The Walking Dead Season 4 Review

Spoiler Alert: Although I tried to keep them to a minimum, there are still spoilers in this review for this season as well as previous seasons of The Walking Dead.  Do not read this if you haven’t seen season 4 and you care about spoilers.  Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the review.

I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this season of The Walking Dead.  Sure, I enjoyed the third season, but the overall inconsistency with the show’s quality from season to season made me less eager to watch season 4.  Season 1 was an excellent start despite it only being 6 episodes, but season 2 ruined most of what made the show great by limiting the main setting to one location and having the writers decide that the only way to have tension was to have every character make as many stupid decisions as possible (like when Glenn went down that well as bait), eventually resulting in their lives being put in danger.  Not only that, but the whole of season 2, especially the first half, was incredibly padded out (particularly the search for Sophia), resulting in story arcs going on much longer than they should have, simply for the sake of meeting AMC’s demands.  Season 3 was better, but it kept many of the problems of the previous season, most notably the characters’ tendency to make stupid decisions on occasion (I’m looking at you, Andrea).  But, having said all of that, I still had some hope that season 4 could be a return to form for the show  It could be a chance to bring back that same creative spark Frank Darabont brought to the table that made season 1 the best of the three.  Unfortunately, while season 4 has a few good episodes, the rest of the season ended up failing to deliver.

The most glaring issue with season 4 is that it lacks any sort of focus.  It has so many story and character threads that it doesn’t feel like a single story being told, but, rather, several smaller stories being presented one at a time.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a few subplots here and there, but season 4 is so disjointed that I can actually split it into three separate parts to review individually (which is what I’m going to do): the disease episodes, the Governor episodes, and the Terminus episodes.  The disease episodes, as you probably know, are the first five episodes of the season and, frankly, they are also the worst of the season.  They serve no purpose other than to kill off the expendable characters and to attempt to make Tyrese seem important.  But, (and I hope you’re reading this AMC) having a character pout for five episodes over a someone we barely got to know and then having him get in people’s face whenever they tell him to calm down doesn’t make them relevant or important…it makes them annoying.  The biggest problem I have with these episodes, though, was the revelation that Carol was the one who killed Karen and David.  It seemed incredibly random and out of character for Carol to do that rather than, say, Carl who showed us at the end of season 3 that he would kill if he thought he was justified in doing so.  I understand that Carol isn’t helpless like she was in season 1, but I don’t think she had gotten to the point that she would kill two people for being sick just yet.  Ultimately, the first five episodes came across as a pointless excuse to drastically reduce the number of people.  This actually sacrificed much of the potential those characters had.  What a waste.

However, the show does start to pick up once it reaches the Governor episodes.  Although not perfect, the Governor episodes do an excellent job of developing the Governor’s character as he walks the line between redemption and damnation, culminating in his last stand at the prison.  These episodes also provide several emotional moments in the form of a few major character deaths, something the first few episodes might have benefited from.  This does bring me to my first complaint about these episodes: Judith’s “death”.  I may sound cruel when I say this, but I thought she should have stayed dead.  Now, before you start raging in the comments, hear me out.  Her death was such a powerful moment and had such an impact, not only on Rick and Carl, but on me as a viewer that it seemed like a cop-out for the writers to have Judith miraculously survive without explaining how Tyrese rescued her (besides, the writers have shown in the past that they aren’t above killing off children).  My only other problem with these episodes is that they feel like they belonged at the end of season 3.  In fact, the show probably would have been better off if they had eliminated the disease episodes, put the Governor episodes at the end of season 3, and started season 4 with the Terminus episodes.  But, that aside, the Governor episodes were, without doubt, the highlights of the season and they showcased what the writers are capable of at their best.

Unfortunately, the show only goes downhill from that point.  Sure, the first of the Terminus episodes move the plot forward a bit, but they’re pretty lacking in terms of character development.  Some of you may argue that they explore Michone and Daryl’s back-stories, but almost nothing is said that we didn’t either already know or that we couldn’t have inferred on our own.  And even then, they dive into the back-stories for no real reason other than to inform the audience (and kill time).  Exploring a character’s back-story should never be done solely for that purpose.  Yes, you want to inform the audience, and, yes the audience wants to understand what that character has gone through, but it should be done in a way that develops the character rather than dumping exposition on the viewer.  Let me give you an example: in The Walking Dead The Video Game, the back-story of Lee, the main character, is revealed bit by bit as he recounts it to other members of his group and, while it also brings the audience up to speed, the main purpose for revealing his back-story in the game is for Lee to come clean by talking about his past and, ultimately, gaining the trust of the other group members.  Lee’s back-story serves to develop the relationship between him and other characters rather than just telling the audience what happened to Lee before the outbreak.  In the show, though, the writers use the back-stories as a means of dumping as much extraneous information into the viewers’ heads as possible when that shouldn’t have been their goal at all.  They treated Michone and Daryl’s back-stories as a means of informing the audience rather than progressing the story and the season suffered because of it.

The latter half of the season wasn’t without its high points, however.  Episode 14 develops the relationship between Carol and Tyrese, bringing Carol’s story arc from the beginning of the season full circle while also bringing Lizzie’s condition to the forefront.  It truly was a great episode and one that made more sense for Carol.  While I thought it was out of character for her to have killed Karen and David, the fact that she had to kill Lizzie at the end of that episode felt more reasonable (just look at the flowers).  With Lizzie, she was forced into a situation in which she really had no choice but to act; with Karen and David, she chose to murder two people for being sick.  Carol’s decision process matured more realistically when she was forced to kill Lizzie than when she chose to kill Karen and David.  Rather than make an irrational choice to murder two people to stop the spread of a disease, she made a rational choice to put an end to Lizzie’s sickness, which would have only spread more death.  That episode stood out along with the Governor episodes as one of the best of the season and gave me hope that things would only improve.

But, then, we got to the season finale.  Honestly, it was one of the worst season finales I’ve ever seen (though it’s nowhere near as bad as Dexter’s finale).  Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think the episode was bad, the episode just didn’t feel like a season finale.  I didn’t mind that the writers went with a cliffhanger ending, but they did so without any of the season’s conflicts being resolved.  It didn’t feel like the end of a chapter, but more like a chapter was cut off at the midpoint.  Dexter’s sixth season had a cliffhanger ending, but the main source of conflict for the season (the Doomsday Killer) was dealt with by the end, bringing that chapter of Dexter’s story to a close.  Similarly, in Code Geass, the first season ends with a cliffhanger, but the battle at Lelouch’s school had ended, again, bringing that chapter of the story to a close.  In The Walking Dead, they had a cliffhanger, but the group was still split up, Beth was still missing, and we still don’t know with certainty what was going on in Terminus (though I can guess).  The finale felt more like a penultimate episode than an actual finale, and that’s keeps it from being a good finale despite being a decent episode.

In the end, The Walking Dead’s fourth season has a few good episodes, but it’s extremely lacking in terms of tension and character development, with the exception of the aforementioned episodes.  It seems that for everything that this season did right, it did another two things wrong.  This isn’t the worst season of The Walking Dead (that “honor” still belongs to season 2), but it is the most disappointing.  Season 4 had such great potential early on, but squandered it on exposition dumps in the form of Michone and Daryl’s pointless back-stories and excuses to kill off characters like Dr. Caleb.  (Remember him?  So do I…that’s why I described him so vividly earlier in the review.)  At this point, I’m seriously worried that the show may not ever recapture the tragedy and macabre revelations made the first season so great.  Only time will tell, I suppose, but the writers desperately need to refocus on the suspenseful character-driven narrative that made The Walking Dead stand out in a horde of other zombie apocalypse works.

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