This season, “The Walking Dead” has been able to accomplish more than AMC could’ve ever imagined. The show’s ratings have gone from great to downright unbelievable, and the series has now emerged as television’s No. 1 drama in the coveted 18-49 demographic. Content-wise, it also seemed as if “Dead” was on stable footing after a shaky, and somewhat controversial, second season. Despite a stellar first eight episodes, the ratings juggernaut had begun to lose its way. While this concern isn’t yet on the radar of most critics, I’m worried that in the wake of Lori’s death, the show is starting to show signs that it will suffer an even shakier future than its past.

The biggest issue I have with “The Walking Dead” is Lori’s absence — something I never thought I would say. Over the first two-and-a-half seasons, Lori was one of the most aggravating characters on television. Not only did it seem like she was actively trying to be a bad mother (“Where’s Carl?”), but the stunt she pulled with Rick and Shane was unforgivable. Lori urged Rick to kill Shane and eliminate the threat he posed to the group. When Rick finally did the deed in the penultimate episode of season two, Lori acted as if he had gone too far. I knew Lori would have to go, and I sincerely wanted to see it happen; in retrospect, I wish it hadn’t.

As frustrating as Lori was, without her there’s no conflict within the group. Viewers were either rooting for her and Rick to reconcile their issues or hoping they stay apart. Consequently, the scenes with Rick and Lori in the first half of season three were some of the most tense and dramatic.

Without Andrea, Lori was also the only woman in the group with a sense of independence; she spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she thought was right. Carol and Beth have no agency whatsoever, and as tough as Maggie is, she will never be as important to the group as Lori was. Whether you loved Lori or you hated Lori, at least you felt something. Even Michonne, the iconic character from the comics who made a splash in the season two finale, hasn’t amounted to anything but another dependent and boring female character.

Lori’s death has also changed the nature of Rick’s character. At the beginning of season one, Rick was a noble and likeable family man who would do anything to find his wife and son. Three seasons later and one Lori short, Rick has become a mopey and mean man who doesn’t know what’s best for the group or himself anymore. At the end of season two, Rick asserted that it wasn’t a democracy anymore, but as his conviction faded, so has my faith in the character.

Revisiting Lori’s death got me thinking about other major “Walking Dead” deaths in the past. It occurred to me that the reason they were shocking and fulfilling for viewers is because the characters were so interesting and such integral parts of the show. Along with Lori’s, “The Walking Dead” is beginning to experience some of the lasting effects of Dale’s and Shane’s deaths as well.

Dale’s demise came in “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” season two’s 11th episode. Dale was the show’s moral center and his friendship with Glenn, as well as his complicated paternal relationship with Andrea, were key aspects of the group dynamic. And as unlikeable as Shane became toward the end of his run, which ended in “Better Angels,” his character was essential to the relationship between Rick and Lori.

No matter what you believe to be the strongest part of “The Walking Dead,” you cannot argue that a complicated group dynamic is not central to the show’s plot. Without Lori, Dale or Shane, there is nothing holding the characters together anymore. If “The Walking Dead” had substituted some of these deaths with more minor characters like Carol or an earlier T-Dog exit, the immediate effects would’ve been lessened. However, it would’ve benefited the show in the long run.

The series has already strayed far enough from the original comics that saving some of these characters may have been the right move. In fact, if the writers had followed the comics more closely, Lori should have still been around for a little while longer.

After a short, blink-and-miss-it six-episode first season, “The Walking Dead” quickly made its way onto my short list of great TV dramas. And after a somewhat rocky second season, the third has provided some of the series’ best material. In the first three episodes back however, “The Walking Dead” has begun to experience some growing pains. In the wake of gigantic ratings, it’s clear that this show will be around for a long time. I just hope that some questionable decisions on the part of the show’s writers won’t extinguish this flame too soon.

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