The Walking Dead is BACK you guys! And it came back with all the ferocity of a toddler pillowfight. Ever since Zombie Sophia stepped out of the barn and became Plain Old Dead Sophia, the pace of the series has been torrid, with the Glen Mazzara era defined by the action-now creed of "Kill 'Em All and Hopefully We'll Still Have Characters Left to Kill Off." But "The Suicide King" was a return to Frank Darabont-era The Walking Dead, which lived by the psychoanalytical creed of "Let's Talk About Our Feelings." The survivors had much to discuss in this episode, where the safety of home was no longer guaranteed and the deck was once again shuffled using the same old cards.
Taking a breather and "developing characters" was an inevitability, as the series can't be expected to give us hour after hour of effects artist Greg Nicotero finding new ways to eject zombie brain matter from dummy walking corpses, but I can't help but think "The Suicide King" suffered from unfortunate timing. We were all jazzed about the return of the series and ready to burn off pent-up energy with jumping jacks and burpies and zombie decapitations, but "The Suicide King" was a sleepy episode with some truly awful parts (Andrea's speech UGH). I know the show was written as a 16-episode season, but surely someone knew where the big mid-season premiere would land and could have prevented the majorly promoted return from coinciding with another round of "the world has changed, we can't trust strangers no mo'" and the constant discussion of loyalties and allegiances.
Not that dialogue-heavy episodes can't work. Heck, AMC's other hit, Mad Men, is just yakkity yak AND staring with the occasional crying, but it's considered one of the best shows on television. The Walking Dead wants to be a great drama, but has shown very little proficiency in creating compelling character interactions beyond the obvious ones, and it's saddled with recycling the same old stories over and over. This time it was Glenn who got angry and stomped on a zombie head, popping it like a zit. This time it was Tyreese's group waiting for Rick to decide whether they're were cool or not, and once again part of the group was chill and the other was sketchy. This time it was Woodbury that was deemed unsafe, leaving its inhabitants wondering where their next summertime cocktail party will be. The scenarios and characters may change, but we're basically seeing the same thing over and over and over and over and...
And that's one of the problems The Walking Dead is going to face with regard to longevity. Robert Kirkman always said he wanted a zombie movie that never ends, and he created one with his comics. The problem is that a story of a zombie apocalypse is limited in its variation without some real creativity, and when the creativity isn't there, what we get is repetition. Is what we're seeing plausible in a situation like this? Possibly. But is it fun television? Not always.
Also not making things fun: The sheer number of dicks we're dealing with and how plainly their dickishness is presented. Season 3 has put zombies in the background to focus on how truly awful people can be when the dead start walking and biting. Tyreese's white boy friends (Allen and Ben, I think, but who really cares because they'll be dead in a week) actually hatched a plan to take the guns away from Carl and Carol, and to capture the prison by force from the same people who let them in (albeit under surveillance) and dressed their wounds. AND after they were loaned shovels to bury their hot dead mom. Ungrateful bastards! Heck, I don't want the zombies to eat them, I want Rick to eat them. But the story is a repeat of the dynamic in the prisoners group, and way too soon.
However, the title of King of the Dicks goes to the NPC (non-party characters, for all you non-gamers out there) citizens of Woodbury, a collection of assholes so ridiculously entitled that they deserve a death far worse than a zombie free-for-all. One second they're clamoring for blood in their own version of the Hunger Games, hooting and hollering when The Governor demands that two brothers fight each other to the death while zombies are escorted to the arena to sweeten the thrill of danger, but after one scuffle with Rick's survivors they demand to be released because it's not safe. For what? So they can start a new heavily fortified town with a less crazy dictator running the show? Maybe the new town will have zombies-versus-humans soccer matches instead of gladiator fights? Did their BBQs lose luster after the town ran out of mayonnaise? These townsfolk aren't just stupid, they're a bunch of dickwads. They're written as a singular voice ("Yay! Brother fight!" *later* "Hey let us out!") instead of a group of free-thinking individuals, which is just plain lazy writing and unbelievable. And if they weren't stupid enough, Andrea squashed a gestating coup with a hokey speech culled from the most cliche of movie monologues. "And years from now when they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury. We persevered." And then NO JOKE, the citizens, who were two seconds away from storming The Governor's castle, murmur in agreement and STARTED HUGGING ANDREA. I feel so bad for Laurie Holden.
The biggest and best development that occurred during "The Suicide King" was Daryl's departure from the group. After a surprisingly easy assault on Woodbury by Rick's group, lil' Dixon bro couldn't leave old Dixon bro out on his own when it came down to him or us, and now the two of them will fend for themselves in the wilderness because that's the way it was always meant to be (and because people like Merle about as much as they'd like a case of genital herpes). It was a bit ridiculous that the group would expect Daryl to leave Merle behind given how the depth of the Dixon bond, and I'm genuinely excited to see what happens to the two of them. And no, Daryl fanboys, they aren't off the show, not even close. They'll run into the group eventually, but in the meantime I'm sure they'll splinter off in a more exciting way than Andrea did. And you will know them by the trail of the dead... zombies with knife-hand holes and crossbow punctures in their heads. The Walking Rednecks, anyone?
I guess we should also talk about Ghost Lori and Rick's trip to cuckoo land? Of the "Rick's going insane!" scenes, the scene where Rick was holding
Shania Judith was far more effective and chilling because it was very emotional, appropriate in the moment, and even subtle by this show's standards. Judith's crying echoing through his brain? That I can believe and understand. But Ghost Lori chilling on the balcony and Rick freaking out RIGHT IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, including the new recruits? I know it's hard to keep it together in a time like this, but dude Rick, you just blew your shot at re-election. That was like Howard Dean screaming about the States. Irreparable! I'm voting for Hershel in 2013.
But at least Rick freaking out over Ghost Lori gave us this awesome "Ummm this white boy be crazy, let's bounce" reaction shot from Tyreese:
"The Suicide King" didn't have much cohesion to it, sacrificing a focused episode so it could shuffle pieces around to recycle stories. It was a set-up episode, which isn't typically a bad thing, but the power of set-up episodes comes from anticipation for what they're setting up. Aside from The Walking Rednecks, I'm not sure there's anything else I'm looking forward to at the moment; it seems like we're headed toward another round of things we've seen before, just with new faces and places. After such great progress in the last dozen episodes or so, things came to grinding halt in "The Suicide King" and showed that The Walking Dead has a long way to go before it can become an elite drama that's more than just headshots and hacked-off limbs.
So I guess the question now is—or maybe it always has been—what kind of show should The Walking Dead be? Do we want it to keep exploring characters even though it isn't that good at doing so? Or should it stay action heavy and aim to spray blood in our faces as often as possible? Given the results of "The Suicide King," I'm leaning toward the latter.
NOTES... FROM THE GRAVE! SPOOKY!
– The Governor's no-look zombie kill was nice, and Glenn's boot stomp was great, but my favorite kill was The Governor putting down Rich Foster (.GIF above). He did it with all the emotion of going out to get the mail.
– What to do with Michonne? She's just a brat right now, brooding and adding very little to anything. Mysteriousness only goes so far. Is she a badass loner or does she actually want to be part of the group? We don't know, because she won't tell us ANYTHING. This show can add all the characters it wants (and it needs to add people if it wants to keep its kill rate high), but it also has to give them their due time so we feel connected to them. Hating a character is as powerful as liking a character, but feeling indifferent toward a character is inexcusable and this show has plenty of those.
– Woodbury wall guard: "Hey you stupid citizens of Woodbury, stop honking your car horns! You're going to attract zombies! Do you want us all killed? Now excuse me while I pop off a dozen extremely loud gunshots!"
– The only good that can come out of Rick's bonkers-bananas routine is that someone steps up to challenge his leadership. But even in that case we've seen something like that happen before.
– Axel needs more screen time. His outfits are awesome. But should he REALLY be allowed to walk around alone with Beth given the fact he can't look at her without drooling?
– Speaking of Beth, when she gave Rick a kiss on the cheek he definitely got a boner and thought about hittin' that. You know you saw it in his eyes, too. That's just gross. And poor little Carl is going to have to kill his dad to get his woman back.
– R.I.P. Woodbury 7: Tim, Crowley, Eisenberg (not Heisenberg), Julio with a hard 'J', Bob Adams, Haley, and Rich Foster, the moron who let a zombie sneak up on him in broad daylight in the middle of a wide-open street. And how many of those people did Merle actually kill? Just the one?
– Thanks to Carl for reminding me that there was a man named Oscar in this show and that he died.
– How long until baby Judith grows up, shaves her head, starts grumbling, "You have no idea what I been through, Rick!" and stomps around like Shane?
– I didn't mention any of the conversations between the survivors because I don't think any of them were really relevant to anything. And the conversations we witnessed could've happened between any of the characters, just swap 'em out with whomever. What this show needs is to form strong bonds between specific individuals, be they negative or positive. Sure, Maggie and Glenn are tight, but aside from that, it's just a collection of people, some with family ties that don't even seem that strong.
– Just shake Tyreese's hand, Rick. Come on.
– I liked how Daryl got his crossbow back. He just nicked it out of that guy's hand.
– Sunday's episode set a new ratings record for the series with 12.3 million viewers. But will that trend continue? If the show hasn't peaked, it's very close to doing so. Right? RIGHT?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom