Spoilers ahead for season 4 of The Walking Dead.
I struggle to think of shows that have been more turbulent than The Walking Dead, but have managed to sustain their audience and build upon it. The original creator for the series, Frank Darabont, left the show after two seasons. Glen Mazzara was show-runner for season three, but then parted ways with the series in a mutual agreement with AMC, ostensibly because of differences in vision for the future of the show. In Season 4, Scott Gimple takes over the show-runner's chair.
The Walking Dead's musical chairs of show-runners has been reflected in the style, format, and characters of the show. One would think that a zombie apocalypse premise would be vaguely limiting, but the writers have managed to find just about every genre within the series. Even in the show's fourth season, questions around where the fenceposts for The Walking Dead are remain unanswered. How tongue-in-cheek is the gore? Or is the threat to be taken seriously at every turn? How much of the action is reliant on antagonistic human relationships, and how much is on survival? Does romance and melodrama have a place in the series?
Thankfully, the near soap opera story lines and performances from the first two series have vanished, and the romantic elements of the show have slowly withered out. In the third season, The Walking Dead finally seemed to find its footing. The arc was tense, the threat was real, and the series was deeply watchable. The first half of the fourth season is not as successful in this regard, but has several strong moments.
For comic fans, the finale of season three seemed like a let-down. The fact that the central cast remained in the prison was a surprise. Indeed, now coming to episode eight of the fourth season, there seems little reason for why they felt the need to extend this story-line for another eight episodes. The two-episode detour into the Governor's life was uninteresting, and only served to sacrifice important tension for the final show-down. It seemed all the more of a waste given the Governor's fate in episode eight.
Episode eight gives us so many moments that feel like the end of season three. Therefore, I've felt like I've watched season three point five, rather than Season Four. Episode eight is the most succesful of the season so far, and proves what season three established: while The Walking Dead can work in a variety of different genres, it is most successful as an action-based thriller, and variations from this form just seem like distraction or padding.
Still, when the story was focussed inside the prison, it was engrossing. The threat of a disease and its ramifications on finding medicine and establishing quarantine was a good season-opener threat, even if it was obvious that it would eventually be resolved, or at least over-shadowed, by the Governor's return, without any major casualties to the central cast.
Speaking of, there were a number of critical character choices that felt unbelievable. Rick's decision to abandon Carol without consultation of the group felt completely un-founded and bizarre. His self-appointment as judge and executioner came across as hypocritical and ill-timed. Even though Carol will no doubt return, her absence from the ensuing episodes was felt. For me, Carol remains the most interesting character in the show, and the best performed. She is the only female character in the show's history with a third-dimension, and her withdrawal felt like a missed opportunity.
Most bizarrely, Michonne's final decision to leave the Governor bleeding, so that his death fell into the hands of a character we have only known for a few episodes, felt completely contradictory. Was Michonne showing him mercy? Or did she want him to suffer for as long as possible before dying? If it was the former, it runs against all that we've learnt about her. If it's the latter, it makes no sense that she would then leave him, rather than watching him die.
I eagerly await the new episodes, as they open up a much-needed new strand. The Walking Dead will be forced to re-invent itself yet again. How it will creatively survive in the new environment seems of little concern given the show's ratings and it's assured long future (the show has been re-newed for a fifth season, with Scott Gimple remaining in control). In whatever form The Walking Dead will continue to fester and grow.