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How Did The Walking Dead Finally Get Good?

TWD-daryl-bethAMC’s mega-popular zombie show has been on a real roll, with the best string of episodes since Season One.  Bill thought he was done with the series, but these past weeks have changed his mind… here’s why.

It’s Sunday morning, and the latest episode from AMC’s The Walking Dead will premiere this evening.  While that shouldn’t be any different than any other week, it is, because for the first time in a long time, I’m excited to tune in.

I’ve made no bones about my many issues with AMC’s shaky hit series, but over the past few weeks, the show has improved to a stunning degree.  We are seeing the strongest storytelling on the show since Frank Darabont was forced out at the end of Season One, and it’s a great feeling to finally be legitimately excited to see what happens next.

What changed my long-standing negative opinion on the show?  The things that matter most… strong characters, an improved tone, and stories well told.  The back half of Season Four has seen our survivors in the wild once again, after the fall of the prison.  They are split up and scattered to the wind, arranged in random groups based on their hasty escape from their previous home.  But the divides have allowed the show to focus on new interactions between semi-unrelated characters, and each week has provided actual insight into who these people are and– more importantly– why we should care what happens to them in this nightmarish post-apocalyptic world.

The mid-season premiere was okay, giving Carl the chance to shine for a bit, but things really got good with “Inmates,” an hour that caught us up on basically everyone that was not a Grimes or Michonne, since the prison attack.  We get the genesis of some great new storylines, and they are a very big part of what has made this season work for me– Abraham Ford’s quest to Washington, and Glenn and Maggie’s search for their better halves.

Abe is a cool character, and he’s being well adapted on the show thanks to a solid performance by Michael Cudlitz, but it’s his story which makes he and his rag-tag team such a breath of fresh air.  Ford is on a mission to reach Washington, DC, along with his (alleged) scientist compatriot Eugene.  Eugene claims he knows how to cure the zombie epidemic, so their journey right now has a clear, specific and hopeful goal– to save the world.

I doubt things will go smoothly on this mission, but even its concept is a welcome change, more upbeat and positive than the dirge of negative “shit happens” events that have governed the show over the past three years.  Having a ray of hope doesn’t negate the darkness of the show’s world at all, but it adds an urgency and a sense of fun to what is going on.

The same can be said for Glenn and Maggie’s story.  The couple was split up by the prison escape and they’re now each looking to reunite.  And you know what?  It’s been a great, romantic subplot!  I love that even in the direst of circumstances, they are compelled more than anything by knowing their loved one is safe.  I love even more that Glenn– forging his way out of the prison in riot gear before hitting the road in search of Maggie– is literally a knight in shining armor (even if the “shine” is just glistening zombie guts).  There has been a charm to both of these characters all along, and their relationship has been one of the few upbeat aspects of the show, but I feel this is the first time their love has ever been truly capitalized on in a classic, romantic way, and I love it!

Most of all, these recent episodes have been filled with actual character development, and very little time has been wasted staying beholden to hitting a beat from the comics.  Despite the new focus, the show certainly hasn’t been a bore.  Last week’s “Still,” for example, balanced actual character work from both Daryl and Beth wonderfully alongside plenty of zombie action.  This episode FELT like a good AMC show, one in which I’m watching characters I like and am actively rooting for in these impossible odds.  While it didn’t do much to move the bigger plot forward, the episode let us breathe and live with these under-served characters for a bit.  In my opinion, the result was the best, most interesting and most balanced episode in the show’s entire run.

It informs what has made Season 4.5 work for me– the focus on characters, letting us really appreciate who these people are. Even Michonne finally seems like a real person thanks to some great insight into where she came from and how she works in “Claimed.”  She’s more than a badass zombie killing machine with a sword here, and that’s better than Robert Kirkman’s comic Michonne has ever managed.

It feels like the show has finally figured out that character work can play INTO a story, rather than against it… yes, the first “Brian” episode with The Governor was fantastic, but then it was completely thrown out the window for the sake of getting him back to the prison showdown as fast as possible. The focus on our survivors over the past few weeks has felt more grounded, more real, and it’s actually being woven into the narrative of what is going on. That’s the sort of storytelling I love, and it’s why I’m obsessed with shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I don’t think The Walking Dead is quite to that level yet, but these past few weeks have been a bold step in the right direction.

Granted, the show still isn’t perfect.  They are clearly still struggling with what to do with Rick, a hero who is the textbook example of the problems with “tell, don’t show” storytelling.  He’s a weak character, defined entirely by other people telling him he’s the leader and talking about him as the leader, while he has done very little to actually earn the title.   It’s obvious the writers have realized Rick’s ineffectual nature– so far in the back half, he’s passed out on a couch for an episode and hid under a bed for another– but I’m hopeful that even if they keep him around, they will figure out a way to make him, like the rest of his group, someone worth watching.

There have been good episodes of The Walking Dead all along, but they’ve been scattered by too many lousy ones, hours in which characters are forced into the tiny box of re-playing a moment from the comic series, even when it makes no sense to do so.  And characters until now have been defined by what makes them “cool,” not what makes them people (Michonne’s sword and Daryl’s brooding being two prime examples).  But this recent run of episodes has stayed balanced and solid, and offered a cool new insight into the bigger post apocalyptic world, who these people really are, and– most importantly– why we should care if they live or die.

I wasn’t planning on writing about The Walking Dead this season.  Hell, I wasn’t even planning to watch this back half of the season.  But I’m glad I did, because what I have found is a show vastly improved, one that is finally finding its footing to become the sort of show we all hoped for when it was first announced five years ago.  As long as the quality stays this strong, the characters this interesting, and the story this fun, I’ll be sticking around with The Walking Dead, after all.

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