The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 16–Welcome to the Tombs

“In this life now, you kill or you die – or you die and you kill.”

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And so, the generally enthralling third season of The Walking Dead has come to an end with a surprisingly low-key – even anticlimactic – finale. Matters finally came to a head between the armed forces of Rick and the armed forces of the Governor. And yet, despite a very heavy buildup in the preceding episodes to an apocalyptic final battle, this ep centred more on the characters than the action – and left unresolved the expected showdown between main hero and main villain.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but I have to admit, I was expecting a little more action than this. True, there was a battle, but it took place mid-episode and was, if anything, less tense than the Governor’s previous assault on the prison folk. Most of the story concerned itself with the ongoing intrigue in the Woodbury community, and for that at least there was some kind of resolution; though I’m not sure it really made sense.

Strategically, a lot of this made little sense, though the Governor at least had the excuse of being utterly unhinged. The ep began with some nice pov shots leading the viewer to believe he was beating and torturing Andrea, though it quickly became obvious that it was the treacherous Milton who was the object of his ire.

As Milton had become, effectively, Woodbury’s conscience, it was a foreshadowing of the Governor’s fast-crumbling sanity that he was prepared to torture his old friend, then force him to prove his loyalty by killing Andrea, still cuffed to the Dentist Chair of Doom. Predictably, Milton took the opportunity to turn the knife onto the Governor himself, who equally predictably used it to stab Milton. He then left him to die, so he would rise as a Walker and kill Andrea anyway – after last week, he’s plainly got a taste for that particular cruelty.

It was a setup for a tense series of scenes spread throughout the episode, as Andrea struggled to reach the unnoticed pair of pliers on the floor, while we wondered exactly how long it was going to take Milton to die and reanimate – as long as was convenient to wring the maximum tension from the scenario, as it turned out.

Rick and co, meanwhile, appeared to be preparing to abandon the prison – surely the only sensible decision when faced with the overwhelming numbers from Woodbury, however many guns they may have got from Morgan. It was at this point that I had an inkling the heavily implied pitched battle might not be in the offing after all, though abandoning the prison was the realistic, sensible thing to do.

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So when the Governor did turn up, in armoured column with rocket launchers and grenades, it seemed like the explosive carnage he wreaked on the prison watchtowers and the Walkers between the fences might all be for naught. The pyrotechnics were cool, and it was fun seeing so many Walkers withering in a hail of high-calibre gunfire, but it seemed lacking in drama if Rick and the gang had already fled.

Except, as it turned out, they hadn’t. It was a good bit of misdirection to have so thoroughly convinced us they’d gone. And yet, it seemed a bit of an anticlimax that the Governor’s forces could be so easily routed once in the prison’s dingy corridors. A couple of the usual smoke bombs, a few Walkers and some loud sirens had them running like rabbits, at which point the armoured Glenn and Maggie let rip with some machine gun fire. Already confused, the fleeing Woodbury-ites went into full retreat.

OK, it’s a fair and realistic point that most of the Governor’s forces were not from the military, and would have been ill-prepared for actual combat. In that sense, their reaction was perfectly believable. But it didn’t jibe with their previous attempts, nor with the Governor’s established ability to whip them into a propaganda-inspired fervour, that they would give up quite so easily.

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The Governor at least was more consistent. Faced with mutinous troops who wouldn’t carry out his personal vendetta for him, he took the predictable choice of every discerning psychopathic dictator and slaughtered the lot of them. The scene was less shocking than it could have been, as it had been telegraphed long before that the Governor was fast becoming utterly unhinged; under the circumstances, his “WTF?” strategy of destroying his own army didn’t come as too much of a surprise. It didn’t carry much dramatic weight either, as the only character in the group who we even knew by name was Allen, and he didn’t feel like much of a loss.

With that, we pretty much lost the only possibility of a major conflict; though I’ll admit that, had the expected apocalypse happened, I wouldn’t have expected many from Rick’s gang to survive. Nonetheless, it felt like a bit of a dramatic cheat that the Governor, accompanied by the ever-loyal Martinez and one other unquestioning henchman, then sped off into the distance, not to be seen again. I can understand the desire to keep him around; the comic has never managed to come up with an antagonist to match him. But surely, the finale of a season that’s been all about the conflict between him and Rick deserved at least some kind of dramatic payoff in the form of a showdown. This just felt disappointing.

The show has never clearly established exactly how many people were in Woodbury, and certainly the conflict must have taken its toll. But it seemed a little implausible (and convenient) that the only people left on watch in the town were Tyreese and Donna, especially since we’d already established that they were deeply suspicious of the Governor. So it was that Rick and co, trying to take the fight to the enemy, found first the massacred remains of their former foes and were then able to walk into their HQ with barely a shot fired.

Again, I had to quibble with the overall strategy. With most of the Governor’s forces committed to the prison attack, why didn’t Rick make his move on Woodbury then? He could have been in charge of the town before the Governor’s forces even got to the prison.

Still, cop he may be, but Rick’s not a soldier either. So I could forgive him having missed that option. But it seemed baffling that, with the Governor gone and Woodbury having pretty much welcomed Rick, Daryl and Michonne with virtually open arms, they all chose to move back to the dingy, less than secure prison, the town’s remaining population in tow. Why not move everyone into the still-fortified Woodbury? Do they actually want to make their lives as difficult as possible?

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There were, at least, some good dramatic payoffs. Carl shockingly gunned down a scared young guy from Woodbury who was trying to surrender, much to Hershel’s disquiet. When Rick learned the circumstances, he was less than pleased either, but Carl was unrepentant. His argument – that Rick’s mercy in not killing Andrew had led to the death of Lori, and not killing the Governor had led to the death of Merle – made worrying sense. And was further evidence that the ruthless pragmatism formerly embodied by Shane hasn’t died with him. I suspect we’re going to see a very ‘dark’ Carl next year.

The biggest dramatic payoff, though, was of course Andrea. Having eked out the tension of her situation throughout the ep, director Ernest Dickerson cleverly let the action happen offscreen when Milton finally did revive as a Walker. Thus it was that when her erstwhile friends found her, with Milton’s corpse in the background, we still didn’t know whether she was alive or undead.

It turned out to be a bit of both; yes, she’d offed the Milton-Walker, but she’d been bitten and was in the feverish stage of dying from the bite. The ensuing last scene between her, Rick, Daryl and Michonne was not as moving as it could have been if Andrea hadn’t been so wilfully dumb all year long. She asserted that she’d just wanted to save everyone, even the Governor – that worked out well, then.

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Michonne at least got one of her rare displays of actual emotion (beyond surly anger), and Danai Gurira was quite affecting as she cradled the head of her former friend. Points also for her managing to resist saying, “I told you so”, which certainly would have been most people’s temptation at this stage. Rick and Daryl left them alone for Andrea to perform the final act,though the inevitable gunshot was merely heard offscreen. I think we have seen the last of Andrea though, which despite her being so annoying this year seems a bit of a shamed; Laurie Holden is a talented actor given the right material.

The ep faded to black with everyone back at the prison, presumably about to rebuild. No cliffhanger, no sense of what might be due to happen next. It almost felt like the show was hedging its bets against not being renewed by providing an actual ending of sorts; though given its success this year, I’d be amazed if it wasn’t back for another season.

This year has been, generally, a superb season – I think that’s why such a low key season finale felt like a bit of a disappointment. With episode after episode having ramped up the dramatic stakes continuously, it was perhaps impossible for anything to top the season overall as a final payoff. Nevertheless, I have to say I found it curiously unsatisfying after the show has barely put a foot wrong all year. There was nothing really wrong with it, but somehow it felt like an anticlimax, and the lack of a Rick/Governor showdown is hard to forgive.

Overall, though, this year has let the show truly show what it can do given a decent budget and a reasonable season length. It’s become the weekly post-apocalypse zombie show I always hoped it would be. Reason enough for me to forgive a somewhat disappointing finale and still eagerly look forward to next year. It is hard to see where they can go from here, though…

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