With the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead behind us and the (presumably) final battle between the prison and Woodbury about to ignite, it's time to take a look at where Season 3 of The Walking Dead has taken us, analyzing what's gone right in this season and what should have been left for Walker bait.
(Note: Spoilers abound. Don't read if you're not caught up on Season 3.)
Pacing: Whereas Season 2 was bogged down with the never-ending ennui of day-to-day life on the farm, for the most part every Season 3 episode has held a fairly high level of tension. In Season 2, it seemed half of the conflicts was a result of character stupidity rather than organic threat (i.e., Lori driving off in the dead of night by herself, lowering Glenn into a well occupied by a waterlogged walker). This season has made it clear that the zombie... I mean Walkers... have permeated every nook and cranny of the countryside, and there are no farms to hang out on and cook eggs.
Michonne: The fleeting glimpse of Michonne in the Season 2 finale had longtime TWD fans (myself included) thrilled that everyone's favorite katana-wielding badass would finally make her entrance onto the show. Though the television Michonne is everything we would expect on the surface -- she is a master chef with the katanas and looks pretty much the same as she did in the comics -- her character has been woefully underwritten. Though Danai Gurira has mastered the art of the silent scowl, Michonne's lack of personality beyond "I'm a loner and could stab you at any moment" has held us back from truly caring about her long-term safety. In the comics, we were treated to a world of backstory. We knew about Michonne's 'pets'. She revealed gradually herself -- though perhaps sparingly -- so that she was more than simply a one-woman terminator, but a character whose past drove her, with deep sorrow that made us root for her as a person, not just a human ginsu. It's one thing to slowly dole out a character's motivations in order to heighten tension and keep things a mystery, but too often Michonne acts like a dope in order to preserve this 'mystique' (like following Merle into a Walker-infested part of the prison just a few episodes after he led a band of governor-appointed redshirts to murder her in the woods, then making no attempt whatsoever to escape) Though with the recent addition of comic regular Tyrese to the cast, we can hope that their two characters will develop in Season 4 (if they survive).
Glenn and Maggie: The zombie apocalypse doesn't exactly scream 'singles mixer', hence this show has arguably the least amount of romantic subplots (no, the Rick/Shane/Lori triumvirate was not about romance) or sexual tension than just about any show not on the MLB Network. This is why the Glenn and Maggie dynamic has become so important. In Season 2, the romance between Glenn and Maggie progressed from 'we're the only two people in a similar age bracket, so let's get frisky to 'we're in wuv' in record time for anyone not named Charlie Sheen. Their relationship this season is much more developed and believable. Glenn's brutal beating at the hands of Merle was nothing compared to his anguish in knowing how the Governor tormented Maggie, and their spontaneous sex scene in the loading dock felt real and needed. And Glenn's romantic gesture (albeit an icky one) of cutting off a Walker's finger in order to give Maggie an engagement ring was a reminder that when this show works best, it's about the People rather than the Things That Were People. Though I'm kind of hoping that Walker's fiancée is still alive and finds Maggie wearing his beloved's ring...
Andrea: This show has a frustrating way of writing women. It burdened Lori down with so many dumb decisions and bizarre personality changes that the fans were practically begging for her to be eaten. And Michonne has been a walking cypher for most of the third season. It's Andrea, however, who has been most victimized by the writing staff. Andrea occupied one of the best character arcs through Seasons 1 and 2, going from suicidal woman with nothing to live for to a strong, independent character who found unique uses for a screwdriver and a pretty good shot. In Season 3, though, Andrea has been pulled in so many different directions and her wishy-washy attitude towards the Governor has been maddening to watch. We completely understand why she was attracted to Philip Blake in the first place -- Woodbury felt like a safe haven in the midst of madness -- and the Governor had that mixture of tenderness and toughness we know Andrea is a sucker for (which led to her impromptu romp with Shane). But once she found out how insane the Governor truly is, Andrea spent the better part of Season 3 wandering in quicksand rather than making up her mind. It's hard to root for a character who seems to be almost complicit in her own self-destruction.
Merle: The bad racist redneck (Daryl being the good racist redneck) was one of the most memorable aspects of Season 1, in large part because he had a distinct personality in a seas of characters who tended to speak and act rather blandly (I call this Lost syndrome). He wasn't likable, sure, but he created chaos and was quite entertaining. From the moment Rick and Daryl found Merle's severed hand on the rooftop and discovered their van missing, we had a feeling Merle would be back. And finding him working as the Governor's top henchman made sense. Merle's compass has always been off-kilter, and Michael Rooker was pitch-perfect in accessing Merle's grounded sadism. But it wasn't until he was reunited with Daryl that we saw another side to Merle, the regretful man who abandoned his younger brother to a life of pain. The scene where Merle rips Daryl's shirt, exposing numerous horrible scars inflicted by their abusive father, was wonderful and poignant. The pain in Merle's eyes when he sees what Daryl endured cuts through all the bluster, and for a moment the older brother, who hadn't shown an ounce of weakness or true humility, seemed about to cry. I only wish we'd seen the brothers have a real chance at repairing that broken bond before Merle was taken.
Bland Supporting Characters: if you aren't Rick or the Governor, odds are The Walking Dead won't give you too much of a chance to develop any sort of definable character traits (see Dog, T-). But the supporting characters, most notably on the Woodbury side, stop short of being even one full dimension. Take Martinez, the Governor's top man with Merle out of the picture. Until his game of Walker-bashing one-upsmanship with Daryl, Martinez just showed up with a gun, squeezed off a few rounds, and that was the extent of his personality. And Milton, likely the most fully-developed character without a political rank in Woodbury, has seen his most interesting trait -- his attempts to analyze the virus and whether or not a human soul still exists within the rank exterior -- has been all but forgotten . And what about Beth? If you're not sure who Beth is, odds are you're not the only one who believes that Maggie is clearly Herschel's favorite daughter. It's understandable that with a large ensemble cast some characters will get the motivational short shrift, but the show can't then act like their deaths are a major loss when we barely knew them to begin with. This was most clearly evident in Glenn's story about how T-Dog was 'the best' because he rescued so many people during the apocalypse. Problem is we hadn't seen any of it, and until his death T-Dog had averaged about 1.2 words-per-episode, rendering his death unfortunate, but largely inconsequential.
Little Moments: Keeping so many characters relevant can be like jugging a dozen blood-spattered balls, but this season has excelled in offering some nice, intimate character moments that have felt truly inspired. Specifically:
- Daryl and Martinez's Whack-A-Walker duel
- Herschel and Milton bonding
- Carol hitting on Daryl
- Rick's phone call with 'Lori'
- Daryl threatening to kill Merle as he was about to loot some survivors
- Wondering whether Axel was being supremely creepy or just supremely kind
- The Governor releasing a truck full of Walkers into the prison, basically just to be an a-hole
- Rick going full-tilt fetal position upon learning of Lori's death
Small moments like these deepen the characters in ways that a lengthy Ricktattorship monologue do not.
Not Enough Story: Ehen I heard that this season of The Walking Dead would be expanded to 16 episodes (up from 6 in Season 1 and 13 in Season 2), I wondered how they would be able to maintain a consistent level of tension without meandering just to fill time. Due to this need to create more episodes than an hourly drama should ideally have in a single season, we've had a laborious second half of Season 3, with too many subplots and bottleneck road trip episodes (Rick finding Morgan, the Governor's pursuit of Andrea, Merle kidnapping Michonne). I would have liked to see the war between the two camps escalate as we approach the finale, rather than take numerous detours on the way.
BRAAAAAINS: The action scenes and Walker kills this season have been outstanding. From the assault on the prison in the first episode (SWAT Team Zombies!) to Glenn's inventive use of Walker bones to Michonne using wrist twine to decapitate a Walker, the production design of Greg Nicotero and co. and the direction has been pretty much flawless.
The Departure of Glen Mazzara: Following Creator and Executive producer Frank Darabont's much-publicized exit, of which little is still known, the show seemed to have found its footing with showrunner Glen Mazzara, who had worked on the brilliant FX show The Shield. Mazzara seemed to have righted the ship and hit creative highs with the strong second half of Season 2 and the early strength of Season 3. So it was a shocked when it was announced that Mazzara, who had by most accounts done a terrific job rescuing a series that seemed to be walking a creative gangplank, would be leaving following Season 3. Rumors have pointed to creative headbutting between Mazzara and Co-creator and Executive Producer and comic originator Robert Kirkman, and the reigns for Season 4 have been handled over to Scott M. Gimple (who proved a strong writer in episodes like "18 Miles Out" and "Pretty Much Dead Already"). Not a knock on Gimple's abilities, but for such a popular show to be on its third showrunner in four years makes you wonder about its long-term stewardship. Good luck to Mr. Gimple, but I think we were all hoping that Mazzara would stick around a little longer.
Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of five thrillers (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive FAKING LIFE, which have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in nearly 20 countries, along with his first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy! Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.