(Spoilers for season two.)
Season three of AMC’s The Walking Dead started with what is beginning to be the show’s usual bang up premiere episode. Like the first and second season premieres, “Seed” uses action and set pieces to convey stakes in a spare, compact manner. The opening sequence right before the shrieking violins of the titles has minimal dialogue and no music, a silent evocation of how dire things have become. The members of the Rickocracy – I still haven’t quite forgiven the season two finale’s hammy “This is not a democracy!” speech, delivered in Lincoln’s questionable Southern dialect – are functioning now as a well-oiled (if somewhat oily) team. In the house, walkers down, into the cabinets, collapse on the floor. Season two was eventually a quagmire, despite the masterful zombie herd on the highway sequence it had as opener, so we’ll see if season three can keep up its game.
There are some auspicious changes to our less than merry Rickocrats though. Post-apocalyptic stories tend to have close to their little hearts a commentary about the construction of society, the nature of leadership and the led, an us versus us versus them. These are lifeboat situations writ large, and with teeth. When you get right down to it, the zombies (or walkers – which, why are they never called zombies?) are such formidable creatures because they have no individuality. There are no leaders, no orders, just an infinitely scalable motive-of-one: consume. Survivors survive by being more like them, not by wandering off individually after bickering about shit that doesn’t matter.
In the second season, Rick’s strange deference to Hershel’s insanity, though understandable to a degree because of what we know about Rick, and all that mooning around after undoubtedly zombified children didn’t make for the best of television. All those monologues looking out over the fields with Hershel’s watery, soulful eyes – what we need here is a walker attack. Wake up. But even when we got them, Hershel persisted in a leadership based on fantasy, and it got hard to respect Rick for respecting Hershel. It gets to be a problem when you’re rooting for the bad guy, Shane – though, of course, on some level you’re meant to. But it’s an even bigger problem when Shane’s often cogent critiques of how they were living were buried under a bunch of cartoon villainy.
Hershel, Shane and Rick were three different models of leadership, and it bugs me that Shane’s more reality-based model – he was right a thousand times about the group’s need to sac up and learn some real skills – was run to such ridiculously self-defeating nihilism. Hershel was there to act as counterpoint to Rick’s boy scouting; he clung to the old world so hard that he denied reality itself. Sure, it got most of his family killed and the farm overrun, but it’s not like those characters showed up with anything but bullseyes on them, so it was hard to care. I guess my real problem is in characterization, again and again, where Hershel seemed swathed in this Quaker Oats commercial aura, lending his absolutely indefensible position – this is not happening – a gravitas it didn’t deserve.
In “Seed”, Rick is obviously just holding it together, and the group is exhausted and beset. But they are finally a group, and despite a few questionable decisions, they are not behaving like idiots right and left. And the questionable decisions were obviously made to heighten spectacle, which I don’t really count as a bad thing. Sure, they probably should have just banged at the gates and poked zombies in the head with sticks to clear the yard – ammunition does not grow on trees – but the clearing scene with everyone, including last season’s deadweights (har har), taking down zombies was pretty thrilling, and showed us how much this group has changed. What happens to Hershel though, that was a questionable decision that could have been better played.
Though the finding and clearing of the prison didn’t have much of a narrative arc – in many ways, this felt like a part one – it was heartening to see the minimal dialogue be functional. (And to see T-Dog get any lines at all.) The problems tend to happen on Walking Dead when people open their mouths, with characters espousing positions willy nilly without regards to character. But here, the one monologue was grounded in the situation, working out a number of logical if unpleasant consequences of them all being infected. And it was delivered by Lori(!), whose sole motivation in the past has been “womens be crazy and inconsistent lol.”
There’s a good chance this season will mire in the same crappy characterization and bad dialogue, but this was an exciting beginning. I know that the showrunners have said that the show will not follow the plot of the comics, but given how The Governor played there, the potential for corny cartoon villainy is still very much present. Which would be a shame, really, because having Rick run up against a leader almost, but just not quite like him would be a much richer conflict. It would probably be less badass though, I admit, and the badassery of Walking Dead is certainly its strong point. Viva le Rickocracy.
And speaking of badass, more Michonne please.