inventiveness with combat tactics!), and a whole new way of relating to ‘the enemy’ (clearing them out and cremating them in some strange but lovely ritual of care) revived the show. This week continued the aesthetic joys again (just look at the careful staging of the photo I’m using in the post) – I loved that the guys met on an actual stage, and the shots taken through the barn’s roof were gorgeous. The return to intense psychological play between the men, with the Governor always staying one step ahead of Rick (watching so carefully for when Rick sipped his drink so that he could know his weak spots – brilliant!) offered some fantastic detail to why his terrifying power works.
But the improvements felt somewhat cheapened by the realization that last week’s character developments were rushed through in pure service of this week’s plot twist. Michonne became “one of us” only to give a few grams of moral weight to the possibility of giving her over to Woodbury. There’s no trust of the viewer here to let anything build slowly – just imagine they’d been developing her as an integral part of the community for the last six episodes! Then this would all feel heavy, more meaningful. But it remains the case that as soon as someone becomes interesting on this show, they’re probably about to die – real fast – or get used up and tossed aside again. There’s no character development for character sake.
Which leaves me concerned about the developments between Glen and Maggie in this episode. Which one of them will die in battle next week? Glenn admitting the foolishness of his machismo, his inability to be there for her, and Maggie’s ability to articulate her own needs – it revived their intimacy (in some sexy ways! I feel like that’s the first time we’ve actually seen them get it on rather than have it alluded to behind closed doors) and brought back why we liked them so much.
With the pattern of this show, though, that can only mean problems for one of them next week!
One final thought – there is so much wasted potential happening around Andrea right now. When she was dismissed from the meeting, I had my frustrated response about how women always get tossed aside. But it was also curious in that it wasn’t just men telling a woman to leave; it was also men who’s identities are defined by ‘the law’ but are being performed outside the law dismissing the lawyer. And sending her out to where the other four guys were realizing their own commonalities as the leaders’ right hand men (Milton and Herschel) and their soldiers (Daryl and Caesar). There really is no place for a lawyer among this set of identities being marked out – a theme that could use a little development in my view.
Looking forward to hearing what you all thought!
Thanks for some really great insights. I think you nailed two points: the symbolic economy in which Michonne is functioning (just as she’s starting to emerge as a character capable of vocalization), an economy for which just about any other show would show some awareness, but with TWD (set in the American South, no less), I can’t see much hope of awareness of the racial dynamics of Michonne’s trade. So also with Andrea – we’ve lamented before how one of last season’s few interesting characters has been reduced to an inert, and so sexualized, pawn, and so it continued last night. Really, the reductionism of Andrea’s character precisely inverts that of Michonne’s elevation in the last few weeks: both function as bodies in TWD, a show defined by the brutality of bodies and how bodies are semaphore for the marginalities of the human.
I really weighed in today, though, because I was kind of excited by the last two weeks’ episodes. “Clear” last week was superb, and while this one had some low points (basically everything at the prison, except for Glenn and Maggie), like last week, its structure was built around a set of pairings that paid off unexpectedly. Last week, we had Carl(!) and Michonne, and Morgan with Rick; this week, while Rick and the Governor were mostly strong, it was Daryl and Caesar’s zombie-killing male bonding, and Herschel and Milton’s quiet trading of notes, that struck me as really compelling (even as all three sets worked because of Andrea’s marginalization, because let’s face it, she’s just a drag on the show now). It shows how good TWD can be when it keeps its scope small, and plays off smaller, more personal conflicts and relationships; “Clear” reminded me of last season’s superb episode that isolated Rick and Shane, in that sense. The flip side to that is how poor it is at world-building, and how profoundly bad, and non-self-aware, it is at handling larger social dynamics, including the race and gender issues we’ve all been tracking for a while now. The show just gets lost with a big group to characterize and provide compelling political dynamics for; after all, this season we’ve got an antagonist, the Governor, whose motivations remain as arbitrary and vacuous to me as the day we began.
All in all, a fascinating mix of TWD‘s strengths and weaknesses this week.
Thanks, Natalie and Travis, for your great insights. I don’t have much to add beyond the analysis you two have so brilliantly provided and provoked, but here are two interrelated thoughts:
1) I love the way you called attention to the staged nature of the sit-down, Natalie (quite literally on a stage, framed by overhead shots). There were so many conventions of the Western in play! If the dialogue had been a bit more elevated it could have been a page out of a David Milch script. Even the expulsion of Andrea from the powwow played with Western tropes, both as a woman (women are not agents in these showdowns, they are the objects to be haggled over/protected/exchanged) and as a lawyer (the only law is the law of force represented in the gun-slung men at the table).
2) Do you all get a sense that our characters (especially our trusty band of travelers holed up in the prison, but also the residents of Woodbury, at least the ones we meet who are actually real characters) are being energized by the potential of this intra-human war because it is familiar/conventional? Is there something predictable and maybe even comforting about having a human enemy and fighting a kind of “old-fashioned” war compared to the chaos, violence, and trauma of the undead eating your children alive? Watching Daryl and Caesar share a cigarette and macho moment of connection, I wondered if it wasn’t a kind of peace: two men finally finding a role they knew how to play, a purpose besides bashing in the skulls of the undead and reliving the nightmares of the disintegration of civilization (especially given that Caesar shared the depths of his own loss; and we’ve watched Daryl face loss for two seasons). I wondered last week what the end game of these survivors could possible hope to be. Maybe they don’t need an end game – just a narrative that makes sense. And war is driven by its own inherent logic – once you step inside that story the lines can seem so black and white, the path forward so clear. Even resisting war is a kind of agency that is largely denied when you are just running and hunting and surviving all the time.
Only three episodes left – let’s hope this season keeps its own momentum and we are left with somewhere to go, or some story left to tell, when it is all over.
Thanks for bringing up that second point, Kathryn. The Daryl- Caesar conversation reminded of nothing so much as that old Civil War trope: brother fighting against brother (a dynamic made extraordinarily complicated and fraught here in the Midwest, where in Kansas and Missouri loyalties were local, familial, and circumstantial, and as a result the tone of the war was more guerrilla skirmishes and lynch mobs than a classic “big battle” scenario – a fair way of characterizing TWD so far). So as we approach the Woodbury-prison war, I wonder if the allusions to the American South – Civil War and the trade in black flesh – are more deliberate than we’ve assumed. As always in TWD, it’s a muddled set of themes, but it’s worth mentioning.