A review of "The Walking Dead" season finale coming up just as soon as I know how the safety works...

"In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill." -The Governor

The first half of season 3 was the best sustained stretch "The Walking Dead" has ever had. The second half was all over the map, including one of the show's best episodes ever ("Clear"), but also a lot of standing around and waiting for the prison/Woodbury confrontation we all knew was inevitable. Average the whole season prior to tonight together, and you get something very uneven, which about sums up how I feel about "Welcome to the Tombs." Great character moments coexisted alongside questionable storytelling decisions — sometimes in the same scene.

On the positive side, for instance, the finale featured an excellent payoff to all the scenes earlier in the season about Milton's research into what happens when you turn. When abstract theory turns into bloody reality, it becomes much easier for Milton to accept that no trace of humanity survives the transition into zomiehood, and Dallas Roberts played the hell out of Milton's desperation and acceptance of all the things he'd done wrong. But like Merle's death last week, it felt like the show burning one of its more interesting characters, played by one of its better actors. And like the Governor's cat-and-mouse chase of Andrea a few weeks ago, that sequence ultimately took up too much time in an episode that was trying to do a lot at once, and skimped on other parts as a result.

Speaking of sequences going on too long, take the Woodbury army's assault on the prison. Mazzara and company were clearly going for a moment of surprise and triumph when the booby traps went off and chased the Governor's people into the path of Glen and Maggie's guns. The problem was that the way the episode was structured, we'd seen what appeared to be Rick's entire group leaving the place, which made it seem like the episode was lingering on the Governor and his troops wandering through the prison well past the point of interest, which wound up sapping much of the tension or uplift from it. Probably, it would have worked better if we hadn't seen Rick's group at all before the ambush was sprung, and had the first chunk of the episode just feature the Governor, Andrea, Milton, Tyreese, etc. 

Once the ambush successfully chased off the Governor, things took a disappointing but unsurprising turn when the guy went from half-looney to full-on by gunning down his own people (including Allen, who for reasons passing understanding was too slow on the trigger) before driving off with Martinez and his henchman, surely ready to cause trouble another day. I'm not sure the writing staff ever had a full handle on who they wanted the TV version of the Governor to be. At times, he seemed almost reasonable, and like someone who might make us question whether Rick was doing things the right way. At others, he was just a one-eyed bogeyman, becoming more and more malevolent so we would enjoy seeing him put down... and even that didn't actually happen. If you're going to spend the back half of your season going in circles so the big showdown happens in the finale, and then the big showdown only partially occurs (Woodbury is routed, but Rick has nothing to do with a good chunk of it, and the Governor is just in the wind), then that's not a way to make the audience feel like that time was well-spent.

I liked the idea of Carl becoming more ruthless and like the Governor (or, at least, one of the more reasonable incarnations of the Governor), but it felt like the show skipped a few steps between the Carl of "Clear" who was afraid to shoot Morgan and the Carl of the finale who barely hesitates before killing a human being. That he was set on this path by Merle's death, the knowledge that Rick was prepared to sacrifice Michonne, etc., is all implied, but it could have been presented better if some other things from the last few episodes had been de-empahsized in favor of showing Carl's journey from Point A to Point B.

Andrea's death, like Lori's before her, gave a character who had been problematic for quite some time a fairly noble end, and one that called back on her friendship with Michonne, her long time with the group (she was one of the first people Rick met after leaving Morgan and Duane), her gun training (he gave her grief about leaving the safety on during their first encounter), etc. But Andrea's "I didn't want anyone to die" defense didn't entirely redeem a character who'd made one bad choice after another, which often at the time seemed to be coming not out of nobility but the same stupid pride that caused so many problems (like shooting Daryl) even before she crossed paths with the Governor.

And finally, Rick's decision to take in the Woodbury survivors — most of them old people and children who will be a drain on resources without providing much in the way of beefing up their defenses — brought an unequivocal end to the Ricktatorship (and seemed to deepen the Rick/Carl schism), but all I could think through that sequence was to wonder why they would choose the prison over Woodbury. One location has electricity, running water, the relative comforts of home, and a perimeter that, while it's been breached at times seems relatively sturdy, particularly against walkers. The other is a prison — and one that still has plenty of zombies milling about, a busted front fence and a gaping hole in the side. I'm sure an argument could be made for it, but there was no time in the episode given to anyone actually making it: just Rick and company escorting the bus onto the prison grounds and expecting the rest to accept that this is the way things ought to be. 

Like the rest of you, I have no idea what the disagreement was between Mazzara and everyone else that led to his departure. I do know that he was responsible for the most consistent stretch of quality "The Walking Dead" has had (which extends back to the tail end of season 2), but also for this muddle of season 3.5. Will Scott Gimple (who wrote the show's two best episodes of 2013: "Clear" and "This Sorrowful Life") be able to pull out an entire season of goodness, or is there something in the DNA of the show — whether the Kirkman source material, the production's relationship with AMC, or a combination of both — that means it's destined for perpetual inconsistency, even as the ratings get bigger and bigger?

We'll get some answers in October, I suppose, but I'd hoped the finale would make me miss the series in its absence more than I suspect I will.


Some other thoughts:

* In his final script, Mazzara (and director Ernest Dickerson) got to pay one final homage to "Lost" by opening on an extreme close-up of the Governor's eyeball.

* Well, Tyreese and Sasha are back with the group, though there was a missed opportunity outside the Woodbury gates for an apology (even a brief one) from Rick for the way he chased them away from the prison in the first place. 

* Did Quentin Tarantino come in to guest direct the "Andrea frees herself using her bare feet" sequence?

Once again, let me remind you again of this blog's No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I've had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources — and, yes, that includes anything Mazzara and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with "Game of Thrones," the goal is to treat "The Walking Dead" TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think? Were you ultimately satisfied with season 3, or do you now feel better about the latest showrunner change?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com