Season 4 of “The Walking Dead” just ended on Sunday with a record number of viewers – 15.7 million – and while it was one of the best episodes of the series yet, it seems they still haven’t quite nailed that perfect balance in every episode.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the show, but like every season since the first, this one has been a slow burn. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it leaves room for character development and drama, but man does it seem to frustrate viewership. Whether it’s those who tune in every week or those who refuse to watch it because it’s “boring,” I hear nothing but complaints from so many people about the pacing of this series. I agree to an extent, but then again, I’m also a fan of the comic books on which the show is based.
The comics have a tendency to slow down for only small beats at a time. Almost every time you turn the page, there’s another tragedy or absolutely shocking moment. The one-hour TV format, however, allows a bit more room to build up to that, so it takes advantage of it, though this isn’t always the most exciting and suspenseful way to do things. And for horror movie fans, who make up a large amount of the audience, that’s not exactly the kind of torture they’re looking for.
Rick, the central character, has been down and out since the first episode of the season, relinquishing leadership and farming rather than fighting. When he finally faces off against his arch-enemy, the Governor, he’s beaten within an inch of his life. It’s such a triumphant moment when he finally takes charge and comes back from the brink in a very vicious way in the finale, but we waited 16 episodes to get there. On one hand, the individual episodes where the characters were separated from each other were great, allowing viewers to spend some time with the supporting cast and actually care whether they live or die, but the first half of the season was wasted on a flu-like epidemic storyline that just distracted from more pressing issues, like the Governor’s return.
His story arc, while also dragged out a bit, proved to be worthwhile when we got to know the one-eyed jerk better, watching him pretend to be reformed when in reality he’s just as sick and selfish as ever. There are some other great revelations as well, particularly about Carol and the two young girls she cares for, but one has to be patient to watch all of this pay off. If there’s one thing America is not, it’s patient.
This last episode was perfect because it had just the right balance of story, drama, symbolism, action, and suspense. Not every episode can be like this, of course, or it would become formulaic rather quickly, but maybe it’s not so much the show as it is AMC’s delivery of it. It always starts in the fall, then takes a mid-season break before returning in the winter for the second half. Maybe if the show was presented like a Netflix original series, where viewers can simply binge-watch the entire season in one shot, they wouldn’t be trying anyone’s patience. This would mean millions lost in advertising dollars, however, so don’t hold your breath on that one. (The zombie virus is airborne at this point anyway.)
“The Walking Dead” took some chances this season, switching things up and playing with expectations, and for the most part, it paid off. I think it’s up to audiences now to get used to that idea, that just because you scream directions at the screen doesn’t mean the showrunners are going to just obey. In fact, they probably shouldn’t, as despite its weak spots, looking back now, the wait was worth it. There were more great episodes than “just OK” episodes, and I can’t name any particularly bad ones – just a few that could have used a little more (rotting) meat.
The other complaint I often hear is that the show needs more zombies, but like all the best zombie films, it’s about the people surviving the apocalypse and dealing with other humans, not the immediate threat itself. Trust me – things would be a lot more boring if all you heard was groaning and chewing sounds for hours at a time. In fact, that seems to be exactly what we keep hearing from the peanut gallery, but in the end, as ratings prove, they all end up tuning in anyway. I guess that means they’re doing something right, and Season 4 is proof of that.
After all the survivors been though this year, it’s clear Terminus is “screwing with the wrong people.” Let’s just hope that battle doesn’t last the entire next season.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]