The Walking Dead is frustratingly unique among television shows. It gets a little better with every season, but it seems to do so only in ways that underline just how the program was never very good to begin with. All of the program’s instincts are right, but somewhere, on some level, it simply can’t match up to them. Structurally, it’s one of TV’s most audacious shows: It makes the most of an odd, bifurcated 16-episode season that will inevitably result in its fans decrying it as having lost its step somewhere along the way, before rallying in the close and drawing in even more viewers once the next season debuts. It’s a show that defies every law of TV physics, going up and never coming down.
In some ways, season four has been the program’s most audacious yet. It stuck what would have been the season finale of any other show smack dab in the middle of its run—even if that episode came far too late to have as much impact as it would have otherwise. It turned two episodes over to a group of survivors that viewers hadn’t met until then, and then remade itself in the back half of its season into a loose anthology drama of short stories from the zombie apocalypse that desperately hoped to correct what had always been the program’s biggest issue: its dearth of memorable characters. And while it was careful to put a zombie sequence and a few creative zombie kills into every episode, it didn’t feel ruled by them as it has in the past. Indeed, two of the season’s best episodes—“Still” and “The Grove”—were series high points and had essentially nothing to do with the series’ premise at all.
Yet in true Walking Dead fashion, all of that audacity simply underlined how little there is to the show in the first place. The series has gotten better at episodic storytelling and shorter story arcs, but the idea of some sort of long-term story continues to elude the program. The season opened with series protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group having turned the prison they settled in season three into a kind of oasis, but because the engine that keeps the series moving forward is zombie killing, there can be no real respite until the series eventually ends (probably after running for a decade or more). Thus, the early calm gave way to a well-executed plague storyline, which gave way to the aforementioned two-parter about other characters, which gave way to the massive season-finale-masquerading-as-a-midseason-finale. And after that came the long series of short stories and vignettes, which didn’t bother telling an overarching story at all.
Really, this might not have been such a bad idea, but for the fact that by scattering its cast to the winds, the show only underlined how few of them were worth keeping up with. It tried to underline some of this by having, for instance, Beth (Emily Kinney), the character whose survival has proved most inexplicable after all of this time, end up spending time with fan favorite Daryl (Norman Reedus), the redneck crossbow expert with a heart of gold. This pairing ended up working, largely because Reedus is such a compelling presence, while Kinney showed colors she hadn’t been asked to before. (It also got a sizable assist from the Mountain Goats, underlining how The Walking Dead has one of the better music teams on TV.) The same went for Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), who was carefully built out from the cipher he had been by spending time with the better-developed Carol (Melissa McBride).
But there were other instances where this approach only showed just how little the writers brought to certain characters—or that whatever charm they had was almost entirely due to the actors playing them. After becoming separated in the midseason finale, spouses Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) spent the better part of the season’s back half searching for each other, revealing just how little their characters had been developed beyond “being in love.” Similarly, new character Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) has yet to be given anything like spirit or life, while fellow newbie Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) has so many character traits—compassion, alcoholism, being weirdly unafraid of taking massive risks—that he has yet to cohere into anything other than a collection of tropes. Gilliard and Martin-Green are compelling enough actors to put these nebulous characters over—as is Michael Cudlitz as mysterious army man Abraham—but it’s impossible to not wish the show were better at establishing characters to begin with, rather than waiting for a McBride or Reedus to pop and racing to meet them where they already are.
By far the weakest material on the show still surrounds its leading man. As Rick, Lincoln is occasionally very good and usually fine, but the show has no idea how to tell a story with him that’s not about either mourning having to be a father in the apocalypse or being simultaneously allured by and terrified of the mantle of leadership. (The first two episodes of the season turned this into a bunch of symbolism involving hats.) That the series has yet to figure out what to do with him is all the more disappointing because his son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), and frequent traveling companion, Michonne (Danai Gurira), are two characters who’ve been relatively well served by the vignette format, which has brought needed history and levity to the scowling Michonne and managed to tell a mostly un-annoying story of Carl’s adolescent angst in the apocalypse.
Yet as Rick goes, so goes the show, and as The Walking Dead heads to the terminus of its most creatively successful, yet most damning season to date, it’s hard to miss how the show is stuck in an endless hamster wheel with both its leading man and its overall story. Rick doesn’t want to be the leader. Then he becomes the leader. Then he doesn’t want to be again. And so on and so on. Similarly, the show’s characters find what seems like a safe spot, only to run into some zombies or villainous humans and realize it was never as safe as it seemed to be to begin with. For as much as season-four showrunner, Scott Gimple, is at his best making an apocalyptic anthology drama, he’s forever trapped by a structure set in place when the show began. Anyone who takes over the series, no matter how talented, will be. That pattern will repeat until the show finally becomes unprofitable, which won’t happen for years. Until then, The Walking Dead is an occasionally brilliant, always audacious show that can never escape the pitfalls of its own success. Like the monsters that inspire it, it shambles forward, any flickers of unexpected intelligence easy to write off as muscle memory.