Despite its critical and ratings success, The Walking Dead has always appeared to have a big ongoing problem with balance. It obviously can’t be just an unending parade of horrific beheadings and shock deaths every episode; but any effort to pause, take stock and build up new characters is instantly greeted with complaints from fans that the show has become too slow, lost its way or is veering too much into soap opera territory. Finding the exact pivot point to please everyone is surely impossible.
For me, I had thought that the first half of season 4 was the most consistently excellent run of episodes that the show had so far put together; but I was concerned that its decision to go for a huge mid-season cliffhanger by essentially blowing up its jailhouse setting and killing off several important and well-loved characters might prove to be the tipping point. There’s only so many times you can pull that trick without the audience going, “What, really? We have to start from scratch again?” without them wondering whether it’s really worth it or whether it’s just become an unsatisfying neverending undead version of Groundhog Day.
Well, I was wrong to be concerned (this time around at least) because the mid-season events have breathed new life into the show and produced a run of episodes which not only lives up to but actually improves upon the first half of the season. It does so by scattering its large standing cast into small groups of just two or three, and then following each of these in dedicated episodes: the groups didn’t link up again until the final show of the season (and not even then, in some cases) but they would occasionally unknowingly cross paths, leaving tantalising signs and clues that we the audience could manage to piece together while the characters themselves remained cruelly in the dark about the fates of their friends and families. All the while the series was linked by the overarching objective of making it to a nearby shelter named Terminus – but would it prove be all that the survivors need it to be when they get there? And who would make it all the way?
That’s allowed for some incredibly powerful character pieces, while at the same time delivering a non-stop run of chills, thrills and suspense as each group finds itself in a different peril and reacts in a different way. The strands connect and pay off over the entire eight episodes, as evidenced by an early story in which Rick (Andrew Lincoln) finds himself trapped, weaponless, as a group of armed men ransack the house in which he and his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) have taken shelter. The scenes as Rick takes shelter under a bed while two of the men fight a deadly duel to lie down on top of it was one of the most tense and suspenseful things I’ve seen on TV; and it pays off several weeks later in the season finale when that same gang catch up with Rick and his small group, forcing him to shockingly desperate lengths to survive.
But the highlight of the run was an episode featuring Carol (Melissa McBride), Tyreese (Chad L Coleman) and the young children they are taking care of. It’s a story that pays off some plot points left hanging from the very start of the year, which then becomes one of the most devastating and horrific nihilistic hours of television that I think I’ve ever seen. It’s exhausting and traumatising to watch and leaves a lasting impression, definitely not the sort of thing you want to watch very often but unmistakably brilliant drama nonetheless, largely thanks to a stunning performance by McBride who is one of the genuine unsung stars of the show.
By the time everyone starts to arrive at Terminus and we get to enjoy some good old-fashioned gunfights, it’s almost like a joyous release after what’s gone before – even though it ends badly for our heroes, as all things inevitably do sooner or later in The Walking Dead. And yet, beaten and broken as our heroes are by the end, Rick’s declaration that their foes “are screwing with the wrong people” has you punching the air with a real sense of both closure for the year just gone, and promise for the next year to come.
Honestly, quite brilliant – providing you can stomach the most horrific effects and gut-wrenching stories along the way!
The Walking Dead aired on Fox channel in the UK. A date for the release on DVD and Blu-ray has not yet been announced as of time of writing.