AMC's The Walking Dead is well-chronicled in this space. Every bit of cache and artistic license the series earned in its spectacular first season was quickly spent in the second. Of course, even Season 2 had its high points, hinging entirely on the plotlines involving Shane and Rick's decaying friendship/relationship. The tension and brooding and carefully plotted losses of innocence throughout Season 2 were powerful, but not enough to redeem an off-balance, dialogue-overloaded mess that always felt inconsistent, preachy, chaotic (in the worst way), and insecure (as in not sure of itself, rather than the expected insecurity of a zombie apocalypse).
To redeem Season 2 some more before we move on, let's observe The Walking Dead through the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Season 1 focuses on Stage 1: Denial. We watch Rick try to find civilization, going to great lengths to find the humanity that he believes must still exist ("This isn't happening everywhere!"). The initial survivor group bonds and lives life almost exactly as they would on a camping trip, until the fateful attack. They go to the CDC hoping for a cure, or a solution. Society for the survivors still exists in Season 1. They're in denial. Season 2, we transition to Stage 2: Anger. While still trying to deny the reality, by taking refuge on Hershel's farm, who is himself locked in Stage 1, anger emerges among the survivors. Shane's anger overwhelms him, he exists Denial, and lands firmly in Crazy. Rick's anger releases in small bursts that slowly remove his Denial and his humanity. The reason Season 2 was so mediocre, was because only Shane and Rick made the jump to Anger. Everyone else kept coping with denial in an endless loop.
In Season 3, at least through episode 1 and 2, "Seed" and "Sick" respectively, Rick is firmly in Bargaining mode (Stage 3) and the rest of the group wavers between that, Anger, and Depression. In "Seed" Rick leads the group in an efficient, steady attack and clearing of a prison, their new chosen home for strategic purposes. Rick is no longer denying that his situation with Lori, or that of the world, is something that can be fixed. Instead, he's willingly risking his life, and the lives of his people, to make the steps he sees necessary to reaching a safe place for Stage 5: Acceptance. Is he in Denial because he believes he can still keep them safe? No. Rick is running on instinct now. If something happens to someone, like Hershel, he's not thinking anymore, he's not weighing options, he's not hoping for the best. He's just making executive decisions, like leg removal. It's not about people anymore, it's about survival, or not, but it won't be about hope.
Rick's new mindset is even more evident in "Sick." He takes out two survivor prisoners, and while there's a moment when he appears to feel about it coming to this, he does it without negotiation. His mind is made up. The world is shit. Other people are shit. His only job is to make sure that as many of his people die of old age as possible. Beyond that, there is no bargaining. But Rick's not the only reason that The Walking Dead Season 3 is starting so well. He's not even the main reason. The key is in the writing. For most of "Seed," no one speaks. And "Sick" while more dialogue-heavy, is still light by Season 2 standards. Why's that important? Well, in a world when humanity is dwindling and dying out, language becomes a precious commodity. In a world when making noise can lead to your demise, language becomes a dangerous commodity. The bottom line is that no one needs to talk anymore. They all realize that they're not talking their way out of it. Language is a tool of peace. Communication is something we do daily because we're not fighting. In a world that's all fighting, there's no point in pleasantries, philosophizing, or expressing your dreams.
As Season 3 advances, the previews have already shown a world with more civilization and more conversation, but hopefully it will be as spare and careful as the words in these first episodes. I'll be back in two weeks with more. Go watch the show(s).
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