The Walking Dead Season 3: Now THIS is a Good Zombie Show!

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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.

Comments

  1. I’m not alone; thank you! This show has a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” effect on everyone. We’re told it’s good and become convinced that must be true because it’s on AMC, we’re told it’s based on impeccably literary source material (not true in my opinion, but definitely debatable), and then it just fails at so many basic elements of good writing.

    The biggest problem with Season Two (that has melted in to Season Three, I’m sorry to say) is the complete tonal monotony. Every great novel, movie, TV show, whatever, has ups and downs, lighthearted funny moments, horrific moments, tense moments, on and on. Walking Dead just has suspenseful zombie fights mixed with heavy “what does the world mean for us now” conversations. No one ever tells a joke or reminisces about their favorite TV shows or shares a tender moment. 90% of the reason I also wanted everyone to get eaten in the last season is because I couldn’t stand watching them Meaningfully Shout Whisper at each other anymore.

    In terms of character development, the show runners seem to have chosen One Obvious Change for each character, implemented each one early, and now are stuck with it. Carl is losing his innocence, Shane was turning to the dark side, Dale was trying to hold it together; that’s it, that’s all anyone gets. At least Glenn and Darryl are somehow mercifully exempt and are allowed to just be who they are. Is that an accident of the writers forgetting about them because they’re supporting characters? Rick’s One Obvious Change is the most annoying because it’s apparently, “Learn to just do what must be done to keep people safe,” which is, of course, what he did every single day of his career as a police officer. Make your characters learn something they already knew after enough people shout at them to re-learn it — writing, everyone! Sigh.

  2. Shannon OLeary says:

    I agree that so far this is the best season yet!

  3. Caged Wisdom says:

    I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about this season. I gave up after season one for the same reasons you listed – I was just bored with it and couldn’t stand how thin the characters felt. I guess now I’ll slog through season two in order to be wowed by season three.

  4. Mariah Huehner says:

    I’m fine with the use of archetypes and even stereotypical arcs, as long as they are explored meaningfully and go deeper than the surface or “easy” route. Which time will tell.

    Something you mentioned that I really do agree with: the lack of reminiescing stands out to me. There was a little in Season 1, and that also provided some needed levity (the women talking about vibrators and batters, for instance) but then that just kind of got dropped. Since Season 1 was so short that’s excusable. But not so much in Season 2. I would really like to know how a lot of these people managed to survive the first wave, what that was like, etc. Seeing how they were before would really help tell us how they’ve changed. And it needs to be shown, not just told to us.

    Now that we’re in Season 3, though, I’m not sure they -can- go back to that. The new status quo doesn’t allow for much time to think back, so I may just have to suck that up.

  5. when i descibe this show to folks that have no interest what-so-ever in this kind of material i call it the “zombie soap opera”, ’cause while having the nasty and scary zombies running around and tearing people up is great fun for the whole family, after a while without any kind of subplots of the folks being chased around by the zombies (and how their lives are effected by their situation) the show gets real boring, real fast. the first season’s purpose was to introduce the characters, could they have done a better job at this, probably, but with only six episodes, time is money, so they had to work within the time frame given to them. now in the second season, that’s where we really get to delve into what makes this merry band of survivors tick and how they interacted with each other. now did this drag on at times, oh, hell yeah. but i think this was a growing pain the characters (and the show as a whole) had to go through to get to the new season we are now seeing unfold. we now know what these characters are about and we know what makes them tick. during the period of the end of last season to the beginning of this season (as stated above), they’ve become a tighter, stronger group. if they had gone from the way they were at the end of the first season to how they behave in the start of the third season, it wouldn’t have worked. nobody would have believed these bunch of strangers (fron all walks of life) would have gelled so fast. are there still some “soap opera” type plotlines still in the show. yep, but those plotlines should move along at a faster pace because we don’t have to explore these characters as deeply as seasons past, which leaves lots of room for the “how to survive the zombie apocalypse” aspect of the show. i have my concerns about how this third season will be handled, but i guess i’ll wait to see how it all turns out. by the way, if those zombies in the “dawn of the dead” remake ran any faster, we could have used them at the olympics in london this past summer. :)

  6. I agree with the overall sentiment of the article, I although I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed BOTH seasons of the Walking Dead, warts and all. As for the naysayers of season two where things seemed to sloooow down… I was cool with that. I’ve learned to be patient with this new breed of show. And by breed I mean shows like Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Lost and of course the Walking Dead. Events and characterization doesn’t always happen at the pace a viewer expects. One could argue the entirety of seasons one and two was the build up to literally the first five minutes of non dialogue for the first episode of season three. The zombies are the same. Rick and his surviving band are not. They’re hunters and they’re survivors, and apparently they’ve gotten really GOOD at it. I also totally agree with ABC, it is most definitely a “zombie soap opera”, and that description is the best way to sell it to a non-viewer. Lastly, the new tag line works perfectly: Fight the dead. Fear the living. We got a taste of it in season two, but this season is really bringing it home. Other survivors are out there… and the hard choices they had to make to stay alive are clearly going to come in conflict with Rick’s band. I can’t wait to see how the drama unfolds.

  7. I think a major reason for the change from Season 1 is the loss of Frank Darabont. I never thought of him as a master storyteller by any means (maybe a master of cliche) but the differences between the episodes he wrote/directed/oversaw and the ones after are just huge. He managed to make you care about characters you’ve just met (partly through allowing some reminiscing and non-apocalyptic conversation), and he also made sure that everything you saw mattered later.

    All the following episodes feel like that “just out of film school” style writing (for lack of a better term) — they know what a movie/TV series is supposed to look like, and they know what meaningful drama is supposed to sound like, and so they follow that paint by numbers emptily.

  8. toolkien says:

    The first season was a little wobbly, and there was the sense of little danger when they all were in the quarry (?). There was fish dinners and time for hide the sausage and haircuts and general loafing (the world has just ended, there are zombies everywhere and it has the feel of summer camp). These might seem like small things, but they were standing out because, to me, even the Darabont portion had some poor writing, pacing, and acting. But, again, it was wobbly and production was just underway. How many other shows that ended up being classics have that “whoa, look at how they looked the first season” shock when you cycle round and round the reruns? The first episode was good, and there were a few moments of tension, but the talky nature did manifest itself (and I must point out that my favorite movie of all time is Being There with Peter Sellers, so I’m not a gore-hound or need things to blow up) with subsequent episodes.

    But then we all should know what ended up happening. AMC decided to low ball the production. The entire second season was destined to be on that farm and there simply was not enough story arc, even with all the folks, to be on that farm for THIRTEEN EPISODES. And so they used Dallas style night-time soap opera to pad out the story – who’s the baby daddy, do you really like me?. Long, talky scenes in the mobile home, in the sitting room, by the chicken coup, on the front porch, in the pharmacy. Do people realize that they spent SEVEN episodes looking for the little girl? Mind numbingly paced because they had to use that set and apparently pay it off with what was left over after subsidizing Mad Men, at least as the complaints of a year and a half ago went. And so it went on and on and on and on and on and on. Every hour had the 15 minutes of commercials right off the top, the 30-40 minutes of chat, and MAYBE 2-3 minutes of zombie action, and even then there didn’t seem to be any REAL feeling of danger. One of the biggest problems of the show is the walkers’ brains and agility are proportionate to the means of escape. If there is a ripping yarn being spun around you, you might let that go as part of the suspension of disbelief, but when you get bad budgeting leading to bad writing to bad editing to bad direction to bad acting, the differential in zombie characteristics sticks out like a sore thumb, which is only made worse when you get only 2-3 minutes an episode – one time they can run and climb when there is a car at hand, but if not, they shamble slowly waiting for their head to be cut off. Again, maybe you just scotch over that part when you are tuned into the next scene, but when that scene was more angsting on the porch swing, you tend to dwell.

    But so far this season, the show is more as I had hoped. If they had just had the farm sequence for SIX episodes, go on their hiatus, and get on with it, say the first three episodes like what are seeing now, then there might have been something to hang on to. But as it was, there was just more talk of a low grade quality to a point that it was one long bait and switch – promising a science fiction/horror apocalyptic show and getting Falcon Crest instead (and yes, I am dating myself, but that is about the caliber of it). And so I bailed, FINALLY, after the third episode of the second half. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

    So while I’m not nominating the show as the Best TV Show Ever, it’s a passable way to spend an hour (DVR’d to blast through the commercials of course). As the author of the article said, I was pulling for the walkers the first two seasons, just to get it over with. But I actually pull for some of the characters. I don’t know how it is for women, but most men, IMO, need to self actualize through certain characters. It’s what makes it stitch on to our own lives. But if you don’t give a heap about anybody, it just slides right off and around you. But now there’s tension and characters to root for and people to root against. It’s still not perfect, but it kills some time without wanting to break your big screen.

    And, again, the breakdown seems to be the suits at AMC that decided As The Zombie World Turns On Sunny Brook Farm was what was necessary. I’d heard that they actually wanted LESS zombies than what was there – to and “hint” at them so they could lower the make-up costs. It just boggles the mind that a PAY CABLE station, THAT STILL RUNS COMMERCIALS for 25% of the time alloted can still shave the nickel. But they did, and the show was an annoying pile of waste.

    So thanks AMC for upping the greenbacks. And it only took two years.

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