The biters and the Governor took their toll on the humans who remained in Season 3 of THE WALKING DEAD, but the show’s potentially most damaging casualty may have been at AMC’s own hand, when it decided to get rid of showrunner Glen Mazzara, for reasons neither side has disclosed or–remarkably–even leaked. His season was better paced, plotted and even acted than either of the two seasons that preceded it, and when you have the most successful drama on all of television (cable or broadcast), the adage of not fixing it when it ain’t broke may be worth remembering. (Scott Gimple, who wrote last week’s death of Merle episode, is taking over next season.)
That being said, tonight’s season finale, written by Mazzara and directed by Ernest Dickerson, was something of a disappointment. It seemed clear as far back as last fall that there was no doubt what needed to happen before the credits rolled on this season: a final to-the-death confrontation between our heroes’ forces of good, however troubled, and the utter evil of the Governor (David Morrissey). This appeared to be even more obvious when Rick (Andrew Lincoln) spent a chunk of the season going through the kind of crisis of conscience and temporary insanity that besets champions so they can be cleansed, in a sense, prior to an ultimate battle. But the events of the episode turned out to be anti-climactic, with a quick booby-trap attack that effectively got the Governor’s troops to retreat from the prison (although it left plenty of them alive), and then the Governor going full-blown loony and massacring his own people when they weren’t eager to go back into combat. He slaughtered all but his two last allies (and one survivor who hid under a pre-zombie corpse) and drove off into the distance, presumably to be heard from again sometime next season. Was the decision not to have a full-scale Battle of Woodbury a creative one, or one decreed by budget concerns?
It’s understandable that Mazzara (or whoever was calling the shots on the show by this point) was loath to lose such a strong villain as the Governor, but it’s what confident dramas have to do: Gus Fring, Mags Bennett and the Trinity Killer are all dearly missed from Breaking Bad, Justified and Dexter, but the time came when their shows’ storytelling imperative demanded their exit. However the Governor returns, he’ll be a weaker character than he was this season.
The episode also spent a surprising amount of time with Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Milton (Dallas Roberts) and their respective deaths. There’s no question that it was a tense, effective sequence as Andrea struggled to get free while Milton slumped on the floor, poised to become a walker, and in a regular episode it would have been just fine, but in the finale, there were other things we wanted to see. Also, combined with Merle’s death last week, and the unclear status of the Governor, their departures leave the show down quite a few of its more interesting and articulate characters.
While last season ended with the first glimpse of the prison, this season gave little hint of where the series expects to go next fall. Carl (Chandler Riggs) may or may not be a budding sociopath, for what that’s worth, and now our group has adopted the survivors of Woodbury, which will make the combined unit less mobile. (And by the way, not to nitpick, but where was Rick’s commitment to “we’re all going to vote on everything” from last week when he unilaterally decided to take in all the Woodburians?) Glenn (Steven Yuen) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) lived to continue planning their marriage, and somewhat surprisingly, Hershel (Scott Wilson, still listed as a guest star in the credits) survived as one of the walking–well, hobbling–living.
The Walking Dead is probably never going to be a really smart genre show like The Vampire Diaries or, God knows, Game of Thrones, and clearly with the ratings it gets, it doesn’t have to be. This season, though, it seemed to finally have found a compelling dramatic path, with strong developments like the death of Lori (although some of us could have done without the appearances of ghost-Lori later in the season), the development of Michonne (Danai Gurira) into a core member of the cast, and the general conception of Woodbury with all its complications. Next season, thanks not only to the change in management but the way this season ended, is a question mark. How long can the show continue to devour itself and maintain its phenomenal success? We’ll find out in about 6 months.