The first season of The Walking Dead was a revelation. A drama that took a fairly ridiculous premise – the zombie apocalypse – and made it emotionally real. It treated the undead as an analog for an actual epidemiological threat, a plague that establishes microbes as Earth’s apex predator. And it was, at turns, intelligent, tearful and terrifying. The six episodes that introduced us to Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon and company were both thoroughly satisfying and something more: a ratings juggernaut.
When it returned, The Walking Dead was a different show. The abrupt departure of its creator and showrunner Frank Darabont left the series scrambling to assemble a sophomore season in the towering shadow of the first. Although it held some surprises, and more than one memorable zombie gag, the second season’s thirteen episodes felt bloated and aimless. Previously intelligent characters became imbeciles with no discernable motivations. It was a tremendous fall from greatness.
With proper time to prep for the show’s third season, Glen Mazzara – a talented veteran of FX’s The Shield – assembled the show’s third season. A great villain was introduced in the Governor. The show settled in, focusing on zombies, territory, supplies and survival. And there were some great new characters like Michonne. But other characters were unable to recover from the damage done to them in season two. Their confusing and often contradictory history of actions made them impossible to invest in. Season three of The Walking Dead featured some amazing episodes, great new characters, but ultimately suffered from decisions made in season two.
Begin season four. A change in cadence. A renewed focus on character development over conflict alone. It was the same show and yet radically different, all of the characters resuscitated. The splintering of the Ricktatorship allowed for slower, richer storytelling. The events of season three were paid off in a manner that was more than satisfactory: it was great. And after Rick, Carl, Michonne, Daryl and the rest of those left alive were reunited in the sixteenth episode in an epic cliffhanger, the conclusion any fan of long-form storytelling would agree with was clear. AMC’s unlikely zombie drama that could was once again one of the best shows on television. The Walking Dead has returned, reanimated.
If, like this writer, you gave up on The Walking Dead in season two, it’s time to play catch-up prior to its season five premiere. When the train leaves the station sometime this fall, you’ll want to be in that boxcar.