'The Walking Dead' Finally Gets the Villain It Deserves

The show returns to fine form for its experimental episode "Walk With Me" and fleshes out an intriguing new group of characters.

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Last year, as I grew frustrated with The Walking Dead's bland characters and subpar writing, I came up with something I called the Zombie Test. As I watched other shows, from Mad Men to Parks & Recreation to Justified, I asked myself: If a zombie apocalypse suddenly broke out in this episode, would this be a better zombie series than The Walking Dead?

The answer, across the board, was yes. But I'm happy to say that based on the first three episodes of this season—including last night's risky, compelling "Walk With Me"—The Walking Dead's writing and characterization has improved to the point that the Zombie Test isn't a guaranteed "yes" for me anymore.

There was a time last season when I thought the show's characters had been written into so many corners that it needed to clean house altogether, staging a massive zombie attack and killing off three-quarters of its cast in order to clear the way for new, more interesting figures. But the series' writers found a better solution in the seven-or-eight month time jump, which made it plausible that The Walking Dead's most problematic characters—Lori, T-Dog, Carl, and Carol—could have evolved into more complex, capable survivors over an extended period of time.

But we didn't spend any time with our new-and-improved main cast last night. In another sign that The Walking Dead is growing bolder and more experimental in its third season, "Walk With Me" moved away from our main cast for an episode to introduce some new blood into a series that spills so much of it. Let's talk about the third season's big two new characters: Michonne and the Governor.

Fans of The Walking Dead comics have been eagerly anticipating the appearance of the Governor, who's arguably the series' most infamous character, since the first season. It's a meaty role for any actor, and plenty of big names were thrown around—John Hawkes was reportedly an early favorite for the part—before producers settled on British TV staple David Morrissey. And the character's debut in "Walk With Me" doesn't disappoint.

The Walking Dead has needed a strong central villain from the beginning, and the Governor is the first character who really fits the bill. When he was originally introduced, Merle Dixon was a terribly written caricature of a redneck, and Shane—who was genuinely compelling as an anti-hero—was never fully convincing when he descended into out-and-out villainy. But Morrissey's brilliantly understated, charismatic take on the Governor immediately pulled me in, and the character was extremely well-written for a show that's had a problem with dialogue since episode one (My favorite moment: The Governor's seemingly benign piece of advice—"Watch out for each other"—which doubles, subtly, as a prophetic warning.)

My favorite thing about the Governor is that he's both a genuine existential threat and a living example of what Rick could eventually become. Though Rick and company didn't appear in last night's episode, "Walk With Me" worked very, very hard to draw parallels between the Woodbury survivors and our friends back at the prison. Merle is obviously the Daryl equivalent of the Woodbury group, and there's also pointed reference to a late-pregnancy woman in Woodbury, recalling Lori's ongoing pregnancy problem. They have their own name for walkers ("biters"). The brief glimpse we get of the Governor's family, which includes a wife and daughter who was roughly Carl's age, shows that he and Rick share the same family structure. We've already talked about Rick's moral compromises, but "Walk With Me" is a powerful reminder of what the zombie apocalypse could eventually make him become.

But there's one thing that's not totally working for me this season: Michonne. Michonne is, by definition, a bit of a cipher; like the Governor, she's not particularly interested in revealing anything about her past, so we can only judge based on her actions. It's clear that Danai Gurira is giving it her all, but so far, she hasn't really been handed a character to play. This is a classic example of a time when I'd really, really like to see a flashback—if only so that we, as an audience, have some insight into Michonne's motives, and consequently, some reason to care about her besides how cool it is when she decapitates zombies. Of course, The Walking Dead has done so much right this season that I'm inclined to give the series the benefit of the doubt and assume that her lack of character development now will pay off later.