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“Walking Dead”

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Victoria Zelvin

Spoilers. Spoilers for everything, all the way through the most current episode of Walking Dead (at time of writing, Season 3 Episode 5, “Say the Word) as well as for parts of Robert Kirkman’s identically titled graphic novel. I would like to add an additional disclaimer since, given the nature of a show set during the zombie apocalypse, any type of in-depth review/discussion of it will similarly discuss graphically violent subject matter.

Anyone who has tuned in for AMC’s the Walking Dead’s season three can see, within the first two minutes that this is an entirely new being. Whereas the entirety of season two was set on Herschel’s farm and kept the plot to a decidedly less than thrilling portrait of highly dysfunctional group dynamics, this season has gone straight for the violence and began with the clearing untold number of walkers from a prison cellblock, though not without casualties of their own. That has seemingly been the main driving theme behind the new season: more carnage, more death, more fake blood and much more moral ambiguity without discussion.

Most of this has to do with the change in management. The quite obvious shift from last season’s “Southern drama soap opera” style to a more gothic, never-ending war movie has been the transition between the leadership of Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara. Darabont, whose film credits include critical successes The Green Mile (1999) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994), focused on moral ambiguity during his tenure. He wrote and directed the show’s fantastic pilot, but the pacing went from sluggish to downright unresponsive. It is still unclear about what exactly happened, but the prevailing opinion is that, due to irreconcilable differences with the AMC executives, Darabont was fired as show-runner. The AMC executives replaced him with Glen Mazzara, whose filmography includes writing for the popularly violent show The Shield and co-executive producing the canceled NBC show Life.

The change is palpable. There is a stricter focus on the realities of living in this type of world. Gone is the introspective, 12 Angry Men style discussion preceding and following every major moral decision. Under the new Ricktatorship, the group has been transformed from a rag-tag bunch of survivors into hunters with military precision. They don’t talk much anymore and, when they do, it is brief little comments that always pertain to moving forward. The show paints this bleak backdrop of the newly militaristic Grimes Gang against the Governor (David Morrissey), who has set up Woodbury as a perpetual oasis in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. However, whereas Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has turned into a more than slightly off-hinged dictator who makes everyone share in equal parts the killing, the Governor is a smiling benevolent despot who appears to be more like the appeasing Rick seen last season. However, underneath the smiles, he’s a man who shoots soldiers in cold blood and keeps aquarium tanks full of decapitated, but still undead, zombie heads. What isn’t left behind closed doors is the semi-regular zombie cage matches, which is to say a fist fight between two humans surrounded by a “cage” of zombies on chains – and to think I wondered why Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) liked it here! Needless to say, Andrea (Laurie Holden) is not pleased, but audiences in general disagree with her. The show has taken off at a breakneck pace, leaving both zombie and human carnage in its wake.

People like Greg Nicotero, who is in charge of all the Walking Dead’s special effects and makeup (and who also helmed the two fabulous Walking Dead episode series), are getting a chance to direct vital episodes and with that comes the “how-can-we-top-ourselves?” mindset when it comes to violent zombie kills. Human kills, too. Audiences have responded favorably, to say the least. Currently, Walking Dead is the most popular show on-air right now with audiences under fifty. It draws ten-million viewers a week, topping other huge hits like Big Bang Theory, The Voice and other hits on the main networks.  Walking Dead Season 3 is connecting with audiences in a big way, hitting numbers that last season could not.

That’s not to say last season didn’t have its merits – the well-walker is among my favorites and, long winded though it was in the delivery, the scene when Sophia comes out of the barn is heart-wrenchingly visceral – but those merits were buried under layer and layer of people standing around, having soap operatic discussions of relationships then performing a complete one-eighty from what was decided in those conversations. Hey, remember that episode where everyone insisted it was very important that Carl do his math homework, zombie apocalypse or no? Neither did anyone else on the farm. Season two seemed to forget most of the time that there were more characters on that farm than Rick, Lori and Shane. If nothing else, at least season three finally gave T-Dog (IronE Singleton) something to do (and he went out as a hero).

The death of a marginal character, as graphic as it was, is not the most memorable thing that has happened this season. Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) went out in the most visceral, disturbing and outright violent manner of any of the survivors thus far: in mid-C-section. Many have argued that her sacrifice for her child was a heroic, character-absolving moment and I’ll allow that interpretation its merit. For much of the Walking Dead‘s run, if not for the entirety of it, Lori Grimes has been lamented as one of the worst characters by fans of the show in numerous articles, comment threads and even just status
updates. Her fling with her husband’s best friend (even though she thought he was dead at the time) has painted her as starkly immoral among many viewers and her inability to keep an eye on her son (“Where’s Carl?” has already become an internet meme) has not endeared her to many. However, Lori’s death brought with it more weight than just the death of another person who believed, fatally, that this new world was just like ours.

What is really cut and dry, black and white, moral and selfless in this world? Lori’s death saved the baby – for the moment. Her death also led to her own son having to shoot her in the head so that she would not return as a zombie, unhinged Rick to the point of no return and left that same baby with no means of survival. I’m not saying that it would have been more moral of her to let the innocent, unborn child die to save herself, just that I think that this dilemma, this moment given is indicative of how the Walking Dead structures this complicated world that is so different from our own and how it has changed so much from last season. The questions to consider in this situation – there’s no breast milk, no formula, no supermarket or medical care; how will the baby survive past the first day? – would have been languished over at nausea last season but given the clip at which this season is moving we don’t get more than an anguishing scene in which Lincoln proves he can act and then we’re moving on. Think back on how the “Sophia’s missing!” story arc was handled. Depending on the viewer, Lori is either a hero or took the easy way out, but the characters as of yet have been given no chance to discuss it and do not seem to be getting a chance to do so. At a certain point, the unrelenting march forward of season three is to its detriment, especially in emotionally and morally heavy moments like this. Walking Dead never gave answers, merely alternatives, but in this new season very few differing thought processes are presented explicitly.

On a lighter note, we should all give thanks for Daryl Dixon, who is the only character who continually retains his ability to think straight (except for when women flirt with him) and who dons a serape and immediately leaves to get formula, saving the day again. For his troubles, he got to name the child: Carl, welcome your sister, little baby “ass-kicker.” I am all in favor of Daryl becoming the new defacto leader as of right now, if only for the moment when he turns to Beth (Hershel’s blonde daughter – you know, the one not dating Glenn) and tells her, “The kid’s just lost his mom and his dad’s not doing too well. Could ya go hug him or somethin’?” At least someone is finally paying attention to the fact that Carl is still a child.

In closing, the whole atmosphere of Walking Dead has changed drastically between seasons, in some cases for the better and in some cases perhaps not. The ulta-violent nature of season three has struck a positive chord with viewers and the show itself has been praised nearly universally for its change in direction, but it is troubling on some levels. The violence serves to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, yes, and the visceral nature of this season also lends itself toward excitement, but the introspection of last season is lost almost entirely. The show is all about moving forward and has redecorated itself accordingly.

The next episode is set to air on AMC at 9pm EST (preceded at 8pm by the previous episode, then immediately followed at 10pm by a recap of the new episode). In the brief glimpse we are given, we are led to believe that Andrea is sorely regretting her decision to let Michonne leave without her, Merle goes hunting, Rick talks to a mysterious someone on the phone, and Daryl is led to believe Carol is still alive.