Previously, on “The Walking Dead”

“The Walking Dead” returns this Sunday, February 8th, at 9pm on AMC.

I’ll be reviewing the back half of Season Five of the AMC drama here at Zone Six, and thought it might be ideal to get a refresher of the series out there and perhaps inspire some discussion on the merits of the post-apocalyptic drama.

I will take us through the show’s five-season history, season by season, death by death, token black character by token black character. That last one is a joke, mostly.

The show, as most dramas on AMC at the time, had very humble beginnings. Season One consisted of only six episodes. The pilot remains one of the highest-quality episodes of the series, though I won’t fail to mention the others as they come. It succeeds almost entirely based on two things: Andrew Lincoln’s performance as Rick Grimes, and the tight yet expository writing that introduces us to this new world.

There was a clear air of doubt when the show first began: Is it possible that we have a cinema-style post-apocalyptic zombie drama airing on television, one that is actually great?

The answer was a very resounding: maybe.

Commercially, the show has only become bigger and bigger, hitting ratings highs in its most recent season and smashing records left and right. Critically, the show darts between high praise and slams as if it were never quite sure what it wanted to be. To me, however its slights, I always know that I will be entertained by the hour of television offered by the AMC drama. And that’s what is important, right?

Though the first season ended on a slightly lame note (the obviously-CGI explosion remains at the forefront of my mind), it seemed evident that this little show had something to offer. Unfortunately, the first season was followed by the almost entirely-lackluster second season.

Our gang spent one entire season at Hershel Greene’s farm, and that ended up being one season too many. It wasn’t that the characters there were particularly dull (welcome to the group, Maggie and Beth), or that the farm made for an uninteresting backdrop (though it kind of did). It was that the plot during this season was one of the most stalling, uninterested stories I have ever had the misfortune to come across.

I want to note that it is mildly difficult to recap previous seasons of the series when the last time I watched these episodes was years ago. However, any good show should be able to point to some major milestones it achieved in any season. I don’t believe that The Walking Dead has any such major milestones in its second season, anything that ripples through to today.

The most notable of events is the death of our first main character (and credited as such): Dale Horvath. His death didn’t impact me in the way that I think the producers and writers hoped it would. Partly because we never did spend much time with him, but mostly because Dale hardly inspired sympathy. And so with his death I gladly took to Hershel as the new “wise man” figure of the group, and a much better wise man did he make.

The second notable event concerns the plot of the first half of the second season: the search for missing Sophia, Carol’s daughter. An uninteresting plot at best, it manages to spark one good episode: “Pretty Much Dead Already,” in which we discover that she has been in the barn all along as a member of the undead.

The final notable event of the season is the end of the unwanted love triangle between Rick, Lori, and Shane. Lori is revealed to be pregnant and Rick murders Shane to protect his family. It all comes across as very intense, but mostly, I think we were all pleased that the farm burned down and that our survivors could head off to a brand new season, love triangles left behind. “Better Angels” and “Beside the Dying Fire,” the two last episodes of Season Two, almost made up for the entire season, but it was entirely too late.

The third season introduced us to several new characters while also positioning the show in a way it had yet to properly do by diverging the storytelling into two different areas: the prison and Woodbury. Of course, as with all shows, we know that these storylines must converge eventually, but it was nice to see things from different perspectives.

Unfortunately, this meant spending a bit too much time with an unlikeable character, Andrea, and a too-devious villain, The Governor.

On the plus-side, season three introduced us to Michonne. In retrospect, I’m actually rather surprised that it was only two short seasons ago that she was introduced. She naturally became a huge part of the show, in part due to the great portrayal by Danai Gurira, in part due to her intense badassery, and in part due to the strong relationships she managed to forge with Rick, Carl, and Daryl.

Season Three also saw the welcomed return of Merle Dixon, though as is expected his return didn’t last very long. Through his death, we’re treated to some fine acting by Norman Reedus, who had until that point been largely relegated to being the resident crossbow-wielding badass with a soft interior. Daryl Dixon has gone through some fantastic character progression, mostly in seasons four and five, but it has always been a pleasure to have his no-nonsense character show up on screen.

We were also treated to the deaths of two rather dull characters: Lori and Andrea. It’s not to say that The Walking Dead has troubles writing women (see Michonne, Carol, Maggie, and Beth). It was simply that Lori and Andrea both came across as overly unlikeable, and both characters had long overstayed their welcome.

As a show-watcher only, I was rather surprised when Lori was killed off. It seemed she must be an integral part of the show: she was the wife of the main character. The mother of the only child character. However, her death was one of necessity, as it allowed all of our characters to grow in ways I wasn’t even sure I needed.

Season Three also introduces us to Tyreese and Sasha, siblings who have yet to reveal their last names. I can’t say that these two characters have ever struck a particular chord with me, however I’ve never minded having them around.

For a moment, let us reminisce about the fantastic episode that lay in the middle of the season. I’m talking, of course, about “Clear.” What this episode does right is what every other episode does wrong: it manages to have a single, clear purpose. It manages to trim the cast down to the most minimal amount necessary. It manages to feature the return of a beloved character without seeming contrived or out-of-place. And it featured some of the best acting the show had yet to see.

I could, in fact, fill this entire piece on the merits of “Clear,” but let me be clear (aha) by saying that if there were ever any doubt that The Walking Dead could be a good show, this episode was the one to prove that doubt wrong. Sure, the show is never consistent. And sure, we’re often treated to characters making the most ridiculous decisions. This episode showed us that the writers know how to tell a contained story. And they did, with massive success. The side plot of Carl and Michonne heading to find his family picture is touching and moving. It also gives us one of the more interesting friendships on the show, one that has strong reason to be lighthearted and fun: both of these characters desperately need it.

Beyond “Clear,” I cannot think of a single standout episode of Season Three. The finale doesn’t offer any of the climaxes that a viewer might have hoped for. The difficulties with the episode were two-fold: Firstly, it seemed that the height of the episode, the tying of the season, was Andrea’s death. That was ultimately unsatisfying. Secondly, and this ties into the first point, The Governor’s survival was unnecessary and only inspired a long sigh. His death would have been welcomed, and if his death had come at the hands of Andrea or Michonne, it would have made the entire season much cleaner, much tighter, and would have made for a much more enjoyable final hour.

I think I was right about that sigh, because come Season Four, we were treated to two very inconsequential episodes that solely featured The Governor. It’s not to say that David Morrissey is a bad actor, in fact, he is rather brilliant. It’s that the writing for The Governor was never particularly good, his motivations were never strong enough, and his brutality seemed to always come from some unnecessary bitterness.

I won’t focus on the inconsequential early episodes that focused on Rick becoming a farmer and the virus that plagued the prison, nor will I focus on the return of The Governor.

I would, however, take a moment of silence for Hershel Greene, who had a target on his head since the day he lost his leg. His death was brutal and merciless, and was perhaps the first death in the series that made me feel truly sad. Scott Wilson did a fantastic job, portraying tortured father to his daughters, mentor to Rick, and general wise man to the group. He will and has been missed.

What I will focus on is the consequences of The Governor’s attack on the prison, splitting our group up in a way we had never seen. Five groups of survivors. The will-they-or-won’t-they: Daryl and Beth. The dream team: Rick, Carl, and Michonne. The weird new family: Tyreese, Carol, and the two girls. The two that invite new characters to the show: Glenn and Tara. And the remainder: Maggie, Sasha, and Bob.

What follows are a string of fantastic episodes, some of the best the series, though none quite reaching the bars set by the pilot or “Clear.”

In particular, three episodes stand out to me to this day. “After,” the episode that finds Carl taking care of Rick and eventually having Michonne find them, has strong ties to “Clear,” which also only featured Rick, Carl, and Michonne. It was a slow-burn of an episode, quiet yet visually stunning, and the closing moment is one of the only few, truly hopeful and happy times we get in the series.

The second is “Still,” which featured only Daryl and Beth. It was a daring episode, in part because Beth had yet to be a very developed character, and in part because the goal of that episode seemed to be her trying to find alcohol. And yet it worked in a way that most other episodes do not, because it had a tight focus, and because Norman Reedus and Emily Kinney were very up to delivering the goods needed. I cannot say that this is a “must-watch” episode of the series, nor can I even say that it is in the top five of the season, but it was a specifically touching, character-driven episode.

The final is, of course, “The Grove,” which featured the death of a child at the hands of a human, the first shown in the series. It was a very unsettling episode, featuring some standout acting by Melissa McBride and the two children. It resolved the tension between Carol and Tyreese, the tension created from her killing Karen (I didn’t mention that storyline because it was largely irrelevant.) What “The Grove” managed to do was put viewers in a position they had not yet been, watching this show. Not tense for fear of zombies, nor sad due to a character’s death. It was simple terror at seeing this mentally unstable child murder her own sister.

Which leads us directly to our characters coming back together at Terminus, joined now by new characters Abraham, Rosalita, and Eugene. The cannibalism story was lifted directly from the comics, of course, but it makes a large amount of sense. In this post-apocalyptic world, some would be starving for food and would turn to their only alternative: each other.

It’s disturbing and cringe-inducing, and it all ended rather abruptly in episode three. Not to say this is a bad thing. In a series where the previous big-bad lasted much too long, I was extremely pleased to see Gareth and his gang killed off so quickly, allowing our characters to move on to their next destination.

“Four Walls and a Roof” is an early contender for the best episode of Season Five. It features one of the most intense and satisfying cold openings of the series, with Lawrence Gilliard Jr,’s excellent delivery of “I’m tainted meat!” It also marks the return of brutality from our characters, justifiably so, as they bludgeon Gareth and his friends to death.

What follows this strong episode is a slew of excellency. “Slabtown,” the standalone episode featuring Beth in the hospital, “Self-Help,” the episode featuring Glenn, Maggie, and Abraham’s group, and “Consumed,” the episode featuring Daryl and Carol, are all widely great episodes in their own rights. However, I felt their merits were squashed by an abrupt, unnecessary ending in the midseason finale.

Anyone that knows anything about the show could have predicted that Beth’s death was coming soon. Why, you ask? Because she was given rapid-fire character development in a way most other characters take seasons to achieve. I felt her death was completely unnecessary, sparked by the writers needing to add heightened emotion to the episode, needing to add an exclamation point to the end of their midseason finale. It felt shoehorned in and clumsy, though it’s not to say that her death was not or will not be impactful.

I can’t imagine for a moment what she thought she would achieve by stabbing Dawn in the shoulder with small scissors. Surely, it would be painful, but definitely not death-inducing. Maybe she knew Dawn would retaliate, and she knew someone would kill Dawn, and thus she got what she wanted. But then it seems selfish, surely there would be some more efficient way to dispose of her without potentially exposing your group of friends to open-fire from the hospital residents.

Beth’s death made me sad in a way Hershel’s did not. I felt like I didn’t get any closure with her character. I felt that she was just ready to begin to hit her potential. Emily Kinney stepped up her game at the end of Season Four and into this season, and I’m disappointed that I don’t get to see where else the show could have taken her character.

However, let us not dwell on the past, though I’m sure the show will. Maggie only just seemed to remember she had a sister as her sister’s dead body was carried out of the hospital. Noah joins our cast, and he will certainly feel some burden from her death. And I feel most of all that Daryl, our resident softie, may be the most impacted by it all.

I suppose we’ll see. If you’re up for it, AMC posted the first two minutes of the episode, which you can watch below.

What do you think? Is the show at a creative high? Does it deserve the millions upon millions of viewers it gets each week, breaking records on its way? Does it deserve critical praise alongside these viewers, or are you okay to accept it as entertaining television at best?

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