The Walking Dead's second season was a tale of two shows. The first half of the season turned its audience into zombies with boring, never-ending arguments ("Let me tell you sumpn'!"), Ranch House politics, and way too much stasis for a show about running away from the undead. But then Walker Sophia came stumbling out of the barn in the mid-season finale, and the series crawled out of its grave after her, settling into a full-on sprint for the remainder of season. The difference between the first six-and-a-half episodes and the last six-and-a-half episodes was stark, and the latter group was almost unrecognizable when compared to the drudgery of the first.
The Walking Dead's recently concluded third season can also be likened to two shows, but without that easy dividing line right down the middle. If you were to graph the quality of Season 3, you'd probably end up with something that looked like Bart Simpson's hair. Ay Caramba indeed; the series was all over the place except for in the ratings, where its audience swarmed to tune in and break network and cable ratings while the broadcast networks put shotguns in their mouths because they know their model is dead without some sort of zombie-themed celebrity singing competition.
Season 3 was essentially built around two storylines that would intersect from time to time: Rick and his flock moving into their new digs at the prison, and Andrea (and sometimes Michonne) living like a post-apocalyptic queen in the grips of The Governor at the Woodbury gated community. Splitting up an ensemble into two parts for most of a season isn't new (Lost famously did it in Season 3 to mixed reviews), but making sure both parts carry equal weight in holding the audience's attention is tricky. The producers figured Woodbury would be just as interesting as hanging out with our old friends at the prison, but despite David Morrissey's flashes of acting brilliance, Woodbury was more WoodBOREy, creating anticipated disappointed every time there was a Woodbury establishing shot.
Making matters worse for the Woodbury plot was its reliance on Andrea and her circus of poor decisions and jerk blindness. We all knew The Governor was a terrible person, and the show went out of its way to drill that into our heads. But the show also went out of the way to make sure Andrea didn't know he was bad news. That left us watching a woman who we knew was wrong—without a doubt—for hours and hours while she denied it, not exactly my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday evening. And The Walking Dead didn't try to make the tug-of-war anything more than that, rushing Andrea and The Governor's romance—the one thing that could explain her idiocy—at a speed so fast that we just had to accept it even though it made no sense. Had there been something more to the love story, we might have been more sympathetic to her reluctance to see The Governor for who he really was, and we might not have wished Andrea a slow, painful death for being absolutely intolerable. You can't make something plain as day to viewers (The Governor's bad side) and then make other characters (Andrea) oblivious to it for more than a few episodes without wasting the audience's time. And waste our time it did.
Meanwhile, at the prison, killing zombies and leftover prisoners was a good time! In the first four episodes of the season, the prison was where the fun was at as Rick's newly trained crew executed zombie hordes with precision and tangled with a group of prisoners who wanted to claim the grounds for themselves. It pushed Rick to a new place of desperation that carried over from the end of Season 2. Rick's survival instinct made him put a cleaver through a guy's skull based on an educated hunch, for crying out loud. And the prison storyline hit a high in "Killer Within," the infamous episode that played out like a season finale and featured the slaughter of T-Dog. Oh, and Lori died, too. But seriously, folks, Lori's death rang out loud—even though she carried the title of Worst Character Ever for the previous two season—because the show put so much effort into salvaging her character. By the end, we no longer saw the hypocritical woman who couldn't drive, we saw a remorseful woman looking to patch things up with her hubby, and her death scene was as appropriately difficult to watch as anything on television at the time.
But after "Killer Within," the season slogged through an extended run of episodes that seemed to alternate between heading in the right direction and repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and the inconsistency of the final dozen episodes would be unfathomable if I hadn't witnessed it myself. Rick's frustrating post-Lori brain-fart trip to Looney Town felt like it happened because the show had nothing better to do with him, and ultimately, it only carried some importance when he was pulled out of his insanity after receiving a lesson in relative crazy from Morgan in the excellent episode "Clear." Heading the opposite direction, from good to bad, were Glenn and Maggie, whose visit to Woodbury was thrilling, and peaked when Glenn turned into a half-man, half-chair, all zombie-killing machine. But the fallout from The Governor's rape of Maggie (even though Maggie wasn't raped in the traditional sense of the word, you can argue that it was still rape), which turned Glenn into a war-mongering madman and temporarily ruined the two lovebirds' relationship, fell flat. In the end, it wrapped itself up with a sex romp in a storage shed (while they should have been on watch, I might add) and very little conflict. The two kids just made up.
There's a reasonable theory out there that the variances in quality are a result of Season 3 being extended by three episodes, to a near-broadcast total of 16 episodes. And indeed, a few of its installments appeared to be ideas for parts of episodes that were blown out to full hours. "Arrow on the Doorpost" was probably half an episode of treaty-cooking at best, and Andrea's mad dash away from The Governor in "Prey" could have been cut down to zero minutes.
But once again, The Walking Dead's problems were all about character, or lack thereof. Smaller stories need to be told on this show, stories that bring us closer to the survivors we meet and give them some shred of realness. This is one show that could benefit from ripping off Lost by focusing episodes on smaller groups of characters. Heck, go ahead and use some flashbacks if that's what works. Going back to "Clear," which could be the series' best episode to date, The Walking Dead showed that there are other tales to tell, and that when the larger story isn't dragged out for another hour of spinning around in circles, great things happen. Michonne, Carl, Rick, and Morgan all became new people in that episode, and it was all thanks to character growth. Was that so hard, The Walking Dead?
As troubled as the middle was, Season 3's legacy should be forever tarnished by how it ended. Sorry to be blunt, but the finale was a reeeeeal stinker. Andrea's death was a mercy killing for our benefit more than anything else. I felt nothing as the self-inflicted gunshot rang out, and I didn't even hate her nearly as much as everyone else did. Rick taking in Woodbury's tired, poor, huddled masses looking to be free like he was the frickin' Statue of Liberty seemed counterintuitive to his recently philosophy of leaving behind hitchhikers, but at least it gives the show plenty of redshirts to kill off in Season 4! And while I'm all for the unexpected in season finales, come on, we ALL wanted to see The Governor's army and Rick's rebels have at it. The promos practically promised it. Instead, we got a game of hide-n-seek and a roadside massacre that ended with The Governor's current whereabouts unknown. The finale was an embarrassment, and it left us with an unfortunate taste in our mouth that we can't wash out until Season 4.
Yet the allure of zombies and being part of the conversation is simply too much to keep me from watching more of The Walking Dead. I'm a sucker for this stuff. While we once had hopes for the series to become television's next great drama, we now know that it probably won't be much more than meat-and-potatoes television, good enough to keep us around unless someone else starts serving something better.
THE BEST ZOMBIE KILLS FROM SEASON 3
Now that the pseudo-academia is out of the way, let's run down the best zombie kills from Season 3, because zombies getting re-killed is awesome. Here they are, in no particular order:
Death by Hatchback
Daryl sells some Subarus in product placement that is totally fine by me.
Martinez Goes Deep
Part of Martinez and Daryl's back-and-forth, but he's not going to get the correct backspin to give the ball extra carry by rolling over like that.
Glenn's Head Stomp
Rick Goes Nuts on a Bunch of Zombies
After Lori died, Rick needed some therapy and cleared out a whole wing all by himself. (This was actually part of a Prolonged rampage, but this was one of the final kills.)
The Face Peel
Whoever came up with this deserves a promotion. Too awesome.
This is the most painful-looking thing this show has ever done, and that's saying a lot.
Special thanks to Nick Campbell for covering the show while I was away, and more thanks to all of you who watched the series with me all season. I'd love to hear what you thought of Season 3 overall, and I'll see you back here for Season 4!