Next week on The Walking Dead, I predict that showrunner Scot Gimple is going to do something that should have been done at the end of last season; defeat Rick’s group of survivors and take the Prison.
Hear me out.
The latter part of the last season was spent on the rising tension between Woodbury and the Prison, leading to the eventual conflict and battle that should have been the season finale. Instead we had the Governor take his troops up the to fences, blow through into the complex, and be ousted by a few bullets and flash grenades. Anti-climactic. There was more in the finale to love, but the taste of unsatisfying conflict was left on the tongue of many viewers, myself included.
Instead of a giant conflict the season had promised, we had Rick welcome in tons of new people we’ve never met before, and therefore don’t care about. Thematically things shifted hugely in the finale, but it was anticlimactic nonetheless.
The approach Scott Gimple has taken to this season is one I believe to be “cleaning up” the mess left by previous show runner Glen Mazzara. The first eight episodes of Season 4 have essentially been designed to fundamentally change the direction of the show by doing a couple of key things.
1) Remove the characters we don’t care about, and make us love the ones we do care about. Gimple introduced a flu virus that the first five episodes focused on, not only adding fear to the otherwise safe prison but also allowing the Woodbury survivors to be killed off. This allowed our main characters to bond over trying to save others lives and putting everyone close together in quarantine brought everyone closer together. We got some of the best character development in the entire show and real fear for our main characters (Glen almost died!). With the virus seemingly under control now (and I predict it’s the end of it) most members from Woodbury are now dead, with some of them bumped up to background characters that are complex enough to find interesting and interesting enough for us to care about. We now have a solid group of survivors again. As great as Season 3’s “Killer Within” was, it took a risk that ultimately I don’t feel paid off; they killed off Lori and with it (as did Shane’s death) went a ton of the shows moral complexities. Nearly a season later we have an established group of solid characters.
2) Turn the Governor from a cartoon character of his season 3.2 self back into his complex 3.1 self, then into a believably sociopathic villain. The Governor was a fantastically complex villain (or anti-hero) for the first part of season three. He had a reason to protect his city and a morally ambiguous path ahead of him. The death of Penny stirred something in him that destroyed any sense of dimensionally and rationality in the character, turning him into a comic version of his former self. Old gov’ was out for revenge on the prison, and when things didn’t work out he murdered his entire army. Believable, yes, but only by a stretch - and definitely less complex than the man he once was. What Gimple did in season 4 was add dimensionality to him again, breaking him down into a man with nothing left to live for, and then giving him a reason to fight again. He made us actually feel sympathy for him and want him to succeed in his own way, then turned his redemptive path backwards on itself by proving that he can’t come back from what he’s done. We needed to get into the Governors head again and understand what he’s feeling and why he does the things he does. When he launches his attack on the prison in next week’s episode, it’s not for some irrational act of murderous revenge, it’s to secure a home for his new family, a home where he can be the leader again and protect everyone.
3) Make the walkers a bigger threat. Rick’s crew over the seasons have become excellent at escaping walkers and killing them. The rules have all been laid out; they can’t walk fast or run, they become docile with teeth and hands removed, and to finish them off all it takes is a blow to the brain. This has made it very easy for everyone to deal with walkers, even large groups of them. All they need to do is keep things under control and running smoothly and they should be fine. Stabbing them in the head at the fences became a daily chore for people at the prison, and even when they left the prison there was less tension because we know they knew how to deal with the situation. This season, Gimple’s introduced new ways to have them become threatening again. He’s got the prison walls crashing down and walkers coming in, people dying from the flu and become walkers from inside the prison, and introducing more horror and fear into supplies runs with more elaborate fighting and kills (supermarket battle with the helicopter, school hallway walker scene, walker chasing the Governor’s little Meaghen).
4) Introduce morally complex decisions and dialogue to the characters again. A lot of fans didn’t like the second season for its slower pacing, but there’s no denying the fact that it delivered some of the best dialogue and decisions of the show. The Randal storyline was fantastic as it brought Rick and Shane’s leadership to a startling conflict, divided the group, and had us seeing through the eyes of everyone on the group. Carl’s choice to not kill the walker in the woods led to Dale’s death and left us asking the same questions that were going on in his head. When the group debated in Hershel’s house it was interesting and engaging too. In season 4, choices such as Carol murdering Karen and David to protect her family, the exile of Carol, and Rick allowing Carl to be armed are all ripe with engaging material that has us questioning our characters again.
So, with the midseason finale upon us, I believe it’s time for our group to lose and for the Governor to win. Our villain wants the prison to protect his family and satisfy his complex of being in a leadership position, and our heroes have been pushed to the breaking point within the prison with the flu introduction and walker infestation. The Walking Dead is always the most interesting when the group is on the road and it’s time they got booted out of their safe haven into the unknown. There’s a whole world out there for them to explore and for us to engage in. The Governor is bringing a great human conflict to the prison gates (that’s much better rounded than season 3) and has us actually fearing for the safety of our group inside and outside of the prison, due to the increased walker threat now. These first eight episodes may accomplish simply the task of cleaning up season 3’s mess and setting the stage for what’s to come, and I think that ends with our group leaving the prison and the Governor’s group taking control of it. This would leave our characters in the open wilderness, with Carol roaming alone somewhere. It would leave the Governor in control of a “safe haven” ridden with a virus, and it would fundamentally change the setting of the show that’s been the norm for 24 episodes now.
Season one is arguably the best of The Walking Dead because of the fact that our characters were always on the move and learning new things about the world. There was an excitement to see where they’d go next, instead of the bore a lot of fans feel with knowing they’re safe at the prison.
Come on Gimple, launch us into the unknown and do it with an epic battle that could just be the best Walking Dead episode yet. You’ve had seven episodes to set the stage now it’s time to deliver, unlike what Glen Mazzara did last season.