Violence is bad. Violence is sometimes necessary. Violence is fun. Violence in all its variations has always been at the core of The Walking Dead, but in its third season, the show has turned random acts of violence into a fundamental and recurring part of the show’s rhythm. A metaphor: If The Walking Dead is music, then the killing of a zombie used to be a soaring guitar solo. Now, it’s just the percussion, a nice regular backbeat that keeps the show moving along. (Last night, two different characters had their own private zombie-massacre kill-combo sequence: This is the equivalent of a Keith Moon Drum Solo.) Or, another metaphor: If The Walking Dead were basketball, then the killing of a zombie used to be a three-point shot; now, it’s just dribbling.
Pretty much everyone has praised The Walking Dead for this new, ultraviolent direction. It feels like, between seasons, the show magically transformed from a southern-Gothic melodrama into a never-ending war movie: From The Sound and the Fury into All Quiet on the Western Front. The Grimes Gang evolved from a crew of mopey conversationalists into a tactical Delta Force kill squad, capable of clearing out a field full of walkers with videogame precision. You could say that the show has become the grungiest action movie of the year: At a moment when actual American action movies trend towards bloodless PG-13 melancholia, Walking Dead regularly achieves death counts that rival the final sequence of Commando, except with roughly ten times as many detached limbs.
This has made The Walking Dead a much more fun show. There is an aspect of pure pornography to it all now: The adoring close-ups of bashed-in zombie heads, the CGI blood splattering across the frame, the “can-we-top-ourselves?” brinksmanship of every new zombie sequence. Last night’s episode was directed by Greg Nicotero — arguably the real star of Walking Dead, since he’s in charge of the makeup and prosthetics — and it featured some of the show’s best-ever auteurist flourishes, like that moving close-up on Rick where we saw him kill two or three walkers without ever actually seeing the walkers. The show makes violence look so bad, and therefore, so good.
This ought to trouble you at least a little bit. At this point, it feels like our culture has just about retired the idea that watching violent acts in movies and TV shows will create violent people. Or rather, we’ve had to retire that idea, if only because a few generations of children have been raised watching people get fake-killed hundreds of times. But I do wonder sometimes if we’ve gone too far in the other direction: If we just accept ridiculously violent imagery, without really wondering why we enjoy it so much. Is it okay if The Walking Dead is just a violence-delivery mechanism? Does the show just want to be the most grown-up cartoon on television? And should we even worry about that? (I’m not pointing fingers here, by the way. I’m the guy who hands out a Zombie Kill of the Week Award.)
Last night’s episode of Walking Dead featured the usual array of walker-massacring action, but it also featured a daring attempt to grapple with some of these questions; indeed, without getting too meta, the show seemed to throw these questions right out to the audience. The episode got off to a running start with an off-handed revelation that immediately complicated everything we thought we knew about the Governor. We saw him brushing his heretofore-unseen daughter’s hair, a doting father. The daughter was making some familiar drooly-roar sounds. She grasped at her father’s arms with sharp nails and bit at his hands with corroded teeth. She is a walker, and the Governor treats her inveterate cannibalism with cooing and light tut-tutting, like a parent chastising a child going through the Terrible Twos. “Daddy still loves you, you know that, right?” asked the Governor, lovingly covering his daughter’s head in a protective sack.
Even though the Governor and Rick haven’t met yet — and easy money says they won’t meet anytime soon, except maybe as a midseason-finale cliffhanger — the show has been smartly setting them up on parallel tracks. So we cut straight from The Governor tending to his daughter to Rick, dizzy and half-mad, listening to his own newborn daughter crying. While Rick stood in a daze, his designated Riker took command. Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon announced that the baby needed something to eat, and planned an expedition to a nearby preschool. He also played matchmaker and told Beth to take care of the newly-matricidal Carl. Sensing that this was no time to be low-key, Daryl put on his serape and drove off with Maggie. He would not let this baby die.
NEXT: Rick unleashes an old-fashioned berserker barrage