I’ve been praising “The Walking Dead” these last few weeks for the way the show’s third season has done a better job of developing the characters, particularly compared with the first two seasons. But there’s one major character that no longer applies to, and she’s arguably the female lead of the show now that Lori is dead. Andrea’s character development has strived this season to turn her into the ultimate go-between in the coming Woodbury prison war, but she just hasn’t been developed well enough to make any of this count.
Take the final scene of Sunday night’s episode, “I Ain’t a Judas.” Andrea, having visited the prison and seen how much her friends changed in the last several months when she was separated from them, returns to Woodbury and sleeps with the Governor. Earlier in the episode, Carol told her that what she should do is take the Governor to bed, then slit his throat, thus eliminating a problem for the prison. So as Andrea stands over the Governor, knife in hand, we’re clearly meant to be wondering just which side in this battle she will come down on. She clearly has allegiances to both groups, so the question becomes what she’s going to do.
The problem is that when she finally decides not to kill the Governor, there’s just not enough to it. Sure, the audience can easily read into her actions any number of potential motivations, but as portrayed, Andrea is simply too opaque to truly know why she’s doing this, outside of the show needing the Governor to make it to the end of the season as an antagonist. Characters whose actions aren’t immediately easy to parse are a good thing. Characters whose actions seem to mostly happen because the writers need them to act that way aren’t. Laurie Holden brings everything she can to Andrea, but the writers of this show have never quite gotten a bead on how to write the character.
This is too bad, because this portion of the season is necessarily about the characters bouncing between Woodbury and the prison, as the few free agents in this fight choose up sides and try to figure out how it’s all going to end. There are some great moments with Andrea fretting about the Governor militarizing the teenagers in Woodbury, only for her to arrive at the prison and see Carl strutting around, packing heat, and they don’t call too much attention to themselves. Similarly, the bits where she tries to square what her old friends say about the Governor with what she knows of the man are solid. I even liked the little scene meant to fill in some gaps about Merle and Michonne, though it’s very strange that Merle has simply been welcomed back into the prison group like he has.
I also like the way that the show is digging into how the group at the prison must appear to outsiders. Tyreese and his group resurface, running to Andrea and Milton in the forest before they accompany Milton back to Woodbury, and their insistence that Rick isn’t anyone they want to be around is completely understandable, based on when they last saw the man. This whole “Rick goes crazy” arc could have felt incredibly forced, but it’s worked surprisingly well, and it’s nice to see that bear fruit outside of the prison itself. There’s no good reason for Tyreese and his group to trust Rick, really. After all, the last time they saw Rick, he was shouting at them to get out (even if he was really talking to Ghost Lori), and it sure seemed like the bottom was falling out for him.
Now, the back half of this season—the last 10 minutes of last week’s episode aside—has clearly decided to downshift a bit, to build up some grim anticipation in advance of the two camps going to battle. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, particularly since the series recommitted itself to character development earlier this year. The problem is that when there isn’t a big zombie attack in an episode (and we only have Andrea and Milton happen upon the Walkers in the woods, then have Andrea, uh, curb-stomp one of them on a rock, just so that she might make it the sort of harmless drone Michonne always had at her side), the episodes can feel a bit structure-less, as the Walker attacks usually prop up everything around them. Without the attacks, the character work has to be really strong to fill in, and with Andrea at the center of this episode, I’m just afraid it wasn’t.
One intriguing possibility the season keeps floating for us is the idea of Rick stepping down as the leader of the group. While it’s the sort of thing that could never happen long-term on such a status quo-obsessed medium as television—after all, Andrew Lincoln is the lead—it’s definitely the type of choice that could lead to some fascinating story-telling that really defines who these people are in the absence of the context we usually know them in. Seeing the group under Glenn or Daryl or Hershel could make for an interesting case study. Instead, the show keeps raising this point, then immediately retreating to the safety of having Rick in charge, to the degree that this episode seemingly concludes with him regaining his sanity, at least a little bit, that he might take control of the group again.
That, I think, is what keeps “The Walking Dead” from being as good as it could be. While it’s still a show I very much like, it’s also a show that seems timid about messing with its status quo too much. All great TV shows eventually toy around with new setups, place characters in new contexts, and try out different plots and stories. “The Walking Dead” has the wheelhouse it likes going to, and instead of succeeding at examining what Rick is like when he’s not the leader or what the others are like when they’re not under Rick, it mostly set up the “Rick might have to abdicate the throne” story line as a stalling tactic. There was some good stuff in the midst of that, but the overall arc ended up being a bit of a disappointment. There needs to be more here than just filler between Walker attacks.