It’s an adaptation of an award-winning graphic novel, produced by the same cable network that created Mad Men. But for all its flashes of brilliance, The Walking Dead has struggled to find a consistent rhythm. The first two seasons became notorious for the way they forced viewers to sit through dull stretches of filler episodes.
Well, I have good news. I’ve been watching the third season of The Walking Dead, and something strange has happened. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, this show has gotten really good.
The first season of The Walking Dead was an introduction to a world devastated by zombies and the second season was about letting go of the old rules of civilised society. In season three, the series explores a question that has long intrigued political philosophers: Should our leaders be bound by the same moral laws that we are? Or does the responsibility of protecting the group supersede those rules?
Until recently, The Walking Dead has revolved around the conflict between main protagonist Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). As the strongest members of a small group of human survivors, they are both natural leaders. But they clash over philosophy: Rick wants to hold on to the moral values he grew up with, whereas Shane believed in protecting the group at all costs.
Rick eventually kills Shane, winning the battle for leadership, but jettisoning his morality in the process.
At the start of season three, Rick has embraced Shane’s cold realism, and it seems to be working out pretty well. The group has survived, and become highly proficient at zombie killing. Best of all, they have found semi-permanent shelter in the form of an abandoned prison, which provides a defensible refuge against the undead.
But the zombies have never been the real villains. The zombies are just an impersonal force of nature, whose main role in the narrative is to bring out the worst characteristics of humanity. The real villains are human beings.
In this season, the chief antagonist turns out to be a man known as “the Governor” (played by David Morrissey, who is wonderfully effective in the role). He is the leader of a much larger group of survivors, who inhabit a creepy, Stepford-like town called Woodbury.
He is, perhaps, a preview of where Rick will end up if he continues along his current trajectory. The Governor has taken the amoral approach to leadership to an extreme, pre-emptively killing other survivors on the assumption that their mere existence poses a threat. He also likes to store the decapitated heads of his enemies as trophies.
From the moment Rick meets the Governor, it is inevitable that they will go to war. The resulting conflict is a sprawling, ruinous affair. But for all his extravagant villainy, the Governor is objectively a good leader. His town is well organised and heavily fortified. In three seasons of The Walking Dead, Woodbury is the closest thing we’ve seen to civilisation.
Though it hardly seems possible, this season of The Walking Dead is darker and more violent than the previous two. It bludgeons its audience with images of death, cruelty and sexual assault. The show also has a remarkable willingness to kill off major characters, seemingly at random. It doesn’t even save the deaths for big moments such as season finales, underscoring the sense that no one is ever truly safe.
Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of The Walking Dead is that it has actually become too uncompromising in its artistic vision. I expect that some viewers might find the series to be so bleak, so unremittingly horrifying, that watching it becomes a chore. But I don’t think it derives any sort of pornographic thrill from violence. Instead, it seems to be genuinely fascinated by the question of how human beings behave when subjected to extremes.
The Walking Dead is often difficult to watch, but it always has interesting things to say.
The Walking Dead is on Fridays at 9.30pm on Fox (channel 125 on DStv)