The Walking Dead Season 3: Violent Brilliance Or Plodding Nonsense?

Fans are split down the middle over a fairly radical shift in pace and one particular character has drawn ire. Will the real Walking Dead please stand up...
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Fans are split down the middle over a fairly radical shift in pace and one particular character has drawn ire. Will the real Walking Dead please stand up...

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Warning: Colossal Spoilers Ahead

When The Walking Dead kicked off its third season back in late September last year it quickly became apparent from reading the comments of fans across the web that I was in the minority of people who didn't take issue with what I had perceived to be the show's strong suit: its slow, contemplative pacing. This came as news to me - up to that point I’d been of the opinion that the second season’s pacing was nothing short of a masterstroke, carefully biding its time as it built towards a violent payoff, much the same as the show’s first season, which kicked off back in October 2010. This was a show that seemed to pride itself on tight, character-focused pacing – an admirable feat given its relatively scant six episode run – and I, like many others, was hooked from the off.

Two years later, The Walking Dead began its third season - its longest to date, with an ambitious order of sixteen episodes - which, among other things, saw the introduction of the graphic novel’s notorious villain, the enigmatic Governor (David Morrissey), the dramatic mental decline of its lead character, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the introduction of samurai-wielding fan favourite Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the simultaneous (and largely inadvertent) self-destruction of Andrea (Laurie Holden), a character with whom audiences and critics alike had previously sympathised and widely praised. The season also marked the deaths of several key players, further establishing The Walking Dead as a show with few qualms about culling characters left, right, and centre, frequently toying with fan expectations for maximum effect in the process.

This was a season all about ambition and ideas – one in which show runner Glen Mazzara and his creative team fully embraced the TV format for all its worth. For the first time, the focus was no longer centred solely on Rick and the survivors at the prison, but also Woodbury, a town ruled over by the terrifying presence of the Governor, a slimy, pitiless juggernaut of a man who represents arguably one of the most punchable TV villains since Lost’s Benjamin Linus. Morrissey’s performance was nothing short of a masterclass in creating an imposing screen presence, seamlessly shifting between a genial façade and terrifyingly psychopathic tendencies at a second’s notice. It’s now virtually impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role.

The return of Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) villainous brother Merle (Michael Rooker), absent since the show’s first season, was another key moment for the series, throwing Daryl in to a moral quandary over where his loyalties lie. Having spent much of the season further crystallising our hatred for Merle, his redemption of sorts was another brilliant move for the series. Taking a character with virtually no empathy and making us sympathise with him (to say we actually cared for him may be something of a stretch) was a bold move, but one that carried great potency especially given just how much adoration the vast majority of fans have for Daryl, who remains one of the show’s strongest characters. The final scene of the penultimate episode, in which Daryl savagely puts down his recently re-animated brother, instantly took its place as one of the most guttural of the series thus far.

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But perhaps the most pivotal moment of the season, and perhaps the show as a whole, came relatively early on: the death of Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), a scene that was, by all accounts, one of the show’s rawest, most shocking moments to date. Emotionally reminiscent of Dale’s death last season, it was gut wrenching for several reasons, not least because it marked the horrific moment young Carl (Chandler Riggs) transitions from boy to menacing sociopath, but also because there was a sense that the season wouldn’t quite manage to reach these emotional heights again. It also paved the way for Rick’s mental decline and subsequent absence, allowing other characters, namely Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), to come to the fore as temporary leaders of the group, a development that proved to be entirely welcome.

Widening the show’s scope was always going to be necessary taking things forward but, as with all changes, with it came the risk of a backlash. This is nothing new, and I’m still not sure whether I was paying attention to the social media hounds more actively this time around or whether their voices simply grew louder as the series progressed, but the main issue that seemed to blight this particular season was the wildly divergent expectations of its audience. On the one hand you have an extremely vocal crowd of individuals, less keen on season two’s easy-does-it approach. On the other: a considerably less vocal but nonetheless sizeable portion of viewers that favour the show’s contemplative approach – something that this season has occasionally lacked.

That’s not to say that the show’s emphasis on action isn’t to be applauded. Following the sudden departure of Frank Darabont, it was apparent from last year’s mid-season opener that, under Mazzara’s guidance, The Walking Dead was set to be a very different beast – not least because the source material that forms the basis for much of the third season effectively demands it. The problem is that this demand manifests itself in an occasionally uneven tone, flitting between brash, action-packed set pieces and the sinister, contemplative approach that characterised the second season and divided fans down the middle. It certainly succeeds in keeping the audience on their toes but the result often comes off feeling somewhat unbalanced.

Nevertheless, season three saw some of the show’s strongest reviews since the pilot, although it’s telling that the significant praise was directed towards the thirteenth episode, ‘Clear’, a bottle episode of sorts, which saw the long-awaited return of Morgan (Lennie James), the survivor who saved Rick in the show’s pilot. ‘Clear’ was an exemplary, stand-alone piece of storytelling, expertly slotted in amongst the chaos, which further bolstered the relationship between Rick and Carl whilst providing a solid groundwork for Michonne to develop from the silent, brooding character lurking on the sidelines to a fully fledged member of the group. ‘Clear’ now ranks proudly alongside some of the show’s finest episodes, thanks also in part to the two particularly ghoulish sequences that bookend the episode, in which the trio refuse to take in a hitchhiker, only to find and loot his carcass for supplies on the journey back to camp – a scene indicative of the show’s innate ability to generate chills without depicting physical violence.

Nevertheless, given the subject matter, violence is what many a fan seems to crave, and, with that in mind - depending on your outlook - season three either represents a marked improvement over season two’s plodding approach, or a step backwards in favour of unabashed bloodletting. The Walking Dead has always seemed to pride itself on the time it takes to build to a dramatic denouement, but while it’s always refreshing to see it take a sudden shift in a new direction, there was a nagging sense that, towards the end of the season at least, the show was pandering to a fan base consumed by a hatred of one key character.

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I can’t say I was overly keen on the direction that Andrea’s storyline took this season – the main source of contention among fans appears to be that she was siding with the Governor over the survivors, which wasn’t really the case at all – but her positioning within Woodbury was necessary in order to provide insight into the settlement. Had Andrea not been employed in this way, it’s likely that fans would have cried foul of the show for throwing them in to Woodbury with no emotional investment. Placing Andrea there immediately raised the stakes, providing a window for us to engage with these characters, while her relationship with the Governor proved vital in establishing him as a credible threat.

It’s worth stating at this point that I’ve always enjoyed Holden’s work on The Walking Dead. She imbued Andrea with a strong, confident quality lacking in the likes of Lori and Carol (Melissa McBride) and, unlike the former, her motivations weren’t driven by guilt, which ultimately made her story much more compelling. Clearly I’m now in the minority there, given that much of the criticism levelled against season three centred not only on Andrea’s decision to ‘side’ with Woodbury, but also, somewhat ludicrously, on Holden herself.

Fandom often brings out the very worst in people and, in the case of this season at least, it seems it can also lead to a show reshaping itself at the behest of its viewership – an unsettling sign of the times and a signal that perhaps the Twitter generation have grown too big for their boots. Aside from the usual flurry of angry remarks about the character – the vast majority of which merely celebrated episodes that omitted the character altogether - more extreme reactions included impassioned, deluded morons taking things as far as calling out Holden personally on Twitter for her character’s choices.

The decision to kill off Andrea in the season finale therefore came as something of a disappointment, not least because it sated the angry, bloodthirsty fans who wanted nothing more than to see the character suffer – a sight tactfully denied to them with the death itself taking place off screen. Looking back now, however, it becomes apparent that, having lost both Dale and Shane in the previous season (the latter of whom Andrea has a relationship with in the graphic novel), there were very few places left to take the character, which is a great pity. Holden’s performance, as with all of the main cast, has always been a joy to behold and it’s hugely disappointing that her tenure has come to an end with such negative fanfare.

With the Governor now on the run and Rick in charge of the remainder of Woodbury’s survivors, where the show goes from here remains to be seen when Scott Gimple assumes the role of show runner from Glen Mazzara in October. There’s a sense that, for now at least, Rick’s conscience is clear, but with the prospect of more conflict on the horizon and the added burden of new blood among the camp, it seems that the stakes for our survivors have never been higher.

Your move, Scott. Make us proud.