“The Walking Dead” is at its best when it’s at its simplest. Because the show’s central motivation — survival — is so primal, it tends to succeed when the characters are in genuine, life-threatening danger, and that’s presented directly to the audience. Last week’s episode, for instance, put a bunch of layers between the characters and the threat to their lives, even as it tried to make the Governor scarier than he was before and mostly failed. “Prey” works much better because it just goes for the throat and turns the Governor into a spooky variation on Freddy Krueger. It works much better than you might expect.
For all but a couple of shots of Rick at the end of the episode – stuck in the midst of things as if to remind us that he’s the series’ protagonist – “Prey” follows the people of Woodbury as some of them slowly realize what a madman is leading them. Andrea makes a break for the prison. Tyreese and his friends debate what they should do. Milton takes matters into his own hands and sets fire to the big crate full of Walkers the Governor is planning to use against the prison. The likelihood of any of these people succeeding is fairly small, but maybe if they’re all working in tandem (even without knowing they are), things will work out accidentally.
The vast majority of the hour is spent with Andrea, who attempts to leg it across the back country between Woodbury and the prison, armed with only a knife. (The citizens of Woodbury are having any incidental arms stripped as the Governor prepares to arm up to take on the prison – and mostly likely to prevent any armed insurrection from those who learn what he’s really about to do.) Andrea’s exit from Woodbury is clumsy. She has to talk her way past Tyreese and company, and it doesn’t really work (though she does plant some big doubts in the head of everybody’s favorite “Wire” veteran). But she manages to get out, just ahead of the Governor, who takes off after her in a pickup that slowly becomes as menacing as the shark from “Jaws.”
Actually, the scenes where Andrea, say, breaks across an open field to get away from the truck put me in mind of another Steven Spielberg film, his early, made-for-TV “Duel,” which turned a routine passing of a semi-truck into a harrowing survival tale straight out of horror fiction. Written by the great Richard Matheson (from his short story), “Duel” takes a fear we’ve all idly wondered about – what if somebody just decided to mow us down from behind the wheel of their car? – and brings it to terrifying life. It’s stark and vivid, and its reflection in this episode is a very good thing indeed. Andrea’s desperate race for her life against a pickup that’s gaining far too quickly on her is something straight out of a nightmare, and it’s one of the scariest sequences the show has ever come up with.
I’m less convinced by the bit where Andrea and the Governor play cat and mouse in and around an abandoned factory. There are some great moments here, and the episode nicely keeps the nightmarish paranoia going. Furthermore, I loved seeing Andrea fight her way past zombies all on her own, reminding us just how proficient she must have gotten during that winter in the wilderness with Michonne. Yet the whole sequence leans a little too heavily into making the Governor the villain out of a slasher movie, having him attempt to freak out Andrea by running his shovel along the walls and floor or by whistling. To be sure, this is a more frightening side of the guy than the one we saw last week. But it still feels like the villainous Governor and the friendlier guy we met in the first half of the season are two completely different characters. (I like this version better, for whatever that says about me.)
It’s not the Governor that the episode wants to redeem in the eyes of the audience, however. It’s Andrea. Andrea’s the kind of character almost every genre show needs, the character who’s always making the wrong decisions to maximize conflict. These are the characters that rarely become fan favorites, and if you were to ask 10 “Walking Dead” fans who their least favorite character is, Andrea would probably come up the most often, now that Lori’s no longer with us. The character is played well by Laurie Holden, but she doesn’t have a defining characteristic, outside of “wanders into trouble a lot,” and that ultimately keeps her from being as vital or interesting as most of the other people on the show. Heck, even someone who’s a complete side character, like Carol, has taken on far more dimension than Andrea this season.
The way “Prey” earns sympathy for Andrea is cheap but effective: It puts her in the starring role in the nightmare of being chased by a force that can’t possibly be stopped, then dares the audience not to sympathize with her. I’m one of those people who doesn’t really care what happens to this character, and I was surprised at how effective the build-up to her triumphant moment – when she sends a herd of Walkers off after the Governor, then escapes into the night – was. When she fights off a small group of Walkers, one of whom has her around the neck, in the forest, it feels like a reminder that she once knew what she was doing. And when she evades the Governor, then plots her escape, it feels like she’s finally started to figure out how to live in this world.
It’s all for naught, of course, because it has to be for naught. Andrea is captured by the Governor at the last possible moment, then taken to be strung up in a hidden room. (He tells everyone in Woodbury that he couldn’t find her.) He talks Tyreese’s group out of leaving, telling them that the Walker crates are just a bluff. The only one plotting against the Governor who actually succeeds is Milton, who does set fire to one of those crates, but the Governor sure seems suspicious of him, and I’m betting he’s got some backup plans for his prison assault that have yet to be sabotaged by one of his followers. What makes “Prey” work so well is that it fills in a bunch of character detail on all of these people that needed to be filled in, but it also does so in the context of the ultimate survival tale: Escape from who’s chasing you, or face a fate worse than death.