I like The Walking Dead, I guess? What is The Walking Dead, really? I’m not trying to be flip or abstract. For a show built on the fairly straightforward thrill of constant prosthetic headbashing, AMC’s undead melodrama has been weirdly difficult to pin down, both for the viewers and for the rotating band of producers. It began way back in 2010 as a horror-flavored neo-western, with a six-episode season that buffered very occasional zombie attacks with long stretches of explicit existential yammering. The second season premiere featured not one but two scenes where characters talked to God via crucifix. The same episode featured an appearance by a deer that served as a clear metaphor for life or whatever, which was confirmed a couple episodes later when lead character Rick tried to explain to his wife that the deer was a metaphor for life or whatever.
That version of The Walking Dead faded away in the second half of the season, when a showrunner shake-up replaced Frank Darabont with Glen Mazzara. We’ll never quite know what happened; it doesn’t seem like the break-up was amicable for anybody. There’s one read on the Darabont era, the Kurt Sutter theory, that he was suffering from budgetary constraints. There’s the counter-read that lots of shows have low budgets and none of them have come up with anything as boring as The Search for Sophia.
All we viewers really know is that Glen Mazzara invigorated the show with meat-and-potatoes thrills, killing off extraneous main characters and burning that goddamn farm to the ground. The Mazzara Era at its best was less a western than a war movie – as if The Wild Bunch transformed into Saving Private Ryan. The zombie body count expanded, aggressively. Annoying characters died hard. The wheels were spinning – but was the show really going anywhere? The third season finale built up to a showdown that never happened; AMC and Mazzara parted ways.
So what is The Walking Dead? Is it a show about quiet meditation or a show that kills zombies good? It’s clear now that new showrunner Scott M. Gimple came into this season attempting to thread the needle between those wild extremes. A writer since season 2, Gimple worked on “18 Miles Out” and “Clear,” two episodes that send a reduced cast on a road trip adventure. Those episodes almost feel like Walking Dead short stories, right down to their respective nihilist-bookend visuals. (In “18 Miles Out,” it’s the lonely walker in the field shambling undead towards nowhere; in “Clear,” it’s the lonely backpacker, and then just a lonely backpack.)
If there is a defining aspect of the Gimple era, it’s that willingness to narrow the focus. The season started with Rick’s dreamlike interlude with the chick from Rome; a few episodes later came the Carol kiss-off road trip episode. That was just a prelude for a full-blown mini-miniseries about the Governor, a great-in-theory deviation that wound up playing like a summer-camp remake of the Richard Gere scenes from I’m Not There. The midseason finale was basically a do-over of the previous finale, this time bigger and bloodier. (RIP, Herschel.)
This week’s midseason premiere, “After,” picks up in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the prison. That battle left the show’s sprawling cast running in every direction, and the premiere focuses on the travails of Rick and Carl, with a B-plot that follows lone-wolf Michonne; presumably the next few episodes will pick up with more of our scattered characters.
The laser-focus provides a showcase for the best and worst aspects of The Walking Dead. The Best: Very few shows on television have such confident visual storytelling. The opening sequence of “After” is dialogue-free: It’s composed entirely of background noise, Greg Nicotero’s zombie make-up, and the face of Danai Gurira, who can accomplish a lot with a grimace (and unfortunately has to accomplish a lot with a grimace.)
Rick is still battered and bloody from his showdown with the Governor, and Andrew Lincoln wears “battered and bloody” very well. Lincoln will never get the accolades of his AMC lead-protagonist brethren. But Lincoln has gotten better in the role as Rick’s life has gotten steadily worse. Look back at Season 1 Rick – clean-shaven, straight-haired, wearing a look of raw determination. Season 4 Rick exudes post-traumatic devastation – he’s like a human hangover – and Lincoln plays that devastation to the hilt. His Southern accent is still ridiculous. (“Carl” always sounds like “CAH-H’RULL.”) But that actually works well for a character who makes every word, every breath feel like a tortured triumph of the human spirit.
If The Walking Dead is great at visual storytelling, it is decidedly less than great at actual storytelling. The leisurely pace can feel listless, boring. Worse, the show has a tin ear for dialogue. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that it speaks to a deeper problem with the series: The Walking Dead seems to really love its characters without quite understanding its characters. There’s a sequence in the midseason premiere which should nominally tell us more about Michonne but which instead confirms that there might not be much more to Michonne. The episode forces Carl to act petulant and dismissive, which feels a bit reductive in the context of the apocalyptic events he just experienced.
Fans of the Walking Dead comic book will recognize Carl’s story arc from this episode. But even though The Walking Dead shares plot points and characters with the comic – and even though Dead overlord Robert Kirkman seems ever-more-essential to the show’s day-to-day operations – the TV Dead has never felt less like its inspiration. The comic book can be slow, but it’s tougher and funnier. Darker, too: There’s no analogue on the page for Daryl Dixon, the badass with a heart of gold who is totally guileless and sensitive and loves babies and appears to never even think about having sex with anyone. TV-Rick tries to do the right thing; Comic-Rick has long since given up on the idea of “right.”
The show’s new schedule releases in eight-episode batches, which are half good vivid action and half stultifying aimless chatter. In an ideal world where nobody cared about money, Walking Dead would release eight episodes per year, dialogue-free and zombie-heavy. Right now, the fun-but-frustrating series is something of a rarity: It walks the walk, but it can’t talk the talk. Episode Grade: B