Tomorrow's Walking Dead seems like it's going to be one of those TV episodes where if you're running five minutes behind, you need to change plans. Hope you remembered the DVR. Otherwise, better off finding the rebroadcast, waiting for OnDemand access, or—with all this tension—maybe even seeking an illicit Internet stream.
Season 3's midseason, penultimate episode ended on the cusp of major action. We left our survivors just as the group's fiercest quartet jumped into their artillery-loaded Hyundai and set off for Woodbury. Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Oscar (he's one of the two prisoners) survived Rip Van Winkle's isolated cabin, eluded the spotlights of The Governor's gatekeepers... then were immediately foiled by the credits. Ugh. But what's another week when the first ten minutes of the mid-season finale have to deliver some type of fireworks? The question isn't if it'll happen, it's whether the ensuing action will be good or bad for Rick's company.
Since first being introduced to Michonne last season and The Governor (plus Woodbury) in episode 3, we've been waiting for the show's most high profile additions to intersect with our group. Last week, Michonne finally crossed paths with Rick and now all signs point to Team Grimes at least gaining entry into the apocalypse's most famous gated community. Cries of poor pacing and entrapment on a farm feel like an awful long time ago.
But just because prison residents and peaceful towns finally intersect does not mean that fans will get the conflicts we're waiting for. Last week The Governor creepily showed his true self to Maggie, but ol' Merle handled things with Glen. If Rick and company penetrate Woodbury, there are secondary characters who could confront and constrain them (and that's if they don't just rescue Glen and Maggie then escape [relatively] unscathed). As much as reunions between Daryl and Merle or Andrea and Michonne would be interesting, this is where the fans lose in a split-season. We're sure to get drama, but not the drama. Our dream combatants are close in proximity, but would Rick meeting The Governor face-to-face now leave much to the imagination for February? A show pulling in record viewer numbers doesn't want to jeopardize growth by removing a reason for the casual fan to continue.
When series split seasons like this, it's a business decision and not a storytelling one. There are narrative peaks and valleys in the course of a traditional 13-episode television season, but content is consistent and natural points for climax and resolution are clearer. It's easy to manage your expectations. In a split-season however, the structure fans are used to is subverted. Now we have the hopes of a finale—storyline climaxes are sure to be in store—but an unnatural rhythm with plenty of episodes looming in February. If this was simply episode 8 with at least five weeks to go, it wouldn't be a disappointment if we miss out on the confrontations above. What's another week or two? But knowing we're likely to draw this out through March 2013 and might not even get a taste tomorrow—does that change the tension we experience at the end of last week?
Showrunner Glen Mazzara did a fairly open interview with the Los Angeles Times' Hero Complex blog [potential spoilers]. Without going into too much detail, he did confirm some things fans can expect before a break based on the show's history. Yes, there will be likely loss and bloodshed: in S1, it was the CDC and "hope;" in S2, it was Sophia (midseason) and Shane (penultimate). Mazzara also responded to a pretty obvious question (There's a cliffhanger, right?) emphatically: "It surprised the hell out of me." Again, S1 left us with the destruction of the CDC and S2 provided breaks following a barnful of walkers then the escape from Herschel's farm. Nothing too revealing here.
If you really want to dig for clues on our major storyline, good luck. Michael Rooker (Merle) did an interview where he said his character will get "more kick-ass" and that the midseason finale is one of the best hours of the season. A quick YouTube search for the episode's name ("Made to Suffer") brings up an episode teaser from a Spanish-language Fox station. Like AMC's official sneak peak (above), it doesn't help reveal the main stories at all. However, some recent casting news may bring a new character into play sooner rather than later. This would be very similar to how Michonne was introduced—a brief character glimpse right before an episode break of someone familiar to comic fans—feeding online speculation rather than prompting a collective Huh?.
With the improvements made throughout season 3 so far, there's no doubt The Walking Dead will leave us with plenty to talk about on Monday morning (you might even expect another Ars look). But based on the show's format this year, it's likely to involve more questions than answers and possibly more frustration than analysis.