Despite excellent ratings, The Walking Dead has established itself as a consistent creative disappointment. But as the series progresses, this has become something of an advantage. Since the show’s fanbase has already proven they’ll stick around to watch “walkers” getting butchered regardless of the ridiculousness of the surrounding drama, the writers have more leeway to try new things, like eliding the cast to a more compact size. If season three’s first two episodes are any indication, Robert Kirkman, Glen Mazzara, and company are determined to bring the quality of the show’s human drama to the level of its impressive zombie-horror set pieces. They haven’t quite reached that equilibrium yet, but these episodes indicate a promising direction for the series, paring down the soap operatics to give its oft-annoying, still-underdeveloped characters more focused emotional spotlights.
Season three picks up several months after the survivors’ chaotic exit from Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) besieged farm, with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) still leading the ragtag band despite having admitted to killing homicidal alpha-male rival Shane. Now constantly on the move to replenish supplies and avoid roving “herds” of zombies, the group decides to take over a zombie-infested prison as a location for them to set up camp, and allow Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), to safely deliver the baby they have on the way. Meanwhile, Andrea (Laurie Holden), separated from the rest, finds a new friend in her rescuer, Michonne (Danai Gurira), a woman who keeps two de-limbed and de-jawed zombies with her for reasons unknown, and who’s intriguingly skilled with a katana. As far as new characters go, this one certainly makes a strong impression, but it’s yet to be seen whether she’ll transcend the surface appeal of her comic-book iconography.
The loss of characters both major (Shane and Dale) and minor (members of Hershel’s comically unmemorable but expansive family) from last season gives the new episodes a refreshing confidence boost, like a survivor shedding excess baggage to escape the undead. The smaller group is more manageable, affording each character a sense of increased importance in the ensemble, especially in the welcome absence of Shane’s incessant ranting and raving. Rick’s simmering anger over his wife’s past indiscretions with, and manipulation of, his dead ex-partner finally puts the much-maligned Lori, pregnant and remorseful, in a somewhat sympathetic position. Scenes in which Rick withholds his affection but continues to serve as her protector are restrained and convincingly painful, quite unlike the histrionics that previous seasons depended on. During “Sick,” the second episode, Rick and Lori recognize the impasse they’re at, and share a quiet moment of bitter humor at the irony of being kept together by the apocalypse, which precludes divorce. It’s more effective than 10 episodes of characters lamenting the end of the world with heavy-handed existential proclamations or arguing pointlessly.
From the dialogue-free sequence of a supply run that opens the season to the spectacularly violent invasion of the prison, what’s most rewarding about the season so far is seeing this band of fools become more efficient and ruthless, even finding joy in their bloody victories. Silly decision-making and implausibilities still abound (the reactions of a group of trapped prisoners to the zombie plague are especially unconvincing), but they’re easier to overlook because of the show’s new sense of purpose. When two of the surviving prisoners beg for their lives at our heroes’ feet, it becomes clear that things are changing for this ragtag group. The idea of nondescript civilians slowly turning into the marauders that haunt post-apocalyptic fictions, from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, is a fascinating one that the series would be wise to explore and elaborate upon, especially with a child and a teenager in the group. While Rick and Lori’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), has been annoying in the past, his newfound skill at zombie-killing allows excellent opportunities to articulate the shifting moralities of this new world, and the complications of raising a child in it.
Season three feels like a new start for The Walking Dead, bringing it a little closer to fulfilling the expectations raised by original showrunner Frank Darabont’s involvement, the award-winning source material, and AMC’s pedigree. It preserves the well-orchestrated carnage that’s kept the show’s zombie-movie heart beating, while putting some effort into reinvigorating its poorly used cast of characters with better writing. This is a series that’s decided to stop shambling and start walking.