Even if you’re not one of the 11 million Americans currently watching AMC’s The Walking Dead, you’ve probably heard about it. Since its debut two years ago, The Walking Dead has steadily increased in commercial and critical success. And with the latest season’s premiere setting a record for scripted drama on a basic cable network, it’s unlikely the show’s popularity will diminish anytime soon.
The premise of the series needs little explanation—especially with a title like The Walking Dead. Due to a mysterious disease, the recently departed have become mobile. Unfortunately, with this mobility comes a ravenous hunger for human flesh. In the period of a few weeks, humanity has been ousted as the dominant species on the planet and the remaining survivors must struggle against the undead and each other in order to eke out a living.
The series follows one of these ragtag bands of survivors in Georgia, headed up by ex-sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes. He, along with his wife and son, Lori and Carl, and several others wander the Georgian landscape looking for food and sanctuary while running from the undead.
But The Walking Dead expands upon this idea, lending its serialization to character development and a pervading sense of dread and suspense. These two aspects were latent in the first season, but by the second season The Walking Dead’s writers had chosen the slow-burn method of storytelling—inspired, no doubt, by AMC’s other hit, Breaking Bad.
Rick’s group’s time on Herschel’s farm in season two allowed viewers to watch as each character slowly transformed according to the harshness of their environment. This group metamorphosis culminated with the execution of an intruder and the death of Dale—the group’s elder and moral compass.
With the combined loss of Dale and then the character Shane, viewers are now seeing Rick, in season three, as the sole leader of the group. There’s no one left to challenge his decisions, but there’s also no one left who can give him council.
The disconnect between Rick’s position and the rest of the group will certainly be a new point of contention for the season. For example, the consequences of venturing into the prison rest on his shoulders and no one else’s.
The stress from being the group’s only leader also drives Rick to act differently than he did even in season two.
When Rick and others discover four prisoners held-up in the cafeteria, he agrees to help them find safety within the compound so long as they don’t go near the group. But when one of the prisoners, Tomas, throws an undead at Rick in a skirmish later on, Rick responds by burying his blade into Tomas’ skull.
The swift violence of this action signals a dramatic change in Rick’s personality. The necessity to survive has trumped the necessity to be civilized. Rick can’t risk a threat like Tomas; therefore, he chooses to kill him and end the problem rather than punish him and let him live.
Lori’s death in last week’s episode also highlights the complete loss of a pre-apocalypse family. But more importantly, since her son Carl was the one who supposedly killed her so that she wouldn’t come back a zombie, he and Rick are now at odds. In the final scene of the episode, the viewer can see the effect Rick’s mourning has on Carl. If Rick blames Carl for his wife’s death, what will become of this already severely damaged child?
Perhaps the most impactful difference between the third season and the former two is the split in location focus. Season one and two centered on the group outside of Atlanta and in and around Hershel’s farm respectively, but Andrea’s separation from the group during the second season’s finale and her joining with Michonne, there are now two plot threads to follow. This means there are two locations that require coverage.
The Walking Dead took a risk by not even showing Rick and the prison group during the third episode, instead choosing to focus solely on Andrea and Michonne’s arrival at Woodbury. Though Rick is now the only leader of his group, he is no longer the only important character to follow.
The Governor, likely the show’s new antagonist, is instead granted a first appearance sans Rick. The episode shows he is capable of maintaining order in an orderless world, but at a high cost. Yet the absence of Rick benefits the series as it allows the audience to connect the Governor to Rick without needing to put them on screen at the same time.
Is Rick fated to become someone like the Governor—smiling even when he either schemes or commits murder? The dynamic between these two characters is sure to make the remaining season interesting to say the least.
The Walking Dead would be remiss to focus only on Rick and the Governor. The show’s secondary cast should also be given the chance to flesh out their characters. The two who would profit most from this are Carol and Michonne.
With the loss of her husband in season one and daughter in season two, Carol’s life is essentially over—in civilization’s terms, that is. The point of post-apocalyptic narratives, however, is to reveal that survivors are not always easily designated. Assuming Carol is allowed to live further into the show, her evolution post-family would make for a unique and compelling character study.
In contrast, there is little known about Michonne except that she is skilled with a katana. The writers need to give her more to do other than glower in the background and occasionally ask for her weapon back. The latest episode showed her going toe-to-toe with the Governor over his questionable methods for keeping Woodbury safe, but this didn’t reveal anything about her character.
The Walking Dead is easily one of the best shows on TV right now. It features a human ensemble pushed to the brink of existence, to the brink of their humanity. It showcases our greatest fears: those we love returned from death but drastically, demonically changed. But as long as our nightmares are what interest us most, viewers will continue to eat up The Walking Dead. Pun intended.