The Walking Dead season four mid-season finale, how do you top that? The honest answer is you can’t, so instead the writers wisely decided to take things down a gear, split the characters up, and flesh them out. First off, you had the second-half opener, After, featuring Rick, Carl and Michonne.
The relationship between Rick and Carl is one of the many underlying themes of The Walking Dead, even more so in Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels. Carl is Rick’s reason to survive, Rick making the tough, seemingly impossible decisions so his son stays safe. Child actors are usually a gamble in film and TV. There’s no middle ground, either they give stunning, mouth wide open in amazement performances, or they struggle to convey any kind of emotion. As Carl, Chandler Riggs has had plenty of criticism fired his way, mostly from blogs and fan sites, all saying the same thing, that Riggs is arrogant and unlikeable. What people seem to forget is that Riggs is playing a boy who has only recently become a teenager. Teenagers can be arrogant, impulsive, their mood changing without warning; probably even more so in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Fans of The Walking Dead graphic novels forget that Riggs has done a fine job in transferring the character from page-to-screen, flaws-and-all.
With After, Riggs gives a perfectly judged performance. In an episode with several powerful set pieces, Riggs gives one of the best when he yells at an unconscious Rick (poignantly it’s the most honest he has been with his father), blaming him for the deaths of his friends. He no longer needs Rick, believing that he has grown up and can survive on his own. This is contrasted with a gentle, tender scene when, searching for supplies in a nearby house, Carl finds a child’s bedroom, filled with posters, books and video games. For a moment he reminisces about what it’s like to be a child, only to rip out the cable from a TV and use it to secure the front door.
On the one hand we are reminded that Carl has been cruelly forced to skip childhood and become a man. At the same time, there are still moments to enjoy in this post-apocalypse world; Carl sitting on a roof eating dessert, child-like as he takes in the view around him.
An actress you can always rely on in The Walking Dead is Danai Gurira. The pre-credits sequence featuring Michonne wandering the overrun prison, putting a sword through Hershel’s severed undead head, is powerful, punch to the gut stuff. After is written by Kirkman himself, this opening serving as a welcome back to viewers, suggesting that there are even bigger things to come during the second half of season four.
We are given a glimpse of Michonne’s life before the end of the world, in what is an immaculately constructed dream sequence. At first, we believe we are watching a flashback. Our first clue that something is wrong is when we cut to Michonne holding her sword instead of a kitchen knife, Bear McCreary accompanying the rest of this scene with a small number of eerie, slowed down piano keys. We fast forward to the early days of the outbreak, Michonne’s husband and brother arguing over what they should do. Glancing back at the men in her life, who stare back blankly, their arms replaced by bloody stumps, Michonne screams, the child she was holding has vanished.
Kirkman took a risk when he wrote After; by showing us Michonne’s backstory, viewers may have stopped caring about one of the series’ most popular characters. Kirkman manages to make an already complex character even more intriguing. What Michonne wants is a family, a circle of friends, so that she can finally let her guard down. The Governor took this away from her when he destroyed the prison, and now Michonne is back to wandering the wilderness, trademark zombies on a leash following behind her. This is why, in After’s final scene, Michonne silently cries when she finds Rick and Carl, waiting before she knocks. She has a chance once again of getting something close to her old life back.
After is about how, even in the cruel world of The Walking Dead, there can be moments of joy, perfectly summed up when Rick realises who is at the door and, with a smile, tells Carl, “It’s for you”.
Over the course of season four’s second half, we catch up with the remaining survivors, all split up in their own factions, and the episodes that follow After have varying degrees of success. Darryl has Beth to take care of; Maggie and Glenn are separated from each other, Maggie wandering the zombie-infested woodlands with Sasha and Bob, while Glenn stumbles across the only survivor from the Governor’s group. Most interestingly, Tyreese, Lizzie and Mika find Andrea, Tyreese unaware that it was Andrea who killed Karen and David during the outbreak at the prison.
While it’s good that The Walking Dead’s writers decided to get under the skin of arguably the series’ most popular character, it’s a shame that Darryl had to be paired up with Beth. While I have nothing against Emily Kinney who plays her, Beth has never had that much to do. She is the opposite of her sister Maggie, innocent and naïve, occasionally singing Tom Waits, or winding up being attacked by a zombie, but that’s about it.
Episode twelve, Still, is essentially the Darryl Dixon show. Norman Reedus has always been outstanding as this closed off, brooding man, who never thinks twice about killing people, either the breathing or undead kind. With Still, written by Angela Kang, we get to see Darryl open up. What seems like a weak excuse for an episode (Beth, believing everyone she knows is dead, decides to go off in search of her first beer. Darryl, not wanting her to go alone, keeps her company), gives Reedus the chance to deliver a wide-ranging performance. Darryl gradually loses patience with Beth, and when the alcohol breaks down those walls he puts up, the man is both frightening and heart-breaking to watch. Darryl has always lived in the shadow of his brother, Merle. Before the living were replaced by the dead, Darryl was a criminal, unwanted by anyone, hence his stony silence as a way of never having to think about or come to terms with his past.
Until this episode, we had never seen Darryl have an outburst like this. Reedus’ monologue could have been a heavy-handed several minutes, viewers wishing he would get on with killing the undead in various creative ways. It’s to Kang and Reedus’ credit that Still is another fine episode for season four and definitely one of its best, even if all Beth gets to do is let her optimism slip ever so slightly.
Glenn manages to look a lot like Darryl when he becomes an action hero in episode ten, Inmates, director Tricia Brock giving us various close ups of Steven Yeun as a he wakes up in the aftermath of the prison battle, starting off terrified, then becoming stone-faced, sometimes enraged, as he fights his way past an army of walking corpses. This whole sequence is smartly done, resembling The Walking Dead’s very first episode when Rick woke up, piecing together what happened as he searched the empty hospital corridors. Here Glenn wanders the darkness of the prison, seeing the old life he had with Maggie now gone. Glenn’s answer to Tara, when she asks why he didn’t just leave her to die, is that he didn’t want to do it, he needed to rescue her so he could get out alive. In one of season four’s many stand-out moments we are given a POV shot of Glenn inside his riot gear as he hurries through the prison, coming face-to-face with several walkers. It is an idea that has never been done before in the series and is unbelievably tense.
Bob Stookey opening episode thirteen, Alone, is another fine montage for this season. Always telling other characters that he is the last survivor of the groups he joins, we see that first-hand in this sequence, Bob shuffling down dirt paths alone, eating berries to stay alive. It’s all too obvious that Bob resembles one of the living dead. In the first half of season four, Bob didn’t add all that much as one of a number of new characters; he’s an alcoholic who gets people killed by wandering off, searching for a drink. At least now we understand why Bob is the way he is; he’s a bad omen, terrified that the same thing will happen again, that everyone will die around him until he is the only one left.
Having first appeared in season three, Tyreese’s sister, Sasha, much like Beth, hasn’t been given all that much to do. It is only now, in the second half of season four that Sonequa Martin-Green gets to do more than look under the weather, or bash a zombie’s skull in. Sasha has always been the tougher of the brother and sister pairing, but now, having survived the attack on the prison, she has become cold. While she hasn’t given up, she has lost whatever hope she had, convinced that her, Maggie and Bob are the only ones left alive. When The Walking Dead decides to tell us more about a character, it rarely puts a foot wrong, but with Sasha’s scenes in Alone, they felt heavy-handed, as if the head honchos at the series finally realised they haven’t done anything with her. Considering Sasha is portrayed as a smart survivor, she makes some crazy mistakes in this episode. She decides to go it alone because she doesn’t want to know for certain that her brother is dead. When Sasha ends up on her own, holed up in an abandoned building, she quickly changes her mind, realising she is living the life that Bob is trying to escape from.
Devoting an episode solely to Bob or Sasha would have been a bad idea, as they are relatively new characters who have only been given small amounts of screen-time; but it’s Bob who is the far more convincing character, while Sasha’s motives don’t make any sense. Sasha isn’t irritating to watch, Sonequa Martin-Green does her best with the scenes she is given, but The Walking Dead’s writers could easily kill her off, and it’s a safe bet that no one would miss her.
While Sasha has given up on everyone at the prison, Maggie is convinced that Glenn is still alive. Lauren Cohen has always been brilliant as Maggie, but season four has seen her give some of her best performances. Another cleverly constructed set piece happens during Inmates, when Maggie finds the school bus that escaped the prison. There is a mass of zombies inside, Bob and Sasha letting them out one at a time. We cut between the bloodshed and close-ups of Cohen, who starts off anxious, getting more and more frightened, ending up shaking and distraught. It’s scary and emotional to watch; you feel as relieved as Maggie when she realises Glenn is not there.
When Glenn and Maggie find each other in episode fifteen, Us, there is no rousing music, husband and wife holding each other in their arms and weeping, it is a restrained, tender scene as, with their arms around each other, they laugh. It’s an authentic moment, the way couples who have been together for years would behave.
Us also gets to develop three of its newcomers: Abraham, Eugene and Rosita – three big names from the graphic novels. Eugene is a scientist who knows what caused the undead outbreak, Abraham and Rosita escorting him to Washington on a mission to save the world. There’s a brilliant chemistry between the three of them, making the trio even more believable than how they are portrayed in the graphic novels. If it wasn’t for Abraham, who is adamant that Eugene is “going to save the whole damn world”, you would think the man is the village idiot: he has no social skills and at times, in a zombie infested world, is a total liability. Josh McDermitt delivers Eugene’s often comic dialogue completely deadpan, giving the impression that there is so much going on up in Eugene’s head that he struggles with the basic tasks that most people take for granted. It’s early days, but Eugene could end up becoming a fan favourite. Abraham, an army veteran, never even once questions why he risks his life for Eugene. During Us, Tara asks Abraham what he will do once his mission is over; Abraham has no answer. Rosita is the mother of the group, losing patience with Eugene and Abraham and having to remind them why they are journeying across America. You get the sense that the three of them have shared some harrowing experiences together since the world was destroyed. They have come to rely on each other, hence why there is this natural comedy between them: the scene in the van, Eugene tricking Abraham and Rosita into rescuing Glenn and Tara, the three of them bickering, is priceless.
By far the best episode of season four’s second half, and arguably the best episode of the season, is The Grove. Carol was earlier reunited with Tyreese and the two children, Lizzie and Mika. The Walking Dead has been throwing hints our way that little Lizzie is a psychopath in the making, practically having a sign above her head that says, “It was me who fed the rats to the zombies!” The Grove brings Lizzie’s transformation storyline to a close, executive producer Scott Gimple writing this episode and knocking viewers for six. One of The Walking Dead’s many themes is what kind of a person you become with all of this death and craziness around you: you will either be a better person, or it will damage you, possibly beyond repair. Lizzie is damaged with no chance of being fixed. As Carol tells Tyreese, “She can’t be around people”.
While Mika can’t bring herself to kill a living person, no matter what kind of threat they pose, Lizzie’s view of the world is all kinds of messed up. Lizzie has a zombie as a playmate, bringing it mice to eat as it grabs at her; she even considers becoming a zombie, just to prove that they are no threat.
The Grove is disturbing stuff, teeming with hazy morality. We’ve seen Rick kill Shane or the Governor murdering Hershel, but to see a child butcher her sister, oblivious to what she has done, is The Walking Dead’s most brutal scene so far.
To complement Scott Gimple’s flawless script are exceptional performances from everyone involved. Brighton Sharbino is truly upsetting as Lizzie, having perfected a cold, psychotic stare that few actors over twice her age have mastered. Sharbino takes viewers through a mix of emotions; when she cries after a walker is killed, you almost sympathise with her point of view. Hershel has explained how we know nothing about this plague; how do we know these people are truly dead? To hear these words from a child gives these questions a new, unsettling perspective.
Chad L. Coleman gives a so-good-he-makes-it-look-easy bit of underplaying in this episode as Tyreese. Carol and Tyreese are sat talking to each other, a handgun in the middle of the table. This is when Carol decides to tell Tyreese that she killed Karen and David. You expect Tyreese to fly off the handle (he’s done it before in season four), not so much shoot Carol as use the gun to bash her skull in. “Do what you have to do,” Carol tells him. The easiest thing to do here would have been to overact: grit your teeth, tremble and weep. Instead, Coleman fights to control his anger, squeezing hold of the gun. You can see it in Coleman’s eyes, he’s going through all the choices he has, milking this uncomfortable silence. Eventually he moves his hand away from the gun. He says to Carol, “I forgive you, but I’m never gonna forget.” Tyreese realises that Carol has to live with what she’s done, she’ll be constantly reminded of it; a far worse punishment than killing her.
The star of The Grove, beyond a doubt, is Melissa McBride; much of the clout of this episode is down to her. McBride is chillingly convincing as this conflicted woman. The moment Carol and Tyreese find a blood stained Lizzie, Carol is wide-eyed, but we glimpse this only for a few seconds, the cold, pragmatic Carol now taking charge. You can tell she’s struggling, trying to act like nothing is wrong. It’s only when Tyreese and Lizzie leave Carol on her own that she cries and even this doesn’t last long. Carol has things to do so that she and Tyreese survive; Carol hasn’t time to grieve, not just yet.
If fans thought that season three’s finale was tame and didn’t wrap things up all that neatly, then season four’s last episode was a massive leap forward. Hershel may be gone, but he’s not forgotten, featuring in a series of brilliantly edited together flashbacks: you have scenes where Rick gives in to his baser instincts as he tries to protect Carl, followed by a pep talk back at the prison from Hershel as he tells Rick, “The war is over”. It’s doubtful that anyone watching this episode of The Walking Dead missed the theme that ran throughout: treading the fine line between being a good person and giving into that deep-buried violent, animal nature.
In a season that upped the already impressive gore and make-up effects, a desperate Rick is forced (as per Kirkman’s graphic novels) to tear out a man’s throat with his teeth. There have been moments throughout The Walking Dead’s four seasons where Rick has gone all gung-ho, resembling a mercenary rather than a cop who rarely fired a gun. It was a smart idea by scriptwriters Scott Gimple and Angela Kang to show Rick doing what anyone would try and do to rescue Carl, Michonne and Darryl, only to fail and make things worse; he’s a normal man trying to survive. And survive he does, forced to commit acts of savagery, carving up Joe’s biker gang. Rick is a leader, a family man who values human life, but in sickening moments of desperation, he will do whatever he has to.
This is what the finale leaves you with: while there might be more people at Terminus, armed and ready, it’s Rick they need to be scared of. He’s got no weapons, no plan, but when Rick is cornered, fighting for the only friends and family he has left, he is one scary guy! There were vague hints during the scenes at Terminus that those living there were cannibals (Mary’s barbeque!). It’s not been mentioned, but many fans of the graphic novels are secretly hoping that the occupants of Terminus go by another name: The Hunters. If so, then there are plenty more shocks and violence on their way in season five.
Season four wasn’t perfect; my main criticism was the series producers giving in to fans who thought the previous season was too slow, throwing in the flu-virus as a cynical way of keeping them happy. Otherwise this latest season was much stronger than season three, a more-or-less perfect mix of soul-searching drama and blood-spattered action, with most of the praise going to new showrunner Scott Gimple. The countdown to season five has already begun, with plenty of online theories about whether it was Beth being served up on that barbeque. There may have been plenty of controversy surrounding Gimple’s takeover of The Walking Dead, but whatever you think about Frank Darabont being shown the door, Gimple certainly knows what he’s doing.
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There are plenty of discussions out there on which seasons of a TV series are the best; people will always argue over which was the best season of Breaking Bad or The Wire. While most people will probably disagree – The Walking Dead has an army of passionate fans behind it – here is how I would rate AMC’s series so far:
Season One – 5 out of 5
Season Two – 5 out of 5
Season Three – 3 out of 5
Season Four – 4 out of 5