By Chaz Lipp
The disappointment set in right as the season three finale of The Walking Dead reached its conclusion. I immediately realized I didn’t care at all about what came next. That wasn’t the case when season two ended with the extraordinary episode “Beside the Dying Fire.” I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait months to find out more about the shrouded, sword-wielding walker slayer that we briefly glimpsed. I was anxious to find out more about the prison and also see how Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) new militant “This isn’t a democracy anymore” attitude would sit with the others, especially lone wolf Daryl (Norman Reedus).
“Welcome to the Tombs” concluded the ultimately lackluster second half of season three with absolutely none of that promise. No tantalizing teases. Imagine if season two had ended with our group of heroes returning to the farm that they spent so much (maybe too much) time on. That’s what we got with the season three finale. Here we all are, back at the prison. That prison essentially became this season’s farm. The finale was an exercise in time-marking tedium—another filler episode (we’ve had a few during this expanded, 16-episode season)—rather than the razor sharp, taut storytelling of The Walking Dead at its best.
I’ll tell you what went wrong, and it isn’t just limited to the uninspired finale. It happens to too many TV shows after they reach a certain level of widespread popularity. Pleasing the fan base overtook the importance of inventive, incisive storytelling. If the fan base is upset, viewers are lost. When viewers are lost, sponsors pull out. Such is the problem with injecting anything approaching artistry into commercial television. So The Walking Dead turned into a soap opera through which many devoted viewers vicariously lived out their post-zombie apocalypse survival fantasies. Cannily covering all demographics, from elderly (Hershel) to juvenile (Carl), each member of Rick’s “group” has his or her own fanboys. Remove any of those characters from the equation—or even change them fundamentally, as the producers flirted with in the case of Rick’s psychosis-induced hallucinations—and risk losing part of the audience.
I understand all that. Television is big business. A lot of money is at stake. I just don’t like being reminded of it with lazy, stagnant, and at time logic-defying storytelling. The sense of excitement and discovery that made the first half of season three so exciting week after week simply evaporated during the hiatus. The walkers were no longer a scary threat, but rather a minor nuisance. The show morphed into a modified modern western with Sheriff Grimes and the Governor of Woodbury circling each. And then circling each other some more. Then the circling continued until it became clear that the writers and producers of The Walking Dead had either A) run out of new ideas or B) were afraid to interject any new ideas that might upset the fan base.
In the penultimate episode, they killed off arguably the most interesting character on the show, Merle (Michael Rooker). It was an easy choice considering that Merle, a polarizing and deeply racist figure in season one (though, in an act of true cowardice on the part of the creative team, the character’s racism was erased and forgotten upon his season three return), was not a particularly endearing figure. They killed off Andrea (Laurie Holden), another easy move given that character’s wish-washy, quasi-turncoat status.
But the core of the group was left unharmed. I’m not saying that more “surprise” character deaths would have been preferable. Killing off characters for no reason is just as lazy as letting them all continue unchanged. The job of the show’s creative team is to do something of interest with this group of people. The problem is that, with the sole exception of young Carl (whose murder of a Woodbury youth was the one shocking and truly interesting moment in the finale) the characters have been stripped of any complexities.
Do Glenn and Maggie actually serve any purpose on the show other than being the lovebirds that represent humanity’s on-going desire for companionship? Does the group’s elder statesman Hershel make any truly important decisions? Was anything gained by having Carol survive her brush with death earlier in the season? Is there any reason at all for the continued existence of Hershel’s daughter Beth? She, in particular, is so useless, AMC could produce a spin-off show focused on her and call it The Walking Deadweight.
The worst handling, by far, has involved the characters of Rick and Daryl. Mid-season, Rick was struggling with a growing state of mental distress that threatened to leave the group without a stable leader or perhaps without a leader at all. He was receiving phone calls from imaginary people and seeing fully-formed visions of his deceased wife. His psychotic break was a difficult situation for the others to deal with and made for great drama. By the end of “Welcome to the Tombs,” he has achieved a near-miraculous self-healing. He’s back to being the old Rick. Why? Because it’s easy and it pleases the fans who have rallied behind Rick.
And what about Daryl, the loner who—during season two —refused to share the farmhouse with people he didn’t really relate to as friends or family? This is where the obsessive fans have dictated the show’s decline more than any other area. The reality is that Daryl, despite the character’s huge popularity, has become just as homogenized as anyone else on the show. Actually, in Daryl’s case the bland-izing is even worse. Characters like Maggie and Beth were thin from their first appearances and have remained underdeveloped.
But Daryl was, at one point, an interesting presence. In season two he seemed most likely to challenge the increasingly megalomaniacal Rick. His lingering bitterness over the group’s treatment of his brother gave him reason to remain somewhat of an outsider to the group. His backwoods-honed cunning intelligence made him a valuable asset. The return of Merle in season three allowed for seemingly interesting possibilities, especially when the brothers split from the group initially.
But Daryl, with his carefully crafted emo makeover and newfound sense of lockstep obedience to Rick, not only quickly reunited with the group, he even convinced Merle to come along with him. It’s important to keep in mind, it wasn’t “Daryl” making these decisions. It was the creative team behind The Walking Dead. They’re the ones catering to market research and the fear of doing anything controversial. They’re the ones that removed the ambiguity from the show, leaving us with a distressingly by rote, rehashed vision of good-versus-evil. And they’re the ones who have left me utterly indifferent to the future of this once-riveting show.