AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has turned a corner this season and it’s for the better. (Spoilers follow.)
While last fall’s eight-episode chunk of the show’s fourth year felt like it was repairing the damage from a conflict that never came the previous season, this year’s latter half has dropped some of the program’s best episodes.
Look no further than Sunday’s “The Grove,” a harrowing look at child mental illness in the zombie apocalypse. It explored not the immediate danger of the walkers, but got into the juicier meat the show has not always served well.
After a series of events that showed Lizzie, 11, had a tenuous grasp on reality, she went too far, slaying her own sister without fear of what came next. Instead, she demonstrated once and for all to her guardians, Carol and Tyreese, that she could not distinguish between human life and zombie reanimation.
By posing a bigger threat to everyone than any zombie or disease and with the proper resources to help someone in such desperate need, Carol (Melissa McBride) led Lizzie into a meadow of flowers and shot her in the back of the head.
It was a tough episode to shake, especially the “Of Mice and Men”-esque overtones in the Lizzie story. While “The Walking Dead” is often about the immediacy of the threat posed by zombies and handles that action well, it has struggled dramatically. This episode was an exception, as are other recent installments.
The program walks a tightrope between action and drama, promising the thrill of zombies while doing an imperfect job at hitting emotional and mental notes that seem genuine. The languid pacing of season two owed to the fact that the characters were undercooked and their motivations questionable. The third season promised a conflict between the Prison and Woodbury gangs, but all fans got was The Governor stumbling around inside the dark prison before massacring his own people.
However, the second half of this fourth season is some of the show’s best work.
It’s nigh on impossible to insist anyone would want to continue to exist in a world where the stakes are so unforgiving, morose and absolute. As one of the better stories during the aimless second season showed, mistrusting outsiders is necessary because one never knows who lies around the next corner to rob, steal or murder for weapons, food or land.
More than showing the stakes, however, “Walking Dead” has given us bits about the characters and their pasts this year, something it’s hesitated to do before. One recent episode saw Daryl, the show’s brooding, hunky archer, delve into his past in a way that had never been illuminated before. Michonne, meanwhile, a woman who guarded her secrets carefully after feeling death, tough choices and isolation, revealed some of her deepest secrets.
The character development is owed to the direction show runner Scott M. Gimple has taken the show. Gimple penned some of its best episodes, including the ones in which Shane shoots Otis, Daryl’s brother, Merle’s death, Morgan’s return and, wouldn’t you know it, sweet, troubled Lizzie meeting her end.
Gimple has helped steer the show in a more emotionally honest direction, asking viewers to invest deeper in the characters by giving them more depth and dimension. Suddenly, they’re not interchangeable pieces in a plot machine, but characters whose fragile existence is much more dire and palpable. In previous seasons, fans joked that character development was tantamount to imminent death.
He has not yet shown a “Game of Thrones” taste for killing characters, but Gimple and his writers have invested deeper in characters who we’ve watched through numerous life experiences in the zombie wasteland of Georgia, but only glimpsed their anguish.
While some fans lament this season’s glacial pace, it’s worth it to know these people better. “The Grove” gave us familiar “Walking Dead” tropes – showing an idyllic situation and ripping it away – but never has the crash back to reality been so painful and gruesome.
While fans have walked through many a peak and valley with the “The Walking Dead” characters, infusing the latest batch of episodes with flourishes of history and insight are enough to keep fans invested in a setting even as horrific and incontrovertible as the zombie apocalypse.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.