Through the midseason finale, “Made to Suffer,” season three of AMC’s massive zombie series The Walking Dead has been surprisingly solid. The action, drama, and actual tension of the first eight episodes have alleviated many of the lingering issues that have dogged the highly rated show. By no means is it perfect, but it found a nice groove, and was inching closer and closer to matching the potential inherent in the comic book series it’s based on.
And that is what makes their return, “The Suicide King,” so frustrating and disappointing. Things were going along so well, but the wheels definitely came off last night. Maybe that’s what I get for finally having hope and somewhat elevated expectations. Season two of The Walking Dead was full of entire episodes where nothing happened, where there was absolutely no tension, and where all anyone did was stand around and yammer on, waffling back and forth on what to do about a particular problem. It was maddening to watch week after week.
Sadly, that’s what fans were treated to: 60 minutes of chit chat, intercut with obnoxious cut-ins for The Talking Dead, where that twit who hosts it blathers on about how amazing everything you’ve just watched is. Last night it felt like we were watching completely different shows.
“The Suicide King” starts out strong enough. At the end of “Made to Suffer,” the Dixon Brothers, Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), were being forced to face off by the Governor (David Morrissey), and that’s where we pick up the action. But from there, things fall apart. As the elder Dixon pins baby brother to the dirt, he says not to worry, that he has a plan. As far as I can tell, his plan involves nothing more than punching their way out of Woodbury. If Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and company didn’t show up, guns blazing, you don’t for a second believe that they were going anywhere.
After wreaking havoc in Woodbury, the survivors reconvene back at their Hyundai (the product placement in The Walking Dead is always hilarious). Rick is none too happy to be reunited with Merle, and given their recent history, Glenn and Maggie have some serious reservations about bringing the violent, one-handed racist back to the prison. Daryl, however, isn’t about to leave his kin—blood is thicker than water, after all—even if that means abandoning Carol (Melissa McBride). There’s a romantic connection between them hinted at, but never explicitly stated. So Daryl and Merle strike off on their own, which suits Merle just fine.
And then there’s Michonne (Danai Gurira). Fans of the comics were so excited when she, and her sword, arrived on the scene at the end of last season. Hell, I stood up and cheered. But she, too, has been nothing but a let down. Moving forward I really hope they do something, anything, with her character. It won’t be hard, because so far they haven’t done a damn thing with her. For all intents and purposes she’s a functional mute. How many times could she have prevented a precarious situation, or at least avoided alienating her friends and allies, if she’d only strung together a couple of lousy syllables? She could have said, “Hey, Andrea, your boyfriend has an aquarium full of severed heads, that’s why I find him so unnerving.” Could have solved a lot of problems.
While trying to figure out the Merle situation, the group back at the prison is having their own issues. We do learn some more about newcomer Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and his merry band of zombie apocalypse survivors. They’ve been through the ringer as well, having dwindled from a group of 25 at its peak, down to a mere four members: Tyreese, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and two guys with generic names who you shouldn’t bother to get attached to because they’ll be dead soon. Sasha is Tyreese’s sister, so the potential romantic entanglement between him and either Michonne or Carol—both of which happen in the comics—is still in play.
Again, this amounts to little more than talking and waiting for Rick to come back and make a decision. At least Daryl said enough of this pussyfooting around, made an actual choice, and then acted on that choice.
Back in Woodbury, former lawyer Andrea (Laurie Holden) does most of the talking, giving a rousing speech in attempt to calm some nerves. The villagers are freaked out and trying to leave, but the armed guards aren’t about to let that happen. The Governor is MIA, and when the walkers Rick and company inadvertently let through the walls go on a rampage, the shit really hits the fan. Or at least you’d think it would. All that results from this is more ineffectual hand ringing.
You get the point: the citizens of Woodbury are supposed to be weak, easily manipulated, and soft. That’s how a man like the Governor can wield unlimited power, but when they’re standing around, screaming “Oh my god, oh my god, what do we do now?” after one of the townsfolk has been bitten, you just hope someone throws open the doors and ends it all. Remember now that the night before, these exact same people were rabidly rooting for two men to beat each other to death.
When the Governor casually—looking a little drunk actually—wanders out, shoots the man in the head, and walks away without a word, it’s one of the few moments in “The Suicide King” where anyone does anything decisive. For all the talking, for all the words, no one really says anything. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are in a weird place after their ordeal, and ironically, while they’re the ones who have really important things to talk about, they barely utter a word.
At the end, when Rick is doing his usual, noncommittal nonsense, Herschel (Scott Wilson) steps up like he’s about to tell Rick to get his shit together and lead these people like he promised. But he doesn’t. Before he can say his piece, something horrible happens. I don’t mean something horrible happens to a character. No one gets eaten or anything like that, but the show pulls something so god-awful out of its ass that I moaned, swore, and contemplated never watching another episode of The Walking Dead, ever.
The middle-finger-fuck-you is almost as big as the “It’s all just a dream” cop-out, or the snow globe at the end of the final episode of St. Elsewhere. Really? You’re going to bring Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) back? As a fucking ghost? Just so Rick can have one of his patented bouts of crazy time? (By the way, they should never let Andrew Lincoln do that ever again; it’s almost as bad as watching Claire Danes cry.)
The phone bit was bad enough (it also may be the biggest misstep in Robert Kirkman’s comics), but just when you thought that was over and done with, they have to go and stir it up again. It’s getting more and more difficult to take Rick seriously as a leader, and to believe that anyone continues to follow him. At least in the comics he keeps his psychosis private, and has his meltdowns silently and alone because he knows it will negatively impact his standing as the head honcho. Here he flails about, making nonsensical noises, letting everyone around him witness his headfirst dive into melodrama.
Ghost Lori feels so lazy, and is such an obvious delay tactic to put off actually confronting their problems. Why here? Why now? Why at this moment, when there’s so much going on, when a madman may attack them at any second? In the comics Rick’s crazy doesn’t set in until after Woodbury and the prison. Now we’re going to be subjected to multiple episodes where the group sits around and yaks about what to do with Rick without deciding anything. The whole end to “The Suicide King” is completely rotten, and in general the entire episode is a huge step back, a stumbling block for a show that had been making decent progress and improving each week.
The Walking Dead draws a decent amount of criticism for being overly nihilistic, which is both fair and warranted. As bleak and grim as Kirkman’s comics can be, even in Rick’s darkest depths, there is still a glimmer of hope. They’re always looking for a permanent place, a home, somewhere they can settle down and build a life. In the comics Rick looks at the prison as a sanctuary, as a place where they begin to lay roots and feel secure. No matter how dire, there’s always a spark of optimism. It may be misguided, and it may waver, but it is there and never goes out. In the show, however, you never get the impression that anyone wants to be there long term. There’s never an endgame, and they just wander aimlessly.
AMC’s adaptation has scattered flashes of cheer, but they’re few and far between. Carl (Chandler Riggs) has become a stone-faced little killer since the close of season two, but in “The Suicide King” he and Carol share the only hopeful, almost happy moment. Standing guard at the gate, they have a quick exchange where they wistfully reminisce about how loud the world used to be, and what wouldn’t they give to hear—or better yet, be on—a jumbo jet? Sure, at the same moment other people are having a serious discussion about jumping them, stealing their weapons, and killing them, but they don’t know that.
It isn’t much, but in a show starting to buckle under the weight of its own crushing pessimism (and I’m a brutally pessimistic individual), you have to take what you can get. At some point, The Walking Dead is going to reach a point where the producers have to deliver something more, or people are going to tune out.
Maybe I’m wrong. Did other people dislike “The Suicide King” as much as I did, or did you find it to be a satisfactory return? Is anyone else as on the fence with The Walking Dead as I am?
Here are a promo and a pair of clips from next week’s episode, “Home”. You get to see Glenn with the bloodlust in his eyes, which could be fun, as well as catch up with Daryl and Merle. Glad they’re not just abandoning them completely.