Monday, 14 October 2013

The Walking Dead Season 3 - review

2012 (USA)


Contains mild spoilers.

I've never hidden the fact that AMC's The Walking Dead adaptation of Robert Kirkman's comic was pivotal in rekindling my forgotten love of all things Z. The first season was raw, post apocalyptic survival story telling finally out of the closet. With an all star cast and triple A production budget it was everything I could have wished for and really struck a chord with not only myself but a population that was ready to lap up the next big subversive thing. Not resting on their laurels the second season was greatly expanded with sub narratives, more expansive sets and side characters that were given more room to develop. Many criticised it for having too much of a shift from horror to character drama but to me the expanded narrative moving away from a tight corridor of consecutive dangerous zombie fights, to potentially having a refuge, and hope, was inevitable and necessary. The sanctity of Hershel's farm allowed for better dynamics between the real walking dead of the show and allowed the central conflict of being ideologically good at all costs (Rick - Andrew Lincoln) vs. the utilitarianism of Shane (Jon Bernthal) to play out to a satisfying and explosive climax.

Season 3 begins with the group once again on the road, scavenging for supplies and surviving on the edge. In many respects their situation is a return to season one though this time the group are far more war weary and the atmosphere is darker and less optimistic. The various writers and directors don't allow this to last long though, as the focus for the season is their discovery of a new, potentially game changing sanctuary, an unclaimed prison, albeit with it teeming with its previous inhabitants, and its close proximity to Woodbury; a high walled and heavily guarded community of 73 survivors under the leadership of the self styled autocrat Governor (David Morrissey).

When I first watched season 3 last year, weekly, on television I actually came away slightly disappointed. I felt it could again be charged with feeling a bit like a series of two distinct parts, I felt the Governor came across a bit disingenuous and his behaviour a too conveniently excessive, and I wasn't sure how I felt watching Rick fall apart and make a series of quite out of character decisions. I don't know whether the last year of watching nigh on a hundred zombie films has changed me, or whether it was from being able to watch all sixteen episodes again, back to back without all the season stops and breaks, but this time it all made far more sense; it felt more cohesive and I could see how the very things I challenged were actually vital to drive the key narratives of the series.

Having gone through the all the trouble of settling the internal conflicts and whittling down the group to a core few its audience is now quite heavily invested in it was time to look outside for conflict, challenge and something to push the narrative and characters. Season 3 has the prison, and the job of clearing it out provide the first thing for them all to do then moves to the threat of The Governor to provide the rest. This time the conflict isn't within the group, there's no in fighting or vying for power and it wouldn't make sense for it to be so.

Season 3 deals with some quite complicated issues; protectionism, moral ambiguity, dealing with profound loss and guilt and questioning the lengths people would go to, to secure what little safety they perceive they have. In many ways Rick and The Governor are very alike. Both make morally dubious decisions to look after what they have, both are responsible for the deaths of any perceived threat, and both display on more than one occurrence total moral ambivalence. At the end of Season 2 Rick takes total control blaming his stubborn desire to listen to all angles and make decisions that satisfied the majority, while still abiding by his unambiguous moral beliefs and codes, as the reason for the groups ultimate disintegration and the many deaths that resulted. Season 3 is Ricks journey to rediscover that person the group chose to follow rather than be swallowed by hate and vengeance which is the direction the Governor takes.

It's deep, it's complicated and there's enough nuance and ambiguity that trying to explain it in simple terms is impossible but it's a fine portrayal of a person under the most extreme circumstances finding balance and inner calm. As with the previous seasons, some of the additional characters aren't allowed to flourish as much as they should, especially 'T-Dog' (IronE Singleton) who three seasons in was woefully under-utilised, yet others including several new, or reintroduced characters including Michonne (Danai Gurira) are delightfully well-fleshed out and given plenty of room to develop. Acting is, as per the previous seasons first class and it's the perfect marriage of sharp intelligent dialogue and seasoned professionalism. The pacing is perfect, in relentlessly driving the action when it needs then having the confidence to allow it all to slightly deviate, the highlight of which is episode 12, 'Clear' where Rick, Michonne and Carl (Chandler Riggs) stumble into Morgan (Lennie James) the man who originally saved Rick, which is both poignant and incredibly rewarding television. All in all it's put together with such consummate ease watching hour after hour is a joyful experience and never hard to do.

One thing that can't be levied against The Walking Dead is pulling its punches when it comes to gratuitous blood and gore. The many, many zombie killings are excessive, visceral and lovingly crafted. Heads are stomped on, chopped off and sliced in half; and as for survivors, the zombies may be treated in general as a little more of a nuisance or hindrance than the out right single main threat they were in the previous seasons, but up close and personal they're still as gnarly, vicious and dangerous as ever. Season 3 also doesn't shy away from some quite dark and uncomfortable film making especially regarding Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) pregnancy which makes for powerful and highly emotional viewing.

The Walking Dead is still the benchmark for post-apocalyptic story telling. Yes, it might be accused of being derivative and for a show about extreme survival with flesh eating zombies regularly allowed to rip into the main cast, it could even be argued it's all a bit safe. But honestly, for the particular niche of modern Romero zombie cinema it's decided to make its own, it's nigh on as good as we're likely to ever get. The action is relentless, the characters deep, complex and constantly evolving, and the production and acting qualities are like that of a Hollywood blockbuster. The Walking Dead may be a main stream popular phenomena adored by a crowd that had never before taken the genre seriously but that doesn't mean it can't still be adored by those who also enjoy the more obscure and unsavoury morsels that are on offer. Staggeringly good zombie fun, 10/10.

Steven@WTD.

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