We’re two episodes into Season 3 of The Walking Dead and I’m relieved and pleased to be able to say: now THIS is the zombie apocalypse show I was hoping for!
I know, that’s kind of blasphemy in some circles. The truth is I just found myself unable to really connect to the show or the characters until now. I wasn’t happy about it, I wanted to like it and I really tried. I love horror and even though the concept of zombies terrifies me personally on some deeply visceral, reptile brain level, they remain some of my favorite stories in the genre. I would count the Dawn of the Dead remake as one of my all-time favorite films (and no, I don’t care that the zombies were “too fast”). I was really curious about how a long form narrative television show would handle it.
My personal fondness for horror was not the only reason I was looking forward to The Walking Dead when it debuted. As a comics editor and creator I’m always pleased when a comics project is developed thoughtfully in another visual medium. I was especially happy that a book by an independent (not to mention creator- owned pioneering) company like Image was being developed by AMC, a channel that has also given us Mad Men and Breaking Bad. To see a comics work taken so seriously, with that kind of support, is encouraging for the medium as a whole and for reaching a larger audience that will hopefully have some crossover. The ratings have borne this out, with a whopping 9+ million viewers this season. It’s now a known pop culture phenomenon in two storytelling mediums. That’s great no matter how you look at it.
All that enthusiasm aside, I still watched the first season with a critical and objective eye. Some of that is just because of what I do, there are very few stories I can watch/read/absorb without analyzing them to one degree or other. Call it an occupational hazard.
So it was with a heavy heart that I found myself not only underwhelmed by the first season but actively disliking it. It might seem like nerdbait to say that I was not only not a fan, I’ve been a rather frustrated naysayer of The Walking Dead until this 3rd seasons strong first episode. It might be even worse to admit that I haven’t read much of the comics so I can’t attest to how much the show has deviated or not deviated from the original. I don’t think that makes my issues with the show invalid, because an adaptation needs to stand on its own merits regardless of the source, it can’t rest on what is or is not explained in the comic. It should not get a pass for relying on previous experience with the source material to “get” what’s going on with a character or plotline. For the most part I think it’s less that the actual show has relied on the comic and more that some fans of both have used the comic to invalidate critiques of what the show has or hasn’t done successfully.
For me, while the first two seasons had plenty of zombie action, gross out horror, and legitimately good moments, the character development was so consistently weak, repetitive, or in some cases, non-existent, that I began to want to throw things at the screen. One could argue that with only 6 episodes, Season 1 had a lot of ground to cover within a narrow time frame, and I was willing to give it a certain degree of “first season” leeway. Some shows gel immediately, some take awhile to hit their groove. The 2nd Season, however, suffered from similar issues and at twice the length somehow managed to get even less accomplished with many of the characters, with the exception of Daryl who has been the most consistently awesome on the show. The love triangle served mainly to make Rick, Shane, and Lori almost unbearable, I still don’t know who T-Bone is, Dale was reduced to a self-righteous and irritating old man, and there was that one guy who was some somebodies boyfriend and then he died. That’s literally all I know about him. And then there’s Carl, who might be the harbinger of death, given how many characters he got killed in Season 2 by being kind of really stupid. Of course, working with a large cast is tough, but you have to find ways to give everyone significant moments, or else you’re falling flat as a storyteller. It’s especially concerning when even main characters seem stuck and stagnant.
Were things like the reveal of Sophia’s fate moving? Yes. Were there strong moments? Yes. In fact, the strongest character moments were with Andrea and Lori. Andrea giving Dale hell for blackmailing her into living was an incredibly important moment because each “side” had a valid point. It asked some important, big questions, dealt with the reality of the world they were now in, and gave Andrea real strength and depth.
Likewise, Lori telling Rick she wasn’t sure Carl should survive his gunshot wound was pretty brave. Letting a mother suggest what would, in almost any other context, be considered a heinous violation of acceptable maternal conduct, made for great TV and excellent horror. The kind that goes beyond oogy monsters and gets at the core of what terrifies us. I mean, when is it okay to say: no, we shouldn’t let our kids live in this world? Is it ever okay? What’s more important, simply being alive, or the kind of life you live?
While I did appreciate those moments, they were, for me, outweighed by a lot of unnecessary pontificating and some truly cringe-worthy, heavy-handed, “life is worth it” metaphors. I’m talking about the deer, obviously. I’m as sentimental as the next person, but just, no. I’m fine with small character moments and building towards reveals, but it just felt pointless and meandering for way too long. I found myself, for instance, not really caring about Dale’s unfortunate demise, mostly because his character had become too self-righteous. By the time the season was over I wanted everyone eaten except Daryl, who clearly needed his own spinoff.
So, to say I was wary of Season 3 would be an understatement. I just wasn’t sure I would be able to commit any more time to characters and a story that left me mainly frustrated and disappointed.
Season 3, however, starts with an extremely effective and necessary use of the time jump forward device. It’s been almost a year since the outbreak, and about 8 months since we last saw the crew. And it shows. These are not the people we left last season. They are a well-oiled, zombie-killing machine. From Carol to Carl, everyone is pulling their weight and seems to have accepted the zombie status quo to one degree or other. Which obviously means it’s all about to go to hell, but that’s great! Bring it on!
What I’ve also really liked so far in this season is that rather than on relying on speechifying, characters are being allowed to have their moments with sparser dialog, relying more on what someone does than long exchanges where people mainly talk at each other and don’t really get anywhere. Since TV is a visual medium that’s important. Let the actors act. The result is tighter storytelling and more interesting characterization. Rick closing the door on that convict and then just standing there for a moment? That spoke volumes about how he’s changed. Simply saying to Lori,“We all appreciate what you’ve done.” followed by an awkward back pat? Wow, something is way wrong in that relationship. I’m intrigued! Plus hacking off Hershel’s leg was totally disgusting and upsetting, but a clear indicator that this is a Rick who does what needs to be done.
The thing about any story is that you have to care about the characters and find their growth believable based on their circumstances. And yes, they do need to grow, otherwise there’s really no point. In a world where most everyone is now a walking corpse you are not going to be able to view the world the same way or react the same way. You’re going to have to make difficult choices, maybe even awful ones. A certain amount of adjustment time is normal, but the last two seasons dragged. Season 3 has accomplished more in just two episodes for most of the characters and that’s impressive. This is a group of desperate people doing desperate things. This is a group of people I want to watch and root for. This is a group of people I’m going to get upset about when they die.
The strongest aspect of The Walking Dead all along has, I think, been the underlying idea that there may not be any “good” choices anymore. Every choice, no matter how noble in intent, may have catastrophically bad consequences. In fact, it probably will. So a character like Rick, who is an essentially good person, is left with making decisions that make sense in a given circumstance, that allow those he cares about to survive for awhile longer, and not much else. While the more complicated moral or ethical questions are still there, he just don’t have time for them. If he considers them too much he’ll become paralyzed and be completely useless to himself and the group. Those choices will haunt him later, or they won’t.
And that, my friends, is truly horrifying.