For a while, it seemed like The Walking Dead was dead to me. While Season Two had its good points, an overall sense of frustration with the static nature of the narrative made me leery of staying loyal to the show. Cutting the cord a couple of years ago meant that I couldn’t watch The Walking Dead air in real time nor on the Internet (and I’m not into torrents). The third season of the show, however, has reminded me of everything I loved about it in the first place and also managed to surprise me in ways I did not expect.
The struggle to survive is back at the forefront. While Season Two explored the clashes of personalities in a relatively secure space, Season Three offers no such safe harbor. The Walkers are back with a vengeance. Although we’ve seen Rick and the others learn enough of the characteristics of the Walkers, it’s a nice reminder of how that knowledge does not extend to everyone. It’s interesting to watch both Michonne and Milton grapple with learning things about the Walkers when they seem to know so much already.
Although both of the main groups of characters in Season Three take up residences that are mostly secure, it’s not a stretch to interpret Woodbury as more of a prison than the actual prison Rick and his group occupy. The interpersonal dynamics of Season Two are thus exacerbated by these new locales and the subsequent new characters.
While The Walking Dead is a human drama wrapped up in the reality of a horrific, inhumane world, at the heart of Season Three is an examination of gender and power. When discussing how these two factors are made manifest, there is perhaps no more important character than Lori Grimes.
The animosity towards Lori from both critics and fans exposes the inherent sexism—much of it emanating from women—that exists in both the real world as well as the world of the show. Lori, by her own admission, was a “shitty wife” and wouldn’t win mother of the year, but her affair with Shane in Season One was a mutual decision made by two adults. To cheer for Lori’s death is to turn away from Shane’s violent, devious ways and to interpret Shane as Rick’s victim. After all, Lori is no more flawed than other characters who have made poor decisions. For a show that focuses on the un-human qualities of the Walkers, The Walking Dead does a spectacular job of exposing the fallibility—and often the inhumanity—in everyone.
The show also handled the aftermath of trauma in original and thought-provoking ways. Rick’s struggle to deal with Lori’s death almost breaks him for good. His realization that Carl has had to kill his own mother is the most gut-punching scene in the entire season, followed closely by Daryl’s breakdown when he has to kill Merle.
Michonne, despite her skill with a katana, is also dealing with issues from her past that have turned her into something similar to a wounded animal. On the other hand, Maggie, who has transformed into a strong and capable warrior over the last season is faced with not only the very real threat of rape but also the inability of her male partner (Glenn) to deal with the aftermath. Because the development of their relationship feels natural and unforced, so does Glenn’s reaction to what happens to Maggie at the hands of The Governor.
As the show’s first true villain, The Governor is an outstanding metaphor for the all too common way that politicians and other cults of personality claim they are “protecting their own” and the hypocrisy that inevitably ensues when “their own” is revealed to be not their constituency or their neighbors, but their own power. This is most obvious when he declares Rick and his group to be terrorists. “I’m afraid of terrorists who want what we have!” he bellows, “Who want to destroy us!” In many ways, his trajectory is like that of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Perhaps there was some good in him at one point, but the death of Penny, much like the death of Rachel, is what finally frees The Governor’s inner demons.
The Governor is also a gaslighting manipulator, so it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine why Andrea would fall for him, especially given her past dalliance with Shane. Here too, gender comes into play. Andrea is able to calm the uneasy people of Woodbury through her sincerity and belief in the inherent goodness of others while The Governor must control them through obfuscation and heavily guarded walls. In Rick’s group, Andrea tried to be seen as an equal to the men in their ability to protect through their skills with guns and knives. In Woodbury, her weapons are taken away more than once and The Governor exploits their sexual relationship to wield power over her.
It feels natural to pit The Governor against Rick: both are strong male leaders who watch over and protect their people, but it’s perhaps more enlightening to compare Rick to Andrea. For all of its ruminations on gender politics, perhaps nothing was more significant to Season Three of The Walking Dead than trust. Rick, whether lost in his own grief or not, doesn’t trust the prisoners they discover, nor the members of Tyreese’s group, even though only some of them pose real and obvious threats. Meanwhile, Andrea, perhaps weary of the specter of death, chooses to see only the flashes of humanity in The Governor instead of the evil that lurks within him.
Another interesting character dynamic is the one between Michonne and Daryl, although they never actually face off. Both are distrustful loners skilled with weapons and survival. Michonne, who makes the tough decision to leave Woodbury on her own, feels betrayed by Andrea and puts her walls up. She only lets them down again when she finds that she cares about Carl.
Daryl also spends time rebuilding walls he’s already demolished. By the end of Season Two, he had grown to trust the other members of the group and forged a genuine connection with Carol. In that time, Merle had become an almost mythological character to Daryl; when finally confronted with him again, the realization that Merle is a threat to the people Daryl cares about is a difficult burden for him to bear.
In a season filled with compelling character transformations, there was none more breathtaking and heartbreaking to witness than Carl’s. His development into an adult in a child’s body is believable, but when contrasted with his conversations with Beth, we are forced to remember that he is still a kid. Thus, it’s all the more chilling when he kills the young Woodbury resident, and the question of whether he is a pragmatist or a murderer remains unanswered.
If you gave up on The Walking Dead last season, please give it another chance. It has powerful storylines, terrific acting, genuine suspense, and tremendous visual effects. It’s a show not just for horror fans, but fans of great television.
The Walking Dead Season Three is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay and there’s still time for a marathon before Season Four premieres on AMC on Sunday, October 13.
The DVD of The Walking Dead Season Three includes commentary on episodes 4, 5, 8, 9, and 15. By far, the most enjoyable is any commentary with Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne. Her insights and enthusiasm are enjoyable to listen to.
There are also eight featurettes examining various characters as well as the set design and effects. It’s fascinating to watch the way that behind-the-scenes clips show the skillful blending of practical and visual effects, even in the segments that are not effects-focused. The featurettes contain interviews with both cast and crew and provide fodder for further contemplation on the major themes of the season as well as where Season Four might be headed. In addition, there are six deleted scenes which are both engaging and revealing