AMC’s The Walking Dead has just returned from its mid-season break, and it’s a perfect opportunity to look back at the first eight episodes and take stock.
Robert Kirkman (creator and executive producer) and the rest of the writing team seem to be correcting a few plot errors. It was obvious that the Terminus idea was a mistake; while it was the main driving point for the characters last time out, it was quickly disposed of in the first episode of the new season. It just wasn’t a sustainable concept, unless the writers intended to rehash old storylines.
After episode one, things soon got moving. Viewers have been taken on quite a ride, and not a single character has been disappointing. There are three main storylines we’ll address: Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) journeys to Washington with Eugene (Josh McDermitt) so the latter can stop the plague; Beth (Emily Kinney) is in the hospital and a group led by Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) try to find and save her; we also follow the people taking refuge at the church, where we meet Father Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) and learn more about his demons.
We’ll start with Abraham, Eugene and Rosita (Christian Serratos). Abraham and Rosita are trying to give Eugene safe passage to Washington. We know something isn’t quite right with Eugene; he’s reclusive, socially awkward and has a penchant for watching Abraham and Rosita have sex. After leaving the church, against the wishes of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the trio take a school bus and continue their journey. This time, Glen (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Tara (Alanna Masterson), a previous cohort of The Governor (David Morrissey), accompany them. Soon after they set off, the bus crashes. It’s at this point that Eugene finally reveals a harrowing secret to the group: he doesn’t have the answer to the global plague and he’s not even a doctor. This startling announcement leaves Abraham reeling and, with one almighty punch, he nearly kills Eugene. We feel a mix of sympathy and anger towards Eugene, and genuine sorrow for Abraham, despite his unstable and confrontational manner. The quality of the acting helps the viewer understand the hopelessness and desolation that comes crashing down on Abraham following the dramatic confession.
While some of the group deal with Eugene’s deception, the rest are looking for Beth, who, after being kidnapped in season four, has now found herself in a secure hospital run by police officers. There is only one doctor and Beth is forced to help him out in order to pay off her debts to her rescuers – she has used up vital medicine and food, after all. The tension is built up superbly. The audience is left wondering what is really going on here, and we’re on Beth’s side all the way. When she tries to make a break for it with a fellow inmate and ends up being the only one to get caught, I found myself swearing at the television – I haven’t felt the need for that since The Governor took the life of our wise owl, Hershel (Scott Wilson).
Beth tries to deal with the police, who abuse their power and ‘exchange’ sex for protection, by maintaining the perverted status quo. I spent an entire episode with my eyebrows furrowed as we watched her coming to terms with the storm of new information and exploitative rules. Even if you didn’t previously like Beth, it’s hard to root against her now. And as all this is happening, the group is still looking for her.
Daryl has made it a personal mission to find Beth, especially after finding the van that was used to kidnap her in the first place. He is eventually reunited with Carol – you can jump for joy now – and they go hunting together. They happen across Noah (Tyler James Williams), the man who Beth tried to escape with. After he initially steals their weapons and runs off, they meet him again. Daryl attacks him, and would have happily left Noah to be eaten by the “walkers” had Carol not convinced him otherwise. After the dispute, the two men realise they have one thing in common: they want to help Beth. It’s at this point that Carol is taken; this comes out of nowhere and leaves the audience reeling. Even if the main dialogue is a little off sometimes, the plot is practically flawless. Carol is run over by the police officers from the hospital and taken back there. When Noah informs the others about the hospital, Rick, Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and Sasha (Soniqua Martin-Green) begin to make plans to get their friends back.
In the meantime, a different storyline has been unfolding. After escaping Terminus, Rick’s group are weary and looking for refuge. They come across a screaming priest, played by The Wire’s Seth Gilliam. He is perched on a rock and trying to keep a group of zombies at bay. The group save him and, in return, the priest, Father Gabriel Stokes, offers them shelter in his church. During this time we really see the new Rick come to the fore. He is colder to outsiders and more ruthless. He is slowly taking on the mindset of his arch-nemesis, The Governor.
Bob’s death in episode three is similar to Dale’s in The Walking Dead graphic novels. When the same group that killed Bob attacks the church, only Gabriel, Carl (Chandler Riggs), baby Judith (Clara & Charlotte Ward), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Tyreese are present, hiding in a locked room. As a viewer, you know you’re about to witness a massacre, but the cleverness of the writing leaves us wondering which side will be victorious. It’s nerve-wracking. I assumed the good guys would survive, but I couldn’t be sure. Luckily, Rick and the others return and, after a short stand-off, Bob’s killers are mown down in a mist of bullets and anger. Rick is desperate to avoid further bloodshed, but he will not hesitate to protect those he loves. Not even for a second.
The two storylines then converge for the mid-season finale. Rick’s group capture three police officers, although one of them manages to trick Sasha into lowering her guard before attacking her and running off. Rick finds him and gives chase in a police car. After several warnings, Rick runs the man down. When the guy then tries to scare Rick into letting him go, he is given a bullet in the head for his trouble. The acting here is brilliant. Andrew Lincoln does a superb job of showing Rick’s contempt for this man, and his delivery of a simple “Shut up” after the murder is extremely satisfying.
After an exchange is agreed, the two surviving police officers go with Rick and the rest of the group up to the hospital. Carol is handed over, along with Beth, and the policemen are allowed to leave in the opposite direction. Beth, who has been victimised and held against her will by the increasingly desperate leader of the police force, Dawn (Christine Woods), decides to take revenge and stabs her captor. Reacting instinctively, Dawn shoots Beth. It’s brutal and so harsh on the viewer. Rick steps up and, without even blinking, blows Dawn’s head off. It’s agonising to watch, but such a critical and beautifully delivered scene. Daryl carries Beth’s lifeless body outside, where a distraught Maggie breaks down. We’re left to deal with the trauma as the credits roll.
So there we have it. These first eight episodes have been far superior to the second half of the fourth season. The story has been stronger, the characters haven’t been quite as flaky, and overall it feels more complete, more interesting. Rick, for example, is now colder to outsiders. It’s refreshing to see the darker sides of ‘good’ characters and vice versa.
Now we can only hope that season five continues to delight us. It would be unforgivable for the show to finish as weakly as it did in season four.
The Walking Dead is on a roll and it needs to maintain that momentum.