As I mentioned in brief last week, this third season of “The Walking Dead” is off to a strong start. While I still liked season two overall, there was no denying that it had plenty of dull spots and too much soap opera for its own good. It also wrapped up with a final dramatic speech from Rick that was ostensibly meant to paint him as a man on the edge, about to spin out of control, but the rest of the cast had been so whiny up to that point that it was easier to sympathize with the man. Hence the start of the “Ricktatorship.” Three episodes in and it’s clear that democracy was overrated. (Spoilers for these episodes abound after the break)
The best thing about this season so far is that they’ve wasted little time in getting to major events. They found the prison shortly into the premiere, cleaned it out, had Herschel lose a leg and learned that they weren’t the only normal people inside. After that we got an episode where it looked like there was going to be some uneasy tension between our protagonists and the inmates after their alpha male kept butting heads with Rick. A normal TV drama would keep this tension simmering for a while before it finally boiled over in the season finale or sometime during sweeps. Not here. After the head prisoner tries to get Rick killed while they’re cleaning out the zombies and make it look like an accident, the former sheriff sees it for what it is and puts a machete right into the man’s skull. Now that’s decisive leadership.
What happens next, though, makes a better case for any kind of uncertainty we’re supposed to feel for having Rick in this role. One of the prisoners manages to unwittingly escape into a zombie-infested portion of the courtyard, but Rick locks the door before he can get back in and effectively seals his fate. I think he did the right thing there, but you still have to wonder if it was absolutely necessary. The look on Rick’s face as he heard the man’s screams seems to mean that he’s wondering too.
Now we’re at the third episode which features the introduction of one of the comic’s iconic characters: The Governor. He’s seen from a distance at first by a sickly Andrea and her travelling companion Michonne, but just as you think they’re going to escape being found by this unknown group, Merle Dixon makes his long-awaited return. That he’d be coming back at some point was a foregone conclusion. Even if you missed the set pictures that showcased this over the summer, the actor who plays him, Michael Rooker, was top-listed with the rest of the cast starting with this week’s episode. Still, the show managed to make his entrance surprising by getting to it quickly and letting his voice announce his presence.
Bringing Merle back at this particular point also makes a nice point of contrast between how the Governor was portrayed in the comics and how he is here. The elder Dixon is all menace, even when he’s asking nicely, and he hasn’t become any less imposing with the loss of his right hand. There’s a reason the rumor that he would eventually turn up as the Governor seemed so plausible during the first season; however, the actual Governor, played by David Morrissey, is much more even-keeled than his henchman or how he was originally characterized in the comic. While those of us who have read the comic book know not to trust him, anyone familiar with the rules of genre would also be able to guess that this man who has managed this settlement and kept over seventy people alive and together since the outbreak would be too good to be true. To his credit, Morrissey appears content to let the rules do the foreshadowing for him and he puts his best foot forward to appear as the competent, rational leader that people are going to need in order to survive in this world.
Wait? Did I say “rational?” I meant “ruthless” as his assault on the surviving members of the National Guard for their supplies proves. It’s clear that the man relishes his leadership role and I like to think that the massacre was as much for what they had as it was to keep any other kind of authority from muscling in on his. The man’s collection of heads in fishtanks also survived the transition from comic-to-TV though their presence here doesn’t entirely suggest the frothing madman of the original. It could still very well mean that, but as we’ve seen him throughout the episode I’m willing to entertain the possibility that he may just be keeping them around as a reminder of what survival has cost him during this time. Or maybe I could just be grasping onto any suggestion to avoid thinking that we’re going to get a repeat of the man’s psychosis which dragged down the comic for a time.
As it stands, it looks like we’re going to be getting a study in the leadership styles between Rick and the Governor. With the latter being presented as the end result of what it takes to survive in this world, the drama is going to come from seeing how much like him the former is going to become in order to protect those closest to him. I imagine that will still persist even when the two come face-to-face and Merle finally gets his revenge by chopping off Rick’s left hand. It’ll happen. Trust me on this. Some things in the comic are just too iconic and definitive to be left on the page.