This article originally appeared on ramp.ie on April 2nd 2013
The Walking Dead has had a tumultuous few years, both on and off screen. It debuted with a weirdly truncated, six-episode season, an effort by AMC to test the waters before committing. There was no need for doubt though; zombies are more ‘in’ now than they’ve ever been. Frank Darabont, the man behind such great films as The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist, helmed the project before being fired after his dispute with AMC over the show’s slashed budget. Glen Mazzara took over the reins. He’s generally credited with getting the show back on track (although if we’re being honest, it was never really on track to begin with) but now he’s been dumped too after creative differences with his superiors. It seems AMC have some real managerial issues to work out, with both Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad and Matthew Weiner of Mad Men also citing difficulties in working with the relative newcomers to drama.
In the midst of all the controversy, the third season of The Walking Dead emerged with a seemingly new mantra, one which it managed to stick to quite admirably for a time, before coming to a near complete standstill. Underneath the façade remains the rotting foundation that has – and continues to – undercut just about every aspect of the show.
The splitting of the season into a couple of eight-episode runs with a two-month break in between only served to highlight the vast quality gap in the first and second halves. The stark differences between the appropriately-named 3A and 3B are baffling. The initial run solved what many perceive to be the biggest issue with the prior season: its glacial pace. Right from the get-go, significant plot that could have easily been reserved for later on was burned through, with some bold character decisions made along the way. This spell probably represents the best The Walking Dead can realistically be, unless some drastic changes are made. And with it pulling in record-breaking numbers week after week and with AMC’s seeming reluctance to throw some real dough behind the project, such fundamental changes are unlikely to happen.
With 3A, everything happened at such a rate that The Walking Dead’s flaws were generally left unexposed. In essence, it was as if the writers looked at the show they had created and the resources available to them and finally figured out how best to make it all work together, without having to undergo a complete upheaval and resetting of the shaky fundamentals. 3B, however, brought out all of the show’s worst qualities – with the exception of one single, shining episode – and in doing so retroactively damaged the great progress that had been made in 3A.
Perhaps The Walking Dead’s biggest issue is the simplicity of almost every character, one dimensional affairs with little to no complexity. The writers do try to add layers but in most cases falter because of the show’s narrowness (by virtue of its specific genre) and extremely ineffective dialogue. The writers just don’t know how to have two characters talk to each other without their dialogue sounding stilted or disappointingly obvious.
It’s certainly no fault of the actors. While there aren’t any award-winning performances here, all are passable and often even good. Andrew Lincoln does a great job portraying Rick’s increasingly unhinged nature, something the writers quickly turned into terrible melodrama, throwing subtlety out the window. Unquestionably the most consistent character both in terms of writing and performance is Daryl, played by Norman Reedus. His character approaches a level of sophistication that, were it applied to the entire cast, would make for a much more fulfilling watch.
New addition Michonne, a katana-wielding badass, had the potential to be a similarly engaging character but was nearly completely squandered with the refusal to properly delve into her motivations, back story and general persona. She does experience some excellent character growth later on; it’s just a shame she was wasted was for the majority of the season. Tyresse and his group of survivors are also underused. Introduced as important new members of the cast, they were subsequently swept aside for too long. This decision is even stranger when taking into consideration Chad Coleman’s undeniable awesomeness.
David Morrissey as the season’s antagonist, The Governor, is a bit of a strange one. He’s a talented actor but comes across as somewhat miscast in the role, giving off not the intended vibe of intimidating menace but rather just a sense of meandering peculiarity. Certainly there is a great character somewhere in The Governor, but the writers’ lack of clarity and Morrissey’s performance prevented it from ever shining through.
The inherently limiting nature of a show set in the zombified post-apocalyptic world may seem like an unfair criticism to latch onto. There isn’t anything wrong with exploring only a very limited number of themes and ideas; the problem emerges when none of the few are explored well. In other good dramas, there is always a number of different plot threads running concurrently, generally differing in content and approach. Therefore, if a single element doesn’t click, it isn’t a big deal because there’s so much else happening. With The Walking Dead, that can’t happen and since it rarely addresses the core with any degree of genuinely good storytelling, the viewer is left with scraps.
Even when the zombies do come stumbling, there are problems. The action sequences never feel as though they’ve been given much thought; one of the biggest of the season was clumsily shot, with the viewer left with no spatial awareness or understanding of exactly what is happening. The impressive make-up work is regularly undercut by terribly distracting CGI blood and muzzle flashes, not to mention the complete lack of recoil on any of the firearms. These may seem like minor issues but they build up, and when you consider the importance of the cathartic gore sequences in horror, they become significant flaws. This type of thing should be the show’s bread and butter. But instead, they’re constantly marred by immersion-breaking laziness that cannot be excused.
There is little sense of atmosphere in The Walking Dead. Bear McCreary’s soundtrack is the only real production highlight in this regard, and the only element of the show capable of invoking the terror of the desolate yet teeming landscape. Its failing in creating anything even approaching a properly terrifying atmosphere is in great deal thanks to the show’s aesthetics. Almost every visual aspect has this unshakeable cheapness to it; from the limited size sets, to the unremarkable lighting, and the generally boring cinematography. It’s hard not to wonder what The Walking Dead would be, if it were part of a family like HBO, where it would likely receive the funding and creative freedom it so desperately needs. The grimy, gritty lens filter used must be commended though; just as David Simon insisted The Wire be shot in 4:3 to more accurately capture the reality of its subject matter, The Walking Dead wisely opts for an unclear picture, one as filthy as the world its characters inhabit.
All of these myriad issues are made even more painful when watched in the context of one of the late season episodes, which may just be the best forty minutes the show has thus far managed to put together. This episode is completely disconnected from the main plot and and has little direct broad significance but that’s irrelevant; for the first time since the pilot, we saw a drama worthy of its popularity. It was small scale and laser-focused; it knew exactly what it wanted to accomplish and executed it almost perfectly. Were this structure and care employed on a regular basis, The Walking Dead could become a show worthy of regular, genuine praise. The fact that it was penned by new showrunner Scott Gimple does give some hope for the future. Although with such an underwhelming and unambitious finale, perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to get too excited for the direction it’s headed.
Despite many problems, The Walking Dead’s third season is a definite improvement and step in the right direction. There is a great show buried here, begging to be unleashed, but only time will tell whether or not its true potential will ever be capitalised on. For now, The Walking Dead remains an entertaining, heavily flawed piece of television.