Here’s a joke for you: What do you call a season finale that provides neither a cliffhanger nor a satisfying conclusion? The Walking Dead season three finale!
The Walking Dead has stumbled and limped along time and time again, but the show has always managed exuberantly visceral endings to storylines that proved problematic. From the heartbreaking reveal of Zombie Sophia that put an end to an excruciatingly drawn-out search-and-rescue to the intense adrenaline-fueled destruction of Herschel’s Boring Farm, The Walking Dead’s finales have always been satisfying. Unfortunately, the third season’s final hour was a strangely paced, anti-climatic affair. What should have been a rallying declarative moment for the show, ended up as a limp disappointment.
Following a languid second season that made my TV Naughty List of 2011 and a disappointing introduction of Michonne that appeared on my TV Naughty List of 2012, The Walking Dead served up a solid run of episodes in the first half of this season, its strongest outing thus far. The shift of the threat of danger from the dead to the living was a smart and welcomed one, pulling the characters and story arcs into a tighter focus. The third season, as a result, became a slow burn, building up to the promise of an all-out war between the Governor and Rick Grimes.
Did the show fulfill this promise? Save for an explosive, yet surprisingly tactless and clumsy, assault on the prison by the Woodbury team, the war ended up as a whimper, not a bang. In fact, all the tension was eased out as we watched our heroes prepare to leave the prison before the Governor even arrived. We killed time in the second half of the season, stalling for a hotly-anticipated catastrophic climax between the Governor and Rick that never came. There were no showdowns to speak of, not even the Governor versus Michonne! Instead, we were left with the Governor versus that one guy from Tyreese’s group. RIP that guy. What a letdown.
Capital “M” morality has always been the weakest element of the show, especially with its heavy-handed soliloquies of its early episodes. By time this finale rolled around, the attempts at a complex morality were reduced to nothing more than a simplistic “us” versus “them” mentality. Any compelling character tensions with the Governor’s authoritative tactics contrasted to Rick’s methods of leadership were wiped clean, as the Governor transformed into a full-on cartoony killing machine. Various shades of gray were now a distinctly dull black and white.
On The Walking Dead, where action is favored over character development, characters only become truly fleshed-out once they’ve reached the redemptive ends of their story arcs (See: Dale, Lori, Axel, Merle). When characters die, the show finally figures out their purpose, or in Andrea’s case, runs out of story to tell. Andrea’s death was as inevitable as it was necessary, and just as frustrating and polarizing as the character herself. I couldn’t help but protest in frustration as she wasted precious moments to save herself in order to gain audience sympathy, pleading a defense that she didn’t want anyone to die. There’s no time to justify your actions! Save yourself! Her last words (“I tried”) and Rick’s somewhat pathetic response (“Yeah, you did. You did.”) was just so fitting. And while I appreciate Michonne being there for Andrea in her final moments, the scene rang emotionally hollow, as their relationship was never fleshed-out enough to carry any real emotional heft.
On the plus side, Michonne herself has become a slightly more fully-realized character, evolving from a silent scowler outsider, to a not-as-silent-but-still-pretty-silent scowler who has softened enough to become part of the clan. What an arc! But as the size of the original crew whittles down, there are still unmemorable, thinly-sketched characters galore. Aside from Daryl Dixon, who can you point to as a consistently solid character? Carol probably comes the closest. Carol! And the introduction of new characters, Tyreese (a dynamic fan-favorite in the comics) and his sister (?), have proved to be disappointing non-entities. The two merely served as weak opposition to Rick, then as even weaker opposition to the Governor. But hey, on a show that apparently only has room for one black male character at a time, at least Tyreese has lines (Sorry, T-Dog and Oscar).
While this third season did deliver the tightest, strongest episode since the pilot (“Clear”), the second half of this season was a wash and the open-ended finale didn’t help to redeem itself. Perhaps most frustrating of all, there is no clear vision for the show going forward into its fourth season. In the final moments, I found myself scratching my head at Rick’s decision in choosing the prison rife with zombies and a gaping fence hole over the fortified, mostly secured Woodbury. You never want to enter a six-month-plus hiatus with a question mark.
Many characters won’t make it to season four, and I don’t think I will either. Aside from the cultural zeitgeistiness of it all, nothing compels me to continue watching The Walking Dead. While the show has delivered some hopeful moments for its characters this season to contrast the harsh bleakness of its world (Mazel tov, Glenn and Maggie!), I have no emotional investment in these characters who exist only to be bit. So good luck, Rick and friends! You’re now responsible for the weak and the elderly, and for now, one less viewer.