We’re halfway through season four of The Walking Dead, AMC giving us a breather until February, something we could all do with after the mid-season finale. It’s only been eight episodes, but season four is already shaping up to be far better than last season and maybe even reaching the giddy heights of season two, for me the series’ finest hour.
The majority of season four has centred around a flu-like virus that spread across the prison, killing people within days and causing walkers to spring up on both sides of the fence. None of this features in the Robert Kirkman graphic novels, which has its good and bad points.
If you scan your eyes across the numerous online reviews for season three, the majority all mention the same problems: “Too much talking, not enough action”, “The pace was as slow as the shuffling zombies”. For season four, the series’ writers and producers have given the fans what they want; more action, more gore. While every episode in this outbreak storyline has been at breakneck pace and, at times, agonisingly tense, character development has been low down on the To Do List. This is not a massive problem for season four, however seasons one and two of The Walking Dead had the mix of action and slow burning characterisation absolutely spot on, whereas season three and, most of season four so far, have forgotten how to do this.
Season four does have plenty of set pieces: Darryl and co. trying to drive away in episode three, Isolation, with dozens of squelched walkers underneath the tyres; the prison fence being brought down as well as Glenn fighting for his life, about to become the virus’s next victim, in episode five, Internment.
This latest season of The Walking Dead is not completely void of character development and, in one of the finest twists so far in AMC’s series, Carol (Melissa McBride) is revealed as having murdered the sick and dying Karen (Melissa Ponzio) and David (Brandon Carroll). When you look back at season four, of course it was Carol; she has transformed from the quiet, mouse-like housewife to a stony, pragmatic woman. Carol is one of The Walking Dead’s most developed and well-written characters.
In one of season four’s stand-out episodes, Indifference, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carol leave the prison, searching for supplies, but that’s not the reason for their trip: Rick is testing her, wanting to find out how much of a threat to the group she really is. What he discovers is one of The Walking Dead’s most unsettling moments. Carol is easily the most frightening enemy that Rick has faced; at no point seeing herself as accountable for her actions, which are done without a trace of feeling or remorse. Everything Carol does is for the good of the group, but unlike Rick she is unpredictable, she has no boundaries; Carol could literally stab someone in the back if it meant that everyone else survived. The first time this season we see Carol display any heartfelt emotion is at the end of Indifference, when Rick banishes her from the prison, Carol crying when he tells her that she cannot take the children with her. The writers made the smart move of not killing off Carol, that there’s a chance she could return to the series. Hopefully this will happen as Carol is easily the best female character in The Walking Dead.
Once the virus is out of the way, what follows are season four’s very best episodes as the Governor (David Morrissey) makes his long-awaited return. Live Bait and Dead Weight are loosely based on Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga’s book, Rise of the Governor, explaining how the Governor wound up in Woodbury and why he’s so damn evil. These two episodes are set post-Woodbury, the Governor given the chance to become the man he once was before the dead refused to stay dead. To rely solely on one actor for not one, but two episodes is a big ask, but Morrissey, being the cream of the British acting crop, more than does the job. Just like Kirkman and Bonansinga’s book, you find yourself pitying the Governor. In what has to be one of The Walking Dead’s most imaginative moments, the opening of Live Bait established the Governor as a man left with nothing.
The first few minutes of Live Bait are played out to the soundtrack of Ben Nichols’ The Last Pale Light in the West, the Governor explaining in voiceover how he has lost everything he tried to rebuild: his friends, his community; he has no reason to try and survive. Left to die by Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Shumpert (Travis Love), who run off in the night with all of the supplies, the Governor returns to an abandoned Woodbury, burning it to the ground. Wandering alone, the Governor stops to read a wall covered in graffiti; short stories from other survivors that highlight one of The Walking Dead’s many themes: when the world as we know it comes to an end, can there possibly be any hope? Taking on a new identity as Brian (a nod to the Kirkman/Bonansinga book), the Governor finds a group of survivors, clueless as to the scale of the undead plague and in need of his help. Amongst these survivors are Lilly (Audrey Marie Anderson) and her daughter Megan (Meyrick Murphy), the child looking uncannily like the Governor’s deceased Penny. As the Governor and Lilly get closer, the Governor has the chance to start over, he has finally found redemption, but all of this begins to fall apart when, at the end of Live Bait, the Governor stumbles across Martinez.
Live Bait’s writer, Nichole Beatty, has given us a faultless episode, turning what we know about the Governor on its head and instead showing us a fragile man who, deep down somewhere, still has a soul. For those who like their action, the episode also delivers an astoundingly tense set piece when the Governor searches an abandoned nursing home for oxygen tanks, only to discover it’s not as abandoned as he thought.
Towards the end of season three, it felt like Morrissey was wasted playing the role of the Governor; he can do evil stares without breaking a sweat. Live Bait and Dead Weight actually give him something to do. Morrissey has a wide-ranging CV, but his best roles are those where he takes on flawed, morally dubious characters (Stephen Collins in State of Play, Maurice Jobson in Red Riding). Live Bait reminds us what a perceptive actor Morrissey can be, instead of the almost constantly glaring villain during the second half of season three. When the Governor and Megan get the first real chance to talk, it is a gentle, tender scene. The Governor can scarcely look at the girl, his words sometimes little more than a whisper. He jokes with her and we catch a glimpse of Philip Blake, the family man, before he found himself in Woodbury.
If Live Bait is about hope, then Dead Weight cruelly takes this away. Despite changing his name to Brian, deep down, Philip Blake is still the Governor. During Live Bait, the Governor became the mirror image of Rick rather than the flip side of the coin. With Dead Weight, it is all too clear that Rick still lives by morals; the Governor does not. If you have something that the Governor needs, one way or another he is going to take it from you. Dead Weight is another perfectly written episode, Curtis Gwinn making the Governor’s fall horribly believable. What starts off with the Governor killing Martinez to protect his identity, and because he is not the leader the group needs (in Martinez’s less than comforting words, “Hopefully we’ll be prepared for whatever comes”), ends with him setting up his brand new Woodbury. The reason behind the Governor’s actions is to keep his adopted family safe, he does not see what he does as right or wrong, just what needs to be done.
Just like the previous episode, Live Bait, Dead Weight also has plenty of cinematic set pieces. Stood at the edge of a lake, the Governor looks down at his reflection, but instead he sees Pete (Enver Gojokaj), who he killed to become the group’s leader, staring up at him, now a zombie, unable to reach him from the bottom of the water. It’s a fantastic idea from Curtis Gwinn, skilfully handled by Jeremy Podeswa (Podeswa being responsible for two of American Horror Story’s best episodes, The Coat Hanger and Burn, Witch, Burn!). The Governor still has a conscience, but, just like Pete, it is buried somewhere it can no longer trouble him.
Dead Weight ends on another cliff-hanger as the Governor finds the prison and holds Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) captive, preparing us for a nerve-wracking, emotionally draining mid-season finale.
Live Bait and Dead Weight were unhurried, introspective episodes; Too Far Gone ups the action and the body count ten-fold. One of the many joys of The Walking Dead is how unpredictable it is, and even though the episode remains largely faithful to Kirkman’s graphic novels, there is still plenty of shocking moments. Poor Megan had to die as punishment for the Governor being unable to change, but it is still upsetting to watch. At the start of this scene you know something bad is going to happen, the question is when and how. Keeping watch at the camp, Lilly starts to panic when she sees a zombie trying to cross the river, but this is not where the danger is, as the corpse is washed away downstream. Playing in the mud, Megan discovers a sign, which she wipes down, the words reading, “Warning: Flash flood”. Behind her, one of the living dead claws its way up from the dirt, a horrible image as it rises up, sinking its teeth into her.
Too Far Gone’s stand out scene is the face-off between Rick and the Governor at the prison gate. The question that has been asked throughout season four is, “Can someone keep hold of their humanity after all the horrors they have witnessed?” After all this time, finally, the answer for Rick is a resounding yes. Despite everything that has happened between Rick and the Governor, he is prepared to forgive and forget, open the gates, and let them both share the prison. It is a touching moment, Hershel smiling while he listens to Rick. Throughout their time at the prison, Hershel has tried to help Rick become the man he once was and, at long last, he has succeeded. In Rick’s words, “We get to come back.”
For those who have never read Kirkman’s graphic novels, you hope that the Governor will take up Rick’s offer, but this is The Walking Dead and just as hope seems within grasp, it is taken away again. The Governor cannot bring himself to join with Rick, for him it is all or nothing. He murders Hershel and attacks the prison, bringing down the fence. What follows is plenty of shooting and deaths (mostly on the Governor’s side). The attack on the prison could have been a series of swiftly edited shots where you have no clue, or simply don’t care, what’s going on. Avi Youabian does an excellent job of editing the episode’s last twenty minutes; it’s thrilling to watch and you follow it every step of the way.
Just as in the graphic novels, the Governor dies trying to take the prison, but, unlike the series’ source material, Michonne wounds him, leaving him to bleed to death. In the graphic novels it is all too clear why Michonne wants the Governor dead: he raped and tortured her. The relationship between Michonne and the Governor is far more subtle in AMC’s series. We don’t know what happened to Michonne before Andrea (Laurie Holden) found her, but we are given hints throughout The Walking Dead. After killing her zombie brother and boyfriend, Michonne tells Andrea “They weren’t human to begin with.” When Beth (Emily Kinney) asks her to look after Judith, Michonne holds the baby close to her and weeps. Michonne has met men like the Governor before; this is why she is obsessed with finding him at the beginning of season four.
Too Far Gone ends with the survivors of the attack going their separate ways. Most of them have escaped on a school bus, but Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs) are separated, having discovered Judith has, most likely, been killed by the zombies (wisely, much more restrained than what happens to the baby in the graphic novels). Father and son hide in the woods, escaping the masses of undead that are pouring into the prison, but Rick looks in a bad way, Carl struggling to hold him up as they stumble through the undergrowth.
The mid-season finale was both thrilling and heart-breaking to watch. If you’re going to kill off one of Rick’s group, Hershel made sense as he has had plenty of screen time in season four (never a good sign with The Walking Dead. The rule of thumb for AMC’s series seems to be the more screen time, the greater the chance of getting bumped off) and, in a way, it rounds off the Governor’s two-part story: Hershel is the man the Governor never could be, the Governor more or less saying this when he tells Hershel that he is a better man than Rick. How Hershel was killed also made it all the more distressing to watch. The Governor wanted to hit Rick’s group where it hurts, hence the barbaric way in which he dies.
There was plenty of well-handled action. Darryl doesn’t often get the chance to show how good he is in a fight, but when he does he is the group’s Rambo, even managing to take out a tank with a grenade. Even young Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) manages to get in on the action by killing Alisha (Juliana Harkavy) in an “I didn’t see that coming!” moment. It will be interesting to see what the writers do with Lizzie in the second half of season four as, ominously, she is a little bit too much like Carol’s protégé.
As for what will happen when The Walking Dead returns in February is anyone’s guess. The series will loosely follow the graphic novels, but potentially the writers can throw all sorts of situations at the characters. Personally, I’m hoping for several one or two-man episodes rather than the group reuniting straight away. An episode solely around Michonne would make for an intriguing watch, while an episode with just Carl and an injured Rick, much like the graphic novels, with Carl suddenly the alpha male, would be great to see.
Without doubt, The Walking Dead has got its groove back. It’s not perfect; the outbreak episodes, while far from terrible, felt like the writers tried too hard to please those who felt season three was lacklustre. For me, it wasn’t until the sixth episode, Live Bait, that the series really got into its stride (with the exception of episode four, Indifference). Saying that, season four has had plenty of edge-of-your-seat set pieces as well as, for a show where most of its dramatic visuals come from the many ways that its zombies are dispatched, some creative, cinematic imagery. I am very much hoping that, when The Walking Dead returns, it continues its good run, making season four one of the best yet. Certainly the poster that AMC released, announcing when the next episode will be aired – Rick and Carl dishevelled and alone, in big letters, “Don’t look back” – promises lots coming up to keep viewers watching. I am going to put my neck on the line and say that after the controversial reshuffling of The Walking Dead’s writers and executive producers, the series is in safe hands.