The Walking Dead has received criticism and a plethora of groans for its dependence on heavy character development, which is usually accompanied with a tragically beautiful indie soundtrack or Beth’s singing.
In season four, The Governor is re-introduced. The episode, “Live Bait,” seemed more like a music video featuring solo artist, Philip Blake. I don’t even recall any walkers in that episode, I just remember thinking, “Is this the part where The Governor is redeemed? He is going to start a new life and abandon his psycho alter-ego?” It was a very evocative episode, even though it failed to have us at the edges of our seats.
Character development is central to this show, and it’s done remarkably well. This isn’t just a show about zombies. It’s a show about the human condition and survival. On episode 9, “After,” most of the time is spent on Carl. Poor Carl. He had to basically put his mother down like she was a calf, he watched Hershel die, and he failed to protect Judith. Carl has every right to be pissed off, and like most pissed off kids, he lashes out on his parent. Rick, who is still desperately trying to preserve Carl’s innocence, is protecting him and teaching him how to basically be a team player. Carl wants none of it. He wants to be a man. Carl solves this problem by going out on his own, but he soon realizes he needs Rick just as much as Rick needs him.
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At the end of the season four mid-season finale, “Too Far Gone,” we were left with a painful cliff hanger: Judith’s blood-soaked car seat. This, nor the fact that everyone has split up, was answered in the following episode. Instead, the writers zoomed in on Carl and Rick (and partly Michonne), our original protagonists. Mirroring the first season, Rick is at one point abandoned while he is in a comma. His life is completely dependent on Carl, who takes advantage of this shift in power and authority.
When Carl finally releases his anger, I really want to ground him. How could he say those things to Rick? Why can’t he realize that it must be really hard to lead a camp of like, one hundred people while there are zombies walking around trying to gnaw on human flesh? This ugly confrontation is crucial to who Carl and Rick are now. They have transformed, they are not merely father and son. This isn’t The Road. Carl and Rick are closer to becoming equals; they have each other’s backs and they are able to survive independently (although I’m not so sure about Carl, he can’t even handle one walker).
However, “After” highlights the importance of dependency. Although Carl might be able to pull off living on his own, he ultimately needs Rick. This sets the stage for the rest of season four and allows the writers to shift these characters away from the guilt they feel for not being able to protect Judith and Hershel.
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The Walking Dead is a complicated, masterfully written and directed show. We criticize it sometimes because of how frustratingly calm it can be. How can a show about zombies sit so still, we wonder. Well, if the show was strictly about zombies turning humans into more zombies, we wouldn’t care about those humans. In The Walking Dead, we become invested. When Hershel died, I felt genuinely sad. When Rick kicked Carol out of the their group, I felt angry for her. The writers build so much tension and create these characters with so much precision, the end result is always really powerful.
Judging by the previews though, I have a feeling that The Walking Dead‘s next episode is going to rapidly gain momentum.
Catch the newest episode of The Walking Dead this Sunday on AMC at 9/8 central.
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