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The intended series-spanning metaphor of The Walking Dead is supposedly something about how the non-zombie characters are slowly losing their humanity and becoming indiscernible from the living dead they are fighting. But the more apt metaphor is that the show itself has become a zombie. It shambles lifelessly between glossy-eyed narrative devices and repetitious character beats in a single-minded pursuit of plot. Then, when it finally digs its teeth into the fruit of its labours, it rapturously devours that plot in a glorious fountain of violence. But the plot is devoured too quickly. The glory fades and the zombie is driven back to its feet to continue its aimless hunt for more nourishment. The metaphor extends to genre fans, because we can’t help ourselves. Like the zombies, we are compelled to watch, even when we’re given such modest rewards.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The
Fortunately enough for all of us zombies, The Walking Dead season three is a sizable step up from the mostly dismal second season. In the first episode, the characters are reintroduced as the badass zombie-killers we’ve been hoping they’d evolve into since the show started. This appears to be an unspoken acknowledgement of previous transgressions and a promise that things have changed. The story is structured around two well-defined locations that increase scope significantly from campsites and modestly-sized farms. Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) group’s re-purposed prison and the walled town of Woodbury are nicely compared and contrasted as dueling city-types (they’re both prisons…but which one is worse?). The political microcosms and social metaphors aren’t fully developed (there’s something to be said for George Romero’s heavy-handed approach to politicizing the zombie apocalypse), but the ideas are somewhat intriguing on their face value. At the very least, season three has a semblance of theme and structure, whereas season two was mostly formless. Most importantly, season three actually picks up momentum as it goes with only an episode-long dip scattered here and there. There’s no searching aimlessly for Sophie or having the exact same argument about who gets to stay on the farm this time.
 
Still, for all of its improvements, season three is problematic. Many of these issues were easy enough to overlook the first time through, but they are magnified on a second viewing. The first problem is the overall lack of actual character development. For the most part, the only thing significant thing that has changed is that these people have accepted their fate and are better at killing zombies. The prison-based stuff at the beginning of the season feels eventful, because it involves so much gory action, but very little happens that hasn’t already occurred over previous episodes – the group finds shelter, argues with new people, and fends off surprise zombie attacks. The writers use the tedious chaos to kill off the characters they struggle to find any purpose for while simultaneously introducing a series of nobodies that might as well be wearing red shirts, because they’re so expendable (I suspect that there’s some kind of plan for Tyreese and Sasha in future episodes, but they serve almost no purpose here). Almost everything that happens at the prison during the first third of the season appears to be marking time while the Woodbury side of the story is established. This is most apparent when Rick deals with a major personal tragedy by going insane and wasting the audience’s time by talking to imaginary people on the telephone. It gets to the point that you can’t wait to get a break from the show’s main character, which is probably not the best way to write serialized television. It could be argued that just as much time is wasted on the stuff going on in and around Woodbury, but these divergences at least feature new information. And, again, the writers eventually figure out where they are going with the dueling colonies thing, which gives the season actual narrative drive.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The
The actors do an outstanding job bringing their characters to life, dramatically speaking (really, casting has never been a problem for this show), but very few are able to build something memorable beyond the limitations of ‘generic zombie killer.’ Once again Daryl (Norman Reedus), a character created for the show, is the standout. The writers know that he’s popular, so they give him a lot of screen time, but they’re also smart enough to know that he’s a very simple character, so they don’t make him the lead. In season three, his story is once again coupled with his brother Merle’s (Michael Rooker), who hasn’t been seen outside of hallucinations since the first part of the first season. Merle is crafted with a heavy hand, but has one of the season’s few substantial arc when he grows from villainous sidekick to awkward outcast to reluctant hero. Highest ranked among the new characters is The Governor (David Morrissey), who gives the show its first proper villain. The show is smart enough to know that zombies aren’t antagonists – they’re a force of nature. They might as well be a forest fire or debris from an earthquake. The writers tried to bestow villainy on Shane (Jon Bernthal), but apparently weren’t capable of the subtle touch required when writing a reluctant villain. The Governor is a balls-out bastard with just enough humanity to keep him from being a cartoon character. The Governor’s right hand man, Milton Mamet (Dallas Roberts), is another welcome addition. Milton is some kind of doctor that is studying the walkers, specifically testing them for lingering human consciousness. He has a much lighter touch than Romero’s Day of the Dead mad scientist, Dr. Logan, and offers the series’ story something new to chew on (the science of zombies is otherwise only discussed once during the first season’s finale).

Walking Dead continues having problems with its female cast members, some of whom continuing to act as housewives and rape-bait in season three, but the writers have certainly taken steps to correct the problem. The chief problem character, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), spent the previous season being an epically terrible mother. The writers were clearly aware that they were turning her into a frustrating caricature and they solve the issue not by making her a valuable part of the story, but by objectifying her and killing her off. This conveniently takes her out of the picture and gives the main character another excuse to be sad. More disheartening is that the show’s strongest female character, Andrea (Laurie Holden), last season’s anti-Lori, continues her arc by turning into an idiot. Despite her friend/savior’s warnings and constant evidence to the contrary, she insists on supporting The Governor in his bad guy dealings. She goes from the show’s strongest female character to a delusional girl with a crush. Oh yeah, and she’s killed for her transgressions. On the other side of the coin is Michonne (Danai Gurira), a fan-favourite badass that sports dreadlocks and takes out zombies with a katana. Michonne was introduced at the very end of season two and spends much of season three as a frowny-faced super-soldier. She eventually opens up into a fully-formed human being when she bonds with Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) in episode 12 and shows that she’s not only a shrewd killer, but also a wry and fully empathetic individual. My favourite example of the comparative turnaround on the show’s women is Carol (Melissa McBride), who began the series as a stereotypical domestic abuse victim and has slowly been built into the show’s most relatable character. It will hurt the most when the writers inevitably kill her off.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The
The key issue still isn’t characters, though; it’s the greater picture that the series creates and the fact that so much of the story is driven by these characters. No one should accuse the people involved with bringing the story to life (a list that includes former Spike Lee cinematographer-turned-A-class-TV director Ernest Dickerson) of not doing their jobs – The Walking Dead is a consistently impressive series on a visual level – but that doesn’t matter if the producers and writers don’t have a plan to sustain 16 episodes. The show’s deliberate pacing and casual storytelling style works pretty well when the narrative is still unraveling and the audience isn’t yet privy to where things are going. The plot twists and cliffhangers feel sort of inevitable, but not cheap. However, watching it all a second time through, I already know that too many plot threads are either left to dangle or resolved anticlimactically and the droning march to disappointment is worse than frustrating – it’s boring. And what I find especially demoralizing during this re-watch is that so much of the stuff I enjoyed the first time, specifically the super-visceral, super-gory violence, is…kind of monotonous. It’s another indication that this so-called horror series hasn’t been scary or even particularly suspenseful for quite some time.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The

Video


The Walking Dead continues to be shot using 16mm film and the show’s directors/cinematographers continue to digitally colour-correct the series to appear grim and grey. I’ve now reviewed the show on both the Blu-ray and DVD format and find that the format choices make it a little difficult to recommend HD over SD. 16mm doesn’t have the same resolution as digital HD or 35mm, leading to some comparatively flat compositions, minor edge enhancement issues, and generally fuzzy background details. The Blu-rays have advantages over the DVDs in terms of the clarity of close-up textures and the size of the film-based artefacts. 16mm is grainy and all that grain looks accurate in 1080p, not lumpy like it does in 480p. There’s also no discernible compression noise or blocking along the warmer backgrounds on Blu-ray. Season three has a little more dynamic range and brighter contrast than the unrelentingly dark second season. Black levels are mostly pure without crushing out the more subtle browns and blues that blend into them. 16mm is a good format for pastels and other delicate hues, but the format’s abilities with colour quality is more or less wasted here, because the show is so heavily graded. Skin tones are relatively warm (likely for the sake of comparing the living and the dead) and some of the natural greens are relatively rich, but most other hues are considerably desaturated, even the cherry reds of the various props and wardrobe pieces.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The

Audio


This Blu-ray set comes fitted with a spectacular Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix that rivals major motion picture soundtracks. The Walking Dead isn’t a pure action series; in fact, a lot of the show is spent in relative silence, but there are plenty of big bursts of aggressive noise peppered throughout every episode. The zombie hordes in particular are a strong source of multi-channel enhancement. They wander into the sound field making inhuman snarls and hisses then wreak havoc in the stereo and surround speakers by beating down doors and breaking in windows. The number of zombies hasn’t really increased over the last three years, but the third season definitely has a lot more firepower. The big shoot-out sequences feature a dozen different kinds of guns, each with their own special sound – some are big and bassy, others are crisp and poppy – and they are all given a wide dynamic range through the channels. Other big highlights include the speaker-shattering helicopter crash that opens episode three and the zombie attack at the beginning of episode four, where the usual gunshots and creature noises are augmented with the daunting buzz of alarms. The series’ music, by composer Bear McCreary, does a good job undercutting the action and scares, but is pitched pretty low in terms of overall volume this time. This lower volume matches the iTunes copies I’ve got, so I suppose it’s an issue with the original mixes, not the TrueHD codec.

Walking Dead: Season 3, The

Extras


The extras begin with a series of cast and crew commentaries spread over the first four discs:
  • Killer Within features director Guy Ferland and actor IronE Singleton.
  • Say the Word features director/co-executive producer/special effects make-up superstar Greg Nicotero and actress Danai Gurira.
  • Made to Suffer features creator/executive producer/writer Robert Kirkman, executive producers David Alpert and Gale Anne Hurd, and Gurira.
  • The Suicide King features Hurd and Gurira.
  • The Sorrowful Life features Nicotero and actor Michael Rooker.

The rest of the extras are confined to disc five and begin with a series of retrospective/behind-the-scenes featurettes:
  • Rising Son (6:50, HD), on the growth of Carl as a character and young Chandler Riggs as an actor.
  • Evil Eye (7:50, HD), on The Governor’s place in the series as the ‘pinnacle villain’ (Robert Kirkman’s words).
  • Gone, but Not Forgotten (8:10, HD), on Lori’s death (including the special effects used during her death) and continuing part in the series.
  • Heart of a Warrior (8:30, HD), on Michonne’s psychology/skills, her relationship with Andrea, and Danai Gurira’s training (the actress may look like Michonne, but her lively personality is a major contrast).
  • Michonne vs. The Governor (5:10, HD), on the process of planning and filming the battle between the two characters.
  • Safety Behind Bars (9:40, HD), on constructing the prison location, its place in the comic, and the themes it represents.
  • Making the Dead (8:10, HD), on the season’s zombies, their design, and the special effects required to create them.
  • Guts and Glory (7:40, HD), on the characters that die in season three.

The featurettes include interviews with executive producers Alpert, Hurd, Kirkman, Nicotero, Denise Huth, and Glen Mazzara, director Ernest Dickerson, production designer Grace Walker, plaster boss Rob Mallard, art director Doug Fick, welding foreman Bob Bateman, scenic artist Rose Armstrong, VFX supervisor Victor Scalise, and actors Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, Sarah Wayne Callies, David Morrissey, Laurie Holden, Danai Gurira, IronE Singleton, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Melissa McBride, and Michael Rooker.

The extras are closed out with six deleted/extended scenes from the season (13:20, HD).

Walking Dead: Season 3, The

Overall


I want to say The Walking Dead is back on track to being the great show we all thought it would be just before the end of the first season, but the final episode of season three really fizzles following a strong set-up. It’s nice to end things on a positive note, I suppose, but there’s a huge lack of catharsis. Still, I don’t think the producers have randomly restructured their writing staff lately, so perhaps the course corrections are meaningful. It still doesn’t compare to AMC’s more intellectually and emotionally satisfying shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but at least I’m not embarrassed to be watching it anymore. This Blu-ray collection is limited by the series’ source format and style, but features an incredibly strong Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and a fair number of extras, including a series of commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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