The Walking Dead Watch: Cincinnatus Rises

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At the end of last season, with the farm engulfed in flames and a terrified band of survivors huddled by the roadside, Rick announced to the members of his group that the days of democracy were over. If they wanted to stay together, to pool their resources and watch each other’s backs, they would have to do exactly what he said. Thus, on that night, the Ricktatorship was born. Like most dictatorships, Rick’s days as supreme leader were numbered. There wasn’t a bloody coup organized by the Dixon brothers, and he didn’t fall in battle. Instead, after agonizing over one of the toughest decisions he’s faced in the course of the show, Rick’s inner Cincinnatus prevailed and he voluntarily relinquished power.

Cincinnatus, who served two posts as dictator of Rome in the 4th Century B.C., is held as the paragon of civic virtue. Twice granted absolute power, he twice relinquished it to return to his farm and let the citizens of Rome chart their own path. George Washington’s decision to resign his commission as commanding general of the Continental Army earned him comparisons to Cincinnatus. Washington would display that virtue a second time by serving only two terms as the nation’s first President.

Rick’s decision to relinquish absolute power of the group came, in part, because of a crisis of conscience, but also a realization that only the absence of a dictator would make them different from the society living in Woodbury. It’s not like Rick ran completely roughshod over his people; in fact, he spent a good part of this season lost in his mental breakdown, seeing visions of his dead wife and luckily snapping out of it in time to resume command. Without Hershel’s wise counsel and Daryl’s ability to get things done, the Ricktatorship might have collapsed while the supreme leader was otherwise occupied. Instead, when Rick faced the decision whether to banish one of his own to certain torture and death, he came to the realization that what sets them apart is they won’t sacrifice one for the greater good–they are the greater good.

Last night’s show — the season’s penultimate episode — was near perfect. There was plenty of action, more zombie kills than we’ve seen in quite some time, and several important threads came to conclusions. For a while now, we’ve been wondering what would happen with Merle. He sort of slinked away in the background of the prison, stepping up just enough to cause trouble from time to time. It wasn’t surprising at all that Merle decided to take matters into his own hands and try to hand Michonne over to the Governor. What was shocking, and I’m not exactly sure what triggered his change of heart, was that Merle decided to let her go, then self-deployed on a suicide mission to try and take out the Governor.

Rick had his awakening while Hershel was reading Psalm 91 to his daughters: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” With the dramatic voice over and vision of Lori, there was no mistaking the importance of that moment for Rick. Merle’s conversion was a trickier affair. One minute he’s driving Michonne to Woodbury while she tries some freshman year psychology on him, and the next he’s letting her go.

But even if Merle’s great moment was underwhelming, his plan to attack the Governor was audacious. Sitting in the car, blasting rock music, I thought at first he was committing suicide. Instead he led a horde of walkers to the Governor’s meeting site, then used the confusion of the ensuing gun battle to take out some of his henchman. He almost got his shot, too. In the end, the Governor proved a formidable fighter, bit off two of Merle’s fingers, then shot him. I thought it was too simple of an ending for a character who cast a shadow over the series — both by his presence and his absence,.

While this third season of TWD has been well made and entertaining, there has been a dearth of genuine surprises. I admit I didn’t see it coming when Daryl ran up to the meeting point, waded calmly through the piles of guts and found his brother in zombie form. The shot was well-executed: a zombie eating a dead man, then as the camera panned to the left, we saw Merle’s mechanical right hand. Norman Reedus played the scene beautifully (please take notes, Andrew Lincoln), displaying disbelief, anger, pain and heartbreak at the same time. When Merle stumbled towards him, Daryl first shoved him in the shoulder, as we can imagine he did a thousand times when they were kids. A few shoves later, and he could barely bring himself to raise the bowie knife and put his brother down for good.

By shooting Merle in the chest and allowing him to turn into a walker, the Governor has signed his death warrant. Merle and Daryl’s relationship was complicated, but in the end they were family, and that trumps nearly everything. All season, I thought that Rick would be the one to kill the Governor. But now that Rick has stepped aside and since Daryl has the greatest reason ever for killing – revenge – expect a long and bloody fight that ends with Daryl avenging his brother’s death. We’ll see if I’m right in one week’s time.

Zombie Kill Report: At least a couple dozen. When she was tied to a post (without her katana), Michonne displayed some clever improvisation skills, literally stomping the brains out of one walker and decapitating another with nothing but the wire Merle had used as a manacle.

And On the Home Front:  While all hell was breaking loose at the meeting site, Glenn took advantage of the tranquility of the prison to ask Maggie to marry him. Actually, he ask — he silently handed her a ring. Of course, she said yes. Two issues with this scene: (1) What the hell happened to getting down on one knee and putting the ring on the girl’s finger? Did chivalry die along with 97 percent of civilization?  And (2), If Maggie knew where the ring came from (the amputated fingers of a female walker in the yard) would she want to wear it? I hope Glenn took the time to disinfect it.

More Predictions: TWD’s producers have never had a problem with killing off important characters. We lost a huge one last night. But something tells me we’re in for at least one more big death. I’m predicting that the Governor will go down (his story has kind of run its course), perhaps a few other peripheral characters, but my big money is on Hershel. Since the day Rick sprinted up to the farm with a bleeding Carl in his arms, Hershel has been a vital and interesting character. He’s shown depth (his alcoholism and falling off the wagon),  offered wise counsel, and played the role of a loving father. But now that he has given Glenn his permission to marry his daughter, Hershel’s story may have run its course. Disagree? Let us know why in the comments below.