Season 4 of AMC’s hit zombie drama The WalkingDead is easily the best in the show’s history, especially the eight episodes that comprise the second half (okay, the first seven of those, I wasn’t super impressed by season finale, at least not until the very end). I give a lot of this credit, rightly or wrongly, to new showrunner Scott Gimple—these episodes in particular, and their narrative approach, bear the trademarks of those he wrote before landing this gig—and I’m more excited and interested in seeing what happens to these characters than I’ve ever been.
Moving into season 5, which debuts this Sunday, October 12, the producers are saying all of the right things, so it doesn’t appear that these strides forward are a fluke, or that the show will fall back into the mundane and tedious digressions and needlessly elongated story arcs that have plagued it since the beginning. That said, we have some idea of what the show needs to do moving forward in order to continue to be successful in the future. It’s been said they have loose plans out to a 12th season, but we’re not looking that far ahead. We’re just thinking about what the The Walking Dead needs to do in season 5 to continue to make this a show we want to watch, not just begrudgingly tune into because we love the comics and have a swarm of zombies tattooed up our arms.
Keep Developing Characters
Season 4 of The Walking Dead did a number of things well, or at least much better than it has in the past. Chief among these was that it developed the characters more than ever before, especially over the course of the second half. So many characters that had been stagnant grew and changed exponentially, and this is something that needs to continue as the show finally begins to live up to its potential. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is finally becoming the character fans of the comics know he can be; Beth (Emily Kinney) transformed from an annoying kid sister into an interesting human being in her own right, one with feeling and thoughts and emotions and all the complexities that make up an actual person; and then there’s Michonne (Danai Gurira). She’s been a functional mute for most of the time we’ve known her, as if glaring and never saying a word, even when it could prevent bloodshed, gave her personality. After the annual mid-season hiatus, however, she’s also well on her way to becoming a well-rounded character. W saw that stone-faced façade crack and it was profoundly moving, like the moment where she breaks down when she finally finds Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs). The old adage is that still waters run deep, but you still have to show something, anything, in order to illustrate that.
Keep Rick Decisive
In the comics, Rick is the leader because he’s the only one willing to make the hard choices that often confront the group, the kind where neither option is particularly pleasant, and neither road is one you actually want to go down. In the show, however, he’s been a wishy washy mess, steadfast in his refusal to make any decision at all. Confronted with a situation that demands action, he, instead, has endlessly debated the options, back and forth in a repetitive way, often with disastrous results, and worse, for viewers anyway, completely wasting entire episodes. Season 2 and season 3 were horrible about this, with entire weeks where there was no movement whatsoever. Season 4, especially the later episodes, saw him start to resemble the Rick from the source material, especially in that final moment when they’re locked in the train car and he doesn’t have any other thought or fear other than, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Season 5 will only benefit from Rick continuing down this trail, and given what we’ve heard about the early scenes in the upcoming episodes, it sounds like that’s the way he’s going.
Don’t Feel The Need To Check In With Everyone Every Week
As an ensemble, The Walking Dead has a large cast, one that is constantly growing as they encounter new survivors, as well as one that is continually in flux as people die off. While that means there are a lot of stories, that doesn’t mean every one intersects. Often they do, as things impact the entire group, and it makes sense for everyone to be involved, but not always. All of these people have their own personalities and lives within the group. Part of what makes the final eight episodes of season 4 so strong is that the writers and producers didn’t always feel obligated to include every last person in every last episode. One of the best weeks, “Still,” features two people, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney), and no one else. This allows space for a story to develop and for the actors to do some really good work, letting the characters grow and explore. You don’t need to know what each character is up to at every moment, and this ability to let storylines lie for a while increases interest and tension. Not to mention it prevents them from overexposing any one character, so you don’t get sick of them. This also allows for a single, smaller storyline to play out in a more natural state. Minor asides won’t get dragged out over multiple episodes when one would easily suffice. If it fits with a storyline, fine, by all means check in with everyone, but you don’t need to force it where it doesn’t fit. Lots of great shows with ensemble casts go a week without everyone showing up, just look at The Wire and Game of Thrones, and it looks like The Walking Dead is finally learning this.
Focus On The Characters Rather Than The Action/Zombies
Zombies, on their own, are boring. They’ve been done, to death, and there’s very little to do with them that that is in any way original. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place, or that they can’t be used well, but they work best in the background, as part of the landscape, as a larger, looming threat whose presence colors everything else. Think of it as a character like Thanos in the Marvel Universe, he doesn’t need to be in every last scene in order to impact the action; his presence is always felt by the characters and has an effect on every decision they make. What is really interesting, and what is going to keep you engaged, is how the characters, collectively as well as on an individual level, react and respond to this threat and this transformed world. Human on human conflict is much more interesting—you already know how the walkers are going to respond, but their presence can and should serve to heighten that tension, giving every situation, every choice, every encounter an increased level of intensity and importance because the consequences are now so dire. They’re best as an escalating factor, not as the primary focus.
There Has To Be Hope
The Walking Dead can be bleak, violent, and grim, and that’s what fans want, but within that, there has to be something more. There has to be something that drives the survivors on, something hopeful, or else why the hell do they even bother? It doesn’t to be much, but there needs to be at least a faint glimmer every once in a while. Whether that’s getting Eugene to Washington DC, getting the whole group back together, finding a place to live, or even something as small and vague as carving out a life in this chaotic world, even if it looms far off in the distance, there needs to be a ray on occasion. Season 4 was far better about this than it had been—season 3 was notoriously oppressive in its utter hopelessness—and season 5, at least according to what producers have said, looks to continue this.