(This review features spoilers to the third season of the show)
After what I considered to be a so-so premiere, The Walking Dead kicked it up pretty good in its upcoming episodes. Sparked by some pretty intense episodes ("Sick"), and some shocking plot twists ("Killer Within"), the first half succeeded in delivering good drama, thrills, and gore right to the last episode.
As our group of survivors, led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), settles in the prison as their new refuge, they must face the threats of walkers still roaming the dark hallways, and the possibility of an external attack from another group of survivors. Meanwhile, Andrea (Laurie Holden) who is being protected by Michonne (Danai Gurira), find what they think could be a safe haven in a barricaded town called Woodbury, led by a man that calls himself The Governor (David Morrissey).
Overall, I was satisfied with what I've seen so far. The second episode ("Sick") featured some very intense moments as Rick and Company clashed with the surviving prisoners led by Tomas (Nick Gomez). The tension between the two groups was excellent, and the payoff was perfect. I also thought the suspense about Hershel, and the possibility that he might turn into a "walker" was handled pretty well.
The third episode ("Walk With Me") expanded on the whereabouts of Andrea and Michonne, as well as introducing The Governor and the town of Woodbury. The episode wasn't as intense as the previous one, taking a more relaxed pace, probably to evoke the feeling of apparent safety in Woodbury. The plot is mostly carried by the enigmatic Governor, played perfectly by Morrisey. As the season progresses, he adds so many dimensions and layers to his character that it's a joy to watch. We also find out that Daryl's brother, Merle, is alive and well serving as The Governor's lieutenant in Woodbury.
The big revelation in this episode comes from the way The Governor handles the military group that he was allegedly going to help in the end. I didn't particularly like the way the scene was directed (slow motion), but I was surprised nonetheless by it. Add to that the final scene with The Governor looking at the fish tanks, and we have a pretty interesting episode.
The fourth episode ("Killer Within") probably marks the peak of the season, at least in terms of surprising twists and shocks. Rick and Company have to deal with a horde of walkers that infiltrated the prison, helped by one of the prisoners that was left alive by Rick. The moment of the attack is very intense, and the action and gore is pretty good. Moreover, the departure of two original cast members came as a real surprise to me. I thought that final act was handled perfectly, particularly with Carl's big decision. Another effective moment of directing for me was how at that moment, they flashed back to the moment when Rick gave Carl his gun and told him:
"No more kid stuff. I wish you could have the childhood I had, but that's not gonna happen. People are gonna die. I'm gonna die. Mom."
The resonance of those words, in light of what happens in the episode, gives such an emotional impact. I really loved that moment. And Andrew Lincoln's performance in the end, when he realizes what has happened to Lori was excellent.
Like with "Walk With Me", the fifth episode ("Say the Word") feels a bit more relaxed and slow-paced after the intensity of the previous episode. Still, there are a few good tense moments, particularly between Michonne and The Governor, as they square off each other in mistrust. I wasn't that crazy about the way Rick's emotional debacle was handled, but I wasn't that bothered by it either. His frail state of mind continues to be an issue in the next episode ("Hounded") where he begins getting strange phone calls while isolated in one of the prison rooms. The best parts here are the ones with Michonne running away from Merle. All the stuff with Merle's soldier, Gargulio, was pretty funny too. Merle's eventual kidnapping of Glenn and Maggie was another highlight that set up what would happen in the next episodes.
The seventh episode ("When the Dead Come Knocking") have Merle and The Governor interrogating and torturing both Glenn and Maggie, as they try to find out the location of their group. Meanwhile, Andrea collaborates with Milton in one of his experiments on the walker's psyche, or lack of. The interrogations, and Glenn's fight with a walker, were the best moments. The scene when The Governor questions first Glenn, and then Maggie, was so good that I wanted to punch the man in the face.
The eight episode ("Made to Suffer") was the last one of this stretch, and it delivered in most aspects. First, we are introduced to a new group of survivors led by Tyreese. I really loved the way Carl handled the situation and I'm looking forward to what they will do with his character in the future. The action scenes when Rick and Company raid Woodbury were a bit clunky at times, but they still worked. The peak of the episode was the fight between Michonne and The Governor, which was nothing short of great. My jaw hit the floor when she actually killed Penny. I just couldn't believe they would go that way, and the fight that ensued was perfect. In the end, we see how The Governor betrays Merle as he reveals they have captured Daryl, and teases the crowd into lynching them.
Like I've said, I thought the first half really delivered and I was pleased with the outcome. Sure, there were some awkward moments (Carol's disappearance, how Rick handles Lori's death, T-Dog? Oscar?), but the good/great moments outweigh the ones that were not so good. I have to underline how surprised I was at Lori's death. I wouldn't have thought the show would go that route. With Dale's death last season, and now T-Dog and Lori, it almost feels as if showrunner Glen Mazzara was cleansing the show from everything that had to do with Frank Darabont. And even though I didn't have as much problems with Season 2 as most people had, Season 3 already feels with a more assured pace and a more focused story.
Kudos to Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, and Michael Rooker, who I think give out the best performances from the season. Looking forward to February, to see where they take the show. But for now, I give this first half an A-
(All pictures belong to AMC and its affiliates)