The announcement of the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book series, The Walking Dead (2003- ), into a show on AMC was a landmark for the horror-zombie-geek crowd. It was too good to be true: a show about the zombie apocalypse on a network with a history of great TV shows and that puts no limits on the amount of blood and gore that can be shown. Formerly under the supervision of filmmaker Frank Darabont, who made his exit from the show early during the production of this season, The Walking Dead (2010- ) was supposed to be an epic story of ordinary people surviving dark times. But, as best evidenced by the inconsistent quality of the episodes this year, the show hasn’t quite delivered on that promise but nonetheless remains promising.
Potential Spoiler Alert!: Last Sunday’s season finale is mostly strong, with a healthy balance of action, drama, and the inclusion of a few surprise turns that bring the arc of the season to a natural close. Hershel’s farm is abandoned, overrun by a roaming herd of zombies. A few unimportant background characters are killed, and the main survivors are scattered for a while before rendezvousing back on the highway. The newest location where the group will end up was suggested at the end of the episode and will be of no surprise to fans of the comic book. Also familiar to longtime readers is the samurai sword wielding Micchone, shown last night only with her face obscured by a dark hood.
The other big reveal of the episode is Jenner’s words to Rick in last season’s finale. All of the survivors are carriers and will reanimate after dying, regardless of whether or not they are bitten by walkers. What practical implications this will have on the show have only been hinted at, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they mainly led to more longwinded discussions on what to do next, despite the fact that the answer is inevitable.
Unfortunately, the show’s biggest flaw so far has been the lack of compelling drama between many characters. Many of the moral debates are aimless or, at least, pointless, when you consider the constraints of where the show must go. Should Carl be operated on after he is shot? Should the search continue for Sophia? Should Lori keep her baby? Should the new stranger be trusted? Does Rick make the call on everything?
When you consider that The Walking Dead has played it relatively safe, only sometimes bucking its formula, the audience already knows the answers to these questions before anyone even starts talking about them.
One place where the show has proven itself is in scenes of action and of the immediate tension of facing down walkers. One of the standout episodes of this season – “18 Miles Out” – saw Rick and Shane dealing with a problem firsthand, not just talking about it in circles. The boiling point that this scene reaches is terrific, with Rick and Shane fighting in a gritty They Live (1988) reminiscent brawl, while their prisoner slowly crawls toward a knife and zombies close in from all directions.
Possibly the best individual moment from the current season is in the first half, in which Glenn is tasked with pulling a walker out of a well. These sorts of practical problems and surprise encounters are exactly what the show needs more of. A long time ago, Rick said that the survivors are now living on a day-to-day basis, so let’s see what day-to-day survival is actually like.
Regardless of its missteps, the finale really does summarize what the previous season has to offer. It’s inconsistent but highly watchable. But a show that’s so dependent on character drama needs stronger characters and stronger drama. There are certainly individual gems of moments, and the struggle to escape the farm as it’s overrun has many. For example, remember when Rick and Carl torch the barn, abandon the RV, and the others circle in the cars, picking off walkers left and right? The confusion that results in Andrea being left behind, forced to fend for herself in the woods? The threads that are left to foreshadow Season Three are solid, so hopefully next year’s show picks up the pace.