Every season of The Walking Dead has been a reboot of The Walking Dead. Season 2 moved the action to the Farm and became a three-way battle of wills between Shane, Hershel, and Rick. Season 3 resettled the action even more radically, establishing the Prison and Woodbury. It also decisively moved the show in a brave new direction: "Fight the Dead, Fear the Living." (In the process, it practically made zombies an afterthought: The defining zombie kill of the episode came when Michonne absentmindedly sliced off two zombie heads at once.)
Season 3 did not end with the promise of a radical setting change. The Prison is still standing; the surviving Grimes Gangbangers look even more dug in there than ever. The Governor is still out there, and it seems unlikely that he'll just disappear. But the finale did end with a truly radical shift. All season, the Grimes Gang-turned-Tribe has been a tiny, tight-knit group of people, a family fronted by the Melee Squad, a church that accepts no new members. (Unless they're carrying baby formula and a katana.)
But as the episode ended, Daryl Motherf--ing Dixon -- wearing his Man With No Name serape, no less -- led a bus full of people into the Prison. These were the remaining Woodburyites -- the women and children who remained behind while the Governor massacred his own militia. "They're gonna join us," Rick told Carl, who stormed off -- angry that he had not been consulted, angry that his father was suddenly changing his "no-new-people" plan, angry most of all that his father had opted for a diplomatic solution. But I find Rick's decision compelling for a lot of reasons. At a certain base level, he must have recognized that the dwindling population of Tribe Grimes wouldn't sustain itself for long. It may not be a smart decision in the long-term; it's worth pointing out that the people they're adding in are mostly old people and children, not necessarily the most productive members of any civilization. But it was a powerful, symbolic move towards normality.
(ASIDE: And yet, I have one important question. Namely: WHY THE HELL DID THEY BRING THOSE PEOPLE TO THE RECENTLY EXPLODED PRISON WHEN THERE IS A PERFECTLY LIVABLE TOWN SURROUNDED BY INCREDIBLY EFFECTIVE WALLS AND STOCKED WITH LOTS OF ARTILLERY? Or was it because they were worried the Governor would try to retake Woodbury? Isn't Woodbury a more defensible location? Isn't Woodbury way more comfortable, and also way less zombie-infested, and also weren't there people with gardens growing fruit and vegetables there? Am I missing something here? And don't say that they didn't want to live in Woodbury because it would bring up bad memories. This is the zombie apocalypse; no time to be sentimental. END OF ASIDE.)
The point is: Tribe Grimes is no more. Welcome to New Grimes City, located in the unincorporated territory of Rickissippi. Unless there are radical inter-season changes, season 4 will see our heroes as members of a full-fledged community. It's hard to know what, exactly, that means for the show. The Walking Dead has never seemed particularly interested in the mechanics of nation-building. The show has usually worked best when the characters have a clear-cut mission.
In hindsight, season 3 has been one long journey from caveman tribalism -- from clearing out the prison one square foot at a time -- to genuine civilization, protected from the outside world. That's an ambitious story arc, and the best parts of this season will stand as a testament to showrunner Glen Mazzara, who decisively rebooted the show in an intriguing direction which led to the show's best hours (and some of its worst.) When the show returns in October, it will be left to new showrunner Scott M. Gimple to guide the series forward. Whatever my problems with the back half of this season, I find myself ridiculously excited by the infinite possibilities of this show. I plan to spend the next half-year constantly googling "Walking Dead Season 4 News" whenever I get bored, waiting for whatever table scraps of information emerge from the AMC compound.
Fellow Dead fans, what did you think about the end of this season? Were you underwhelmed by the Woodbury/Prison showdown? Were you expecting more closure with the Governor, or were you happy to see him go off with his best buddy Martinez, ready and willing to strike again come October? Did Carl make the right decision? Should Rick have welcomed the Woodbury citizens into the Prison? Were you surprised Beth didn't sing? Carol is still alive -- thoughts?
(ASIDE: This concludes my rollicking experience recapping season 3 of The Walking Dead. It's incredibly fun writing about this series. I sometimes suspect that The Walking Dead is the most American show on television, which I should qualify by explaining that I also suspect Spring Breakers is the most American movie in theaters. Whatever; whether you loved this season without reservations or with some skepticism, whether you loved the comic books or wish I would just stop talking about the freaking comic books so much, and even if your favorite character is Ghost Lori, I thank you heartily for taking this weird journey with me. See you in October. Unless the zombie apocalypse happens. In which case I'll see you at the Prison. END OF ASIDE AND ALSO OF RECAP.)
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich