Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Finale review: AMC's THE WALKING DEAD - season 4

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Walking Dead still isn't a show I feel compelled to write about episodically, but it's much better than it used to be. Every season of the show has improved the formula in certain areas, and this fourth year certainly delivered more zombies and stronger character moments. The mid-season finale found a way to (almost literally) explode the close-knit community of the prison, spitting the characters off into different storylines. This certainly helped put a spotlight on faces desperately in need of care and attention, who were suddenly able to get it thanks to having whole episodes focusing on less people. There was even a period of time when the show's hero, grizzled Sheriff Rick (Andrew Lincoln), was absent for many weeks, which came as a welcome respite.

Of course, each showrunner of The Walking Dead has inherited issues from their predecessors and not everything is fixed yet. Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) have palpable chemistry together as a young couple, but each is entirely defined by the love they have for one another. Katana-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira) has lightened up to a pleasing extent this year, but I wasn't particularly gripped by her pre-apocalypse flashback that shed light on her family background. The show has done such a terrible job with young Beth Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) that I struggled to recall who she even was, which somewhat spoiled those episodes focusing on her group—which led to the nevertheless excellent episode where she was revealed to be a sociopath who had to be "put down" by Carol (Melissa McBride). It's a pity the Lizzie storyline didn't hang together strongly before "The Grove" (I'd also forgotten someone was feeding walkers back in the premiere, not helped by that long mid-season hiatus), as it would have been an even better episode with better groundwork.

While the season had its problems, by and large I thought this was a successful year. It didn't limp to the finish like season 3's second half, and the multiple storylines that filled out 2014's episodes did a good job of keeping your interest. They were hit-and-miss in terms of narrative, but there wasn't a truly awful storyline that aggravated me. I liked seeing Daryl (Norman Reedus) fall into a bad crowd led by Joe (the terrific Jeff Kober), unaware they're out to avenge their friend's murder at the hand of Rick; and the storyline with dopey-looking Sgt Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) transporting a mullet-sporting teacher called Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to Washington D.C, because he knows what caused the outbreak, was kind of fun... if only because it seems very likely Eugene's an utter fraud and Abraham's overestimated his genius.

Seeing everyone trek to Terminus, following a network of rail tracks, also gave the season some mystery and direction. It was inevitable the final destination wasn't going to be the blissful haven everyone was hoping for, but I'm still not entirely sure exactly what's going on with the Terminus folk—now they've captured Rick and Glen's groups. Are they using people as slave labour? Did the cage of what looked like humans mean they're cannibals?

The season ends with Rick a changed man; less the affable, pragmatic farmer we saw in flashbacks to the prison days, and now a scary bad-ass even his son's unnerved about. The kind of man who doesn't think twice about literally biting someone's throat out if it means protecting his child. This world has changed people in lots of ways, but it's turning Rick into someone with an unflinching do-anything attitude. More importantly, as heralded by Rick's stern final words ("they're screwing with the wrong people"), he's realised his group aren't amateurs who needs protecting from a harsh reality now. They're experienced survivors who've seen more horror than most, and experienced more than their fair share of gut-wrenching lows. They're accustomed to making tough decisions and doing seemingly unthinkable things for the greater good. They certainly seem more adept at surviving in this world than the Terminus gang—who strike me as a fairly cowardly bunch who've constructed a clever spider's web using a rail network. But I'm most likely wrong.

Overall, season 4 was a fun but inconsistent year of The Walking Dead, as the early days of the plague and return of the Governor now feel like a distant memory (the latter partly a do-over of the season 3 finale many thought was a crushing disappointment). This year didn't have a strong arc where you felt like you were being expertly moved through beginning, middle, to end by the writers. It was just lots of stuff going on simultaneously (some of which worked, some of which didn't), and this finale didn't feel climactic enough for me.

It felt like the writers were just getting started with a promising new storyline, and now the brakes have been rudely applied. But I guess this ensures fans will be tuning in for season 5 later in the year.