Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead, Season 4

2 Dec

Rick is Back

After writing it, I noticed that this review has become a bit of a compliment sandwich. First, as befits said sandwich, we’ll start off with some compliments which the first half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead richly deserves. It has been the best and perhaps most importantly, most consistent half-season in a show that has been riddled throughout its run with inconsistency, offering jaw dropping moments before and after slow, plodding episodes. Pacing problems which swamped the show, particularly the second system, were not nearly as present, and new showrunner Scott Gimple found a way to mix character building, overarching themes about survival and humanity and relative and absolute morality with action, plot movement, and, as always, super disgusting zombies. Compliments to the chef.

My biggest problem with this half season was my biggest problem with last season’s finale: the governor, and his continuing, at least up to the mid-season finale, survival. The writers decided to give the Governor two episodes starring no other main character towards the end of the season rather than cross-cutting the Governor’s plot with the crew in the prison. I ‘m not sure that was the right decision, but I can see the advantages once they had decided what their story was and were just deciding how to tell it, The real problem, though, was bringing the Governor back at all.

The Governor’s arc was finished at the end of season three. If the character had been written differently, and I”ll get back to that, I don’t think the character had to be done, but because of how he was written, there wasn’t much left to do with him. Rather than prove me wrong, the writers unintentionally endorsed my view by basically repeating the Governor’s third season plot in two and a half episodes.

This re-telling may have been a superior version of the Governor’s story, and it almost felt like the writers thought the Governor was a good enough character that deserved a better end and they wanted to honor him. If this season had been the only experience we had with the governor, there might have been a chance to forge a new character and the episodes would have been a lot more captivating. But it’s not and it wasn’t.

Aside from the repetition, it felt like the first Governor episode was a fake out to make us believe that the Governor had changed. It could have worked, had the events of the third season gone differently, but because of how they did go I never believed in the new, non-murderous governor for a second. The character was simply too far gone, too morally compromised, to, forget root for, but even believe in and take seriously at all.

The writers proved that theory correct when the Governor went back to his playbook in his second episode, murdering the leaders of his new group to take control himself, ostensibly in the name of survival, but really for personal gain and revenge.

And therein lies my problem with the execution of the govnernor (not his dying at the hands of Michonne; that was great, rather how his character was written). There’s a version of this character that’s really interesting in this world. A character who has seen so many dark things that he takes a cold and utilitarian view of group survival. He decides he needs leaders who are willing to cut bait to save the most number of people, and that his group’s survival may mean others’ deaths, but he needs to be in it for his group first and foremost. That’s a valid worldview in these end times, and while it may not be one that the viewers support, it’s one that’s coherent and can make sense in a world where death is always around the corner.

The problem is the Governor is a perversion of that worldview who is impossible to sympathize with. Sure, he believes those things, and acts in those ways, but he has personal motives and a huge ego which don’t allow the viewers to really spend time on the fascinating themes that character can present.

I love that in The Walking Dead any character can die at any time. But for the reasons I described above, if the Governor killed Rick, I’m not sure I’d be able to continue to watch the show. I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen, but, while I normally reward the unpredictable, if the Governor didn’t die in that very episode, there would have been a critical problem in a show that has had its share of problems.

I had to spend so much time on my least favorite part of a season that was overall quite enjoyable, but it’s on my mind in particular because it occurred in the most recent episodes. Let’s talk about the good though, the bottom half of this compliment sandwich.

It’s always a challenge on The Walking Dead to build up new characters, so that they mean something if and when they get killed off, as there’s always a churn of characters working their way through. The Walking Dead did enough to add some real depth to characters Tyrese, Sasha, and Bob with a limited amount of time to devote to each which really helped bring up the overall cast. This stands in stark contrast to the trouble the show had making major characters feel like, well, characters, in the early seasons.

The Walking Dead thrives when it positions different views for how to deal with the apocalypse against one another, with Rick as the heart, trying to figure out what’s right. Carol and Hershel did an excellent job really building into two potential worldviews, each of which has value and reason behind it, and while I understood how this show works, it was awfully sad to see Hershel go as he has become the moral soul of The Walking Dead.

The disease that ravaged the prison in the first segment of the season was much more interesting than the Governor conflict in the second segment. It was a human conflict that forced the prisoners to make difficult choices, and while sometimes the choices were smoothed over, it led to some really interesting consequences like Carol’s burning of the bodies. We tend to side with Rick, but even while we may not agree with Carol, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from and also understand that she’s taking action for the survival of the prisoners. Unlike with the Governor, Carol’s motivation is legitimately to help her group overall

All told, I’m encouraged by the direction of this season, especially now that the Governor’s gone and the crew is on the move again, I’m excited to see where show runner Scott Gimle can take the show, which has struggled to find its way on a consistent basis over four seasons, despite its massive popularity.

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