Wed
Jul 24 2013 4:45pm

Riding Shotgun with The Walking Dead: From the Pilot into Season 4

Banner for The Walking Dead's Season 4 on AMCHalloween, 2010: After several months of anticipation, I sat down with some friends and switched on the TV. As a long time zombophile and avid reader of the comics, I had monumentally high hopes. AMC had already proved that they could handle drama, and handle it well. And while I knew there would inevitably be deviations from the source material—this wasn’t HBO or Starz, after all—I was still giddy at the possibilities.

And the pilot did not disappoint. There was Rick, just as I’d pictured him. Morgan and Shane and the Bicycle Walker. In fact, it was an almost frame-for-frame recreation. And Greg Nicotero’s zombies were incredible. I was on Cloud Nine.

Season 1 was solid and enjoyable. The changes made sense, and added the spice of the unexpected. The performances were good, the effects impressive. But…. By the finale, I somehow still wasn’t entirely sold. Something was missing. I enjoyed the show, and I could get very excited about certain aspects. But I didn’t love it.

Then Season 2 and the farm arc. Daryl was more fleshed out, which pleased me. Glenn and Maggie’s romance added a much needed dose of optimism and sweetness. Andrea began to come into her own. The ultimate showdown between Rick and Shane was just as exciting and emotional as I could have wished.

But again: something was off. The show began to drag; many viewers became frustrated with the amount of time devoted to the futile search for Sophia. Things stagnated, largely because the entire season was spent at the farm. The show became more about soap opera drama and endless scenes of bickering rather than zombie horror and survival action.

My roommate lost interest and gave up on the show. “Tell me if it gets good again in Season 3,” she told me. I had the same conversation with the friends who had sat down to watch the pilot with me with such excitement. I hung onto the hope that season three would be better; that it would bring people back to the fold.

But a large part of me was worried about how they would handle the Governor arc. I questioned the casting of David Morrissey—especially when Tom Savini is a person who exists and could be the comic character’s doppelganger. I knew there was no way they could be as brutal on the show as Kirkman was in the comics. I was afraid they would pull too many punches and dilute the true horror of the storyline.

Boy, am I glad my worries were unfounded. Season 3 had everything I’d been wanting from the show and had only gotten tastes of before. Even when I was spoiled on major plot points I was on the edge of my seat. After listening to me scream my emotions at her for several days, my roommate sat down and started marathoning. This season, The Walking Dead finally hit its stride.

So what was so darn good about it? Well, for starters, the plot was more focused on survival. That seems a bit redundant in a post-apocalyptic story crawling with zombies. But part of the problem with the previous seasons was that too much emphasis was placed on useless soap opera drama. Who was the father of Lori’s baby; Shane’s jealousy pushing him to further extremes; etc. Characters wasted entire episodes debating morality. It was all so dull and mundane—why are we watching this when there are zombies and vicious refugees around every corner?

In Season 3, all of that baggage was checked and the stakes got higher. The conflict between Rick’s group at the prison and the Governor’s town of Woodbury provided some real nail-biting tension. The endless philosophizing was thrown out in the face of a very present threat; the Governor was the show’s first true villain, providing a single face to focus on rather than the diffused danger of the walkers. Everyone’s moral code became grey. Characters stopped being broad-strokes caricatures and started to feel like real people.

I always saw Shane as the embodiment of Rick’s darker side. All of his pragmatism, brutality, and anger. In the past two seasons, Rick continued to be the good guy in the white hat because Shane was there to play devil’s advocate. But as soon as you remove Shane from the equation, Rick had to take all of that on.

Rick became darker and more realistic; in short, a more complex and interesting character. “Shit happens,” he says early in Season 3—but only if you let it. Gone was the leader crippled by doubt and mired in moral quandaries. When Rick finally stepped up to the plate and started being brutal when the situation called for it, you could almost hear the cheering.

At this point in the series, everyone has had to do terrible things to survive. Everyone has gone through the crucible and come out on the other side somewhat singed and ashy. Now that they accept that this is the new world order, we’re finally seeing them doing things about the horror rather than simply waiting for someone else to show up and fix everything. And the characters’ actions aren’t quite as infuriatingly stupid anymore, either. It’s great watching Rick’s group coordinate as a team, defend one another as a family, and face threats as a small army. Without the constant moaning and existential angst, the losses are now poignant and the relationships more satisfying.

Things are never cut and dried, either. A character makes a choice that they think is for the best, only to have it come back and bite them later (sometimes literally, in this show). It’s realistic, and you need that in a show full of ravenous monsters if you want to keep everything grounded and visceral.

And then there’s the Governor. As Kirkman’s comics prove, when the dead rise and start to eat the living, it’s easy to think that that is the real threat. But truly, it’s the living that you really have to fear. Weare the monsters: man’s inhumanity against man. And the show’s done an amazing job of hammering that point home.

While the Governor has been toned down substantially, he’s still a horrible person and a great villain. Throwing him into the mix has done wonders for focusing and sharpening the story’s tone and scope. By giving our heroes a target to aim for, we feel that there’s a definite direction for the action. No more lounging about on a farm waiting for sporadic zombie attacks—now there’s the excitement of organized combat and the rescuing of hostages and the defending of the home base. It makes for a better story that’s just fun to watch unfold.

It didn’t feel like there was a single throwaway episode this season, as opposed to the last. The plot is tighter and sharper, the scares more exciting, the character interactions more interesting. By focusing on survival and having a definite villain to focus on, The Walking Dead seems to have finally found its groove. After watching the trailer for Season 4 that aired at Comic-Con, I am ridiculously excited for the premiere—Sunday, October 13th, 9p ET.

Let’s just cross our fingers and hope that it rides that line straight through the next season.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

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1 comment
Clare Toohey
1. clare2e
I dunno, Angie. If it's already great, maybe it's all downhill from here... *jk*
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