Few can deny that AMC has done an exceptional job of establishing itself as one of television’s major power players. Between Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC has not only brought a new level of quality to the cable television drama, but has successfully reached those wealthier, niche audiences that have been able to keep the network financially afloat. Of course, neither of those shows’ fan bases compare to the remarkably broad audience swarming The Walking Dead. As of the fourth season premiere on October 13, 2013, which garnered over 16 million viewers, The Walking Dead alone has made a name for itself as one of television’s most-watched shows. All of television, that is. Not just cable.
Although TWD has consistently dominated in the ratings game over the years, the show’s level of quality has not been so consistent in relation to the other AMC dramas that have preceded it. Although the show started off as a strong character drama, ever since the second season premiered that hasn’t quite been the case. However, the first three episodes of the fourth season seem to indicate that TWD may be aiming for high quality just as much as it does high viewership.
That aim for a higher quality in storytelling can be accredited, in part, to Scott M. Gimple, TWD’s newest showrunner. Unlike the other top-tier AMC shows, which have maintained the same showrunners throughout the series’ runs (Matthew Weiner at Mad Men, Vince Gilligan at Breaking Bad), TWD has gained the reputation of being something of a revolving door for head writers.
Frank Darabont, the highly respected writer and director of The Shawshank Redemption, served as the first season’s showrunner. Despite the show’s traditional zombie-horror genre, Darabont brought a raw sense of realism to the first season by establishing it as a complex character drama. How would people really act during a zombie apocalypse, with their entire way of life completely destroyed? Would people even care to keep on living, having lost so much and so many? If so, what moral sacrifices would these people have to make in order to survive? Using police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his core group of survivors as a lens through which to ask these questions, TWD was arguably at its best while Darabont was still affiliated, during the show’s initial run of episodes.
So, it came as a shock to many when Darabont “stepped down” as showrunner before the second season even hit the air. Writer-executive producer Glen Mazzara was promoted to series showrunner. When Mazzara took over, the show focused much more on the ideological relationships between the characters, who had finally found a permanent safe haven within the confines of a peaceful farm. The threat of being killed by zombies became far less prominent, and the show shifted from discussion in the midst of action to just…discussion. The characters began to feel less like the complex human beings that viewers had come to know and more like talking heads for ethical philosophy in a post-apocalyptic world.
Mazzara remained on-board as showrunner for the third season, which briefly returned to form with a riveting stretch of episodes that introduced The Governer (David Morrissey), the dark and mysterious leader of a seemingly utopian community. Unfortunately, the third season’s back half slipped into mediocrity, as it built up to a major confrontation between Rick and The Governer that never really felt like it came. The Governer, who had been introduced early on as one of the most fascinatingly complex characters since the show’s first season, had devolved into little more than a stereotypical villain by season’s end, despite how well Morrissey played him. By the finale, the characters still felt simplified, the plot predictable, and the themes tired out. By this point, Mazarra, too, was out.
However, there was one episode in season three’s back half that stood out among the rest. “Clear,” written by writer-producer Scott M. Gimple, told a self-enclosed story that involved Rick’s questioning of his cold, self-preserving outlook on the world after having run into Morgan (a terrific Lennie James), a man whom Rick had briefly encountered and developed a friendship with shortly after the apocalypse began. After briefly appearing in the first season, Morgan had since lost the will to live alongside other people, and had been driven to insanity as a result. In more ways than one, this story felt like a throwback to the incredible character realism of the first season. The few characters at play in the episode felt like actual people again, with plausible reactions to the the maddeningly dark world in which they lived.
Thankfully, now that Gimple serves as TWD‘s showrunner, that is more so what the fourth season feels like. The core group of survivors, still living in a prison that they had inhabited in early season three, have now been faced with the task of protecting themselves against a contagious sickness that threatens to kill off everyone in the group. When people die in TWD, they turn into zombies. So, things aren’t looking good for the prison camp. This conflict makes for an intriguing central story arc, as it not only unites all of the survivors in the face of an inescapably real threat to their lives, but has certain characters confronting moral dilemmas that feel plausible in the face of such terrible circumstances. The character development doesn’t feel forced, but relevant. The stakes aren’t just inferred, but waiting around every corner. The themes regarding moral sacrifice are the same, but are presented in a fresher context.
Also, the zombies are scary again.
AMC recently renewed The Walking Dead for a fifth season, and Gimple is set to remain as the showrunner. Although the future may not be bright for the show’s core survivors, The Walking Dead itself appears to be alive and kicking.
The Walking Dead airs on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.