When last we saw The Walking Dead the writers had set off a chain of events with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and co.'s invasion of Woodbury that teased the imminent explosion to come and signaled an acceleration toward an exciting merging of the season's parallel storylines. "Made to Suffer" raised a lot of possibilities to mull over during the show's absence, some more predictable than others (The Governor, played by David Morrissey, finally snapped), some more provocative (is Rick losing his grip on reality?), but all of them signaling that season three’s second half would see our protagonists bracing for impact as the physical and metaphorical walls separating them from Woodbury were breached, making retaliation a matter of when rather than if. It's this promise inherent in the first half of the season, the good will built up and the accelerated pace that the show had comfortably and skillfully adopted, that made "The Suicide King" such a disappointment.
Almost as though the show knew it needed to temper your expectations, "The Suicide King" starts out poorly, picking up on the unwilling duel to the death between Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Merle (Michael Rooker), made more harrowing with the introduction of biters. The brothers trade "a few licks" before being interrupted by Rick and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), guns blazin' and smokebombs hurlin'. Episode director Lesli Linka Glatter has proven herself adept at directing drama with shows such as Mad Men, The West Wing and ER, but she has no concept of what it takes to create a good action set piece, staging and shooting such a boring and incoherent invasion that it actually makes the cliffhanger from "Made to Suffer" appear as though it were shot on a different, larger set. Nevertheless, the episode hobbles to where it needs to be, with the group escaping with Daryl and, much to their chagrin, Merle in tow.
Merle’s reintroduction into the group doesn't sit well with Glenn (Steven Yeun), who's understandably upset due not only to the beating he had earlier received at Merle's hand (or lack thereof), but also because of the previous association with The Governor, who had his way (to an extent) with Maggie. Glenn vehemently protests Merle rejoining the group, a sentiment echoed by Rick, but when faced with the choice to stick with his blood family or his adopted family, Daryl just can't let his brother go off on his own and he departs with best wishes for Rick and "lil’ asskicker."
The frustration of the situation is too much for Glenn, who erupts at Rick for letting Daryl leave. His rage gives voice to the episode's most interesting —and arguably, only—development: the group expended a large quantity of invaluable ammunition in an effort to rescue an invaluable team member just to have him leave anyway. The previous deaths of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Oscar (Vincent M. Ward) have shrunken the group to a skeletal crew, and with imminent retribution from The Governor on the horizon, the loss of both man and firepower is something they cannot afford.
After that, "The Suicide King" spends the rest of its time spinning its wheels, spending too much time reminding us of things we already knew or reverting back to the horrendous season two tendencies of manufacturing drama rather than allowing it to develop organically. Two egregious examples come to mind, the first of which occurs behind the not-so-safe-anymore walls of Woodbury.
Yes, people infiltrated the idyllic post-apocalyptic suburb and yes, they had guns that hurt people, but while The Governor has secluded himself inside his apartment in the wake of the attack, preparing…something, the citizens of Woodbury have packed their bags and are making for the exits. The guards are trying to quell the mob, but the sans-pitchforks/torches villagers still are aching to get out. "It's not safe," Andrea (Laurie Holden) pleads. "We'll take our chances," an idiot responds. Really? You'll take your chances in the wild surrounded by zombies away from the protection of armed guards? You know where taking your chances led you earlier? To Woodbury. Sure, the wall has been breached and now zombies have gotten in, but do these people realize that outside Woodbury there’s NOTHING BUT ZOMBIES?
Pouting in his room, The Governor is unable to guide the people so Andrea, in what is likely supposed to be a scene setting up future conflict between her and her one-eyed lover, steps in to fill the role of leader and comforter. This takes the form of the shortest and least convincing motivational speech in history, but the plebeians mutter approval and shuffle back to their homes anyway.
Back at the prison, it's business as usual with Tyreese (Chad Coleman) making a pitch to stay and Rick being a hardass. What's supposed to make this iteration of Deal or No Deal interesting is that the writers now seem fully committed to turning Rick into a crazy person. What began with the imaginary phone conversation and continued with "Shane" reappearing during the Woodbury kerfuffle has manifested itself in a weird echo sound effect when Rick holds his newborn baby and creepy glances he shoots Beth's (Emily Kinney) way. Apparently feeling that that's too subtle, the writers commit the second act of egregiously manufactured drama when Rick spies the ghost of Lori and flips the fuck out. "What do you want here? I can't help you!" Rick screams, brandishing his handgun. Understandably, this freaks everyone out and Tyreese, wisely not wanting to get shot, shuffles his posse out the door.
While Rick's descent into madness is no surprise, the abruptness of his outburst is unexpected and nonsensical. Here's a guy who just perpetrated a meticulous rescue from what is essentially a guarded fortress and the next minute he's screaming at invisible people out of the blue? It's not the suddenness of the outburst that's troubling, but the worry about how the writers will handle it moving forward. Would it be interesting and believable within the show's context to see its stalwart collapse under the pressure? Absolutely, but The Walking Dead is AMC's most popular show by far; I doubt there's any way they'd allow the writers to stray too far outside the status quo. Wrapping up this thread too neatly would be a great injustice to narrative logic, but the network has too much riding on this undead horse to rock the boat too much. If "The Suicide King" is any indication of what we can expect from the second half of the season, then perhaps the writers have already reneged on their repentance from season two.