Last night, the third season of AMC's enormously popular drama The Walking Dead came to an end — but the odd, uneven season finds the series stumbling along like one of its signature zombies. (Spoilers for The Walking Dead finale to follow.)
At the end of the season, chief antagonist the Governor escapes after engineering the deaths of Milton and Andrea. In his absence, our heroes have invited the Governor's former followers to join them in the relative safety of the prison. The Walking Dead is now at a crossroads: Though its ratings are higher than ever, the series will begin its fourth season under the guidance of a new show-runner, and critics remain divided on its overall merits. As The Walking Dead looks to its future, how can it evolve from a decent horror series into one of TV's best dramas? Here, 6 suggestions:
1. Make the "villains" less overtly evil
The biggest misstep of The Walking Dead's third season was the Governor, a potentially fascinating character whose arc was almost completely botched. When the Governor was introduced in episode four ("Walk With Me"), he seemed like the fascinating, complicated villain that The Walking Dead needed — until the episode's character-compromising ending, which revealed that he was a psychopath who secretly kept the heads of his enemies as trophies. A smarter version of this show would have set up the Governor as a genuine alternative to Rick; only violent when he deemed it necessary, while practicing a kind of ruthless pragmatism that kept his flock safer (but less morally upright) than our heroes at the prison. As it turns out, the Governor will be back next season, but the finale took him so far off the deep end that the character can't return as anything besides a sneering, one-note villain. So whatever its plans for the Governor, The Walking Dead needs to bring another, subtler villain into the mix for its fourth season as soon as possible.
2. Make our heroes more complex
Compared to its sister shows on AMC, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the main characters on The Walking Dead have all the depth of a cardboard cutout. After three seasons, it's time to give these underdeveloped characters more than a single dimension. Fortunately, there are already small signs of improvement; over the course of its third season, The Walking Dead took drab, frustrating characters like Carol, Michonne, and Carl and made them far more interesting (if not fully developed). If The Walking Dead can keep doing that character-building work in the fourth season, and apply the same treatment to underdeveloped characters like Beth, Tyreese, and Sasha, we'll really be talking.
3. Make the new characters more interesting
Fortunately, The Walking Dead can take some of the pressure off its central cast by spending time with some of the previously anonymous Woodbury survivors, who joined our heroes in the prison at the episode's end. In a way, the third season's failure to make us care about the residents of Woodbury is an asset for the fourth season: Because we know pretty much nothing about any of them, the writers can craft them into whatever compelling, three-dimensional characters they feel the show is lacking.
4. Use flashbacks more frequently
The Walking Dead recently showed us a brief flashback of the time when Andrea and Michonne were alone in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the scene didn't give us any significant insight into either character, or deepen our understanding of their bond, but it served as a reminder that there were several other missed opportunities to use flashbacks to show us something important. How much more tragic would Milton's death have been if The Walking Dead had featured a flashback showing how Milton and the Governor first became trusted allies? We spend all of our time with these characters when they're tired, hungry, and scared for their lives, and the occasional trip into the past would be a unique opportunity to learn what they were like before the zombie apocalypse.
5. Lay off the gore
This probably sounds blasphemous to The Walking Dead's legions of devoted fans, so let me be clear: Special effects guru Greg Nicotero does a superlative job with the show's legendarily gory zombie kills, and I hope to see many more brilliantly gruesome examples of his work in the future. (This is, after all, a horror show.) But the constant one-upmanship of The Walking Dead's effects work has started to feel like a crutch that the show is too quick to rely on at the expense of other, more important elements: Story, character development, or actual forward momentum. The Walking Dead doesn't need so many big, gory moments, and refusing to shoehorn a gross kill into every episode will make them all the more effective and surprising when they do come.
6. Show us the rest of the world
We've spent three seasons with the same cast of characters (minus the many who have been killed), but we still have no idea what's going on outside the greater Atlanta area. Yes, The Walking Dead comics stay close to Rick and the gang, but there's no reason the show can't spend a little more time exploring the full scope of its world. Why not spend a whole episode with a different group of survivors in a far-off corner of the United States — or even in a different country altogether? The Walking Dead's apocalyptic premise allows for an infinite number of stories, and it would be fascinating to get a snapshot of another part of the world.