Monday, April 01, 2013

TV REVIEW: Walking Dead Season 3 Finale

The Season 3 episode of The Walking Dead was so anticipated that it poised a hard dilemma for me to respond to. The problem was that because three of my favorite shows were being aired simultaneously at 9pm on Sunday (the Season 3 premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones an episode of The Good Wife and the aforementioned The Walking Dead series finale "Welcome to the Tombs") I had to choose which to watch live and which to tape and watch later. Unfortunately, I chose "Welcome to the Tombs" (mostly because I knew HBO would be repeating the Game of Thrones episode at least twice more on Sunday night and it would also be available On Demand while The Good Wife might not be available till much later, with forced commercial watching). I also suspected the finale of one show would be a bigger deal than the premier of another. I won't be making that mistake again. In fact, I'm not completely convinced I'll continue watching The Walking Dead. It's very possible I'll start watching Breaking Bad instead (I have no intention of --or interest in--ever seeing Mad Men.)

Unlike the finales of Season 1 and Season 2 of The Walking Dead, which had very important events occur in them AND left unresolved questions as cliffhangers for the next season AND ended the story arcs built over an entire season's worth of episodes, "Welcome to the Tombs" did almost none of these. The episode was written by showrunner Glen Mazzara, who it was announced earlier would leave the show over "creative differences" and end his involvement with The Walking Dead after Season 3. Mazzara was responsible for the second half of Season 2 and all of Season 3 of what is know the highest rated show on cable. The writer of the best episode this Season was Scott Gimple, and he is the Season 4 showrunner.

The first half of Season 3 started out very promising, with the main character of the show, Rick Grimes (a former sheriff of a small town in Georgia and the leader of our band of survivors of the zombie apocalypse) starting to go crazy after multiple members of the cast were killed off in disturbing and shocking fashions. Season 2 had occurred primarily on the grounds of a rustic farm where the survivors were relatively free from immediate death from zombies and concentrated on the inner tensions between the members of the group. To me, that was clearly the best aspect of the show; I am interested in the depiction of how humans would react to an end-of-the-world scenario, not so much interested in gory zombie killing. Season 3 primarily was set in an abandoned prison over-run by "walkers" that Rick's group tried to clear and make a fairly impregnable home base.

One key aspect of The Walking Dead is that anyone in the show can be killed off (except for Rick, we presume) at any time and the producers are very good at communicating this sense of ubiquitous and ever-present danger to the characters we (the audience) is invested in. The main highlight of Season 3 was that it introduced one of the darkest villains in the series, known as The Governor, who ran what appeared to be an idyllic town called Woodbury that contained nearly one hundred survivors (a vast number of people in this post-apocalyptic age of no civilization). Woodbury had a semblance of normality with running water, electricity and community. Of course, the town also had men with guns manning the walls of the entirely encircled town, but that was presumably to keep the millions of "biters" (the show never uses the term "zombie") out there, but the viewers could immediately see that those men and walls were also keeping all the residents of Woodbury trapped in here as well.

One of the key story arcs of this season was that we got to see the moral rot at the center of the supposed paradise of Woodbury, and it became clear that it all flowed from the head of the Governor, who starts off as a maybe slightly odd man with perhaps some control issues, to a megalomaniacal, psychopathic mass murderer.

So, what happened in "Welcome to the Tombs"? The widely promoted big event of the episode was the showdown between Rick's group, which at this point had diminished to barely a half-dozen able-bodied people, against the dozens of heavily armed (mostly male) adults from Woodbury. The Woodbury crew, egged on and deceived by the Governor, attacked the prison which had served as (a mostly safe) but highly defensible location for Rick's group; but in the end there was no direct kills between the two groups of humans! So the key story arc of the entire Season (Woodbury versus the prison, i.e. humans fighting each other instead of their common existential threat of the zombies) was basically a bust. In the end, Woodbury was defeated by its psychopathic leader going on a murderous rampage and gunning down his own men because they had retreated in fear and panic in response to an ambush of smoke bombs and fire orchestrated by the newly engaged pair of Glen and Maggie.

One thing which made the Season 2 finale so good was that they introduced the character of Michonne, who in the comic books the series is a major character who carries many significant story arcs. Michonne and Andrea had spent the entire period of time between Season 2 and 3 (which apparently was several months, if not half a year) together alone, surviving in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Michonne is also one of the vew few Black characters on the show, which piqued my attention, since the show had treated its other black characters poorly. She wields a very long sword and radiates a persona of taciturn, barely simmering rage and vengeance.

The main development on the Season 3 finale was the death of Andrea (one of the key characters who had made it through the entirety of Season 2 and was introduced very early as one of the main characters in Season 1). Her death occurred as a direct result of the machinations of the Governor who killed another character named Milton (one of his main sidekicks at Woodbury) for his temerity to thwart the Governor's sick plans to use zombies as a weapon against Rick's group during his upcoming attack on the prison. By killing Milton and leaving his dead body in a locked room with Andrea he knew that he would be killing them both and turning them both into zombies. He has the great line "In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill." Whether Andrea would die at the hands of a person she knew well (Milton) was the "ticking time bomb" suspenseful plot of the finale, and it was successfully depicted, but in the end used up far too much valuable screen time which was NOT used for important plot forwarding or character development in the rest of the episode. Since Andrea is apparently still alive in the comic book series being written, killing her off was a major statement from the producers (maybe the creative differences that led to Mazzara leaving?) that the TV show would be very different from its source material in the future.

However, all the time spent on killing Andrea during the finale gave the viewers less time to contemplate 1) the horrifying massacre of the most valuable Woodbury residents by the Governor; 2) the decision by Rick to bring the least valuable Woodbury residents (the women, children and elderly who had been left behind at the town while the men went off to war) to the prison (which is still not fully explored and clearly still contains an unknown number of zombies); 3) the increased signs that Rick's pre-teen son Carl (the main character's primary motivation for living even with the birth of his infant daughter) is showing signs of  homicidal tendencies and a decided lack of empathy with "other people"; 4) and the escape of the Governor along with his two main ruthless henchmen to parts unknown!

These are all cliffhangers of a sort, I suppose, but they are not as compelling as the questions raised in the finales at the end of seasons 1 and 2 and there was also much less resolution of the central story arc of Season 3: the tensions between Woodbury (the Governor) and the Prison (Rick). I suppose in some sense Rick won, but we did not get the pleasure of seeing the Governor lose (i.e. die a horrible death). This was a significant flaw in the writing of the episode and makes me question whether the producers have the best interests (or desires) of the audience at heart.

It's fine with me if the television series diverges from the comic books, because I have no intention of reading the comic books, but I want to watch an intelligent, well-acted, well-written drama about characters navigating an horrific new world where civilization has effectively ceased to exist and the world is full of billions of flesh-eating zombies that are omnipresent reminders of the devaluation of human life. Mazzara was a fan of Lost (so was I) and this episode began with a clear homage to that show with a close-up on a single eye (which turned out to be the Governor's). This could be a troubling comparison to Lost, because after Season 2 Lost it can be convincingly argued that the show lost its way and it eventually became clear that the writers had written checks that their scripts did not have the richness to cash. With Lost they were able to string along viewers for four more seasons, but somehow I doubt that viewers will be willing to give The Walking Dead that much credit.

I am pretty sure I won't! What do YOU think? Are you going to watch Season 4 when it comes back in October 2013?

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