One show's third season came to an end last night, while another's began. AMC's The Walking Dead concluded an initially sharp season that gradually turned into something of a disappointing muddle. And then we had the big return of Game of Thrones, which, well, actually wasn't all that big. It was a fairly quiet episode, one that lays the groundwork for what promises to be, based on the books anyway, the show's wildest season. So it was sad to see Walking Dead go, but if we're trading gore for lore (sorry), I think I'm happy with that tradeoff.
The first half of Walking Dead's third season was probably the show's strongest string of episodes yet. Tense and emotionally harrowing, it set up new stakes and locations — the prison, Woodbury — while keeping a firm grip on our original gang. And of course there was the monumental death of Lori, which reminded us that this show isn't terribly afraid to kill off major characters, nor to have their own kid put the final bullet in their head. And Woodbury, with its obviously villainous Governor and heads in jars and whatnot, posed an interesting external threat for our heroes. The safety and community that they had long yearned for came not in the form of a seemingly peaceful last-town-on-earth, but in the chilly, clanking confines of an abandoned prison. And even there it wasn't that safe. The first half of the season didn't let us relax in the slightest, and it was all the stronger for it.
But then they did that midseason break thing and when the show came back, something was off. The tension had been sapped. It felt, at times, like we'd missed a step. Allegiances were forever shifting in vague ways — Andrea's doomed loyalty to the Governor, Michonne being taken in by Rick and then pushed away — and the big villain's motivations were never made that clear. I mean, I guess the whole deal is that the Governor is just crazy? By season's end, there didn't seem to be any other ethos behind his at-all-costs, offense-is-the-best-defense foreign policy. Which makes him kinda boring, doesn't it? Oh the Governor is bad and crazy and is going to do bad and crazy things. OK, whatever you say. Mind you, he's not gone. Maybe he'll get some more shaded treatment next season (this interview would seem to suggest as much), but as the main foil to Rick and company this past season, the Governor eventually stopped meaning much of anything. Sure he was dangerous, but that's all he was. And it didn't make much sense that Rick seemed so naively willing to negotiate with him. I mean the guy's crazy! Just look at him.
Unfortunately Andrea didn't realize that until too late, and ultimately, after teasing us with the excellent Andrea-on-the-run episode two weeks ago, she was not given the liberation we, or I, wanted so desperately for her. Or, I guess you could make the argument that she got the ultimate liberation. The permanent kind. Yes, the much-maligned (in a way I never quite understood) Andrea quite literally bit the bullet last night, taking her own life after getting a nasty neck bite from an undead Dallas Roberts. Actress Laurie Holden did a beautiful job in her final scene, wearily telling her people that she tried to stop the killing but ultimately failed. Always a bit of an outcast in that main group, in the end she died trying to protect them and they were grateful for it. I guess that's as good a way to go out on this show as there is, though I wish they'd kept her around a little more. I was just starting to get to like Andrea, all newly tough and take-charge. Oh well.
The rest of the gang has returned to the prison with a bunch of useless old people and kids in tow. (And the mom from Teen Wolf.) See, they rescued some Woodbury folks and brought them with them, a move that suggests we will be mired in the prisons some more next season. Which is kind of disappointing. I like the conceit of there being a new location every year. I feel done with the prison, don't you? But who knows. Maybe they'll have to leave early on in the next season. They'd just better not be The Killing-ing. You know, doing a season that's basically a repeat of what you did the season before. But right now that seems like what we're in store for, another round of Governor vs. prison. And I'm not sure how much of that I can take.
Over in Westeros, things started smoothly enough. In terms of episode highlights, I loved everything involving Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell. Do you think they're slyly making her look a little like Kate Middleton? Maybe I'm just too steeped in royals coverage, but I detect something very Middleton-ish about her performance and her styling. Margaery is not so much of a presence in the books, so it's nice to see the show explore her character a bit. There will be good deal of that as the show progresses, I expect — staging events that are only mentioned by other characters in the book. Which could be a promising prospect, but possibly a troubling one too. Though in the books we don't know much about Robb's wife, or Shae, or Theon's whereabouts for this stretch of the story, the show fills in details for us. And that's fine, that all makes sense. But other times the show perilously rushes to big events or adds too much and things get shaky.
Specifically, Samwell seeing the White Walkers at the end of the last season felt preemptive. Because now we're starting season three with the image of a huge army marching toward the wall, but the show wants us to spend quiet time meeting Mance Rayder and doing whatever else there is to be done that isn't about the Others and their army. The timing feels off, like the show wanted a big splashy image to close out last season and did so at the expensive of the third season's tension. And, in some ways, its sense of narrative coherency. This morning, a friend, who knows I've read the books, asked me why the wildlings don't seem to know anything about the White Walkers, when from the looks of the show, the White Walkers are everywhere and are very much on the move. I didn't really have much of an answer for him besides, "Well, it's different in the book." Obviously this is a huge, complicated story to craft a good, comprehensive television show out of, and for the most part they do a remarkable job. But these books are only going to get harder to condense as we proceed. So big bauble this early on could indicate trouble down the road. I don't want to think that about about a show that is typically done so well, but the possibility of misfires is only going to grow as we proceed, I'm afraid.
That said, I'm glad it's back. Game of Thrones is dense, rich television on the scale of HBO's Rome. We only got two seasons of that wonderful show, so it's quite something that we'd made it here to Game of Thrones' third. And it's only going to get nuttier, you guys! Trust me. Don't get too attached to anyone. 'Cause, uh, they might not make it.