[EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published on November 26, 2014 to coincide with the season five midseason finale of The Walking Dead]
The Walking Dead takes its Christmas vacation this week with its midseason finale. So far, season five has been the best run of episodes yet. In fact, it’s been great, which is a surprise to anyone who watched the show in its earlier seasons.
Something happened near the end of season two and throughout season three, where the show started to find its legs and have glimmers of quality television. Season four was its coming-of-age, with the zombie series finally living up to its potential. Now, midway through season five, The Walking Dead and its stellar screenwriting has finally become appointment television, and The Walking Dead midseason finale is on everyone’s schedule.
The show always had some strong points—after all, we wouldn’t have watched it through its growing pains if it hadn’t. It had that badass opening theme by Bear McCreary. It had a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting. It had top-notch makeup effects and boasted the goriest violence on all of television. It had… well, that was about it.
Compared to the other AMC shows at the time—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon—The Walking Dead wasn’t exactly what people thought of when they referred to the new Golden Age of Television. But now the highest rated television show on cable can finally stand tall with, at the very least, its genre-show brethren Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. How did The Walking Dead get good? Here are ten reasons:
1. Characters Got Smarter
It makes sense that by season five, The Walking Dead’s characters started showing some of those delicious brains. In the world of the show, it’s been a few years since the zombie apocalypse, so most of the dummies and suckers of Georgia have been eaten or decapitated by eye-patched madmen. All that’s left is the cream of the crop. Smart characters make for great TV. There’s nothing more frustrating than yelling at your screen when someone does something stupid or goes into the wrong room. But when they’re doing exactly what you would do and still end up cornered and without options, nothing is more thrilling to watch.
2. Characters Got Deeper
Like late-90s video games, the characters of The Walking Dead finally jumped from two dimensions to three dimensions thanks to some key changes in the writing. Sometimes ensemble television shows have to start with broad stereotypes for the audience to keep up with the story, but it’s about time we started seeing different shades and depths to Rick, Daryl, and the rest. The last couple of seasons have focused as much if not more on character than plot, a sign of any great drama. Finding out that this band of survivors is actually made up of interesting individuals makes the choices they make that much more compelling.
3. Characters Got Names
Even better is that these added dimensions weren’t just added to the primary cast, but almost all of the ensemble as well. It’s hard to imagine that characters like Beth have been with the series since the beginning of season two, considering she didn’t get her own storyline until season four. Before that, Beth was just “Hershel’s Other Daughter.”
4. Plots Got Morally Ambiguous
Even from the very beginning, the question the series seemed to be asking was “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalyptic world order?” But the show struggled with ways to ask it. Even situations that seemed abhorrent, like having to murder Carol’s zombified little girl in season two, weren’t actually moral quandaries. She was no longer Carol’s little girl—she was a murderous zombie, just like the rest, and Rick realized she had to be put down hard and fast. But since then, the show has posed questions that don’t have clear right answers, and where no decision will end up a good decision but still need to be made. Characters must ask themselves what to do with hostages, who to leave behind, who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Watching smart, deep characters with names confront these moral quandaries makes for fantastic drama.
5. Plots Got Burned
The Walking Dead was typically as slow-paced as its title monsters. It even spent two episodes re-introducing us to The Governor in the middle of season four. Then, something happened. Actually, a lot happened. Quickly. The season ended with our heroes trapped in a boxcar prison by cannibals, looking like it would take several episodes for them to plan and execute their escape. It took less than one. Burning through plot is an extremely bold move for a series, as original plots are hard to come by. But it creates a thrilling sense that anything can happen and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. While that long-term prison escape could’ve been fun, watching it go up in flames along with that plot thread was way more exciting.
6. Characters Got Quiet
Do you know how we knew The Walking Dead asked the question “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalypse world order?” Because characters always asked that, out loud. All the time. Along with anything else they were thinking. The Walking Dead wanted to be a character drama from the beginning—the problem was, it had no grasp of subtext, treating its audience as dumb as its zombies. Too busy showing us bloody intestines and brains, it was telling us everything else. Now characters keep it closer to the vest, and the audience actually has to work a little to infer what they’re thinking from their actions and context and from what they’re not saying. You know, like good shows do.
7. The Show Got Courage to Try New Things
For the most part, the first three seasons are very similar. While The Walking Dead still has some wing-spreading to do, it’s gotten bolder experimenting with its tone and other aspects, like the aforementioned plot-burning. One great example is introducing the trio of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. Rather than try to adapt these larger-than-life comic characters to the moody realistic tone of the show, The Walking Dead embraced their cartoonish styles and had fun with these three. It injected a great deal of levity into a show that desperately needed it.
8. Episodes Got Focus
Along with playing with tone and plot, The Walking Dead has switched up its structure. Season 3’s best episode followed only Rick, Michonne and Carl on a side mission, and the writers seemed to take notice of its positive reception. Many episodes of the last two seasons play as little movies, telling complete stories with just a few focused characters. Rather than switching back and forth between plots, audiences got deeper into characters’ heads and tension builds more consistently, such as in The Governor’s Season 4 two-parter. The show has also been smart enough to switch it up to an ensemble-type show when the plot needs to race ahead. It’s a careful balance The Walking Dead has finally gotten a handle on.
9. The Show Got Better Mood, Music, and Direction
While most of the show’s improvements have been in its writing, The Walking Dead has beefed up its already decent direction. The last two seasons have combined mood, music, and cinematography to create a show that is as artsy and poetic as top tier dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. While the show’s theme has always been one of its highlights, the show has also learned to use music better and to stronger effect, though it sometimes still suffers from the Unnecessary Sad Montage.
Carol started the show as a background character with an a-hole husband. Even when her daughter went missing and ended up killed, Carol still remained on the sidelines of the plot. But somewhere along the way, all the crap her character has taken turned into an amazing set of armor and Carol emerged as a fascinating, multidimensional character, even replacing Daryl as The Walking Dead’s resident badass. She’s smart, tough, sexy, and watching her do her thing is a highlight of the show. In just the last season and a half, Carol has executed a surrogate daughter, thrown herself off a cliff in a van, and single-handedly wiped out a cannibal fortress. Meanwhile, Rick farmed some tomatoes.
Seasons 4 and 5 may prove to be the creative peak of The Walking Dead. Will the show continue this momentum into season 6 and beyond? Or will it end up like so many of its characters–dead on its feet, shuffling aimlessly until it’s finally put out of its misery.