The Film: 4/5
At its best AMC's smash hit series The Walking Dead delivers oodles of gut-churning suspense and emotion, fully realized characters, and some the sort of deliciously gory special effects you don't typically find on a basic cable program. At its worst the show suffers from the overbearing tendency to spin its wheels on infantile didacticism and attempts to create drama where none really exists. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead had its share of virtues, but as the series was still in the process of finding its footing at the same notoriously difficult executives at AMC decided to dump original showrunner Frank Darabont and start getting cheap on the production budget. The first season set the stage for future writers and directors to really explore the post-apocalyptic American landscape established by Robert Kirkman in the comic book series that inspired its small season incarnation. This goodwill was almost immediately undone during the first half of the season that followed when the principal characters spent seven episodes looking for a lost child whose fate was already sealed in the minds of the audience and getting into interpersonal squabbles on a quiet farm. A storyline like that deserves one episode, two at the most, when the season is a little over half as long as the typical episode order of a major network television series. One half of the entire bloody season? That's not only cheap and pedantic, it's downright lazy and insulting to the show's loyal followers.
Fortunately The Walking Dead recovered its bearings in the second half of that season and the step up in pacing and overall quality ensured that when the show premiered in October 2012 for its third season a planet of Walking Dead-heads would be back in front of their television sets and once more ready for anything. The loyalty and patience paid off as the third season turned out to be the best and most consistent in terms of storytelling and character evolution in the show's three-year history. The key to creating great drama is the presence of conflict. They teach you that in English class when you're studying the great works of literature, or perhaps you learn about it in a creative writing annex course. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. God are the five ideal conflicts in writing dramatic stories. The first and second seasons of the series had its share of the last four, but hardly any of the first one. Two years on the air and the show's sizable cast of thinly-sketched characters still had little to do but fight amongst themselves and fend off a zombie attack here and there. Then The Walking Dead finally introduced its first bona fide villain, and though its locations remained limited its scope and potential greatly increased.
The opening scenes of the third season find former Georgia police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the group of survivors he has lead since season one that has both gained and lost members over the years continuing their daily struggle to stay barely alive. Rick is no longer the upright paragon of decency and virtue we met in the pilot episode; the events of the past two seasons - which included having to kill the young zombified daughter of a friend and then having to kill his best friend and partner on the police force Shane not long after finding out that he and Rick's wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) had been carrying on an affair when they initially believed Rick was dead and that Shane might be the father of the baby that currently grows within Lori's womb - have reduced him to a shell of the man he used to be. No longer concerned with trying to keep his ragtag group together and living in harmony, Rick has decided that anyone that follows him must do as he says when he says it lest they face expulsion on an open road that primarily belongs to the ravenous hordes of the undead.
The rest of the survivors including Lori, the Grimes' son Carl (Chandler Riggs), widowed farmer and veterinarian Herschel Greene (Scott Wilson), his daughters Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily Kinney), Glenn Rhee (Steven Yuen), T-Dog Douglas (IronE Singleton), Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), and Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) have endured much hardship throughout the unforgiving winter as the show opens. Reduced to killing stray owls for food and finding temporary shelter in unoccupied houses before having to flee at the first sight of the "walkers", the group is on the verge of coming apart from starvation and lack of healthy rest until they come across an abandoned maximum security prison. With secured housing and the promise of medical supplies, weaponry, and food, the dank penitentiary is like an oasis to Rick and the others. But before they can properly move in they have to tend to the nasty business of killing any and all walkers on the premises. As they move deeper into the prison they find everything they were hoping for, but it does not come without a hefty moral and physical price.
As this is going on former group member Andrea (Laurie Holden), who got separated from them at the end of the previous season, is also making her way through walker-heavy territory with her unexpected savior and new friend Michonne (Danai Gurira), a sword-wielding warrior woman who keeps two walkers without lower jaws or arms as pets on chains. They're having even less luck than Rick and his gang until they find salvation in Woodbury, a working community where people can live and work without fear of the undead masses that is ruled by the benevolent-seeming Phillip Blake (David Morrissey), whom everyone has taken to calling the Governor. Fans of the comic book know that the introduction of the Governor immediately spells trouble, though it takes a few episodes before the character's dark and twisted nature really comes to the forefront. At first Blake proves to be a true gentleman and a kind and commanding leader of the people. He even manages to break down Laurie’s defenses and charm her into a romance. His methods of keeping the citizens of Woodbury happy and entertained seem somewhat odd though. Michonne doesn’t feel at all comfortable in the town, it doesn’t help Laurie much that the Governor’s second-in-command is none other than Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), Daryl’s hateful lout of an older brother who hasn’t been seen since he had to cut off his own hand to escape being chained to a rooftop in Atlanta in the series’ second episode. In true horror movie badass fashion Merle has outfitted the stump where his hand used to be with a homemade prosthesis complete with a retractable blade good for dispatching walkers with lethal prejudice.
The twin parallel storylines are developed separately until the seventh episode of the season “When the Dead Come Knocking” when they become aware of each other’s presence and the inevitable hostilities ensue. Before that Rick’s group encounters some tragic losses and the arrival of Lori’s baby, which Daryl cheekily dubs “Lil’ Ass Kicker” (the name doesn’t stick but it damn well should have). Faced with a new enemy as potentially dangerous as the relentless threat of the walkers Rick is forced to pull himself out of his downward spiral and once more become the decent, heroic individual he was born to be. His character arc is a perfect metaphor for how The Walking Dead has squandered its own limitless promise and goodwill and had to rebuild its troubling reputation with audiences and critics. The infusion of new blood into the show and shedding characters that have long run their course since it was made apparent that they were going to be of any more importance than they already were helped its own steadfast return from the grave. Now with the immense storytelling possibilities of Woodbury, the prison, the Governor’s vengeful scheming, and Rick’s new child The Walking Dead is more alive than many of us ever thought possible.
The introduction of the Governor and the community of Woodbury not only brings with it a new batch of characters for our reluctant band of post-apocalyptic survivors to deal with but also a myriad of interesting ideas about how ordinary people have chosen to deal with the armies of zombies that roam the landscape. The prison that Rick and his group take over brings to mind the indoor shopping mall from the original Dawn of the Dead - a bounty of life-sustaining opportunities that nevertheless holds more anguish and misery than promise, at least at first. The characters know that walkers lurk within the confines of the prison and that wiping them all out will take time and they will suffer great losses as a result. The great price they pay to make the place their permanent home has to be worth it in the end, and the bloody battles fought with the dead are realized with superbly photographed bloodshed and some irregular startling sentiment. In the second episode the group meets some prisoners who had taken shelter in the cafeteria when all hell broke loose; among them is that great hangdog horror character player Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects) as a big-hearted soul named Axel. Meanwhile, several of the show’s formerly aimless characters finally begin to grow into their own and become invaluable to the ensemble. To watch as Melissa McBride’s battered wife Carol, who lost her precious daughter Sophie under horrible circumstances in the previous season, develop into a stronger and better person as a result of the tragic loss she has suffered was one of the third season’s smallest saving graces.
Since the early days of The Walking Dead the character of Carl has been the target of much online sniping and bitter condescension because of mistakes he made in previous episodes. I guess people tend to forget that as kids growing up we all did foolish things. I know I sure as hell did. Besides Carl has it much harder than we ever did as he has to grow up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The second season sidelined him with a shocking gunshot wound most of the time but as the show begins its third year without ambiguity Carl has matured into a smart and proficient member of the group. He’s still a kid at heart, but how many kids barely of junior high age can nonchalantly blast flesh-crazed animated corpses in the head in order to get some much-needed medical supplies? It takes time before the adult characters on the show start to appreciate Carl’s contributions as much as the audience does but at least when they do it’s a moment both Carl and actor Chandler Riggs truly earn. Despite taking a turn for the weird midway through the season for a few episodes Rick remains a strong and sympathetic lead with character defects just like the rest of us who can rise to the occasion and kick ass when needed. Andrew Lincoln’s performance is as solid and likeable as ever.
Norman Reedus continues to shine as the show’s most iconic character as the cool, crossbow-wielding redneck Daryl. Bringing his brother Merle back into the mix finally gives the audience a look at the Dixon duo’s familial dynamic we only caught a hint of in a dream sequence during the second season. Michael Rooker’s return to the show has been anxiously awaited since Merle was last seen chained to that metal pipe in Atlanta; there was even a rumor that Merle would re-enter The Walking Dead as a completely different version of the Governor. That would have been an interesting turn of events but in retrospect I’m glad the show’s production staff decided not to go that way. Merle is a fearsome character but he is not charismatic and forceful enough to be a confident leader. Fortunately the show realizes that the Governor in place no more villains are needed, so Merle is allowed to develop into a three-dimensional human being. Yeah, he’s still a major dick, but you can’t help but love Merle thanks to Rooker’s standout performance. We see the good side of him thanks to his interactions with Daryl and throughout the season Merle grows beyond a mere fan favorite character into someone whose presence is an asset to the show. The Governor is also a man capable of inhumanity to others but all too human himself, and David Morrissey invests the character with gentle charisma and a disquieting sense of compassion that makes his extreme actions all the more unnerving. He is a fantastic villain who will be increasingly fun to watch in later seasons, though I wonder if the show's producers will bring his look closer to that of his comic book counterpart that resembles a cross between Top Dollar from the original graphic novel of The Crow and Nick Fury.
AMC has loosened up the purse strings this season and allowed the special effects crew headed by the great Greg Nicotero (who also served as an executive producer on the show and directed some of its finest episodes) to reign free with some wonderfully gruesome blood and gore for the plentiful zombie kills and death scenes. The CGI-assisted splatter is not as readily apparent this time around thanks to some brilliantly moody cinematography by Rohn Schmidt (The Mist) that also masks the limitations of the sets and meager locations and makes every episode look like a cinematic epic. The music by Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) is as haunting and stirring in the key scenes as ever, and the direction by a host of talented shooters - including former Spike Lee cinematographer and visually gifted filmmaker Ernest Dickerson (Juice) - is mostly solid and keeps the story moving forward when necessary but still makes time for some highly-charged dramatic standoffs that prove no amount of pyrotechnics and gore effects can match the power of a well-acted dialogue scene between two or three principal characters.
Each episode is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and outfitted with both English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Surround 2.0 audio track. The Walking Dead is shot on film rather than digital and on DVD the 16:9 enhanced transfers appear very rich and clean with no deterioration in the film quality. The interior scenes benefit the most from the high-definition upgrade with the sparse sets and atmospheric lighting really shining through, while the many outdoor scenes feature beautifully lush greens and pastoral browns. Plus, every detail is brought on in the dark reds and bubbling plasma from those extra pulpy zombie kills and make-up effect messes. The 5.1 audio track is your best bet for getting the full aural experience when watching The Walking Dead; these are highly immersive sound mixes with easy-to-hear dialogue, McCreary's brooding music, and a terrifying sound design of moaning zombies, rattling metal doors and fences, and juicy flesh-chewing and gut-munching. English and Spanish subtitles are included for all episodes in this set.
The first disc has some easily skippable previews for the Walking Dead's new season (no actual footage, just scenes from the third season strung together followed by an October 2013 premiere date), games and apps related to the series at AMC's website, Breaking Bad, and the upcoming Walking Dead video game.
Five episodes spread across the first four discs feature running audio commentaries. On disc one director Guy Ferland and actor IronE Singleton team up for the episode "Killer Within". Disc two has a pair of alternate tracks - "Say the Word" brings together director/co-executive producer/special effects make-up artist/deity in human form Greg Nicotero and actress Danai Gurira, while Gurira also appears on the commentary for "Made to Suffer" alongside writer/executive producer Robert Kirkman and executive producers Gale Anne Hurd and David Alpert. On disc three Hurd and Gurira offer commentary for "The Suicide King", while "This Sorrowful Life" has Nicotero and actor Michael Rooker having a ball discussing the making of this crucial installment of the season.
The fifth and final disc of the set houses the bulk of the supplements. First off we have eight featurettes covering various aspects of the production of The Walking Dead and the show's rich and growing mythology complete with cast and crew interviews and copious behind-the-scenes footage: "Rising Son" (7 minutes) talks about the evolution of Carl's character over the past three seasons and the terrific acting by Chandler Riggs; "Evil Eye" (8 minutes) focuses on the character of the Governor, how his portrayal on the show differs from the comic's origins, and the casting of and performance by David Morrissey; "Gone, But Not Forgotten" (8 minutes) is devoted to the complex relationship between Rick and Lori and the heartbreaking turn it took during the third season; "Heart of a Warrior" (8 minutes) gives the spotlight over to the iconic character of Michonne and how she was brought memorably to life by actress Danai Gurira; the growing adversarial relationship between the season's most interesting new characters is explored in "Michonne vs. the Governor" (5 minutes); "Safety Behind Bars" (10 minutes) takes a look at the central location of the prison and how its presence has impacted the show and the stories it tells; "Making the Dead" (8 minutes) is what the true gorehounds in the show's audience will want to see as it focuses on the creation of the gruesome zombies and special effects through digital and practical wizardry; and finally, "Guts and Glory" (8 minutes) looks at how the deaths of crucial supporting characters during the season were carried out.
The extra features conclude with a selection of deleted scenes from six episodes (13 minutes). There are some good moments featured here but their deletion is understandable in retrospect.
After two uneven seasons The Walking Dead is back and better than ever. Flaws are still there but with great new characters, plenty of action and emotion, and solid performances from its cast the series remains one of the best on television. Anchor Bay’s release of The Complete Third Season is a must have for fans and newbies alike.