Redshirts Don't Add Any Stakes
Perplexed though we were to see Rick taking the whole of Woodbury into the prison as a means to reclaim his humanity from the brutal bruising of season 3, we were excited to see ‘The Walking Dead’ explore some new territory, throwing new characters into the mix to see the zombie apocalypse from another viewpoint. Given the short span of attention afforded over eight episodes however, that hasn’t really panned out.
Redshirts have long proven a time-tested strategy to ratchet up the stakes of any given arc, adding fresh meat for the grinder without sacrificing fan-favorite characters. Problem is, we’d already seen the strategy utilized across the first six episodes of the series, the most memorable characters of which have since departed, never to be heard from again. ‘The Walking Dead’ survived seasons 2 and 3 with a core cast who weren’t spared the occasional swing of the axe, so what possible interest could an additional influx of nameless zombie-chow bring? Hell, we’d take a Nikki and Paolo episode at this point, if only to see the core group from a new perspective.
Season 3 gave us a fantastic evolution of ‘The Walking Dead’s core threat, urging us to fear the living every bit as much as the dead. That unfortunately left a bit of a hole to be filled in season 4, which wouldn’t have been improved by slotting in yet another human villain (instead, we get the same one!). Inventing the threat of disease, an enemy that couldn’t be fought through physical means seemed a suitable replacement, but moreso in concept than execution. With no tangible means to investigate the virus, the characters can only speculate about the manner in which it spread, combating its varying symptoms as they arrive. So after five episodes…then what? Retread the same ground in the back half of season 4?
External Survivors as Plot Devices
Three and a half seasons in, we’ve very little concept of the world outside our core group of characters, specifically what survivors represent to the ongoing story. The season 4 premiere "30 Days Without an Accident" saw Rick encountering a particular brand of madness from a woman too long exposed to her harsh new reality, but other survivors we’ve encountered in the last few episodes have ranged from a hippie-dippie couple astonished by their own survival, to similarly ineffectual groups encamped within the wild. We understand a need to classify Rick’s people as a particular kind of hardened, but the ambiguous nature of outsiders wastes time with exposition and indecision over how to handle them.
Are Walkers Still a Threat, or Not?
So too have the walkers become something of an ambiguous threat, after claims that season 4 would see the titular dead becoming less manageable than in season 3. They now overpower the prison fences with alarming regularity, though we’ve yet to be given a clear explanation as to why, beyond the mysterious rat-baiter. Walkers have even begun to pose new threats, both with the danger of flu infection or that massive herd, though neither idea has been explored with enough time to register. Why go to the trouble of designing a 7500+ walker crowd, if Daryl’s group could simply escape on foot?
Much as we’ve seen with Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ this past season, ‘The Walking Dead’ seems to have an abundance of executive supervision that prevents writers from exploring its most interesting elements. Carol has proven the most notable example of this thus far, with Rick’s explanations to Daryl or Tyreese of her absence being delayed two weeks, if we see it at all. The same goes for Carol’s relationship to Lizzie, and by extension Rick’s relationship to Carl, both instances wherein the younger party has been said to develop some serious issues with violence and understanding with the world around them, a larger question given only the basest lip service from week to week.
And Focusing On What Doesn't
By the same token, the series seems to love playing with ideas its audience has little to no interest in. Certainly after a five-episode absence, our natural curiosity arose over the Governor’s whereabouts, but when all was said and done, did we really need to burn two episodes adding a slight tinge of humanity to the defeated villain with his surrogate family, only to refocus his homicidal rage against the prison once more? The Governor isn’t lording over the admiration of an entire town with a squad of personal guards anymore, what’s to stop Rick and his from simply pointing out the Governor’s mania through the fence when the conflict inevitably begins? And for the record, what was the point of building up the mystery behind Bob Stookey, if we now confirm he has nothing to do with the Governor and his eight-month absence?
While we’re on the subject of the Governor, the structure has seemed entirely off in the first half of season 4. The previous year gave us a fairly clear outline of events to come, first settling into the prison and dealing with its residual problems, among them several deaths that nearly drove Rick to madness, while Michonne and Andrea built up the threat of Woodbury, which came to an exciting midseason climax by episode eight, "Made to Suffer."
This time around, we’ve had five episodes of flu treatment and the supply runs it necessitated, placing the “Killer Carol” story on the back burner for three episodes to deal with the Governor’s return. Would there not have been a way to condense the Governor’s arc into a solitary episode, or at least spread them out among the order to properly build up the mid-season finale? Assuming all-out war erupts between the Governor and the prison once more, that will mean either the conflict ends up dragged out through 2014, or resolved within a solitary episode that frankly, should have capped off the previous season, and restarted the story anew.
That brings us to the prison itself. Keeping in mind that the TV series will no doubt operate on a more condensed timeline than the books, each season has essentially matched the volume pairings of the comics, spending one year with the campsite, and another with Hershel’s farm, while the books spent five entire volumes on the prison arc. We understand the showrunner shenanigans and budgetary issues that make keeping the drama within prison walls an appealing aspect for AMC, but the idea chokes the life out of the series’ inherent creativity.
The prison provided a refreshing change of pace, but without enough established interpersonal drama to make the survivors’ narrative interesting again, we’re forced to suffer through a retread of the Governor’s assault. That being the case, why not strike out on the open road again with a reduced cast, meet some new faces, and face some new obstacles? We can think of plenty of intriguing conflicts post-prison to pull from, yet season 4 seems determined to stay put, without any real sense of what it wants to accomplish by doing so.
What do you think? Has ‘The Walking Dead’ season 4 managed to correct the problems of previous seasons, or create a whole new herd of issues to plague the series going forward? Where do you want to see the story go as we close out the first half of season 4? Give us your thoughts on ‘The Walking Dead’s latest episodes in the comments, and tell us your vision for the future!