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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
The first two episodes of the Walking Dead are some of the greatest Television ever created. From the sweeping, iconic shots of a deserted Atlanta to the grotesque details of the walker design, each scene is packed with unapologetic heartbreak smeared across a world that’s gone to hell. Our time with Rick as he searches desperately for his family is equal parts frightening and fascinating.
Unfortunately, he had to find his way to the other mainstay survivors that make up the catatonic soap opera that the show was always destined to become. Yet, every time I feel it’s hit rock bottom, it hurls out an episode with a strongly embedded argument for continued viewing; nothing as amazing as the introductory arc, but 45 minutes that are captivating enough that I need to know what happens next.
Season 3 is no exception. Its premise had the potential to hoist the series up by its bootstraps. A menacing villain, a rival colony, the return of Merle, and an argument that in a world full of zombies, humans still have more to fear from each other than anything else. Instead, the Governor ended up a bit of a mess, and that’s coming from someone who likes David Morrissey. The writers spent a lot of time having him flirt with complexity. Every time a menacing or demonizing detail was revealed, the show would plant some sort of semi-justification line in a followup episode. He has men fight bare-fisted in a zombie pit, but it’s all for show like professional wrestling. He keeps a stash of heads in a series of fishtanks, but it’s to remind him of the horrors of the world. He lies about just about everything, but he loves his daughter.
I won’t glorify the previous season, but I will say that Shane made for a much more interesting antagonist. He may have been at odds with Rick, but he was also a properly motivated, almost sympathetic character. Imagine yourself in his position: You save a woman and child you care for deeply, you lead a group of survivors to relative safety, and you make a metric ton of very hard decisions. Then, from literally nowhere, your buddy shows up and wedges his way into every post-disaster role you’ve forged for yourself. Shane’s slip into poisonous territory was also appropriately slow. It was born from bitterness, not an innate maniacal nature. He was not happy to contest Rick, but he eventually just got fed up. Unlike the Governor, his actions weren’t a byproduct of erratic, convenient cruelty. He thought, deep down, that he was doing the right thing.
The biggest issue with the Governor is that any time we get close to a similarly respectable effort at humanizing him, he crosses the line from plain old villainy into cartoonish super villainy. In the episode “Prey”, the Governor stalks Andrea through miles of woodland with inexplicable efficiency. He predicts her moves with the contrived ease, ultimately capturing her juuuust when she’s waving to Rick (shocker). It is one of the worst episodes of the series. The logical gaps it assumes the viewer will ignore are borderline insulting. He then twirls his mustache maniacally as he manages to drag Andrea back to his basement torture chamber without anyone at the prison or Woodbury noticing. I almost gave up on the show.
Then, one week later, the episode “The Sorrowful Life” rides in and saves the day like the freaking eagles in Lord of the Rings. Merle’s abrasive outer shell betrays a side of him we never expected, a man looking for a role. Then, as he drags Michonne to the Governor, their introspective dialogue results in him resolving to martyrdom. This conclusion was reinforced, ironically, by a scene that didn’t even involve him. Earlier, Daryl confronts Glenn, asking him to forgive his brother. Glenn refuses, pointing out Merle’s past crimes, and even Daryl is left without an argument. For Merle, there would never be acceptance at the prison. He takes the only course of action left for him with any integrity.
Of course, he doesn’t kill the Governor. No, the writers couldn’t let that happen. “Let’s just have him come really close.” they say, because anything else wouldn’t fit into the formula. He gets him in the crosshairs but no, there’s a walker. Despite the contrived nature by which Merle is thwarted, his final words are appropriate. “I ain’t gonna beg!” he cries, and for the first time ever I respected the man. The final, heart-wrenching moment where Daryl discovers his now undead brother and puts him down is loaded with emotion. How am I supposed to stop watching now?
I suppose Rick provides a decent argument. Since Lori’s death, he’s been struggling with his mental state and the pressures of leadership. While there’s a well of interesting material there, it’s felt less like a sincere attempt at character development and more like a convenient excuse to place him on the sidelines. While he’s been unsure of himself in the past, he’s always stood for something whether you agree with him or not. Hopefully now that he’s opened up to the group, we’ll see his more decisive side return to the forefront as the season concludes. I want the guy who handcuffed Merle to that roof, who killed his best friend when he knew he had to, and who cleared out the prison despite overwhelming odds. You know, that guy, remember? He should be fighting the Governor. Not this wishy washy dude who doesn’t seem to do much more than look sorrowfully out into the woods with ever so slightly narrowed eyes.
Despite its many faults, I will be finishing out season three this Sunday night. If it continues building off of the intensity of the previous episode, then I may have to reconsider its status as the worst show I can’t stop watching. If not, well, there’s always Game of Thrones.