the walking dead welcome to the tombs

Well, how’s that for irony? In the last episode of a season during which Andrea proved over and over again to be one of The Walking Dead‘s biggest liabilities, it’s her storyline that saves the finale from being one gigantic fizzle of an hour. Watching her attempt to escape from the Governor’s torture chair before Milton could die, turn and eat her was a wonderful example of building suspense and drama using nothing but the inevitability of zombification. It was a complete 180 from the embarrassing slasher-movie riff they tried to pull off a few weeks ago in “Prey.” Whereas nothing worked in those Governor-stalking-Andrea sequences, nearly everything worked inside that small metal room this week.

The setup itself may have been the closest the show has ever gotten to making the Governor feel like a legitimately vile and reprehensible villain in a real — rather than cartoony — way. “Now you’re going to die and you’re going to turn and you’re going to tear the flesh from her bones,” he tells a recently gut-stabbed Milton. If only David Morrissey could have been given material this strong during the rest of the season … or, for that matter, the rest of this episode.

Even more chilling was Milton gravely telling Andrea, “You need to hurry,” as he sat on the floor slowly bleeding to death. Once he croaked, the close-up of his newly-zombified fingers creaking back to life while Andrea frantically worked the pliers in the background, trying to loosen the bolts on the chair, was one of my favorite shots of the season. I can’t stress enough how well-done I thought all of this was. And, hey, bonus! Andrea actually bites it at the end, meaning Laurie Holden goes out on a high note and won’t return to drag the series down again in year four. Where I come from, we call that a win/win.

If only I could say the same thing about the rest of this episode. Going into tonight, had I put together a wish list for “Welcome to the Tombs,” it would have looked like this:

1. Make the inevitable showdown between the Governor’s army and Rick’s crew memorable.

2. Wrap up the Governor’s storyline in a clear and effective manner.

3. Get Rick’s group out of the prison because I don’t want to be back here for season four.

And, of course, the show whiffed on all three of them. The war between factions that was the logical endpoint for the season ended up being a massively wasted opportunity. The Governor and his troops arrive at the prison ready for war, but when they get there, the place seems empty. He orders his people to search the jail (which takes up way too much screen time), and once the group is deep into a darkened cell block, Rick’s crew springs into action. They make a bunch of racket inside the prison — I couldn’t tell if they were actually firing on the Governor’s men or just using flash-bangs and booby traps to freak everyone out — and when the Governor’s army falls back to the prison yard, Glenn and Maggie are there in riot gear to spray assault rifles at everyone. For some reason, the Governor’s people are caught by surprise (did they not think the people they were attacking were going to fight back?!) and retreat down a nearby highway. I’m honestly not sure what was more ridiculous: that this was Rick’s big plan … or that it actually worked.

Once the Governor and his people regroup, they inform him they’re not cut out for this, that they’ll be happy to kill zombies to protect Woodbury but going to war with other living people is a no-go. This doesn’t sit well with the Governor, who massacres nearly everyone and hits the road with the Martinez and another solider, presumably to return sometime in season four. I don’t know … maybe the Governor will work better in a smaller dose next year. (I can’t imagine the entire season being centered on him again. My guess is he won’t appear until mid-season.) But my gut says it would have been wiser for the show to treat him solely as season three’s big bad and finish him off in this finale, paving the way for new and better-written villains. The Governor as a character has been too inconsistent, and sometimes too boring, to prop up even this season. So it’s tough to get excited about him becoming the over-arching human villain of the show’s entire run. At least now he’ll just be a one-eyed crazy man with a vendetta rather than the disturbed-yet-complex savior of Woodbury that the show so often tried to present him as this year. The Walking Dead‘s writing staff didn’t have the ability to pull of the latter, so maybe they’ll have more success with something simpler.

I will ask this: If we must have the Governor and the prison back in season four, can Carl please now be in charge? Besides the Andrea stuff, the other big finale highlight was Carl shooting a scared, young Woodbury resident who was fleeing the prison. It was a surprising moment that felt fully earned. Surely, this is how anyone who was growing up under these horrific circumstances would act. And then, of course, Hershel and Rick decide to take great umbrage over the fact that Carl shot a young man who appeared to be surrendering. Even when Carl rightly points out that the man had just moments before been attacking their prison, the two can only gaze upon him with disappointment. Yep, that’s right. Carl gets admonished for acting exactly the way everyone watching at home HAS BEEN BEGGING THESE CHARACTERS TO ACT FOR WEEKS. I just wanted to leap into my TV and give the kid a big ol’ pat on the back. The Rick-tatership was a total failure, but a Carl-tatership could have promise. At least he’s got the balls to commit to the obvious.

So season three ends with an episode that features some clear highlights surrounded by lots of dumb — not unlike the season as a whole. I can’t say I’ll be much looking forward to year four, especially with the Governor and the prison both still in play. We all moaned when it was announced that showrunner Glen Mazzara was departing the series after this year, but the season’s second half was so flaccid I’m not sure it’s the worst turn of events, especially when you consider that Scott Gimple, the guy who wrote the year’s best episode, will be taking over. Gimple’s going to have his work cut out for him, though. He inherits a lot of needlessly loose ends and a lead character in Rick who seems hopelessly astray. (And I don’t mean “astray” in a compelling, dramatic way. I mean it in a “the writers don’t know what the fuck to do with him except make him look stupid and/or crazy” way.)

I’d advise Gimple start by tightening up the show and focusing on the basics, much the same way Mazzara did for the first few episodes this year. When The Walking Dead is purely a fast-paced, zombie-apocalypse survival drama, it can be very effective, but the series keeps getting tripped up by long-term story arcs. Hershel’s farm sucked and the saga of Woodbury wasn’t much better. The problem is it’s tough to keep people interested if you’re offering nothing but our heroes trying to stay alive for an entire run of 16 episodes. So I get that there needs to be major plot developments that can provide an overreaching, long-term arc. I’m just not sure why it’s so hard to come up with some that actually work.

Maybe it’s the genre. As excited as we all were about zombies coming to long-form television, perhaps the simplicity of a Romero-esque universe is hard to sustain over so many hours without finding ways to fuck it up. The Walking Dead keeps trying — and it succeeds in short stints — but, inevitably, the plotting turns limp and the characters get stuck in ruts the writers don’t seem interested in pulling them out of. (I guess Rick’s visions of Lori were never intended to be an arc. They’re just a character trait now. Unless the cheesy shot at the end of one of the prison graves — Lori’s? — was meant to provide some type of hasty, unearned closure in that regard.) Frank Darabont couldn’t maintain any level of consistency, and neither could Mazzara. Until someone steps up and shows they can, The Walking Dead is always going to be the zombie show we love to bitch about, as opposed to the zombie show we love because it’s genuinely good.

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