Just how in the hell did that happen? The Walking Dead has gone from being a show that frustratingly fell short of its full potential to the best thing on TV. I haven’t read all of the comics, but I’ve read enough to know that Series One and Two, despite some thrilling moments and a great reinvention of Shane, couldn’t hold a candle to the characterisation and brutality of the source material. A lot of people complained that the farm setting got boring, but in my opinion it wasn’t the farm that was the problem – it was the lack of characterisation. How are we meant to care about the dilemmas these characters are facing when they’re two dimensional cut-outs? So when showrunner Glen Mazzara promised more pace and action in Series Three, I feared that characterisation would be sacrificed even further.
I was wrong. Series Three marks a remarkable turnaround. Previously uninteresting characters have been given the edge they desperately needed. Carl is no longer an irritating liability. Now we’re faced with a near-psychopathically hardened kid with a gun as big as his head. Carol, now that she’s not a battered wife/grieving mother, is finally living up to the promise of Melissa McBride’s talent, from winding Daryl up with some sexual innuendo to rather wonderfully conveying a silent moment of grief with Rick.
Even the characters who were pretty damn good to begin with are even better now. Maggie and Glenn are as loveable as always, but who knew they were so cool? Glenn taking out a Walker while tied to a chair is probably the single most badass moment of the series so far. This has also been the season that sees Andrew Lincoln finally hitting his stride as Rick. In anyone else’s hands Rick would have started alienating the audience around the quarter-season mark, but Lincoln makes Rick’s insular grief absolutely heartbreaking, and you can’t help but feel for the guy even when you want to give him a slap and tell him to go and look after his traumatised son. And Daryl – well, he’s still Daryl. Given where the mid-season break left us, I’m guessing he’ll get more material in part two.
As for new characters, Michonne was the one the comic-reading audience was clamouring for, and Danai Gurira is brilliantly stoic as the sword-wielding heroine. Unfortunately, she’s not being best served by the script writers, who occasionally read “stoic” as “intentionally withholding information she'd be better off sharing”. She’s also being thrashed in the new character stakes by David Morrissey’s towering performance as The Governor. He’s not as OTT-psycho as his comic book incarnation – yet – and neither is the town of Woodbury. They’ve both been adjusted to better fit the TV medium, which Michonne probably could have done with too. Instead, both the Governor and Woodbury are, on the surface of it, perfectly reasonable. It’s only when you peer really close that the cracks appear, and the Governor is clearly one serious nutjob, brushing his zombie daughter’s hair and – horrendously – threatening Maggie with rape. It’s a testament to Morrissey’s performance that you still feel a stab of pity for him when Michonne kills his lil’ ankle biter.
Both Woodbury and the prison have made excellent new locations (you can see their budget’s been upped), and splitting the action between two stories has largely worked very well. But the real area where this series has excelled has been in the new-found sense of jeopardy. The tone was set with Episode 1’s shocking (and inept) amputation; after that, you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. So when the poor, much-maligned (and under-characterised) T-Dogg was eaten alive in the brilliant The Killer Within, you really weren’t expecting Lori to kick the bucket later in the same episode. That’s not how TV works. Major character deaths are always saved for the end of the series, not Episode 4! Sarah Wayne Callies managed to redeem Lori almost completely in her moving final scene, and I doubt there was a dry eye in the house as she urged Carl to always do what’s right, and not what’s easy. You don’t expect a show about zombies to be capable of blindsiding you with such emotional content, but The Walking Dead is currently managing it better than a lot of straight dramas.
But this is still a show about zombies, and the action this series has been insane. From the three-stage taking of the prison in Episode 1, to Andrew’s cunning sneak attack in The Killer Within and that bone-crunching Governor/Michonne fight in Episode 8, we barely get time to catch our breath. And it’s inventively gruesome too, even mining the gore for comedy at times (especially Rick, Daryl and T-Dogg sharing a weary look when the prisoners start shivving zombies in the gut). Hershel’s amputation was damn-near unwatchable, as was the Governor’s eye injury, the riot police zombies with faces attached to their masks and Lori’s caesarean. All credit to the practical FX guys on The Walking Dead. They deserve dozens of Emmys.
The show is still not perfect. Characters still make dumb decisions for the sake of the plot (why has Michonne still not told them that Andrea’s in Woodbury, even though she must know that they’re Andrea’s old group?) and Andrea’s still pretty damn useless. The show has also begun to demonstrate a worrying habit of only having one black male character on the show at a time. Oscar was introduced, so T-Dogg died. And in the mid-season finale, the long-awaited Tyreese was finally introduced (played by The Wire’s Chad Coleman) just as Oscar was killed. It’s hard not to notice a pattern like that. I was also initially concerned that the returning Merle was a tad too nice, but after locking Glenn in a cell with a Walker, it looks like the nasty old Merle is well and truly back, and Michael Rooker is having a whale of a time. I hope the cliffhanger doesn’t result in his untimely death – I could stand to get a little more Merle time before he inevitably bites the dust.
A lot has still been left for the second half of the series – after all, Rick and the Governor haven’t come face-to-face yet, and that hallucination of Shane in the last episode offers a tantalising hint at the current state of Rick’s psyche. Plus, we need to get to know Tyreese and find out if Axel is as dangerous as his disturbing “seventeen... interesting...” comment implies. Oh, and there’s the little matter of all of Woodbury calling for the execution of the Dixon brothers... February seems an awfully long way off.