'The Walking Dead' Is Back, and It's Taking the Apocalypse Seriously

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Our TV Roundtable on the Season 3 premiere

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Meslow:

Near the beginning of this week's third-season premiere of The Walking Dead, T-Dog--a character who only appeared in Season 2 when the writers felt the need to remind us he existed--actually got a line of dialogue. So when he complained, "It's like we spent the whole winter going in circles," it was both a small vindication for The Walking Dead's most underwritten character and a tacit acknowledgment that up until this point, the series has often spun its wheels. Fortunately, this new self-awareness is a major step up from last year's humorless, meandering second season--and a major step for The Walking Dead in general.

The smartest decision by The Walking Dead's writing team was to kick off the third season's story after a seven-month time jump, which allows the series to hit the reset button on some of its most irritating characters and story lines. Last season, Lori was so inconsistently written that she felt like a totally different character from episode to episode, but the time jump pushes her to late-term pregnancy, which gives her an actual, coherent motivation and increases the stakes for everyone else. For most of the series, Carol has had no personality and nothing to contribute. Now she's developed a sense of humor and learned how to use a gun. And Carl didn't even wander off and do something stupid to jeopardize the safety of the group.

Many of this episode's strengths spring directly from the "Ricktatorship" established in last season's finale, which has evolved quite nicely. In the time that's passed, the survivors have become a seasoned, disciplined unit, with clearly-defined roles in the group. There's something effectively creepy about the way the now-experienced survivors talk about walkers--which are, lest we forget, former people--as "herds of 150 head." When it comes to taking the prison, everybody has a role to play, and everybody plays their role well. The Walking Dead hasn't convinced me that to care about its characters, exactly, but I didn't find anyone completely irritating, which is a huge improvement. And whatever else you can say, The Walking Dead certainly has suspense down cold; it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be drawn in enough by the two cliffhangers at the episode's end to tune in again next week.

But outside the prison: I'm undecided on Michonne, who's the only new character to get any significant screen time this week. In an episode packed with zombie kills, she scores the week's grossest (and therefore best) when she decapitates two walkers with one sword swing, leaving a severed zombie head chomping uselessly on the ground. From her swords to the armless zombies she keeps as pets, Michonne is so pulpy and bizarre that she sort of suggests an endgame for the whole zombie-apocalypse thing--the kind of person you'd have to become to really survive. Maybe that's where Rick is headed. But right now, it feels like Michonne dropped in from a looser, crazier show than the one we've been watching. And it doesn't help Michonne's case that she and Andrea end up having one of those conversations - "you should go," "I won't leave you," etc.--that are so absurdly clichéd that screenwriters should be required to sign a pledge not to write them anymore.

Overall, though, I'd say this is much improved--an episode that shows off The Walking Dead's strengths and avoids most of the pitfalls that had dogged it in the past. What did you guys think?


Gould:

Having watched Season 2 in a compulsive iTunes marathon over the summer, I think I was less bothered by the pacing than you (and pretty much the rest of the TWD-watching world) were, Scott. Without having to wait between episodes--at all, let alone for a week--what apparently felt dithering and wheel-spinny to most people ended up seeming more languid and anti-thrillery to me. My reaction: The Walking Dead wasn't just reinterpreting a genre; it was displacing the role of that genre in the overall story--putting zombies at the center of the narrative but moving them to the periphery of the action.

That move felt deliberately tentative and unsustainable, of course: The group could only take refuge on Hershel's farm as long as walkers didn't overrun the place en mass; and by the very first episode of the season, we'd already seen that, to the group's astonishment, walkers were now moving together in sizable herds. (Scott finds the term "herd" creepy; I'm more inclined to find it plain-language.) Given the basic vulnerability of the farm, I think, we knew that this herding among the walkers meant the inevitable collapse of the semi-bucolic story arc set on the farm--and, along with it, the very fragmented normality that the group tried to establish there.

If the group can secure the prison, it'll finally have a fortress. Of course, the prison's also a big metaphor for what survival will mean in this world.

At its best, The Walking Dead isn't just a thriller; it's a drama that uses the tropes of a thriller to imagine human existence at he end of the world. So I didn't mind the second season's hesitant plotting. For me, it resonated. Without the structures and roles and meanings that orient us, faced with horrible loss, and with our lives in chronic danger, our own stories would take on some of the same qualities; they'd be radically uncertain, halting, anxious.

What bothered me was in the details: Everyone on that farm knew as well as we did that the number-one existential threat to the group was the prospect of a herd of walkers overrunning it. But while Rick and Shane beat away at their moral-philosophical meta-dispute about physical survival vs. the survival of their humanity, the security measures they took never got beyond maintaining the same wooden fences that Hershel used to keep his cows from wandering off the property. The whole debate about whether to exile or execute their prisoner, Randall, felt forced; why not just keep him as a prisoner? If we're going to make this farm work, we need to turn it into a fortress; that means disciplined protocols and regular supply runs, some longer-distance, not random strolls into the woods or serial, ad hoc trips to the ruins of the town pharmacy. It means thinking a few moves ahead. If guns are our best defense against walkers, but we can't use them outside of total emergency circumstances because the noise risks drawing the walkers to us, let's find or make some silencers. Let's take this apocalypse seriously.

I know we're meant to understand that the farm's isolation kept the group without access to much beyond it; and I know we're meant to accept that Hershel's denial about what the walkers are, and his attendant "rules" about what would and wouldn't be acceptable on his land, constrained the group's latitude. But the writers could have done more to show us a Rick with a compellingly hardcore sense of priorities.

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