End of Season Report: Season 3 of The Walking Dead

1 Apr

The Big Four

The end of Walking Dead season 3 was okay overall; the finale was frustrating in some ways but not terrible.   I’m going to spend most of this entry talking about two problematic points, so I want to get it out of the way early that I thought the season was pretty solid overall, and much better than the second season.

In fact, I’ll talk first about the aspects I liked in the finale.  Andrea dying; hooray.  We had gotten everything we were going to get out of this character and her internal struggles, and I liked how the show took a situation in which often in TV the character would make it out alive after a close call, and had her not make it instead.  It was a solid death scene all around.  Second, I like the situation Carl put his father in, shooting a man about to hand over his weapon. Our first instinct is to side with Rick, and I think with good reason, but it’s understandable why Carl doesn’t feel that way, and I like when situations like these put Rick, our protagonist, back on difficult footing.  Rick, not surprisingly, has generally been the strongest character in the show, and it’s constant challenges like these, that keep his character moving and evolving.

Now, the finale’s one major misstep: the extremely anticlimactic temporary ending to the Governor.  There’s no huge battle, nor is he finished; he lost for now, but they’re keeping him alive so he can do harm later.  This was a bad call, following bad calls tv shows have made time and again.  As often happens, TV writers believe they’ve stumbled onto a genius villain who is charismatic and whom the audience loves to hate.  While maybe at one time they planned to kill him or her, they decide this villain is too good to lose, and then have to keep finding unlikely and implausible ways in the story for the villain to not be killed or jailed by the protagonists. My two best examples for this are Sylar in Heroes and Ben in Lost (many would disagree with me there, but they’re wrong, why any character listened to Ben in the last two or three seasons is ridiculous), and there are many others.  Characters like this are not built to last; once you try to extend them, you ruin the great moment they added.  These villains are not complex enough to keep around for season after season.  Just kill ’em off and be done with it rather than ruin the characters and screw with the show.

I also want to talk a little bit about my disappointment in the promise of the Governor as a villain.  First, though, a diversionary explanation before we get back to Walking Dead.  For purposes of this entry, I’m gong to divide all villains in all forms of media into two major types.  There’s the more or less irredeemably evil villain; think Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, or even more extreme, Sauron from Lord of the Rings, who is essentially the embodiment of evil and corporeal only as a giant eye.  The second type is a villain who has some level of plausible and understandable motivation.  Rarely is this enough to actually root for the villain, but there’s some definable reason why he or her is antagonizing our protagonists that make some level of sense beyond just that he or she is a bad guy or girl.  One of the best examples of this type is Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in The Wire; they’re drug dealers, but we understand to an extent that it’s just business in the world they’re in.

There’s absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with the pure evil type of villain, and many of our most memorable villains lie in that category.  The Emperor was one. A more recent example is The Joker in Dark Knight.  He’s at heart just a crazy person; there’s no real rationale for his actions, but within the movie, that’s not called for, and he’s fantastic at being crazy.

That said, it’s harder to create the second type of villain.  It’s easy to say someone’s just evil as a reason, and often attempts at creating the second type descend into crazy/evil instead because the reason simple isn’t close to being plausible.    It’s not often easy to find real plausible reasons for someone the audience is largely supposed to be rooting against to be doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.

Getting to how this is related to The Walking Dead, the Governor was a villain who had potential to be in the second category, but eventually moved clearly to the first, and that’s kind of a shame.  There’s another potential telling of the battle between Rick’s gang and the Governor where the Governor is harsh, and maybe even a bit eccentric, but due to a history which has led him to believe that this is the only way he can keep his people alive.  Watching the show, I believed we were headed in that direction, possibly with a big explanatory episode, showing the Governor’s past in flashbacks, or having him issue a long monologue to Andrea or Milton or Rick explaining why he acts the way he does, at least to some extent.  There’s pretty much no way to make him the good guy, but there’s definitely room, in a world where undead savages threaten to overrun everyone without united action, and thirst and starvation and shelte, are serious concerns as well, to come up with reasons why strict top-down control and stern punishment would be one route towards survival.

Walking Dead doesn’t go this route, though.  In fact, it slowly moves in the opposite direction.  The Governor is most understandable very early on, but this breaks quickly when his men fire on some armed service personnel for no apparent reason.  I was waiting for some sort of explanation, either why these men posed a thread, or even just saying that in this cold hard landscape, the town needed the resources more.  But it was just a shitty thing to do, and that was that I suppose.  Moving forward from there, the governor got more and more deranged and unreasonable, making you wonder eventually how he was such a competent leader to begin with.  Soon, it was torture, and he basically ended his run for now with the totally batshit insane killing of all his own people, which, if he hadn’t already been well set into my first category above (which he had), those couple of minutes would have done it in and of itself in any circumstance.

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with evil/crazy villains, as long as we’re not supposed to have any pathos for them.  Still, when you have a chance to contract a plausible, rational villain and it fits perfectly into the story, you almost always should take it, and The Walking Dead missed a big opportunity here.

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