Mid-season finale review: ‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Made to Suffer’

Senior Television Writer
12.02.12 282 Comments

A review of “The Walking Dead” mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I make assumptions about your sexual orientation based on your haircut…

“All this time, running from walkers, you forget what people do.” -Maggie

Though it hasn’t been perfect (notably in Michonne’s minimal characterization), this eight-episode chunk of season 3 has been the strongest sustained period “The Walking Dead” has ever put together. Part of that uptick in overall quality comes, as we’ve talked about, from Rick and his group simply getting better at what they do. But the side effect of that is the other big reason why the show has been better more often:

The zombies are almost besides the point now.

They are a threat, and will continue to be for as long as this story is being told. Characters will continue to die because a walker popped up unexpectedly at the worst possible time. But Rick and his group, and the Governor and his people, and now Tyreese(*) and his group, have all survived long enough to developed various coping mechanisms for life in the zombie apocalypse.

(*)  thoughts on Tyreese: 1)He’s played by Chad L. Coleman, aka Cutty from “The Wire.” 2)Glen Mazzara has talked in the past about his fondness for “Lost” and how parts of “The Walking Dead” are modeled on it, and our glimpses of Tyreese’s crew having a rougher go of it in the woods felt very much like a miniature version of “The Other 48 Days,” the “Lost” episode that showed what Ana Lucia and the tailies had been up to while our heroes were having fun on the beach. 3)Tyreese is another character from the comics, and let me remind you to carefully read the warning at the bottom of this review. Short version: any information the show has yet to reveal about this character is off-limits in the comments. 

The zombies are a problem, but they’re no longer the biggest one. Other people are.

And that’s much, much more interesting.

Zombies can be cool. Zombies can be scary. Zombies can sure as hell be gross. What they can’t be is anything more than that. They are mindless eating machines and nothing more. And that stops being compelling in and of itself after a half dozen or so hours of TV.

By using the zombies not as primary antagonists, but as the inciting incident forcing all these people to make hard – at times monstrous – choices, “The Walking Dead” has become a much more morally complicated show, in addition to remaining one that’s great at action and suspense.

Rick and his group are the good guys, but they’ve done questionable things. As Glenn said a few weeks ago, if it came down to it, he would choose any member of the group over anyone outside it. Last week, we saw Michonne escape from the Governor’s forces and wind up locked in a more literal prison; we know that Rick is more benevolent than the Governor, but it’s understandable why she might not see as great a gulf between the two leaders.

Still, there’s a very clear difference, as evidenced how the people of Woodbury and then Carl dealt with their respective new visitors. Glenn and Maggie were kidnapped, tortured and threatened with execution (or worse, in “the screamer pits”), and Rick and the invaders (who, admittedly, were more violent to people than Tyreese’s crew) were met with gunfire. Carl sees new people in the prison in trouble, and he saves them, before locking them in the common room outside their cell block. They’re safe, but not free. Beth asks Carl if he should do something to help those people, and he says – matter-of-factly, not cruelly, but simply aware of the realities of their new life – “I did.” Compassion, but only to a point.

As for Woodbury, we know that they murder and steal from those who either stand against the Governor or are more valuable to him dead than alive. But Andrea’s not being completely brainwashed by this man. There is value to the community beyond protection, as she points out to him in an early scene. It just happens that this community has been formed by a megalomaniac determined to find a cure for the zombie plague only to save his daughter. And though the Governor is largely villainous, you understand why he would be so filled with hate at Michonne putting her sword through Penny’s head, and why he would assume Merle (who, remember, claimed to have killed Michonne in the woods) was a traitor and demand his death right alongside Daryl’s.(**)

(**) It occurs to me that, the dream sequence early in season 3 aside, this is the first time we’ve seen the two brothers interacting in the present, since Daryl was elsewhere when T-Dog and Rick and the others left Merle cuffed on the rooftop.

The Governor is the bad guy, but he’s also a person (albeit a crazy one). We saw in the bar gunfight midway through season 2 just how effective human-on-human tension and violence can be on this show, and things are only messier now, with the Dixon brothers together, with Andrea perhaps finally realizing she’s on the wrong side, Michonne working alongside Rick who understandably has no reason to trust her.(***)

(***) Yes, the Governor’s men tried to kill Michonne, but that still doesn’t explain the extent of the mad-on she has for the guy that she would really want to go back to Woodbury just to try to kill him. Again and again and again, the show’s failure to let us know what makes Michonne tick has been this season’s biggest flaw.    

Walkers are a menace, but people are the real danger to each other now. And that’s why I’ll be pleased to welcome “The Walking Dead” back in February.

Some other thoughts:

* RIP, Oscar. We hardly knew ye. And I should have started worrying about him the moment Tyreese appeared on screen, based on how Rick’s crew seems to have room for only one African American male at a time.

* Oscar’s death leaves Axel as the last man standing from the prison population, and it’s unclear at this point if he’s a genuine threat (as Carol suspects) or just a horny guy who’s been in prison for too long (as he claims). Still, it’s another reminder that perhaps it wasn’t Rick’s best idea to leave his 12-year-old son as the only fighter at the prison to protect his baby daughter, the one-legged veterinarian, Beth and Carol. (And Carol has recovered remarkably well from going a few days without food and water.)

* Rick may have overcome his audio hallucinations from the phone call period, but he’s still haunted by ghosts, in this case seeing Shane (with a Wolverine haircut and facial hair) walking towards him with a gun, when it was really just one of the Governor’s men. (And his shock at the sight of Shane prevented him from getting off a shot and saving Oscar.)

Once again, let me remind you again of this blog’s No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I’ve had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Mazzara and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that’s happened in the comic that hasn’t happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that’s been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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