End of Season Report: Walking Dead, Season 4, Part 2

31 Mar

Carl

The second half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead (or as I like to call it, because AMC addresses it as such, AMC’s The Walking Dead) tried a new tack. After the characters’ home at the prison gets blown apart by the Governor’s invasion, because we know the main characters can’t be at any one place for too long, the remaining living characters are divided into five groups, each of which is unaware of the location of any of the other groups, or whether anyone else even made it out alive. The groups never all appear in the same episode and some entire episodes feature single groups and just a couple of characters. Full episodes featured only Rick, Michonne and Carl, only Daryl and Beth, and only Tyreese, Carol, Lizzie, and Mika (and Judith technically, though she’s not much of a character at this stage in her life).

Theoretically the idea was admirable and ambitious; there could have been something to be gained by laying out the characters as separate entities and lingering on their stories without letting different mindsets or moods interrupt singular narratives. In practice, however, the organizational device led to an epic slowdown of a show that’s had serious pacing problems over the years and which is better when it keeps moving at a hardy pace. The Walking Dead can’t pull off the epic slowness and deliberateness of True Detective or Rectify, for example. Instead, the episodes just feel needlessly stretched out.

I’m not a Walking Dead hater, but I do think The Walking Dead is the most uneven show on television. No current show has constantly produced powerful moments and at the same time undercut them with miserable pacing, poor characterization, and strange plot choices. This half-season would have really benefited from shrinking the length of many of these episodes, or, since every episode is forty minutes, more realistically from more cross-cutting in the episodes between the various groups of survivors. For example, the Beth and Daryl-centric episode in which Beth had her first alcoholic drink did have its share of warm character moments and bonding between two character who had previously not had a whole lot to do with one another, but it certainly didn’t need to be forty minutes. There was a whole lot of extra time spent that didn’t provide any additional punch.

On the whole, assuming we’re resigning ourselves to these general storylines and groupings, these eight episodes could probably have taken place in the space of four or five episodes without any noticeable loss.

There are serious continuing issues with The Walking Dead aside from its poor pacing, which are occasionally remedied but keep popping up. Characters can be remarkably slow on the uptake, making decisions that seem counter to everything we know about the universe in which they live, and the show can be painfully on the nose.

For example, even without hindsight, viewers could tell Lizzie was obviously unbalanced. Tyreese and Carol didn’t notice at all, and left her alone with baby Judith, which is hard to believe. In fact, The Walking Dead’s ability to be so on the nose with how off Lizzie makes it even stranger that Tyreese and Carol had no suspicions. This isn’t to say they could have expected her to kill her sister by any means, but not leaving her alone with a baby seems like sound and fairly clear advice.

The season finale contained entirely unnecessary flashbacks of Hershel convincing Rick to farm instead of fighting walkers to show Carl a better path. I love Hershel; he was one of my favorite characters and the moral center of the show. But, come on. We get it. We don’t need the reminder to know that Rick is now finding he has to behave savagely again to keep his son safe. The Walking Dead is consistently afraid to give its audience enough credit to figure out what’s going on. I’m not sure what they talk about on The Talking Dead; The Walking Dead provides more explanation than anyone could possibly need.

Too often it feels like The Walking Dead wants to make sure you know it’s about big ideas and not just zombies, and that takes away from both the power of the ideas and the plot itself; tell an interesting story in this lawless zombie-ridden universe, and the ideas will take care of themselves.

That said, there’s still something here worth watching even if The Walking Dead only really shows its best side in some of the episodes some of the time. Nothing that has happened has made me think that The Walking Dead doesn’t have the power in it to be as compelling as it is in its best moments more often, and no doors have been closed off through the direction of the show that would end any chance at improvement. The show just continues to meander back and forth from powerful moment to strange decision, from action packed zombie battle to walking on train tracks for forty minutes with nothing much happening.

Those powerful moments really do exist. Finding Lizzie with her dead sister was startlingly creepy, so shocking because even as relatively desensitized viewers have become to gruesome violence, this is still such a stunning act. Watching Rick rip the head gang leader’s  throat out in the finale was powerful; much more than anything gained through the flashback, that one single moment epitomized Rick’s new attitude and his willingness to get his hands (and mouth) dirty. When Carol lays the fact that she killed Karen on the table, and Tyreese forgives her, it was moving and actually made sense within the greater context of the episode; it would have taken something major to change Tyreese’s viewpoint around to that reaction, but the events in that episode qualified.

Also, no season long recap should go without at least quickly noting that the zombies are as always remarkably gross and well-rendered, and the people behind them seem to come up with more disgusting types of zombies every season which is impressive. The set piece zombie battles are still pretty damn cool.

So, another season ends, and I’m still in the same place I was after midseason, and after last season. The Walking Dead is a show with big, powerful moments that finds itself frequently somewhat lost between those moments. There’s still a lot of potential, and the world continues to be a promising and fruitful one, but it remains endlessly frustrating that the writers can’t put it all together for one really great season of television.

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