It's safe to say that since the introduction of the Governor, The Walking Dead season 3 has been leading up to a climactic showdown between Philip's well-armed citizen soldiers and Rick's group of bedraggled survivors back at the prison.
At the end of last week's 'This Sorrowful Life,' Rick gave everyone at the prison the opportunity to decide whether or not their new home was worth fighting (and probably dying) for, or if they'd simply be better off by cutting their losses and moving on down the road – maybe move in with Morgan and help him build his zombie obstacle course.
Surprisingly, The Walking Dead opted out of spending a significant portion of the season finale showing democracy in action and instead went the bait-and-switch route by insinuating that the group had decided the relative, yet creepy security provided them by the mostly-sturdy walls of the prison were not worth dying over. Carl was seen packing up his belongings and shrugging off his father's attempts at conversation, leading us to believe that perhaps the vote didn’t go his way and despite his child-soldier protestations, the group was headed for the road once more.
But, of course, that's not what happened, and it's also not the only bait-and-switch 'Welcome to the Tombs' has to offer.
Early on, Philip is seen giving someone a brutal beating, which, considering it plays out from the POV of the victim, the audience may initially believe it to be Andrea – who was last seen wide-eyed and shackled in Philip's dental/torture chair. Regardless how problematic and inconsistent her character had become, it's hard to believe anyone was looking forward to an episode wherein the Governor actually tortures Andrea, and thankfully, the writers' better judgment won out and no such event occurred. Instead, Philip turns on Milton for setting fire to the walkers and then leaves him to die in the same room as the shackled Andrea.
Ultimately, this would prove to seal Andrea and Milton's fate. As the two of them wait for the grievously injured Milton to expire, he alerts Andrea to the pair of pliers he stashed before the Governor did him in. It's as tense a scene as it is maddeningly simplistic, which, oddly enough, when coupled with the is-he-still-breathing check-ins on Milton manages to actually heighten the suspense, if not the desire for the viewer to yell at their television.
The Andrea and Milton situation plays out over the course of the entire episode, which eventually ends up in the most likely place: Milton goes full-zombie and attacks Andrea just as she frees herself. There's a moment where the viewer is left to wonder exactly what happened. Did Milton chow down on Andrea, or did she manage to get the better of him? As it turns out, it's a bit of both. Andrea suffers an undead Milton-bite and although she's able to dispatch the zombie, it's basically curtains for another character that certainly had her fair share of detractors, recently.
And it's here that The Walking Dead is able to play to its strengths. Much as the series did with last week's farewell to Merle, and earlier in the season with the deaths of Lori and T-Dog, the characters seem to be given a better shake in death than they ever were while they were still drawing breath.
Which brings the discussion back around to the Governor – another potentially strong character who was mostly a ball of inconsistent characterization and questionable motivations this season. And here in 'Welcome to the Tombs,' he seems to exist solely to serve the plot rather than develop into a more interesting character.
As far as climactic battles are concerned, there's no doubt the one that'd been hinted at during the season's various time-filling episodes would have been considered serious fan service. But instead, the finale decided to go in a different direction by watching as Philip essentially self-destructs; first getting his people caught in a trap set by Rick and Co., and then gunning all but one of them down after they tuck tail and run.
While this sadly leaves the door wide open for the Governor to return, it also allowed for a somewhat refreshingly optimistic turn of events that, although it made Rick look absurdly fickle yet again, brought out an interesting ideological conflict between him and Carl.
In the end 'Welcome to the Tombs' worked out in much the same way as 'This Sorrowful Life' and, to a certain degree, like season 3 as a whole. About half of the season (mostly the pre-hiatus portion aside from 'Clear') was fairly strong, but those moments were mostly undone by muddied characterizations and a drawn-out conflict that, as we see here, didn't really deliver.
The Walking Dead will return for season 4 in the fall of 2013 on AMC.