March 31, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “The Walking Dead”


There were so many ads for summer blockbuster movies during tonight’s Season 4 finale of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, it was almost like watching the Super Bowl.  One by one, the latest installments of Planet of the Apes, X-Men, Spider-Man, Transformers–pictures not opening for months, sometimes two or even three in a single commercial break–crowded in line to pay the only kind of homage that really counts in Hollywood… the kind you have to pay for.

That’s the power of The Walking Dead.  However unlikely–and however much some of us may bemoan that this spectacular season of The Good Wife, airing directly against it, gets such a tiny fraction of its rating–Dead is, by far, the biggest drama on all of television (you might be able to extrapolate a similar level of success when Game of Thrones returns to HBO next week, but that’s only available in 1/3 of US households), and even significantly ahead of its only other scripted rival, The Big Bang Theory.  In an era of overwhelmingly niche TV, the one thing that it turns out viewers of all ages and sensibilities want to watch together is the spectacle of zombies eating humans and getting slaughtered in turn.

Tonight’s season finale, written by showrunner/Executive Producer Scott W. Gimple and Producer Angela Kang, and directed by Michelle MacLaren (she was behind many of Breaking Bad‘s most classic episodes), didn’t so much resolve a season-long arc as serve as a set-up for Season 5.  All of Season 4 was rather oddly constructed, for that matter, perhaps the result of Gimple taking over as showrunner abruptly after Glen Mazzara’s exit.  The fall episodes were a lengthy epilogue to Season 3, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of survivors trying to establish a genuine new world at the prison they’d taken over, one which was destroyed by disease and ultimately by the Governor (David Morrissey), who was given several episodes in a parallel storyline of his own before arriving at the prison, murdering Hershel (Scott Wilson), and engineering the overrun of the prison by walkers, then finally being killed himself.

That splintered the cast into separate directions, and the winter episodes mirrored that, with each hour largely devoted to a different faction of the main characters, although in the end all were headed to Terminus, the seemingly cheery oasis located where the railway lines met, marketed with signs along the way that promised safety.  The finale was no exception for most of its length, focusing on the group consisting of Rick, his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) until they ran into the band of outlaws with whom Daryl (Norman Reedus) had warily fallen in.  (As usual on The Walking Dead, living humans were at least as deadly as zombies.)  They were on Rick’s trail because he’d killed one of their number earlier in the season, and what followed was one of the most ferocious sequences in a series not known for its restraint, as once mild-mannered Rick (flashbacks recalled the “good old days” when Hershel taught him how to farm at the prison, and Rick in turn tried to teach Carl) ripped out the throat of his attacker–with his teeth, not incidentally just as a walker would have done.

Those baddies bloodily dispatched, the trio and Daryl continued on their way to Terminus, which practically screamed THIS IS A TRAP! even before Rick helpfully explained how a snare is used to capture rabbits.  The nature of Terminus and its specific evil was left for next season, although that heaping grill of fresh meat out front seemed like a pretty clear sign of where things are going.  The last scene also reunited the Rick group with Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Glenn (Steven Yuen), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr), Tara (Alanna Masterson) and their new acquaintances Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and while that’s not quite yet the gang all being here, it set the stage for a full cast reunion next fall.

Overall, there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the latter half of Season 4, but Gimple and his fellow writer/producers did provide some strong character pieces for Lincoln, Riggs, Gurira, Yuen, Reedus, Coleman and Melissa McBride’s Carol, the latter two in the season’s most disturbing hour, in which Carol had to kill the emotionally damaged–and dangerous–young Lizzie.  Most of the actors rose to the challenges superbly, although it’s an open question whether Riggs will be able to support the increased level of responsibility the writers are giving him.  With the certain knowledge that Walking Dead will be around for seasons to come (and for Gimple, early confirmation that unlike other Dead showrunners, he’ll be back for a 2d consecutive year), the show could afford to take its time and build backstory for what will hopefully be the drama to come.

The challenge in Season 5 will be to make the awful captors of Terminus meaningfully different from the Governor and earlier evil humans, since at first glance their scheme seems to be a lot of facade and not much substance, making it unclear how much of a season can be sustained by Rick’s determination to save his team.  To be honest, though, it doesn’t seem to matter.  The Walking Dead may be little more than an entertaining if uninspired show, but it has the golden ticket, with a level of success that could tolerate seasons of disappointment before the ratings really took a hit.  Bloodthirsty undead–and the equally violent living–are exactly what America wants to see at this moment in pop culture history.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."