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Pay TV: Tuesday, February 12

Show of the week: The Walking Dead , Tuesday, FX, 8.30pm

THE cruel and seemingly endless mid-season hiatus left us on a cliffhanger at the end of another gobsmacking episode (which airs again tonight at 7.30pm). Rick's bloody raid on the walled town of Woodbury had succeeded in rescuing Glenn and Maggie but left Daryl in the hands of the Governor.

Tonight, the townsfolk of Woodbury are baying for blood and the Governor (David Morrissey), his eyeball freshly stabbed in, is more than willing to give it to them. He denounces Merle (Michael Rooker) as a traitor and orders him and Daryl (Norman Reedus) to fight to the death in front of the howling mob. And, as is Woodbury blood-sport tradition, there will be captive walkers involved. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is already preparing another rescue mission but success is far from guaranteed - in The Walking Dead, nobody is safe and major characters get killed off without a moment's notice.

As always, tonight's action sequences are wonderfully staged and shot, the walkers delightfully gruesome. But that's only a small part of what makes The Walking Dead so compelling. The unrelenting tension is in the intricately, fiendishly plotted psychological drama. Events have painted Rick into a corner. Even if the rescue succeeds, there's no way the group will accept Merle after what he did to Glenn and Maggie (Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan), but there's no way Daryl will leave Merle alone again. And Daryl is crucial to the group's hopes of survival, given that the Governor will come after them and some of the newcomers back at the prison are already planning a violent takeover.

It's a world of constant, gnawing fear and paranoia, where almost no one can be trusted and death can come at any minute from any direction. Tonight even a chaste but unexpected kiss on the cheek seems freighted with the portent of disaster.

For a long time, Lincoln has been nothing short of amazing in his portrayal of Rick as a man on the brink of total disintegration. Pale, hollow-eyed and convincingly gaunt (in a way that few of the other actors are), his every tic and tremor speaks of a man consumed by grief and exhaustion but forced to keep putting one foot in front of the other, making one life-and-death decision after the other and splattering one walker after another. Tonight, his post-traumatic stress manifests in a disappointingly dramatic fashion, but it's still an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary show that stands among the greatest TV dramas ever made.


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