Last year, The Walking Dead received some less than friendly reviews from your average commentator, especially those that have read the books. The general consensus is that the amount of time spent on the farm caused the show to meander wildly, diving too far into the depth of the characters — or rather, the lack thereof — and that this action left the show a mess. At least, that’s what I wrote in my rather scathing review of the entire season, anyway.
Yet, supposedly, the third season has wound up much better. In the various Five Thoughts David has done for the site so far, he’s praised this season’s ability to pick it up from the last, improving ten-fold on just about every aspect despite a few hiccups. Even you, the readers who have commented on the site, agree; outside of a few minor flaws (and Chris Hardwick’s frequent Talking Dead interruptions), this season has been generally great. Folks on Twitter, casual acquaintances, the people I overhear while in line at Dunkin Donuts — people are all abuzz about how much better The Walking Dead is now.
And somehow, I have to admit: I honestly just don’t see it.
As a note, massive spoilers for the book and show are discussed. Moreso for the show, but there will be book spoilers for related sequences in a compare/contrast fashion.
Let me begin by noting that one of the “old complaints” basically still stands as the most forthright: that the show has strayed too far from the book. I realize that the thought is rather annoying for people who don’t want to bother with the comparison, and I can agree that it’s not the right mindset to have to a degree. Yet as an adaptation, it remains remarkably prevalent to the overall discussion; never mind the fact that Kirkman had stated that the show will take divergences, but after season two it was pretty clear that the show is only related to the book in names and a handful of ideas. The Walking Dead has become a “What If?” scenario to “The Walking Dead”: What if Shane had lived? What if they didn’t meet as many people? What if the farm was a chill place to hang? What if no one ever knew where Carl was? There are so many aspects that are different now that it becomes impossible not to notice when something has been changed, whether it was done deliberately for a story purpose or just for the sake of broadcast television.
To that end, it becomes somewhat difficult to view the show as a book reader. At least, to a certain extent. It’s like watching the edited versions of Star Wars and seeing that Sebastian Shaw has been replaced by Hayden Christensen; you know it should be better than this nonsense, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Truth be told, though, a lot of the complaints a book reader will have will come from where you attached to the book, through the content or the character, because the show offers “new versions” of both aspects – and in both regards the show still basically fails for the most part in the first half of its third season.
In terms of content, the show either tries to go too far or it doesn’t go far enough. There doesn’t seem to be a positive middle ground. Last season there “weren’t enough zombies” as they tried to work with the characters, so this season there are zombies everywhere in every corner. You can’t lift a pebble without revealing a biter underneath. It’s an extreme overcompensation of undead flesh eaters, and it’s borderline ridiculous at this point. The characters are supposed to have deus ex machinas to get away from the zombies, but now the show seems to consider the zombies the deus ex machina to get out of doing anything, as well as a tool to consistently trim the cast down. Great post-apocalyptic zombie stories use the zombie as a tool rather than the focus, but the zombies of The Walking Dead are now a device to fluff out the run time of an episode in between pointless drama and “the cool stuff,” and it’s getting to the point that if we had another season on a farm with no zombies I don’t think I’d complain. Add to that a few moments from the comic that are used but horribly distorted (which I’ll get to in a second) and we’re given a show that has a lot of zombies, a lot of filler and a handful of deaths thrown into a pot to be served up cold.
In terms of adapting elements from the book, it’s this that hurts the most to watch. Take, for example, the phone: Rick receives a call from an unknown person, and the phone becomes a crutch for him as his sanity weakens. In the book, the phone comes to him at his darkest moment and becomes the stories central device for a few issues, with the eventual reveal of who is calling ending up to be quite crushing even if it is a bit telegraphed, because it was one of the darkest “there is no hope” moments of the story. In the show, the phone rings for him at a similar dark moment, yet it’s basically turned into a throwaway element that does very little to further the character. Kudos to the show for coming up with a clever way to use the phone toward it’s reveal, but they play it off as a one-off trick instead of a development device. Rick learning of the phone’s true nature in the book helps shape him into the man he needs to be for his son, but the show’s iteration of the character is so devoid of growth that this is basically another bump in the road for a seemingly never-ending spiral downwards, and the reveal means very little. Lincoln’s Grime is near irredeemable at this point, a distrusting man who has thrown away his past self as an enforcer of the law (something the character in the book holds dear to him to this day) and has abandoned even the slightest notion of optimism, and based on his interactions with Lori and the complete lack of love visible the revelation becomes worthless — and it’s made even less important because he learns absolutely nothing. It’s sadistic, pointless and above all else, not endearing to watch.
Which brings us to the second major issue of the show, in that the main characters that populate the show are mostly filled with horrible people. Season two’s major downfall is that it made everyone rather irritating beyond belief, because when faced with the zombie apocalypse the cast’s reaction was to re-enact thrown away plotlines of All My Children. Rick and Lori were warped into things beyond recognition, Shane became a monster, Andrea lost any semblance of reason, etc, etc — and as season three begins this really hasn’t changed. Assumedly as a solution to at least one of these problems, the show kills Lori off “early” to help motivate Rick (not quite a “Mary Sue” which is something the comic rather gracefully avoided, but still mostly nonsense), and the result gives us an even worse iteration of the character. Given the interactions of these two characters that we see, you’d almost think that Rick should’ve been happy Lori was dead, and that’s a sad thought to ponder. Honestly, the most plausible explanation for Rick’s behavior at this point is that he has developed some kind mental disease (can a man who is almost 40 develop Borderline Personality Disorder?). I’ll admit that while it’s nice to know that the show runners didn’t feel the need to drag this particular drama out for another season, the loss of Lori as an aspect to the show gives us very little other than a blatant excuse for Rick to be a dick some more.
Of course, to make matters worse they then transferred Lori’s horrible decision making skills to Andrea, which is honestly just as bad. In fact, it’s actually fairly telling of one of the show’s latest obvious faults, because it proves that the show just isn’t good at managing the cast dynamic. When someone or something is removed, something comes back to take its place: Lori’s talents go to Andrea, T-Dog’s background role is replaced with Oscar, Dale’s role of wisdom is replaced with Hershel, etc. One of the great things about “The Walking Dead” (the book) is that the world is always seemingly open-ended, populated with thousands of characters and character types waiting to be discovered. Even aside from the book’s lack of color, nothing is played off as black and white ;whenever someone new appears they’re always a mystery, and you can never quite tell what their intentions are (even now with Negan, to an extent). The show seems to think that things half to be two sides of a coin, though – you’re either on the side of good or that of bad, either possessed by a false illusion that you’re a hero hiding out in a prison or part of a screaming mob surrounding an innocent man in a pit and dooming him to death. And really, just the fact that the show’s main former-cop protagonist is so open to killing random people (such as the man in the shack in the penultimate episode, which was a horrible scene), you’ve got a rather apparent lack of control on what you’re trying to do.
Truly, Michonne should’ve been this season’s saving grace, but as well as Danai Gurira’s performance was (and, despite what I’m about to say, I do think she was rather great), she ultimately made no sense. Take into consideration her actions in this season: Michonne had it out for the Governor for being a bad man, but her biggest grievance with him seems to have been that he took her sword. Yes, the audience knows the Governor has wicked intentions, and yes, Michonne sees that he’s up to no good. There’s no lack of a villain here. Yet while I didn’t expect the show to get into the darker elements of the Governor and Michonne’s relationship (you know, all the rape stuff), when she comes after him and takes an eye, it kind of feels petty rather than triumphant. Michonne herself isn’t exactly a heroine as she left Glen and Maggie to potentially die at the hands of Merle, and she was never honest with Andrea up through the Eleventh Hour, so why does she have it in so viciously for this man who never actually did anything to her? Surely she understands the darkness that comes with being a survivor, seeing as she cut off the arms of her boyfriend and his best friend and leads them around in chains as pets. While that wasn’t revealed in the show (or the book, technically, as it was from a Playboy special only just now reprinted), she still marched onto the scene with pet zombies of people she assumedly cared for; who is she to judge the Governor for trying to keep his daughter alive? Are we to assume that it’s ok to be a murderer if you’re killing other murderers? I’m pretty sure there is another show about that idea already called Dexter, and the general consensus is no, it’s not ok at all.
I’ll give The Walking Dead a few positive nods, though. David Morrissey as the Governor is pretty great, and to say that he carried the season on his shoulders is probably putting it a bit lightly. The Governor is the only character who remains constant throughout, someone who is a clear motivation for his actions, and Morrisey makes sure that he walks that fine line beyond being a savior and a lunatic rather wonderfully until the finale. Truth be told, the major reason I want to tune in to the second half of the season is to see what he alone will do. Trimming down the cast a bit felt like a strong move on a few fronts, and while I can’t stand Lincoln’s version of Rick even remotely, the arrival of Tyreese is exciting (even if this just feels like blatant fan-service). There are things to look forward to and I won’t deny it, and sure, it’s better than the second season — but was that hard to do? Should we really called it a pick-up because now the show is standing on one foot instead of laying flat in the dirt? Approaching the rest of season three with any sense of optimism seems foolish because the show has let us down twice with how it has rounded out its seasons, and I can’t help but remember (to continue a comparison from earlier) that once upon a time I looked forward to seeing more Star Wars at the announcement of a prequel trilogy, and I’m sure we all remember the rave reviews those films garnered.
So The Walking Dead‘s first half of the third season is still a rather poor representation of its source material. It’s not entirely a swing and a miss, mind you; at this point it’s a bunt, if anything. There are still things to be slightly interested in, but it’s all in a stick/carrot sort of way. Tyreese finally showing up could be great, but one of his best scenes in the book was given to Rick and, at this point in the game, he just feels like walking fodder. The Governor casting off his false guise should hopefully lead to heightened drama, but his character could be given the same lack of focus that every other character receives now that he’s just the Mad Man Archetype. Before either of this potentially great aspects essentially matter, the show needs to make a firm decision on what it wants to be and what characters populate its world.
While I’m not necessarily advocating that the show be a port of the book (though that’d be nice) and I’m not playing with the idea that the show has to be a dreary post-apocalyptic sad-fest, the one thing that The Walking Dead could benefit from is having some semblance of balance. If it ever wants to reach the highs of the book (or even the lows, honestly), it needs to feel like someone at the show runner level actually cares about who these characters are and what happens to them, because without that all we have is walking dead.