And so another season of the phenomenally successful The Walking Dead has shuffled off our screens.
The Walking Dead seems to be just getting more and more popular with each passing episode. With the screening of the final dose of this season, ‘Welcome to the Tombs’, The Walking Dead amazingly was the most popular scripted drama on US television. An incredible result considering that the show is only available to cable TV subscribers.
However, while The Walking Dead has reached levels of unparallel popularity it has never really received anywhere near the same amount of critical acclaim as Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Homeland nor the same fan fervor as Game of Thrones, True Blood or Dexter.
While The Waking Dead has been able to bring high concept serial dramas to popular prominence, you can’t help shake the feeling that the show’s producers have yet to really figure out what kind of TV show they are trying to make. Each series has consisted of a different amount of episodes, while just recently the hiring of a third showrunner, Scott M. Gimple, was announced; a tumultuous creative scenario unimaginable in any of the aforementioned series.
Compounding this is that while many contemporary shows of the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama are structured in a comparable way to a novel, The Walking Dead feels like an endlessly extended feature film.
This is by no means necessarily a bad thing as the first season showed. Containing of a mere six episodes and helmed by Frank Darabont (the director of The Shawshank Redemption), we were treated to a non-stop feast of undead gore. Various characters came and went as did a range of cannibalistic walking corpses, while an ever-expanding world unfolded before us.
However, production troubles plagued the show and the decision was made to sack Darabont and replace him with Glenn Mazzarra. Under his tenure the second season brought us a more restrained storyline and the focus became fleshing out the various characters and the philosophies which drove them. The characters absconded to the apparently relative safety of the farm and the unpredictable nature of the word was largely put aside. Instead self made obstacles were created for the characters to navigate. While undoubtedly featuring some moments of brilliant TV (notably the climax to the episode ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’) the dominating feeling was that the producers were attempting to figure out how they could actually turn this story into a standard production show.
The third season was a marked improvement and most importantly the show began to find the alchemic balance of storyline and action. The ‘walkers’ became more of a background nuisance as the primary threats to the survival of Rick’s group became the living.
Despite its presence in the final shot of season two and a sizeable time gap in between, it is not until the opening few episodes that Rick and the gang begin moving into their new prison home. Meanwhile, after escaping a chasing horde of walkers Andrea is now hanging out with the samurai sword wielding Michonne. Together they come across the seemingly idyllic township of Woodbury and their enigmatic but suspicious leader, The Governor.
The nature and strains of leadership were a constant thematic concern for this season. The Governor and Rick both exhibited their own form of authoritarian control whilst suffering from parallel concerns. Both of them for the most part were intent on protecting their people, while haunted by the love ones who they had lost along the way. The strains of leadership also became a strain on their sanity. The Governor came to indulge more and more frequently in displays of violence, not only to expel his own frustrations, but to maintain absolute authority over his people. This was brutally apparent in the final episode’s massacre of his own people.
Rick was hounded by his own failures and his relationship with his wife. After her traumatic passing he begins to tread the line between sanity, a poorly executed storyline. The main draw card of The Walking Dead is the realistic reactions and emotions of the characters in such extreme conditions. The additions of Rick’s visions, albeit induced by an understandable path to insanity, introduced an element of doubt for the audience. From this point on we are unable to take everything presented as a ‘truth’ of the world, but instead question whether it is a production of an individual character’s reality.
However, the primary flaw of the season was The Governor. While nothing was particularly wrong with David Morrissey’s portrayal, we failed to gather any real sense of what his character was about and hence never worked as a grand antagonist. He was never presented as particularly evil, depraved or (at least until his final scene) insane enough to warrant such a viciously negative reaction. It was disconcerting that we were forced to rely on other characters displaying their disgust to gauge the audiences’ opinion. It’s tempting to imagine how John Hawkes would have done had he accepted the role since he would have undoubtedly brought greater malevolence to the role.
The reintroduction of Merle, missing since season one, was also underwhelming. For most of the series he was presented as a caricature villain with few shades of grey. These were thankfully delivered in the penultimate episode where we were finally treated to some insight and rational behind his characters actions. A parallel cold be drawn to Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy, two men who have spent so much time acting the villain that they can see no way back.
One character who made a particularly strong impression was Carl, turning into a cold ass zombie killer. The scene where he takes responsibility in ‘taking care’ of his own mother is gut-wrenching. His character arc was one of the few that truly reflected the reality of living in a post apocalyptic world.
Many of the subplots hinted at possible directions yet were left by the wayside or complete dead ends and there never really felt like a defining thematic overarch. While a lot of stuff happened, sans a character or two, the group is more or less in the same dynamics that it was towards the end of season two, albeit in a safer physical location.
I was also slightly disappointed in the lack of world building throughout the season. I enjoyed the few instances of contact with outside elements (the soldiers, the group saved by Daryl and Merle on the bridge and the ill fated hitchhiker) but felt that these instances of contact could have been expanded to develop a grander sense of the surroundings.
I do however hold out significant hope for The Walking Dead. The installation of Scott M. Gimple as showrunner is a welcome development. Gimple has penned some of the best episodes of the past two series, including ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’ and ’18 Miles Out’ from season 2 and ‘Clear’ and ‘This Sorrowful Life’ from the most recent. First thing he did right: kill Andrea.
It is by no accident that The Walking Dead has become the most popular show on (US) television, it is an eminently entertaining production. However, its persistent flaws leave it some distance from being referred to as the best.