"The Walking Dead" begins to wrap up a frustrating third season

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Of all the shows I keep up with on a regular basis, “The Walking Dead” is easily the most narratively misguided, with nearly every episode featuring scattered characterization and inert melodrama. Nonetheless, week-to-week, there are few things as satisfying as seeing the show’s gleefully gory depiction of a zombie-ridden wasteland.

“This Sorrowful Life,” the penultimate episode of the series’ third season, showcased both the best and the worst of “The Walking Dead.” The show has consistently struggled to get a handle on its characters, and (SPOILER) this episode killed off Michael Rooker’s Merle, one of the few survivors left from the first season. Merle was always a deeply problematic character, but his return in the third season amounted to a redemption arc that stopped and started without much insight into Merle as a character, despite Michael Rooker’s valiant attempts to keep Merle compelling. His death may have resulted in a big blow towards the Governor’s forces, an exciting climax for the episode and a great final scene for Daryl (Norman Reedus), but Merle never amounted to anything more than another example of “The Walking Dead” squandering a character who didn’t have much potential to begin with.

Famous makeup man Greg Nicotero has directed a handful of “The Walking Dead” episodes, and his staging of several big action sequences didn’t fail to excite. Merle’s consequences-be-damned assault on the Governor was genuinely thrilling, and the smart use of zombies as a strategic weapon is something I’d like to see more of in the finale. The Zombie Kill of the Week easily belongs to Michonne’s innovative wire-to-pillar decapitation, although the casualness with which she was popping walkers’ skulls off in the episode’s opening was wryly funny.

Next week’s season finale promises to bring an end to the Governor-Rick battle of wills that’s driven the season, an arc that has continued to display the show’s struggles in building credible dramatic conflict and consistent characterization. Nonetheless, “The Walking Dead” has an undeniable knack for ramping up tension when it counts, and hopefully the third season will end on a satisfying note.