Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Laurie Holden, Norman Reedus, Steven Yuen, Lauren Cohan, Scott Wilson, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira, David Morrissey, Michael Rooker, Dallas Roberts
Potential Spoiler warning: Please note that this review mentions some of the events that occur in Season 3 of the show, but for the most part tries to remain as spoiler-free as possible. The paragraphs where I specifically discuss the finale in a little detail have been colour matched to the background - please highlight the text if you’d like to read it.
Stewart R: 35 episodes in the can, already? Three series of The Walking Dead have now been delivered and the show just seems to go from strength to strength and its popularity keeps going in the right direction as the fortunes of the struggling characters seems to go in the other. As the dust settles on this latest year and the fans and viewers let the events of the past eight weeks and somewhat opinion-splitting finale sink in, it’s good to be able to sit back and survey the varying landscape of the show as a whole.
The first six episode season set the tone, gave us the protagonist, established the main immediate threat and set about showing the audience how strangers might well interact when forced to huddle together in order to survive in a world no longer recognisable to them. By the time October 2011 rolled around it was all about looking a little further into the future as Rick, Shane, Lori and the others set about trying to find a safe refuge, somewhere to stay clear of the stumbling undead carnage and in doing so it allowed the chaos that comes from human emotion, confrontation and desperation to force its way to the fore as divisions set in and we all started picking our favourites and willing for them to avoid death at the teeth of a walker or hands of a former friend.
When this third season began, the mid-term future of the show was already secure, the gamble with a slower paced second series had paid off and it was clear that the characters had spent a harsh Winter getting to accept and hone the skills required to see them avoid a grisly fate thanks to Rick’s ‘no questions’ style of leadership forging the way. Those first 8 chapters rolled along at a rip-roaring pace, throwing new locations, new dangers, new cast members at the audience whilst taking a moment here and there to allow us a fond (and maybe not so fond!) and bloody farewell to a few of the more familiar faces. Rick’s mind began to play tricks on him. Woodbury began to play tricks on Andrea. And the Governor was proving to be one of the trickiest customers in the history of post-apocalyptic worlds. As a delightfully early Christmas present we had been given - in this reviewer’s opinion - some of the finest television to hit screens this side of the Millenium.
But with the advent of a new year and a three month respite now out of the way could the creators of The Walking Dead maintain that high level of consistency and keep the story barreling on with all of the delicious ingredients so finely balanced?
Kicking the return to regular scheduling off by dealing with the immediate resolvement of Daryl and Merle’s predicament at the hand of the bloodthirsty Woodbury citizens certainly helped to dip the audience straight back into the continuity, and the fallout from Rick and Co’s foray into hostile territory really helped to form the backbone of the second half of the season. With both sides now aware of each other, yet unsure of each other’s motives, and the Governor’s slow dive towards lethal insanity, the distance between the two groups really seemed to shorten quickly and the tension jumped as the risk of an attack at any moment hovered over each and every week’s instalment.
What particularly struck me was the fractures that began to show in the group of survivors as the cracks started to open in Rick’s confidence and ability to lead. As characters like Glenn and Carl continued to harden and vent pent up anger and aggression - or Daryl’s brief departure from the group - it always seemed to coincide with Rick’s hallucination-fuelled wanderings away from those he swore to protect and symbolised just how his guidance had been keeping things on the rails and what possibly lie ahead if he were to not be there to steer the ship. Likewise, over in Woodbury, the picket fence ideal began to fade and tarnish just as quickly as the Governor’s motives began to get darker and darker. The crazier and more unhinged he became the less control he had over his town and subordinates such as Milton, and the quicker that Andrea became more aware of just how precarious a position she was in.
No longer was the main danger the herds of stumbling, decaying walkers. This season has shown that the biggest threat comes from the surviving people and just what they might do in order to ensure their future, or exact their revenge.
With the lines drawn and a seemingly inevitable battle looming - the initial ‘testing’ of the defenses was brilliantly timed at a midway point to act as a potential teaser - it allowed the writers to find a little elbow room for some much needed character analysis and development, things that had been a little lacking due to the overwhelming bulk of the plot and the action. Dallas Roberts’ Milton quickly came to the fore as his ethics and bravery became tested and his nervous, shifty-eyed performance was a delightful contrast to the rather gung-ho machismo being delivered around him. Daryl and Merle’s tumultuous relationship as reunited siblings found a little breathing room and arguably delivered the emotional high points of Season 3 in episodes 'Home' and 'This Sorrowful Life' as Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker both milked as much bubbling emotion as they could from the brothers and their minimal dialogue that teasingly nodded at a history that they would sooner forget. Similarly I was engrossed in Glenn and Maggie’s battle to come to terms with what had befallen them during their stay at Woodbury and Steven Yuen and Lauren Cohan’s chemistry has been as strong as ever.
And then there’s been David Morrissey. I’ll admit that as a reader of the comic book (I’d finished Compendium 1 just before the first ever episode aired) I’d been a little skeptical about his casting in the beginning, but as the show has developed and the necessity for Woodbury to grow as a locale has been unveiled it’s now clear why the producers opted for Morrissey’s candied smile and suave demeanour over the rougher, outright creepier manner of his pen and ink counterpart. He’s certainly been asked to use a host of his acting skills and he has hit the mark every time, providing the show with a villain truly worthy of the decimated world in which he finds himself, the rough outline of Phillip, a once good man still vaguely visible, but now irrevocably filled with venom, rage and the murderer’s thirst of the Governor.
While it should be said that some characters feel as if they’re now there simply to make up the numbers - when was the last time Melissa McBride’s Carol had anything substantial to do apart from opening gates and looking after the baby? - and the cast continues to expand quicker than the show can kill them off, nothing has managed to allow The Walking Dead to fall back into that slow, bloated cart-ride that we experienced for periods during the second year. The one episode that would usually be described as ‘filler’ was 'Clear', but that was a pivotal piece of scripting that allowed for a further examination on how difficult this world had become to live in, taking us back to where the show and Rick's journey began many moons ago and it also helped to cement Michonne’s place within the group.
When it comes to the finale... I know that there have been many out there who feel as if we as an audience have been a little robbed by the constant build up and escalation that has been present throughout the 16 instalments to then have things end on a surprisingly light and unexplosive note. I sat there for a brief moment following the rolling of credits with a ‘was that it?’ expression upon my face along with some friends who also shared my puzzled look. However, the more I think about it, the more I like what the show’s producers have done; they’ve once again reinforced the idea that in this world we shouldn’t expect things to turn out a specific way or follow the usual conventions. It’s how Kirkman has written the source material and the screenwriters have tried to emulate that philosophy as freely as they can for an ongoing TV show as we’ve wound our way through the 35 televisual chapters. No-one is safe, anyone could go at anytime, and in such an unpredictable world that shouldn’t necessarily mean that we get an explosive death-filled ending each and every time this show wraps for the summer.
That said I feel that the writers had little choice but to end Andrea’s journey as she’d been written into something of a corner and quickly became an echo of Dale’s voice from the series previous. Laurie Holden did a fine job for the most part, acting as that familiar anchor that we knew yet didn’t necessarily agree with in Woodbury, but come her final scene it did weirdly feel as if Holden was almost trying to emote her disappointment at having her tenure on the show cut short which robbed the character of a truly fitting goodbye. Arguably the lack of any huge, earth-shattering conclusion or cliffhanger of any sort makes the desire to find out what happens next and when/if the Governor might return all that more exciting for October’s next offering.
At the end of this Spring day I really do feel that I couldn’t have asked for much more from The Walking Dead as it bridged the gap between 2012 and 2013. Every episode contained nerve-wracking tension - I was on the edge of my seat every single time any of Rick’s group conducted any sort of discussion out in the open at the prison, framed in closeup, especially Glenn and Maggie! - was finely acted by all involved and the writers’ surprises and twists were scattered around sparingly to keep us all on our toes. Certain new additions to the cast show promise as both potential fodder and long term participants and should hopefully get chance to contribute more to the plot next time around. Yes, as always there are small areas to pick at if I really wanted to, occasional negative comparisons to be made against the source material, yet for me it still remains unmissable viewing and a fine example of creative adaptation and compromise in order to get the source material upon the screen. It's clear that the writers have found their stride now - the cast have been in theirs for a while and aren't stopping - and the level of quality and consistency has been greater in these 16 episodes than the two series that preceded them. Compelling stuff indeed and I’m certainly hungry as a herd of biters for more. 10/10