The article below contains spoilers pertaining to the current season of "The Walking Dead."
This time last year, at the midpoint of season two, "The Walking Dead" was just putting to rest the fruitless search for missing 12-year-old Sophia (Madison Lintz) by having her stagger out of Hershel's (Scott Wilson) barn, revealed to be dead and transformed into a walker. The quest to find Sophia, who went missing in the season two premiere, exemplified one of the most maddening aspects of the show in its second year -- its focus on infighting, bickering and overall wheel-spinning, as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his group overstayed their welcome on the Greene farm and ultimately left it overrun by the undead and on fire. There was the struggle between Rick and the increasingly unstable Shane (Jon Bernthal), the debate over Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) pregnancy, the endless talk of finding Sophia and a growing sense that if the future of humanity was going to be more of this, it might be best to let the zombies take over.
What a difference a year makes. In its third season, which reached its fall finale this week, "The Walking Dead" has found new drive and direction by giving its group of survivors a home and a sense of coherence. Like all zombie stories, the most dangerous elements in "The Walking Dead" have always been the living, not the hazardous but predictable walkers. Rather than continue to stage its story as one of implosion from within, the AMC drama has gained a new sense of urgency by offering up an insidious enemy in the Governor, a major antagonist from the graphic novel presented as an aw-shucks caring leader with a vicious insane streak by David Morrissey. And in doing so, the show has started to seem like more of a fitting companion to its fellow network series "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," series it destroys in the ratings but hasn't been able to compare to in terms of acclaim or quality.
"Made to Suffer" managed to introduce new blood by way of Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and his gang to a show whose population is always dropping -- farewell, Oscar (Vincent Ward), we hardly knew you. But it also showcased the ways in which Rick's crew is figuring out how to act humanely without being foolish -- Carl (Chandler Riggs) helps the prison's latest guests and gives them food and water but also locks them in until Rick returns and they can figure out what to do. They've been through too much to trust easily, a wise development given the way the Governor describes a plan to approach the settlement under a white flag, a move he earlier used to take down the National Guard. In the same way, the new arrivals quavering over what to do with their bitten member serves to contrast just how pragmatic our main survivors have gotten about their reality. Not so long ago, Carl had to make sure his mother didn't reanimate after dying in childbirth -- and there's no more consideration of whether these gruesome actions are necessary, even as they're acknowledged as difficult.
Most promising about how "The Walking Dead" has become a significantly better show than it was a year ago are the ways in which it has been able to introduce thematic depth in these last few episodes. The series has never really sought out a level of context other than straightforward storytelling -- it's a survival tale, and still an incredibly bleak one in which death still seems like the thing that'll claim everyone in the end. But the Governor and his town, his idyllic sanctuary with its bloodthirsty taste in entertainment, has some very specific resonances to America, from its population dwelling in ignorance about the reality of what's been done on its behalf to the familiar rhetoric about "terrorists who want what we have."
The Governor leads acts of aggression against other survivors while claiming victimization and innocence, creating a mythology in which they're all stragglers with history together just trying to have some normalcy a cruel world would take away. But while the majority of the Woodbury population seems sincerely unaware of the truth about their leader, there's no doubting he's the biggest monster the show has at the moment, an anti-Rick who uses talk of protecting his people as a means of justifying cruelty. Preemptively destroying others before they can attack you is a warped kind of survival method that may make a grim kind of sense in this new reality, but it's a terrible way to get by. The inevitable clash between the prison and Woodbury will be the closest the show will come to good versus evil, even though a lot of mislead members of the Governor's following are going to get caught up in a battle they don't understand. There's a power to these developments beyond just that of narrative, but it also gives some weight to the death that comes to easily here. While the living population dwindles away, they're still just consumed with battle each other.