Let’s be honest: the majority of The Walking Dead‘s first two seasons were an inconsistent jumble of zombie action, undercooked characterizations, and lots of time doing nothing at a farm. It wasn’t a show floundering in a vacuum, however: departures of show runners, numerous changes to the writing staff, and smaller budget for the second season undoubtedly had an effect on the episodes, which struggled mightily with pacing and direction – aside from the Rick vs. Shane showdown the show had been alluding to since the pilot, which came to a head in season two’s penultimate episode, ‘Better Angels’.
That episode marked a major turning point for the series – and not necessarily because it displayed a willingness to kill of a main cast member. Shane Walsh’s death had been planned since the show’s conception, and was pushed back because of the abbreviated six-episode first season. The real importance of ‘Better Angels’ – and the reason it can be viewed as a turning point in the series – is because it was the episode where the zombies stopped being the antagonists of the show.
Through the 17 episodes preceding ‘Better Angels’, the only real human threats had been Merle (who had disappeared after season one’s ‘Tell It To the Frogs’), the lurking presence of Shane’s mental instability, and Randall (who Shane dispatched of in ‘Judge, Jury, Executioner’). To really instill fear into The Walking Dead, these survivors had to come face-to-face with unhinged insanity, the kind of anachronistic evil that stumbling, bite-y zombies – nor the racist portrayal of an Asian gang in the second episode – can’t provide on a dramatic level.
Although Rick and Shane’s conflict only peaks for a few scenes – ending with Rick murdering Shane – it changed the entire core of the show. Before the events of that episode, the show’s narrative was purely about surviving a zombie apocalypse – finding food and not getting bitten were primarily the character’s biggest concerns (except when someone picked up a gun, and then everyone got all randomly worried about gun safety). Since then, it’s been less about surviving zombies and more about surviving humans, the real terror in this new world order.
By doing this, The Walking Dead‘s been able to underline plot arcs with heavy moral questions, something there’s been a lot of in this vastly-improved third season. A lot of these come from the juxtaposition of the Woodbury community and the survivors at the prison – and more recently, highlighting the gray areas between Rick and The Governor, the two leaders of those communities. There are still zombies around, having nibbles on (mostly black) characters here and there, but with the trained nature of both Rick’s group (having spent the winter in the open) and The Governor’s crew (with some serious firepower and military buildup), the show is clearly establishing that humans are much more dangerous in this world than zombies.
On some level, this is essential to the show – the graying nature of the zombies this season suggest the rotting process never stops, and as zombies starve and rot away on a highly diminished food supply, there could be a day on the horizon where the show will no longer heavily feature the walking dead. But in the short-term, its provided direction and much-needed pathos in its narrative by revealing that the true dangers of the world don’t lie in the bloody mouths and prying fingers of dead people – but in the truths we can’t see, as the ruthless, violent nature of this world (and the people in it) really start to decay the moralities of these characters.
Of course, there are other contributors to the improved material on the show, the most notable among them being the death of Lori, a character who’s only connections to the plot were a dead relationship and a dead ex-lover (Shane). The Walking Dead is not a show that excels at humanizing romance very well (though the Glen/Maggie pairings been more endearing to watch than expected), as we could see every time Rick made his trademark scrunched-face “I can’t process these emotions very well” look. In this world, characters are revealed through actions, and trying to give layers to a broken relationship from a time long forgotten was not only a clear weakness of the writing staff (how many of their conversations ended in dead-eyed staring contests?), but it hindered the show’s ability to move forward with its narrative.
There are still some things The Walking Dead continues to fumble: the One Black Guy At A Time rule still bother me, and it continues to struggle portraying females as strong characters when they don’t have guns in their hands. But the creative minds behind the show are finally embracing the realization that humans are scarier than zombies, and by slowly unhinging Rick’s sanity (normal people usually don’t talk to unplugged phones) – all while introducing the cool, collected brand of insanity The Governor subscribes to – The Walking Dead ends 2012 as one of TV’s most improved shows.