Friday, October 10, 2014

Tearing Down All That They’ve Built: The Walking Dead Season Four Divides Rick’s Survivors!

The Good: Character development, Good performances
The Bad: Repetitive-feeling plot
The Basics: Building and losing a new world makes for more average than extraordinary television with The Walking Dead Season 4!

For our five and a half year anniversary, my wife got me a number of very cool gifts. I picked her up the Harry Potter Wizards Collection (reviewed here!) and she got me a few cool things. So, while I have not had the chance to read the book she bought me - S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – I have been enjoying rewatching The Walking Dead Season Four and drinking some of the Samurai Chai Mate tea (reviewed here!) she got me! Having watched The Walking Dead Season Four at least twice now (some episodes I have seen more than that), I figured that it was time to write a proper review of it.

In its fourth season, The Walking Dead reached a point that so many television shows with a very limited concept got to long before The Walking Dead did. Shows like Bones or Castle have a simple premise that at some point becomes repetitive and predictable. After a few episodes, the only thing to watch some of those styles of show (or the NCIS or crime scene series’) is for the characters and how they might interact and develop. But, like AMC’s other mega-hit Breaking Bad (reviewed here!), by the fourth season of The Walking Dead the plot has become formulaic and the series is unwilling to ask its audience to go on a journey beyond what is expected. In the fourth season of The Walking Dead continues – in fact, cements – the pattern established in prior seasons. So, instead of asking viewers to accept that the show is going to move in a different direction (namely one of world-building instead of mere survival), The Walking Dead Season Four reverts to form as quickly as it reasonably can. Truth be told, even for those who had not read any of the graphic novels, when the third season of The Walking Dead (reviewed here!) left the Governor alive, viewers had to know that he would be back and it would not be good for Rick and the other survivors who have taken up in the prison.

With the prison having become a sanctuary of sorts, Rick and his people have survived for months since the fall of Woodbury. Rick has essentially become a farmer and the prison has become the refuge for a number of people all around the area. While Darryl leads supply runs with Glenn, Rick checks traps for dead animals and others work to kill the Walkers that build up on the fence. But the string of casualty-free days is broken when a supply run turns disastrous when Bob - a new, alcoholic, survivor - draws Walkers to the store they are getting supplies from. Rick’s encounter with a mentally-unstable survivor puts him back on the path where he has to become comfortable with killing again. The prison quickly turns dangerous when a sick boy dies of a flu-like virus before turning and setting a sickness through the entire prison. Tensions run even higher when two of the people who get the flu are killed and their bodies are burned to try to stop the flu from spreading. As the flu spreads through the infected ward, the threats multiply. The group searching for antibiotics runs into the herd of Walkers and are delayed, which allows the situation at the prison to deteriorate.

Things go from bad to worse when the Governor resurfaces. Having joined a new community and killed his way into being their leader, he returns to the prison with a tank and the desire to take what he wants from Rick and Michonne. In the bloodbath that follows, Rick’s group is scattered. Michonne, in shock, follows a herd of Walkers while Carl tries desperately to keep Rick alive in an abandoned house they find. Maggie searches for Glenn while Tyrese learns about a potential sanctuary up the train line, Terminus. Glenn, in the meantime, teams up with a survivor from the Governor’s people and ends up in the company of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. As the disparate groups of survivors from the prison find their footing, they all learn of Terminus, a place where survivors are supposed to be welcomed and safe.

What took me multiple viewings to truly grasp about the fourth season of The Walking Dead was how good a season it is for the character of Rick. Rick Grimes ended the prior season desperate to bring Carl back from the brink of his burgeoning psychopathic tendencies. The fourth season of The Walking Dead begins with the two of them reformed; the conflict there has been resolved. By leaping ahead a few months, The Walking Dead skips over the gruesome process of Rick and Carl changing their behavior to try to live a more civilized existence.

So, what follows throughout the fourth season is The Walking Dead is the process of Rick’s ability to live civilized and without violence getting eroded away. Walkers threaten to overrun the fence, the pigs might be infected with a virus and they can be used, the Governor returns . . . season four of The Walking Dead is largely about getting Rick back to a point where he can be as brutal as he needs to be to keep his son alive in the wild, horrible, world that was embodied in the earlier seasons. In some ways, the point of the fourth season is to answer the question posed by Rick in the prior season: “Can we come back from all we’ve done?” The answer, as the fourth season shows, is “yes,” but it doesn’t pay until all the threats are actually eliminated!

Fortunately, Rick Grimes is not the only character in the fourth season of The Walking Dead to grow and develop. In the fourth season of The Walking Dead, the essential characters are:

Rick – Having started to become the man who takes in everyone, he finds peace for a time without his gun. Desperate to come back from all the killing, he has taken up farming and works to bring Carl back from the violence he had lived with. With Carl left guarding the Infected, he is desperate to protect the prison from herds that threaten to topple the fence. But when he learns that Carol killed Karen and Dave, he goes on a supply run with her and leaves her outside the prison’s protection. After the Governor attacks the prison, he is severely weakened and relies upon Carl for protection. While Carl is out with Michonne, he has to escape the house they were holed up in when others abruptly take it. Rick becomes obsessed with keeping Carl alive and safe, especially after they are forced back onto the road,

Michonne – Hunting the countryside for The Governor, she is obsessed, but returns to the prison as things get worse. She and Darryl volunteer to get antibiotics from the nearby veterinary college, which seems to work better for her given she has an aversion to Judith’s crying (and being around the baby). As the last one standing at the prison, she quickly recreates her Walker camouflage and heads out on her own. After roaming closer to the herd, she finds Rick and Carl. She begins to actually bond with Carl and tell him about her life before the fall of civilization,

Glenn – He remains concerned about his new wife and does not seem keen to bring a child into this darkened world. When the infection hits the prison, he succumbs early, which puts Maggie on edge and leaves him under Hershel’s care. After a desperate struggle with the virus, he is in a severely weakened state when the Governor arrives. Thought to be in the bus, he actually is left behind at the prison where he teams up with an unlikely person and begins his search for Maggie. When they are rescued by Abraham, he insists on turning back around to find Maggie. Learning about Terminus, he becomes focused on trying to find her there,

Maggie – Upset when Hershel goes into the infected ward, she is distraught by being unable to help her husband, who also falls ill. When things turn south in the isolation wing, she breaks in order to save Glenn and Hershel’s lives. After the fall of the prison, she, Sasha and Bob go hunting for Glenn. After not finding him on the bus, she takes it on faith that Glenn would head to Terminus and she pushes her group in that direction,

Darryl – Not adjusting well to being a community leader within the prison, he identifies with Michonne in her desire to hunt down the Governor, though he remains back at the prison trying to keep everyone safe. He and Beth flee together after the fall of the prison. He begins to develop feelings for her before she is abducted and he ends up in the company of a band of men who are worse than Merle was,

Carol – Hosts story time within the prison, until Carl discovers that she is using the medium as a place to teach the children how to defend themselves. She tries to mentor two young girls when their father dies and she tries to stop the spread of the flu by killing Karen and Dave before they can get anyone else sick. Abandoned by Rick while out on a scouting run, she witnesses the fall of the prison and she heads after the children, managing to rescue them (and Tyrese) at the most opportune time. When she and Tyrese and the children find a house together, the children’s inability to understand the world they are in and it leads to a horrible series of events,

Tyrese – Turns away from a life of violence and tries to join those scavenging for supplies as opposed to those who kill Walkers on the fence. He develops feelings for Karen and is crushed when she gets sick fast and killed as a preventative measure. He and Rick fight quite a bit, but he manages his rage by slaughtering Walkers while out on the run for antibiotics. Managing to survive the fall of the prison, he ends up taking care of Judith, Lizzie, and Mika. He, the children, and Carol begin to find their way together until what is probably the very worst day of his life,

Carl – No longer trusted with a gun, he reluctantly takes up reading comic books and farming with his father. When the virus hits the prison, he steps up to actually defend the prison and those who are suffering there. With the fall of the prison, he steps up – albeit angrily – to take care of Rick. He and Michonne bond on the road,

Hershel – He acts as Rick’s conscience and expresses pride in how Rick was able to bring himself and Carl back from the brink of madness. He helps diagnose the illness and when he goes out to get elderberries for a tea to relieve the suffering of those infected, he finds himself in the isolation ward, infected himself by the resident doctor! But when he manages to recover, he falls into the hands of Rick’s worst enemy,

Beth - When her friend Zach is killed while on a supply run, she turns to Darryl for emotional support. After managing to survive the plague inside the prison (she takes care of Judith during the crisis), she and Darryl run off into the woods when the prison falls.

The fourth season of The Walking Dead also sees the introduction of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita, who are important in the graphic novel series. They are not given much time to grow and develop in the fourth season of The Walking Dead, but the fact that they have been introduced bodes well for the fifth season of the show.

The truth is, though, that watching the fourth season of The Walking Dead is more an act of inertia than great television, especially on the plot front. Unless and until the show makes a giant paradigm shift for what type of story it is telling, the nature of the beast is that whatever the characters build up will be jeopardized by human beings more horrible than the protagonists. The characters are engaging enough, but the plot is pretty stale for those who have been watching The Walking Dead.

In addition to a few decent character moments, what the fourth season of The Walking Dead has are some wonderful moments of performance. Danai Gurira’s portrayal of Michonne, for example, is especially deep. She is impossible not to watch and there is something so incredible about her performance that one forgets that this is only her second season on the show. Gurira and Chandler Riggs play off one another masterfully. Riggs does not play Carl as bratty any longer; instead his character is much more realistic and deep than before.

The whole cast – Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Lauren Cohan, Scott Wilson, Emily Kinney and Chad L. Coleman – is given the opportunity to shine at least once in the season. So, even as the plot stagnates a bit, the performances actually get quite a bit better.

The result is that The Walking Dead Season Four progresses the characters and moves the story in a slightly different direction, but it is much more average than it is indispensible television.

For other shows from the 2013 – 2014 television season, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 2
Breaking Bad - Season 5
The Clone Wars - Season 6
Orange Is The New Black - Season 2
Parenthood - Season 5


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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