The Walking Dead manages to be both the most frustrating and occasionally most compelling show I watch on TV. First of all, I’m always at the edge of my seat wondering whether a given episode is going to be a snoozefest (I love you Daryl, but that episode with Beth was something that required severe over-caffeination to get through) or a brilliant 45 minutes of character-driven awesomeness. The mid-season finale was certainly not coma-inducing, but basically substituted loud bangs and weird nonsensical motivations for actual plot, and so that was when I stopped watching on a weekly basis and only returned to skim. But then the show gives us some episode like “The Grove,” which, like last year’s “Clear” relied on the characters interacting with each other to devastating effect. (Melissa McBride is absolutely fabulous as Carol, and I hope she stays on the show for a long, long time!) So, like Michael Corleone and the Mafia, just when I think I’m out… they pull me back in.
Why does a show about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, where the only good things that ever happen are ephemeral at best, and no one will ever be permanently happy (see also Game of Thrones) given the emotional, physical and psychological scarring they’ve all experienced exert such a powerful pull on audiences? (It is AMC’s top-ranked show, after all, easily surpassing media darlings like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.)
I’m sure that some people just like zombies, because well, who doesn’t like hordes of flesh-eating undead humans? And to be honest, I like the action setpieces too. But for me, the more important thing is that I am a huge sucker for the “hero’s journey” trope and Rick Grimes is a direct spiritual descendant of guys like Odysseus, and even more so, Aeneas (whose city was destroyed, whose wife died, and who set out with his son and a group of his people build a new home, with many detours and conflicts along the way). It occurs to me that while Aeneas only paid a brief and devastating visit to the Underworld with its hungry ghosts, Rick Grimes and his cohort essentially live in the Underworld, where the hungry ghosts try to kill them on a constant basis, and that brings up the question of why anyone would want to stay alive in this world?
The answer is a simple one, I think: family. At first, Rick stayed alive for his immediate family, Lori and Carl, and Shane, who was like his brother. And one by one, those relationships were either stripped away or changed by the revelation that these people were not the same after the apocalypse as they were before. Instead, Rick (and everyone else on the show, to be honest) had to construct new families out of the wreckage of their old ones. By the end of season 4, Rick and Carl are the only two people who still have a blood relation both alive and by their side. Maggie lost her father (and her sister, at this point) but found Glenn, then lost and found him again. Michonne, we learned, lost her child and her lover, found a kind of substitute with Rick’s child Judith (and hopefully they will be reunited because that was one of my favorite parts of the earlier segment of this season!) and with Rick and Carl himself, though if they don’t pair Rick and Michonne up, I will be happy with that, too. I have the distinct feeling “romance” is not the strong suit of this show’s writers!! And Daryl, who lost a frankly kind of abusive older brother—though Merle was a great character—has finally been acknowledged by Rick as his equal, as a brother, not just a trusted lieutenant, the relationship that Rick believed he had with Shane, but actually didn’t. (I can’t lie, that part had me a little verklempt!!!) Only Carol, Tyreese, Beth, and Judith are missing from the little group in the boxcar, but I’m hoping that they will be integrated early next season.
And last of all, of course, I’m tremendously intrigued by where we go from here. What’s going on with that railroad siding and these strange people with all the candles? Why did they want Rick and his group in that boxcar so much that they threatened to kill Carl if he didn’t get in there? Is this group Woodbury: Part 2, the Boxcar Children? Are they genuinely a threat or do they just have a weird way of welcoming people? Back in February, I would have told you I was done with this show, that there was no way I’d watch Season 5, but it’s a good thing I didn’t, because now I’d have to eat my words. So in that sense, I guess Season 4 was a resounding success after all!
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current TV shows, and a hopeless romantic.