And we’re back with the fourth season of AMC’s (and one of basic cable’s) biggest hit, The Walking Dead. In season 1, the zombies kept the rag-tag band band of survivors constantly on the move and hunting for a cure. The show functioned more like an extra-long zombie movie, with scene after scene of nameless, lineless extras run through the grinder. For season 2, the slashed budget pushed the writers into creating more or less a season-long bottle episode out of Hershel’s farm. It was a time sink in the worst way, with everyone turning into idiotic ciphers and backstabbing cockwaffles. No one was interesting, no one was likable, and CARL WOULDN’T STAY IN THE GODDAMN HOUSE.
Last season, the writers tried another tactic. Instead of running in mindless fear or holing up in the most boring place on earth, Rick and company split their time between building a fortress out of a prison and going on walkabout in the surrounding countryside. It was an action-heavy season to counteract the sandboxed previous season. But at least the (defanged) Governor kept popping up to piss people off and wreak havoc. And we got rid of Andrea. There’s always a silver lining.
We begin season 4 several months after the destruction of Woodbury. Rick is no longer king of the prison but a lowly farmer. Running things is the Council, a cabal made up of basically everyone from last season that isn’t a minor or Rick. They, with Rick’s manual labor, have turned the prison into Woodbury 2.0, with a dash of Hershel’s farm for good measure. But there’s tension in this idyll, with Rick still running against the grain and a new disease knocking off pigs and teenage boys alike. The Governor lived to tell his sorry tale last season, but is now busy doing that off camera. Michonne assles through central Georgia on his trail, and occasionally picks up gifts for Rick and Carl. Not sure if the show wants me to think they’re just good friends or that Michonne and Rick have a thing, but I really hope it’s not the latter.
In the premiere, a routine raid on an abandoned supermarket cum zombiefied military installation goes awry, as they are wont to do. I mean, it kinda has to, right? Everyone’s happy and joking around; Michonne smiles, for crying out loud. TWD is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. (Remember the cold open where Rick finds a buried gun in his corn field and tosses it in the wheelbarrow? Hammer, meet sledge.) And, true to form, the second we learn something new and vaguely personality-like from a character that has previously had little to no lines, they step up to the guillotine. Shaggy-Haired Teenage Boy who flirted with Beth and tried to figure out who Daryl was pre-endverse got himself eaten then crushed by a helicopter. I’ll give TWD this: they certainly know how to do grotesque action sequences. They’re great at brainless violence and gross-out killings, and not so great at dealing with the survivors during their non-killing moments. HOWEVER, the reason the action sequences work so well isn’t because they are especially action-y. It’s because they mean a respite from listening to Rick’s pathetic ravings, Hershel’s folksy homespun wisdom, and everyone else’s constant whinging.
Rick gets a B-story, too. But his brings absolutely nothing new to the table. Rick meets a lonely woman who is, fun fact, cuckoo for cocoa puffs. He follows her back to her camp without realizing how cuckoo she is, then is surprised when she tries to feed him to her undead husband, who is, at this point, just a head in a burlap sack. Then she kills herself and begs Rick not to redead her so she can be undead with her undead body-less hubby. Moral of the story is that living in the end of the world sucks, and it’s not like we haven’t heard that one before from every single person ever given any screentime. It also shows Rick what could’ve happened to him if every other circumstance were completely the opposite of what they actually were. So, basically, the whole subplot functioned as a way to give Rick something to do beyond plowing fields for 42 minutes.
The problem with The Walking Dead isn’t the concept or the execution. It’s the characters themselves, the survivors. A character isn’t a person who changes to fit the mood and whims of the writers room. A character isn’t a set of stock personality traits pilfered from Robert McKee. A character isn’t a Joseph Campbell metaphor or a symbolic comment on society. The audience doesn’t have to like a character, but they do have to find them interesting enough to be willing to invest a hefty amount of time and energy into them. I’ve spent 36 hours with these people yet everyone but Daryl and Carol make me want to pull out my hair. (Excepting Melissa Ponzio, but only because Teen Wolf overrides TWD.) Rick is just as much of a black hole in season 4 as he was in season 1, which doesn’t bode well for future eps.
Early reviews of season 4 hint that the Governor’ll be around, but lurking in the background, twirling his moustache. With him not this season’s Big Bad, that leaves the walkers and whatever this mysterious disease is to terrorize the locals. It also means a major refocus of theme. Thus far, the walkers—to both the shows benefit and detriment—have never been the main villain. They’re less ultimate evil and more chaotic neutral; a force of nature rather than a force for ill. This new twist to the thematic center feels less like the writers trying something new and more like the writers HAVING to try something new. The ratings might be gangbusters, but the reviews are dreadful. If they ever want to be more than a zombie version of Two and a Half Men—and all signs point to yes—they have a lot of work to do.
In case you missed it, the show has once again undergone a changeover in management, this time with Scott M. Gimple, one of TWD’s writers, moving up to showrunner. He has a lot to deal with. Only time will tell if Scott M. Gimple will succeed where his predecessors have failed, but if the season 4 premiere is any indication, Gimple won’t come out of this ahead. The problems the show has always suffered from—blank characters, poor plotting, a chronic aversion to subtlety, Rick—are still alive and kicking this season, with nothing to suggest the writers are working to resolve those issues. Keep in mind, no matter how much we might enjoy of the first ep or two, The Walking Dead has a nasty habit of exponential decline. It not only fails to live up to its potential, but murders its potential and buries its corpse behind the barn. On that cheery note….
- I still maintain that Carol and Daryl should run off with baby Judith and have their own show. I’d watch the hell outta that.
- “Sorry, Pookie.” Please let Carol and Daryl be a couple. Please let Carol and Daryl be a couple. Please let Carol and Daryl be a couple.
- “I don’t have anything else to lose.” “No, you do.”
- “I can’t do things like this. And you have to do things like this.”
- “How many people have you killed?” “Just me. Just me.”
- “You don’t get to come back from things.”
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.