“And it brings me back to the question of just how much darker can The Walking Dead get. We know that Rick is safe thanks to his strong plot armor. So is Carl. But would the show’s writers kill of Lori? It’s usually not accepted TV custom to destroy the central family unit of a TV show – specially when the wife/mother is pregnant. Could Maggie fall into a suicidal depression? Could T-Dog finally explode into a torrent of rage and angst?”
I wrote that months ago when I asked just how much darker could The Walking Dead get. And I ought to frame it to remind myself how little I seem to know. Cause The Walking Dead’s third season got dark. Really dark.
Lori did die. Maggie did fall into a depression. T-Dog did explode – but not into a torrent of rage and angst, just into guts and blood. And that just scratches the surface of the whirlwind of pain, anguish, sadness and chaos that represented much of this season’s 16 episodes. Yes, there were flaws – and we’ll get to them – but for a show that seemed to have so many issues in Season 2, we ought to recognize and celebrate the things that Season 3 got right.
There was a lot more action: From the battle to take the prison in “Seed” and “Sick” to the Battle of Woodbury (“When the Dead Come Knockin’,” “Made to Suffer” and “The Suicide King”) to the retort by The Governor’s forces in “Home” and onto the last battle in “Welcome to the Tombs”, the show had a lot of large action sequences. A show that seemed to meander on too many talking scenes last year finally realized that it is at its best when people are moving and fighting and involved in doing things. Most shows cannot do action like The Walking Dead can – and when they do it right, it is both captivating and breathtaking.
They found a way to redeem Carl and Carol: Carol’s gone from “Lady who does the wash” to “trustworthy member of the group who can call Merle out on his bullshit.” Meanwhile, poor Chandler Riggs had been, for most of the first and second seasons, an anchor. He was a cypher at first and then he was a pain in the ass, someone who whined and complained and was in the way. Slowly, this season made him a responsible member of the group; the one who vetted others to be part of the “us” – much of that a result of his actions with the near-death Lori. He wasn’t a pain in the ass anymore, but someone interesting to watch. Then, the season finale took him in another direction: Shane Jr., someone who believes the desperate ends justify the brutal means. It’s likely to be the big story in Season 4.
There were resolutions: Lori and Rick’s relationship had been an issue since episode 1. It finally reached a conclusion – a sad and horrific one, but a conclusion nonetheless. T-Dog, long the butt of jokes, exited in heroic, verbose fashion. We found out who was in that military helicopter. We finally got Merle back in the show. We finally found out what happened to Morgan. Speaking of which….
“Clear”: This was the episode that finally brought us back to Morgan, the man who found the aimless and confused Rick way back in the pilot episode. It was as perfect a way for new showrunner Scott Gimple to announce himself and it’s easily the best episode the show’s done since the pilot. The revelation of what happened to Morgan and his son was heartbreaking. The secondary story finally brought us the Michonne we’d been waiting to see. And the hitchhiker bookends provided a nice, simple way of reinforcing the show’s central theme.
Deep down the core of The Walking Dead is about a simple question: When society crumbles, what makes us “Us” and what separates us from “Them”? In Season 1, the “Us” were the human survivors and the “Them” were the walkers. An easy line of demarcation to be sure, but one that has to be established. In Season 2, “Us” and “Them” were the various factions within the group as they sought to create a new sense of identity about themselves. This is why you got those endless arguments and bickering between Rick, Shane, Lori, Andrea, Dale, Herschel, etc. The only thing that united them were the search for Sophia and the burning of Herschel’s farm. Season 3 brought the group together as a whole as an “Us” (one nation under the Ricktocracy) and Woodbury became the “Them”.
Here’s the problem. For as good as David Morrisey was at the start, the show’s writers were too quick and eager to turn The Governor into the crazy-eyed psychopath we all knew he was. Don’t get me wrong. The man started off by torturing a wounded Army pilot and gunning down his entire unit. He had zombie heads in jars and he kept his zombified daughter in a cellar, hoping one day she could be cured. He had guys like Merle and Cesar around to do his dirty work and gutless Milton to do the testing. We knew from the start that the image of Woodbury was nothing but a mirage.
But in order for the “Us versus Them” dynamic to work, you need a viable alternative to “Us.” Woodbury needed to be not just idyllic, but real. You needed to believe that things would be better in Woodbury – and not just cause the streets were clean and there was beer on tap. The contrast between the prison and Woodbury should have made us hope for our group to abandon the prison and strike out for the town. We should have been rooting for Andrea to go find her friends.
That inability to make the audience think Woodbury could ever work is at the heart of the missteps in Season 3. Everyone complained about Andrea’s multiple idiotic decisions, but that’s because we all knew what her character didn’t – that Woodbury was a lie. Michonne’s glaring, silent act for much of the first half of the season – which led to Internet memes – is a result of her keeping her guard up in the Woodbury that she knew existed, but no one else saw. No surprise that as she hangs around the Prison group – rough and dirty but honest – she lets her guard down and becomes a more rounded and well-liked character. But most of all, the fall of the Governor into a mustache-twirling trope is a result of the writers’ failure at making us believe Woodbury was ever what it was advertised.
It also proved to be the anchor that slowed some of the latter episodes down. “Arrow on the Doorpost” and “This Sorrowful Life” get dragged down by The Governor’s “deal” of peace for Michonne. Had we any willingness to suspend belief and think it was a viable deal, it perhaps might have worked. As it was, it ended up turning into one of those Season 2 debates that everyone hated so much. The Governor never had any plans to be and let be, even if he got Michonne. And as hard as Rick tried to be, we knew he didn’t have it in him to accept it. This was an example of the show spinning its wheels to kill time. Again, if we believed that there was a chance for peace with Woodbury, maybe we can think of the deal as viable, but we never did.
In fact, much of The Governor’s path was cookie-cutter and stereotypical. He was Big Evil Guy from day one and only got more and more stereotypical as the season progressed. Compare him to other modern evil villains like Gus Fring or Tywin Lannister. They’re just as evil and concerned with power. They’re just as quick to kill and destroy. But those characters are revealed and multi-layered. Even if you cannot sympathize with their actions, you can come to understand why they took them and gain some respect for them. I was expecting for an episode to come this season that would pull the curtain back on The Governor and show us why he was how he was – it would have served as a nice juxtaposition against Rick. Instead, he just began going through the psycho’s handbook step by step. Even the “cliffhanger” of what happened to him and the men he didn’t kill feels less like a promise and more like they just forgot to film that scene.
Do I think this was a bad season? No, not at all. From top to bottom, I’d say it’s been its strongest. But that’s almost a “by default” title given the truncated Season 1 and the very flawed Season 2. There were clear storylines to follow and we reached some sort of denouement over the battle between The Prison and Woodbury. If nothing else, the show continues to push its story and characters forward. Unfortunately, it feels less like an organic development and more like the strings of a puppet master who is desperate to get to the next scene. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show when it gets down to the action. But they still need to find a way to spin these characters’ stories when the blood is not flowing and the bullets are not flying. We saw glimpses of that throughout many of these episodes. If Gimple and company can finally bring it out, it will finally be the show we all wish it could be.
Then I won’t even be able to guess where the show will go next.