AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded its fourth season this past Sunday, leaving fans with a cliffhanger that will make the wait until the debut of the fifth season in October even more agonizing than anticipated. Now that viewers have had a few days to process and reflect on the events of the finale, and this fourth season as a whole, it seems like the appropriate time to reflect on the events that have occurred in the series this season, which I believe stands head and shoulders above the previous four seasons and demonstrates a massive leap in quality for the series. I remember the series premiere on Halloween of my junior year of high school – it was scary, cool, and seemed like a show that could mix gore-filled horror with thought provoking critiques of society. The series premiere still ranks as one of my favorite hours of television ever, but the first and second seasons seemed to drag on, as if the writers were never quite sure of what they wanted the show to be: was it a character drama? An analysis of power dynamics in society? A collection of thrilling horror scenarios? These first two seasons of The Walking Dead tried to be too many things at once without excelling at being any of them.
The first half of the third season was a major improvement, demonstrating that the show had fully invested in the analysis of power and maintaining order in this group of survivors, a microcosm of society as a whole. It was thrilling, it was scary, and was the most focused and driven the show has ever been. It dwelt on the conflict between all-around good-guy Rick (portrayed by Andrew Lincoln, whose performance this season earned him his first Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Actor in a Drama Series, which he lost to Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad) and the more politically adept, yet morally questionable The Governor (portrayed by David Morrissey). The conflict between these two fizzled out in the second half of the season though, as the two often would trade threats and insults more than they would engage in actually conflict. The war that was promised between the two over the prison, the new-found home for Rick’s group, never happened, as The Governor ultimately murdered his own followers when they questioned him.
It was this sense with trepidation that I entered the fourth season and was completely surprised. Season 4 of The Walking Dead stands as my favorite season of the entire show for several reasons: the focus on Rick as a leader, the use of effective cathartic moments, a keen attention to character building, and the thematic cohesion throughout the season. Despite his absence in several episodes in the second half, the fourth season was about Rick’s journey: following the events of season 3, specifically his son Carl’s willingness to gun down someone who might have been an enemy, Rick began this season as a man who renounced the burden of leadership in order to save his son’s soul. The world may be cold, cruel, and violent, but Rick still sees it as his parental duty to protect Carl from this for as long as he can. So he trades his gun in for seeds and becomes a farmer.
As the situation at the prison worsens, Rick finds himself taking on more and more of his former leadership responsibilities against his will. Eventually, Rick starts once again making executive decisions without the consent of the group, as demonstrated when he exiles Carol from the prison, effectively sending her to her death (we knew she wouldn’t die, but Rick does not have the perspective of the audience). When the Governor arrives at the prison intent on capturing it, Rick is forced to make the decisions that decide the fate of many. After the prison falls, Rick is a changed man: broken (physically, at least), distraught, and lost. However, it is through this extreme loss that Rick manages to shred the remnants of his farmer persona and become the leader of the group in totality. Whether it is murdering someone who could have been a threat in the bathroom of an abandoned house to allowing the death of someone that would have cost too many resources to save, Rick is now making decisions for everyone, motivated by his complete desire to ensure the survival and protection of his son. This re-ascension of Rick as the group’s leader in order to protect his son is crystalized in the season finale, in which Rick literally bites someone’s throat out and stabs another man repeatedly for attempting to rape his son. Gone is the Rick that wanted to save his son by farming and protecting him from the horrors of the world; here is a Rick that is willing to commit horrors himself in order to protect his child.
This scene provided a moment of catharsis, as audiences witnessed a character who had once been a paragon of moral goodness rip someone’s jugular out with his teeth. Yet most people would agree that this gang deserved to be brutally murdered by Rick because of their attempted rape of his son, in addition to all the other actions audiences witnessed them commit this season. Season four excelled at providing these cathartic moments, of building the tension up to the boiling point and then having things explode into a flurry of brief violence. Whether it was Rick beating Tyreese to a bloody pulp when Tyreese threatens Rick following Karen’s death, or the battle for the prison between The Governor’s followers and Rick’s group, this season excelled at building moments up and then actually releasing all that tension violently. This provided audiences with a greater sense of release and enjoyment. A simple comparison of the finale of season 3 and the midseason of season 4 reflect this welcome shift: season 3 teased a war between Rick and The Governor that abruptly ended after five minutes in the finale, following which The Governor’s forces fled and he gunned them all down. The midseason finale of season 4, on the other hand, showed a full out war between the two forces that resulted in massive body counts on both sides, tragedy, drama, violence, and heartbreak. The battle for the prison stands as perhaps the greatest action sequence of the show and is an excellent example of cathartic violence (non-cathartic violence is often just more boring to watch) in this most recent season, something that previous seasons had sorely lacked.
Season 4 also had a renewed focus on character. Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, Carl, Hershel, Michonne, Beth, Carol, and everyone else were all given more depth. Even “red shirt” characters that we knew were going to die were given enough screen time and enough lines to make us feel genuinely sad when they were brutally killed off. One character, other than Rick, truly stood out this season as the most developed: The Governor. While he had always been a tragic figure who was never completely stable (he had his undead daughter chained up in his apartment after all), The Governor was never truly someone you wanted to see win or sympathized with. In season 3 he was always alienated from the audience; we often saw what he did, but never felt compelled to sympathize with him. Season 4 was a different story, as it told the tale of The Governor’s failed redemption, culminating in his assault on the prison and final war with Rick.
Absent for the first five episodes of the season, The Governor is shockingly shown watching the prison at the end of an episode. Following this were two flashback episodes that show what happened to The Governor after he killed his followers at the end of season 3. The tragedy here is that this man who murdered dozens of people was, before the apocalypse, a completely average guy with a job and family. The pressures of leadership in the post-apocalyptic world are what drove him to become an unhinged killer. Yet in these episodes, The Governor is given a chance at redemption and reforming himself: he manages to form a new family unit, changes his name, burns all memory of his past, etc. As Rick will later do at the end of the season, The Governor is willing to take extreme measures to protect his people. The Governor wants to be a normal guy with no responsibility and just be with the ones he loves, but he knows that he must revert to his previous, more violent identity in order to protect these people – for The Governor, the lives of those he cares for is more important than his own redemption, thus he descends back into his violent old ways, culminating in an assault on the prison that results in the death of almost all of those he was trying to protect and the majority of Rick’s forces. This violence is given added weight because we want both The Governor and Rick to win: we care about the people who stand with both leaders, so when the bullets start flying, we are distressed by the deaths of characters on both sides of the conflict we have come to care about. This stands in stark contrast to the nameless forces of Woodbury that fought with, and were ultimately murdered by, The Governor. The intensity of this scene is tenfold because these are characters, not just humans in a scene of violence. It is for this reason that the renewed focus on character development this season has been such a benefit – it makes the action more meaningful and the scenes more engaging.
Finally, this season was more thematically cohesive than previous seasons. The overarching question posed was whether we get to come back from the things we do. Rick articulates this to the strange woman he meets in the forest in the very first episode of the season, and then the question is posed back to him by Carl when his son asks, “who are we?” Many of the characters this season have wrestled with this question. The Governor concluded that there was no way to return from the things you have done, thus the only way to survive is to embrace the horrors you have committed for the greater good. Rick tells The Governor, “we have all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive, but we get to come back.” The season leaves it up to the viewers to decide at the end whether we truly get to come back from all the things we do. In the season finale, after murdering the men trying to rape his son, Rick and company arrive at Terminus, a promised sanctuary, only to find that something is amiss and they delve into violence once again. Perhaps it is not so much what we do as opposed to what we do them for that determines if we, and these characters, can come back. As Hershel says, every day we risk our lives and, “the only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” This thematic cohesiveness, when combined with the stellar characterization, cathartic violence, and some really cool moments (including the outbreak of the flu in the prison, Daryl and company running through a horde of zombies, the battle at the prison, and Rick’s confrontation with the marauders) set season 4 of The Walking Dead head and shoulders above its predecessors.