Welcome back everyone to A Deeper Look at The Walking Dead, where we go through the comic series volume by volume and pick it apart until it’s not fun anymore. This time, we’re looking at Volume 5: The Best Defense. It’s been a while since our last edition of this weekly (ha!) series, so let’s refresh.
The last time we left our heroes, they were very much divided and internally dysfunctional: Carol had tried to commit suicide, Hershel and his family were still struggling with the loss of the twin girls and Allen had died, leaving his two sons as orphans. On top of all that, Rick was steadily becoming more and more violent, killing Dexter and having a huge punch-up with Tyreese in the climax of Volume 4. After that, the survivors decided that, rather than have Rick as the sole leader, the group would be led by a council consisting of Rick, Tyreese, Dale and Hershel.
We open our arc around a week after the previous Volume concluded. Things have been going fairly well; all the rotting corpses that filled the prison have been burned, the last of the prison blocks is just about to be cleared, and they finally are about ready to get the generator running. Added to this, Glenn and Maggie find the prison armory, which includes lots of guns, ammo, and badass riot gear. However, just beneath the surface it is clear that tensions are brewing: Rick and Tyreese are still angry at each other, Carol is still clearly going off the deep end (medical term), and Tyreese and Michonne’s relationship is not helping.
While Glenn and Rick are out syphoning gasoline for the generator, they spot a helicopter crashing only a few miles away. Desperate to find out where it came from, the group send out a team consisting of Rick, Glenn and Michonne to see if anyone survived the wreckage. Sure enough, the plan goes a bit awry when their car gets stuck and, more ominously, they find that the possible survivors of the crash have already been taken.
Cautious as ever, the team decide to follow the footprints around the helicopter, eventually deducing them came from the nearby town of Woodbury. Rather than going back to the prison and preparing more thoroughly, Rick momentarily loses half his brain function and decides they should just head to Woodbury immediately.
Upon their arrival, they discover that Woodbury is a thriving community of over 40 people. They are well armed, well defended and well provided for, with everyone receiving food regardless of how much they contribute to the group’s success. Shortly after being disarmed, Rick, Michonne and Glenn meet Woodbury’s leader, The Governor. Why none of them realise a man who titles himself ‘The Governor’ in a post apocalyptic world is evil is not explained. Presumably Rick’s loss of brain function is contagious.
Anyway, The Governor comes across as charming enough for a brief moment, explaining that shortly after the plague of undead started he and some others raided an abandoned National Guard base nearby and found an enormous arsenal. With those weapons, they founded their community and The Governor quickly became leader. Shortly after this, however, we see that Woodbury host gladiatorial matches in a converted arena, where two people beat each other with melee weapons in an arena ringed with zombies. The Governor then explains that they keep the dead docile by feeding them strangers, and also reveals that the cover story the gang provided, that they have just been wandering since the outbreak began, is obviously a lie, and demands to know where they came from. Our heroes refuse, and so The Governor cuts off Rick’s hand.
Yeah, pretty brutal, and things only get worse from here. Michonne bites the Governor’s ear off, but rather than kill her he demands both she and Rick be kept alive. Glenn and Michonne are then imprisoned in separate rooms, and Rick is taken to Woodbury’s resident unruly doctor Stevens to be patched up. The Governor then reveals just how much of a total monster he is, as he orders that Michonne be tied up and tells her that he is going to rape and torture her daily until she finds a way to kill herself. Later, The Governor also has Glenn moved to the adjacent room, so that he can hear everything The Governor will do to her, in an effort to break Glenn’s spirits and get him to tell them where they came from.
We also see The Governor go to his apartments, where he has been keeping his zombified daughter chained to the wall. He feeds her Rick’s hand, and settles down into his chair for the evening… where he gazed as the zombified heads of over fifty people kept in fish tanks. Nice guy, that Governor bloke.
Meanwhile, back at the prison things are not going so well. The group is racked with worry over Glenn, Michonne and Rick. Initially, they believed that nothing bad would happen to them, the three of them being among the group’s premier zombie killing badasses, as the days roll on they are now not sure. On top of this, other internal issues are coming to the fore: Carol suggests to Lori that she wants to enter a threeway marriage with her and Rick, and Dale and Andrea are coming to grips with being parents for Allen and Donna’s kids.
At Woodbury, Rick wakens from yet another coma, and is introduced to Stevens and his assistant Alice. Rick questions how the people of Woodbury can be led by a man as insane as The Governor, and Stevens explains that, since he and his men have kept the town safe from the dead, most citizens are willing to follow him in spite of his brutality. The Governor soon interrupts, and he tells Rick that Michonne is still being held prisoner but Glenn has been set free, as he told them where the prison was. He then tells Rick that soon he will be going into the arena to fight for his life. Yes, this is exactly like Escape from New York.
Cut to a guy in riot armour running towards the prison. He nearly makes it to the gates before Dale hops into his RV and drives out to get him. He gets in the prison before taking off his helmet and…
Fake out! It was just Tyreese. The Governor lied to Rick, he was really just deducing that they came from the prison by the design of their riot gear and saw from the look on Rick’s face that he had guessed right. Good old Glenn didn’t say anything.
This arc then leaves us on a cliffhanger, with Rick, Michonne and Glenn still all prisoners in Woodbury.
A large amount of time is dedicated in this arc to examining the impact entertainment has on our mental well being. In the prison, the thing that excites people about the possibility of a working generator the most is the entertainment they will get out of it. And no, I’m not referring to the smooth hum of a gasoline generator (seriously, it’s more soothing than paint drying), I mean the option for the group to watch films and read at night. We also see that Carol, probably the most mentally unwell member of the group, has been reading non-stop since the library was cleared out, and is first shown in this volume carrying lots of books back to her room.
Patricia, a character who has been socially isolated since siding with Dexter in his failed prison takeover, has also been reading to fill up her time. At the start of the first issue, Rick laments that he has not heard any music in such a long time. Entertainment is clearly being shown to be something we rely on, and that without it the world can be too tough to bear at times, hence why our more mentally fragile characters are shown to be consuming it more.
In Woodbury, this desire for entertainment is turned in a much darker direction. The Governor understands this human desire, and so to keep his people sane and productive he hosts massive bloody spectacles to keep them entertained. He even explains that the undead he has surrounding the ring are there for show, they are even fed to keep them docile and less likely to interfere with the fight itself.
He says that people get ‘restless’ without entertainment, so much like the zombies consuming the flesh of ‘strangers’ to be made docile, the audience are fed bloody spectacle to remain subservient. The line is blurred even further, as The Governor says that sometimes gladiators will be eaten by the zombies watching on the sidelines, which seems representative of the audience themselves consuming the fighters on the stage.
This parallel is taken further later on, when The Governor watches the dead eating the bodies of the helicopter crew. He explains how he thinks the dead are no different from the living, that, much like us, they take what they want, are content briefly, then they hunger for more. This is, of course, much like us the audience: we consume entertainment, are briefly sated, but then move on to find something else to entertain us. The Governor himself watches zombified heads in fish tanks in his room, commenting that there ‘is never anything on’, a dark twist on television.
This leads us onto our second major theme in this arc: dictatorship. It is The Governor’s deeper understanding of our constant hunger for entertainment that has, in part, allowed him to rule over Woodbury as its dictator. He, like most authoritarians, wants to keep his people safe and lazy so as to deter any thoughts of dissent. Stevens says that the fear brought about by the zombie outbreak has led to The Governor’s rise, as the Woodbury citizens value safety above all else, and so are willing to let an autocrat rule if it means their preservation. This is, of course, true to real life as most authoritarian governments use an external threat to push their narrative of control.
The Governor’s control runs a bit deeper than that though. We have a brief scene that shows The Governor crossing the town to return home, and we see him presenting a totally different face to his public. He seems courteous and caring of others, telling children to be careful where they are running and advising another to go get some food. This is all a facade, of course, but this deception is another layer of control he puts on to his citizens. The Governor seems to enjoy how he can have a happy, friendly public face that is so different from the murderous, psychopathic person he really is.
This calls us back to some of the issues explored in the previous arc. Like The Governor, Rick was more than willing to let the main group believe that Dexter’s death was an accident, when in reality Rick pulled the trigger intentionally. In hiding this act, Rick began to go down a path far more violent and aggressive, ending in his brutal fight with Tyreese. In taking on the burden of being the sole leader and primary protector of the group, Rick had to be deceptive and ruthless towards his citizens. All this ended when the group decided to become more democratic and share the burden of security, but we see where this dark path leads in The Governor. He is, in a way, an alternate version of Rick, had he not turned away from this behaviour in the previous volume.
Another parallel is drawn between Rick and The Governor between their beliefs on the similarities between the undead and the living. Rick’s extended speech at the conclusion of volume 4 has him declare that the living ‘are the walking dead!’. The Governor holds very similar beliefs, but he has taken this ethic further. He sees no difference between the living and the dead, and uses this as a justification for his awful actions. This is evidenced when he is with his undead daughter, whom he treats as though she were alive: he feeds her, talks to her, disciplines her (albeit very aggressively).
A large difference between Rick and the Governor is in what motivates them. Rick does evil in order to protect the group, but The Governor’s crimes are done through greed. He seems to admire the dead for their ability to take what they want, without regard for any morality or rules allowing them to do so. The Governor himself seems to desire to live with this same disregard, as evidenced in his treatment of his men, any ‘strangers’, Michonne and even in how he seized control of Woodbury in the first place. The parallels between the two will continue in the next few volumes.
This arc is notable to many different reasons: it is the first time we see The Governor, the first time we have an antagonist that lasts longer than one arc, it’s where Rick loses his hand. While these reasons make it stand out, there seems to be something lacking in this Volume, something hard to describe.
The most apparent difference between this Volume and the previous ones is just how dark it is: we see murder, rape, mutilation, zombified children and a multitude of other horrific images withing a few pages of each other. While this is fine, the subject matter is the end of the world after all, I feel that there is no real sense of build up. All of this brutality occurs very soon after Rick, Glenn and Michonne arrive in Woodbury.
The whole section after their arrival just feels a bit rushed. They arrive in Woodbury, see all the guns and defenses they possess, meet The Governor who charms them for all of five minutes before unleashing all kinds of Hell onto them. I feel there could have been a bit more of a delay between their arrival at Woodbury and their imprisonment, some time where we could get more of a feel for the place and how the citizens are feeling. As it is in the comic, the only people we really get to see are The Governor, his soldiers and the doctors. We never really get to see the average Joe’s take on The Governor, we just get told about it.
I feel this rush also is a detriment to the characterisation of The Governor. In the first 4 pages he is in, he goes from charming, to funny, to psychopathic, and the reader is left with little time to understand him. When I first read this, I remember thinking “why would anyone ever follow this asshole?”, which is not how you want your reader to feel. The Governor is characterised better towards the end of the arc, and we come to better understand his demented worldview, but I feel his introduction could have been a little better handled.
Otherwise, the volume is pretty decent. It’s nice to see our group facing such an enormous human threat for the first time, instead of some zombies and a crazy person. This Volume as really raises the stakes, as Rick’s mutilation and Michonne’s rape and torture are truly shocking and horrible to read. I’m not usually a fan of gratuitous rape scenes in horror, but Kirkman uses it appropriately as it is very believable that someone as twisted as The Governor would use rape as a way to break someone, and it does serve a greater narrative purpose in future issues. Additionally, the Governor is a great villain, if a little underdeveloped in his introduction.
Otherwise, it’s hard to comment too much on this Volume. This is the first time the series has had a story arc that continues over more than a single volume, so really we only have half the story here. Rick, Glenn and Michonne are still in peril, so we will have to wait until next time to see how they escape.
Ciao for now, amigos.