Monday, December 2, 2013

Midseason Report: The Walking Dead's promising start to season 4 takes a frustrating, baffling turn

"See, I would've been a better Katniss than Jennifer Lawrence!"

Various stages of The Walking Dead's life as a show can be defined by its ever-changing showrunner position.  In the beginning, it was under the helm of Frank Darabont, and when it comes to adapting a beloved comic book series, you couldn't have asked for a better pedigree than a three-time Academy Award nominee.  Unfortunately, his gifts didn't seem particularly suited for television, because his reign was riddled with problems.  I've been a long-time Walking Dead skeptic, and part of it is because of the foundation Darabont laid -- a show where uninteresting characters made poor decisions while spouting leaden dialogue.  I wasn't that wowed by Glen Mazzara's stint as showrunner either, despite his also considerable resume (training under the likes of television greats like Shawn Ryan).  Perhaps he was given a raw deal by having to clean up Darabont's mess, but even though the work that was unarguably his in season 3 was better, it was still messy and frustrating.  So, because AMC didn't respond to my letters requesting that they hire Amy Sherman-Palladino to run the show (where, of course, the zombies would now spout pop culture references and do ballet), we've got Scott Gimple.  You may know him as the guy who wrote "18 Miles Out" and "Clear" -- two of the show's best episodes -- but more importantly, he created Fillmore!, the greatest cartoon about a black safety patrol ever.

Right from the start, you could notice the difference in the show, now that it was being led by Gimple.  One of the reasons why those two episodes mentioned above are such standouts is because they have a different tone from the rest of the show, one that's somber and thoughtful in ways that The Walking Dead often wasn't under the reigns of Darabont and Mazzara.  In the first 5 episodes, Gimple managed to nail that tone consistently and the result was a surprisingly gripping start to season 4.  After being unable to come up with a truly compelling human threat, this season smartly chose to have a plague that's spreading through the prison be the major source of tension.  Finally, instead of characters openly monologuing about how grim and hopeless the world is, we get to actually see and feel these people's frayed nerves.  Showing instead of telling is basically Screenwriting 101, and it's kind of insane that the writers only just learned the concept after 3 seasons, but now that it was here it was a welcome change that made all the difference.

As I mentioned above, another frustration I had with the show in the early going was that I didn't care about any of the characters, and found a handful of them to be downright terribly written.  I grew mildly fond of the usual people that everyone has grown to like -- Daryl, Glenn, Maggie -- but during the prison plague, I actually cared about the fates of the characters (even if it did seem like a device to lower the budget on recurring cast members).  Some of this came from little changes -- Michonne actually smiled a few times! -- but much of the improvement came from putting the characters in tough situations and having them deal with it in interesting ways.  The biggest example of this came in "Indifference," with the reveal that Carol burnt those two unimportant characters whose names I'm too lazy to look up (listen, the character work still isn't perfect).  It's a conflict with two perspectives that are well-mapped out, with Carol doing what she felt was right for the good of the prison, Rick feeling like he can't let her return to the prison for fear of what would happen next, and both realizing that there's no way to mitigate this divide.  Their separation is one built around two people who've been in many terrifying, life-threatening situations together but have reached a point where their worldviews have diverged, and it's one of the best things the show has ever done.  You wouldn't see something like this under any of the other showrunners' watch.

In a way though, The Walking Dead has always stealthily been about course correction, particularly through killing off characters.  Dale is doing too much speechifying and making maddening, idiotic decisions?  Just kill him!  Shane serves no purpose other than to be an uninteresting obstacle?  Kill him!  The whole "search for Sophia" storyline is repetitive and aimless?  She was dead the whole time!  Lori is the stock "wife who is a drag" character type?  Kill her mid-birth!  T-Dog mostly only says "AW HELL NAW!"?  Okay, kill him!  Andrea is the indisputably the worst?  Kill her after she does what she did best -- refusing to make the most logical decision!  So a part of me feels like the writers have always been broadly aware of their problems, but the first 5 episodes of this season felt like the show was truly leaving all of its troubles behind.

Then The Governor came back.  I was not a huge fan of The Governor's arc back in season 3 -- the extended looks into life at Woodbury made the season feel oddly misshapen, his motivations were flat at best, and I've generally never been a fan of the "pure embodiment of evil" type of character.  Even though I knew he was eventually going to come back, the wishful, optimistic side of me hoped that we would never see or hear from him again.  Surprisingly, though, I was quite a big fan of "Live Bait," the episode that focused solely on what The Governor had been doing since his showdown with Rick and the prison gang at the end of season 3.  I've seen complaints of it being boring and slow and desultory, but I thought it was a genuinely compelling hour of television.  Sure, it seemed like they were trying to retcon the character, turning him into a mournful, broken man, but I was willing to roll with it because it was far more interesting than the soulless tyrant we saw in season 3.

"Live Bait" worked as a nice little short story that could be lifted out of the overall arc of season 4, but the problem is that they followed it up with another episode completely devoted to The Governor.  And this one was...not so good.  Remember all of that "changed man" stuff that just happened one episode ago?  Well, all of that was reversed!  Now, you could be thinking, "Stop being silly.  Of course The Governor was going to turn evil once more.  He has to take on Rick again.  That's how stories work!"  That's true, but the writers could have done it in a more elegant way.  Instead, they just kind of punted the whole thing.  It all felt like something that would've sat comfortably in the middle of the previous seasons, filled with the kind of dumb plotting that it seemed like the show had gotten away from (Where was everybody when The Governor killed members of their densely packed camp?  Why wasn't anybody the least bit skeptical of the fact that people were dying as soon as this mysterious new guy joined the group?).  The herky-jerk arc of The Governor's actions would've been tolerable if there was some actual ambiguity to him, but it's almost as if the writers themselves didn't really know what drives him.

And so the midseason finale, as "exciting" as it was on a surface level, could never really be satisfying when it was standing on top of such a weak foundation.  I'm okay with the somber, simmering beginning and the action-packed ending of this half of season 4, but the bridge between the two was so broken that the connection ultimately doesn't work.  And really, how much can we praise this ending for being action-packed when it was pretty stupid?  Listen, I get it.  The Governor is a monster whose rage blinds him.  But I would hope that he'd have a plan that was better than basically destroying the very same place he wanted to have.  It's a nice development to have our protagonists be uprooted from the prison, but it's diminished by the fact that it's all for the sake of concluding The Governor's erratic, confusing arc.  It may sound like I'm overly disappointed, but I'm only bummed because the show was hinting at becoming high drama for a while, before reverting back to the empty schlock it had been peddling for the better part of three seasons.  For the biggest offender, look no further than its choice to kill two (TWO!) kids in one episode.  At least the zombie rising up out of the red clay to bite Meghan was a striking visual, but the perceived death of baby Judith was grossly manipulative ("but she dies in the comics!" --says the annoying person who always says something like this.  Yeah, I read them too).

Who knows, maybe Scott Gimple hated The Governor as much as I did and he just wanted to wash his hands of him in the most messy, scorched-earth way possible.  Perhaps now that the prison gang has been scattered to the winds and forced to find a new place to stay, the show can return to the grim grittiness that it was for the first 6 episodes of this season.  Anything will be better than what we got these last two weeks.


  1. I'm surprised you don't even mention Herschel's death, given how great he was in episode 5.

    "But I would hope that he'd have a plan that was better than basically destroying the very same place he wanted to have."

    His plan wasn't to destroy the prison, just as he said he was trying to find a way to keep everyone alive, and when he saw that Rick could become that "changed man" that he failed to become himself, his rage caused him to kill Herschel and there was no turning back from there.

    I agree that having the Governor have a failed redemption last week caught me off guard as well, but apparently the idea was that, for example when he was killing Martinez, that he didn't want to be that man, but his psychopathy wouldn't let him. Another example is when he tries to leave the camp to stop himself from becoming that person again, but the zombies in the mud are the roadblock saying "He can't come back from this"

    Also Judith isn't necessarily dead. The seatbelt was unbuckled, and plenty of people could have rescued her (Glenn, Maggie, Beth, Tyreese and the kids, or maybe even Michonne who had that scene earlier in the season where she didn't want to hold the baby).

    Beyond that I thought the cinematography in this episode was incredibly well done such as the shot of the governor's viewpoint along the sword before he first strikes at Herschel, and the shot of the Governor getting stabbed by Michonne both looked incredible.

    In the end, regardless of all this the governor is no longer a problem and we can move on to new characters (although I'm not sure how Daryl, Tyreese AND Abraham can all co-exist on this show given they all play similar roles).

    1. From now on, you're not allowed to say "I'm surprised that you didn't mention..." I can't include everything, nor do I want to.

      The first thing The Governor did, before he even tried to negotiate with Rick, was shoot at one of the prison guard towers with a tank. That's kind of silly. And I'm aware of the whole "I don't want to be that man" internal conflict that he was having, but it's one of those things that probably was really clear in the writers room and just didn't translate well on screen. The execution was muddy, and the idea is not very interesting to me in the first place.

      "...but the PERCEIVED death of baby Judith was grossly manipulative"

      I clearly remain open to the idea of Judith being alive, but it was played like a death. So if it turns out that she's alive and they only wanted to make us think she's dead to get a reaction, that's even more manipulative.

    2. I have to agree with it being clearer in the writer's room because when he was killing Martinez and yelling "I don't want this" I had no clue what that was supposed to mean until someone else explained it in a review.

  2. I'm also surprised you didn't mention Lizzy at all.