TV

Mid-Season Catch-Up: Where Does The Walking Dead Go From Here?

Following a slate-cleaning mid-season finale, The Walking Dead returns this weekend with plenty of questions left unanswered.

One of the best things about The Walking Dead — AMC’s popular show about a world overrun by freakin’ zombies — is that people seem to forget that it’s, y‘know, make-believe. Debates on the merits of its storytelling segue into comments about the veracity of survival plans, and give way to legions of ‘what-I-would-dos’, ‘what-abouts’ and ‘why-wouldn’t-yas’. It’s basically why they built the internet.

It’s a bizarre conversation, but it speaks to just how much zombies have captured the popular imagination, thanks to fifty-odd years of nuclear fear and rampant consumerism. It’s no great philosophical stretch to say that the more stuff we have, the more our disillusion with having stuff grows. Zombies and the zombie apocalypse offer a way to examine a society broken down to its fundamental parts, operating as the implacable personification of fear. This strange relatability to the idea of a zombie apocalypse has made The Walking Dead the biggest show on American TVeveryone can conceptualise and debate how they’d operate in a zombie wasteland.

It’s strange, and kind of unfair. It means that The Walking Dead is graded on a ‘What I would do…’ curve that can sell it short. Of course, it doesn’t help its case by often tying itself into avoidable storytelling knots (main guy Rick being frustratingly docile; the farm; the ‘search’ for Sofia; Shane’s animosity towards Rick; anything to do with Andrea), but while the first halves of both Season Two and Three were slogs, they still served up some tremendously intense (and emotional) episodes.

One of which was not the frustrating Season Three finale, which was limper than a Bruno Mars ballad. Instead, the long-awaited showdown between Rick and The Governor became the mid-season finale of an increasingly slate-cleaning Season Four.

What’s Happened So Far?

Season Four opened with us joining Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his merry band of survivors as they happily farmed in their prison idyll, killed zombies at the fence line with surprising efficiency, celebrated anniversaries (onya, Glen and Maggie), and generally got along fine. With a myriad of new and inconsequential survivors milling around, only Bob and the kids (Lizzie and Mika) made any lasting impression. Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., aka D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire) is an alcoholic former Army medic. He was also at the centre of one of the best scenes in the series so far — a supply run that ended with zombies falling from the sky, and fellow newcomer Zach getting bitten… and crushed by a helicopter.

Of course, it’s the zombie apocalypse, so life at the prison soon unravels, but not in the expected ‘being eaten’ way. Beginning with the likeable Patrick (Vincent Martella), a swine-flu epidemic sweeps the prison: half the population are quarantined, and someone murders and burns the bodies of two of the infected (which seems a pretty unfair outcome for chucking a sickie). The flu wipes out platoons of characters (helpfully thinning the ranks of people we don’t know) in a terrifying, choking-on-your-own-blood manner. And in this reality, if you’re dead (even from ‘natural’ causes), you’re a zombie. Suddenly, dead flu victims are turning and biting others, leading to a terrifying in-prison battle.

flu-zombie

Character-cleansing swine-flu epidemic aside, the first half of Season Four really focused on The Governor vs. Rick: aka, the most tortured and stern-faced bout of the new zombie century.

After divesting himself of his Season Three lackeys (by killing most of them), The Governor became, in essence, a Walker, wandering aimlessly until finding new squeeze Lilly (Audrey Marie Anderson), her sister Tara (Alanna Masterson), and a replacement daughter Meghan (Meyrick Murphy) in an abandoned town. Taking the name ‘Brian Heriot’ from a barn-side message wall (like an old-world Facebook), his arc across the first half of Season Four saw ‘Brian’ attempting to figure out if the Woodbury disaster and his subsequent meltdown (he went back and burned it to the ground) had changed him.

Initially, that new family breathed life into him, but once a routine is restored with a new group, ‘Brian’ ends up whomping a subordinate with a golf club (and feeding him to a pit of Walkers), before instigating a coup to wrest control of his new group. In other words, same ol’ Governor.

That mid-season finale, though? Whoa. The episode saw The Governor menacing the prison with HIS NEW TANK, toting Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) as prisoners, and forcing Rick into an epic speech that saw all hell break loose, and basically defined what the first half of the season had been all about.

Across the series, Rick had proven a reluctant leader. Democracy is sacrosanct to the point of delusion for Rick, and he feels that the implications of authoritarian rule strip the survivors of their remaining humanity. The Governor, though, is Rick’s opposite: he has an appetite for control and power. He’s what Rick could be if he gave into his baser desires, forgot his humanity. Y’know, kinda like Gina Rinehart.

All pretense of ‘Brian’ having changed were stripped away as soon as he sunk a katana into Hershel’s neck (as Lilly appears with a dead Meghan in her arms, bitten by a mud zombie in one of the season’s more annoying and terrifying scenes), prompting his orders to kill Rick and the Rickettes. The ensuing firefight destroyed the prison and thinned the character herd with some (mostly) inconsequential deaths, while Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) reign as TV’s ultimate badarse remained unopposed — who else would use a zombie as an undead shield, then blow up a tank and kill its driver with a crossbow? Your move, Jax Teller.

TankDaryl

Rick and The Governor’s confrontation (and relationship) climaxed in a sickeningly slow and brutal fistfight that ended with the Governor choking a purple-faced Rick… before staring in amazement at the katana emerging from his chest. Michonne may have avenged Andrea (Laurie Holden), but Lilly sealed the deal with a bullet in ‘Brian’s’ head. When the Governor’s king chess piece is trampled by a Walker in the herd enveloping the prison, it marked the end of the Woodbury saga.

In the season’s most chilling moment so far, Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs) then discover baby Judith’s empty car seat, smeared with (presumably) baby blood. We left Rick and Carl stumbling into the Georgian forest — the prison that had been their haven burning and overrun with the undead behind them in the distance — with father telling son, “Don’t look back, Carl. Keep walking.”

So Now What?

One thing that’s been significantly better in Season Four so far is the sense of danger in The Walking Dead world. The ever-present zombies outside the prison walls have given the season a perpetual sense of threat and dread — there was only a fence separating the living from the undead at all times, and with the flu outbreak, there was nowhere to go. (When that fence failed, it also prompted one of the season’s truly unabashed ’fuck yeah’ moments.)

There was something in what the Governor said to his posse, convincing them of the need to attack the “murderers and thieves” at the prison — no matter where you are, how safe you feel, you’ll eventually be overrun, by zombies or humans alike. That inevitability strikes one of the show’s best chords: you can have a well-defended position like a prison, but what do you do when a guy in a tank rocks up?

Tank

It’s no secret that The Walking Dead‘s strongest moments have occurred when the protagonists have been on the move — movement is life to these characters, and the show in general. The theme of change — from living to undead (everyone), from leader to monster (The Governor), from boy to man (Carl), from warm mother-figure to cold-hearted killer (Carol), from cop to leader to farmer (Rick) — is a constant in the series, and as more movement leads to more change, so will it lead to more interesting television.

On the run and without a safe haven, change has come to Rick and the splintered groups of survivors: Tyreese and the kids, Glenn and the bus load of infirm, Beth and Daryl, Michonne and… Judith? But with his moral compass (Hershel) now sans a head and no one but Carl for company, will Rick heed his own advice and not look back?

Five Big Questions For The Rest Of The Season

– Is baby Judith really dead? (and also, who calls a kid ‘Judith’?)

– Will we find out who dissected the rat/was feeding vermin to the zombies?

– How long ’til Carol reappears with her car, helps round up the survivors, and reveals it wasn’t her who set fire to David and Karen in the prison?

– Do we really want some Beth/Daryl ‘shipping?

– Will new additions Tara and Lily stick around?

Season Four of The Walking Dead continues on Foxtel’s FX on Monday February 10 at 1:30pm and 8:30pm.

Jaymz is a New York-based writer (originally from Melbourne, and the former Editor of triple j magazine), super-yacht enthusiast, hi-tech jewel thief and Bengal tiger trainer. He enjoys wearing monocles, finely spiced rum, constructing pillow forts, and zip-lining from Hong Kong skyscrapers. You can find him on twitter via @jaymzclements