Undead and Loving It: How Did AMC’s Flagship Show Suddenly Get So Good?

Gene Page/AMC

I long felt that The Walking Dead punished its critics the same way its bedraggled heroes dispatched ravenous zombies: by stabbing them in the brain. The show was noisy, violent, and unrelentingly dumb. Which wasn’t itself a problem: There are worse ways to spend Sunday night than watching meatheads attack each other. What frustrated me most about the first four seasons of The Walking Dead was the way it squandered its unique potential. No series in the history of television has ever been as malleable as this. Because of its setting — a dystopian hellscape ravaged by flesh-eating monsters — The Walking Dead was capable of making wholesale changes in the time it takes most shows to clear their throats. Why? Because its characters existed in a dystopian hellscape ravaged by flesh-eating monsters. There were no dead ends, only open, undead mouths. So the fact that we were stuck with milquetoast dum-dums like Shane, Dale, and Andrea as long as we were was infuriating. These characters should have been buying the farm years ago. Instead, they were camped out on one.

Not that the audience seemed to care. As the corpses piled up, so did the viewers. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on television among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, and it’s not even close. (As Vulture’s Joe Adalian tweeted yesterday, the demo rating for this week’s episode, a lusty 7.2, is greater than the combined total of the four broadcast networks’ programming for the night.) For a while, I argued that this ratings dominance ought to make AMC more committed to improving its signature product. Successful shows have flexibility that struggling series only dream about. As long as The Walking Dead larded each hour with a few gruesome kills and a half-dozen instances of that rotting-melon squish sound, it was free to Trojan-horse all manner of strangeness into the proceedings. But it didn’t and no one seemed to care. So I took a cue from T-Dog (R.I.P.!), shut my trap, and retreated to the background. The Walking Dead didn’t need to be good. And I didn’t need to keep complaining about it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the glue factory. The show that returned for its fifth season last month isn’t just improved, it has taken a wildly unexpected turn toward being great. At first, I wondered if my time away had simply mellowed me. After all, it’s far easier, not to mention more pleasurable, to watch a show for what it is rather than what it isn’t. And a summer spent slogging through the amateurish splatter of The Strain made me newly appreciative of the essential competence of The Walking Dead. (A good makeup team can mean the difference between Hollywood and Ed Wood.) But thanks to the canny efforts of third showrunner Scott M. Gimple, The Walking Dead’s improvements are more than just cosmetic. For the first time in its wildly successful existence, the show is using brains for more than just dinner. Here’s how The Walking Dead has gotten smarter.

1. If it moves, don’t kill it.

Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara made a number of odd decisions during their respective runs in charge of the show,1 but their shared love of a fixed location is at least defensible. Just as survivors of a civilization-ruining apocalypse are likely to seek out a semblance of stability, so, too, are survivors of the vacation-ruining professional apocalypse known as showrunning. Locking The Walking Dead into Hershel’s horse farm and, later, the prison made for a smoother production: Actors knew where they were going every day, sets could be prepped and reused, and the time spent crashing through the backwoods of Georgia could be kept to a minimum. As relaxing as this may have been for those involved with the making of The Walking Dead, it was absolutely tranquilizing for the audience. Sure, the dead could walk, but, for three and a half interminable seasons, the living barely managed an amble.

Things are different now. Rick and his unmerry band of survivors are rootless and wretched, scavenging from flooded depots and sheltering in spooky churches. Their desperation is a constant reminder that safety is an illusion in this ruined world. Hershel’s home-cooked meals — and later, Hershel’s burgeoning vegetable garden — were the narrative equivalent of Lucy’s football: Rick kept running toward them, only to fall flat on his face when they were inevitably taken away. Now falling is all he does.

Walking-Dead-5Gene Page/AMC

Movement like this means nothing can overstay its welcome. We’ve had four episodes this season and four different locations. There’s been no complacency because there’s been no lull. Gabriel’s church had a dark secret, but it took only a week for it to be revealed. And while the broad strokes of Beth’s sojourn into “Slabtown” on Sunday night were familiar — a fake sanctuary, a leader2 making bad choices for the sake of the greater good — the specifics were fresh enough to draw me in. (All horror movies have the same rhythm; it’s the melody that sets them apart.) A similar strategy has been employed with antagonists. Judging by past experience, Andrew J. West’s Gareth figured to be the big bad for the entire year; the bite he took out of Bob threatened to be more of an hors d’oeuvre than a main course. But instead, he was dispatched (with extremely graphic prejudice!) a week ago in the chilling “Four Walls and a Roof.” It was a welcome surprise. David Morrissey’s peacocking governor was a cruel tyrant in search of a throne, but the longer he stuck around, the more his menace started to look like petulance. Gareth, by contrast, sank his teeth into the show — and, yes, into his fellow survivors — and then exited while the wounds were still fresh. If The Walking Dead has taught us anything, it’s that there are always plenty of monsters waiting in the wings.

2. Hope floats.

Of course, all that momentum is pointless without a destination. I haven’t read The Walking Dead comics, but everything I’ve been told from those who have is that the entire point of the series is, essentially, nihilistic. It’s a story about what happens after the credits roll on the zombie movies: There is no happy ending. There is, in fact, no ending. Just a forever slog into extreme misery and unavoidable death.

Walking-Dead-1Gene Page/AMC

This kind of darkness could work on the page, but is anathema to series television. Recognizing this, Gimple hasn’t really brightened the series — did I mention the way Gareth was hacked to death while he screamed for mercy? — but he has cracked the window just a tad. The missions thus far this season have been less about chasing vague goals or villains and more about taking care of people we already know and love: Carol taking down Terminus, Tyreese protecting Judith, Daryl driving off in search of Beth. Even better, Gimple introduced a new group of survivors who have dreams that go far beyond “not having their tendons pulled from their bodies like piano wire.” Michael Cudlitz’s Abraham (a.k.a. Mustachioed Guile from Street Fighter) and Josh McDermitt’s Eugene3 (a.k.a. Dollar Store Kenny Powers) may be bluffing about being able to restore the world to its previous, non-nightmarish state, or they could be crazy. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Just suggesting the possibility of a happy ending expands the scope and raises the stakes for the series in a way it very much needed. Whatever actually awaits the white school bus in Washington, D.C., is irrelevant compared with the excitement and potential injected into the show by the journey. The Walking Dead doesn’t have to be relentlessly bleak just because every character is going to die. The same is true in our universe, and we still find time to smile occasionally. The Walking Dead is a stronger show when it tries to make us care instead of trying to prove a point.

3. Character counts.

As I said above, the greatest gift the zombies give The Walking Dead — aside from stratospheric ratings, obsessive fandom, and general night sweats and terror — is the constant potential for change. Where other shows have to gin up all sorts of uncharacteristic plot shenanigans in order to eighty-six characters, on The Walking Dead it’s business as usual. Still, turning problematic protagonists like Lori and Merle into kibble is only half the battle. It’s never been much of a challenge for Walking Dead writers to clear the decks. The rub has always been restocking them.

That trend began to reverse last year, the first under Gimple’s tenure. With his tree-trunk arms and a torso like a barrel, Chad L. Coleman is a physically imposing presence as Tyreese. But Gimple recognized what David Simon saw years ago when he was casting the crucial part of Cutty on The Wire: Coleman’s eyes aren’t just windows into his soul — they’re distress calls. There’s a gentleness and ambivalence to Coleman that belies his size. Gimple has smartly written Tyreese in the direction of that contradiction. While his sister, Sasha (the excellent, fiery Sonequa Martin-Green), throws herself into battle with bloodthirsty gusto, Tyreese prefers to hang back: maintaining the fragile peace between the survivors, caring for baby Judith. A severed limb and a slaughtered extra can demonstrate the extremity of The Walking Dead’s universe, but nothing communicates the resulting anguish and sorrow like Coleman’s perpetually collapsing face.

Gimple has also done wonders with the characters he inherited. For years, Beth Greene seemed as inessential as her late father’s beloved apple butter. The thought of a bottle episode built around her seemed impossible — unless AMC provided us with the bottle. But Emily Kinney has done much to locate the steel buried beneath her character’s sweet exterior. Watching her transform into a comfortable killer has been more jarring than seeing the same thing happen to Carl. Melissa McBride’s Carol has also been massaged into a fascinatingly complex antiheroine, willing to do the unspeakable but unafraid to accept the consequences.

Still, the most important repairs have been done to the show’s ostensible star. For far too long, Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes was a leader in name only, a shaky head case who talked a good game about making tough decisions but usually wound up making grievous mistakes. Rick still isn’t winning any popularity contests, not among fans nor his fellow survivors. But what I like about the character under Gimple is that Rick now appears as haunted by his own errors as he is by the horrors of the world around him. Rick is a stronger leader now, in that he doesn’t shy away from direct, often violent action. But there’s no question that this tack has broken something essential within him. He no longer makes promises he can’t keep. It’s just that the ones he does make tend to involve machetes.

Also, the beard is working for him. Never discount a good apocalypse beard.

4. Believe in Baltimore.

There’s a rule in movies that I’ve taken to calling the McKellen Effect. The idea is that Shakespearean actors are the only ones capable of making the high nonsense of sci-fi and fantasy seem reasonable. Have you ever looked at Gandalf’s dialogue in The Fellowship of the Ring? Or how about Magneto’s in the first X-Men flick? There’s clumsy, there’s Gerald Ford, and then there’s this. It takes a certain kind of gravitas and a special kind of seasoned ham to sell this stuff, and British stage actors seem to have it in spades.

A similar rule ought to be established for television, and it goes like this: When you need to convey a grim, fatalistic universe with no chance of salvation and no time for sentimentality, you hire a veteran of The Wire. AMC has not been shy about raiding the IMDb page of one of the greatest series of all time to burnish its considerably less well-regarded flagship. And thank goodness for that. I’ve already raved about Coleman’s turn as Tyreese and, until the day he was Lady and the Tramped by a hungry walker and a hungrier Gareth, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (forever D’Angelo Barksdale) brought a much-needed brightness to the show as Bob. (Sure, Bob died. But at least he died smiling on a comfortable couch! Real talk, that’s basically the Walking Dead equivalent of this.) Since his introduction a few weeks ago, Seth Gilliam (Detective Carver) has done raw, emotional work as Gabriel, a parish priest with blood, quite literally, on his hands. Can other former residents of West Baltimore be far behind? On the B.S. Report yesterday, I voted for Jamie Hector to join the cast — maybe even as Marlo Stanfield, a human being with the moral compass (and appetite) of a zombie. But why stop there? Bring me Slim Charles, Kima Greggs, Randy Wagstaff — hell, bring the Bunk out of retirement to start decapitating fools in his pink bathrobe.

Walking-Dead-4Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead is likely to remain the most violent show on television, but, thanks to the addition of all these talented Wire veterans, it’s also become the most diverse. This is both admirable and welcome, particularly after the early missteps of the Darabont years — seriously, the show is set just outside of Atlanta and there’s only one African American in the cast? When Danai Gurira’s Michonne sat with Gilliam’s Gabriel on the stairs outside the church the other week and had a conversation informed by their wildly divergent perspectives, it was one of the few times this year that a cable drama has passed what is essentially a racial Bechdel test: two characters of color talking about something other than a white person.4 That The Walking Dead does this regularly shouldn’t be noteworthy in 2014. But it is.

5. Get dark, just be sure not to trip.

The Walking Dead is a savage, often horrific series. That has been true from the beginning. (The show’s true MVP is likely executive producer/effects coordinator Greg Nicotero, who, after 55 episodes, still takes the time to lovingly render each zombie as uniquely as a snowflake. A bloated, pus-leaking snowflake, but still.) Even during the series’ lowest creative points, it could still be counted on for a jagged rush of adrenaline and, perhaps, an occasional dry heave. The violence was never the issue with The Walking Dead. It was all the turgid downtime between fight scenes that truly dragged.

Now, everything is clicking because there’s no longer any real distinction between the show’s two settings. The ferocity of the zombie encounters is now inextricably linked to the anxious, huddled hangovers that inevitably follow. The quiet that filled Gabriel’s church when Gareth and his fellow fine young cannibals entered was agonizing — but it was nothing compared with the deathly hush that fell once Rick and his team had finished their slaughter. Graves aren’t silent on The Walking Dead. Only the living could ever be so defeated or so still.

I still hate gore for gore’s sake and can’t quite believe that we, as a country, are 1,000 percent OK with our signature Sunday-night show featuring one dude eating another dude like a novelty drumstick while the second dude watches. But all shows deserve the right to be the best version of themselves that they can be. The difference between The Walking Dead today and the show it once was is that it now appears capable of making an artistic case for its demented choices. In this leaner, unquestionably meaner incarnation, The Walking Dead has become a show not about life or death, but about hunger. Of all the basic instincts that make us human — the need for shelter and companionship, for laughter and the occasional lollipop — hunger is the most primal and the least forgiving. Hunger is what we share with the fiercest animals and, when left to fester, it’s what can easily lower us to their level. As humans become even more of an existential threat to our lead characters than zombies, the question The Walking Dead poses is no longer “Can we survive?” It’s: “How much of ourselves will we have to sacrifice along the way?” Living is always preferable to dying. But it’s also a whole hell of a lot harder.

These weren’t questions I was expecting to wrestle with when watching The Walking Dead. (Previous seasons had me stuck on more mundane matters, like: Where’s Carl? And: He cannot be serious with that hair, can he?) Four episodes in, the fifth season of the show has traded the unwieldiness of a katana for the surgical precision of a scalpel. Not many series have been able to make a creative leap so late in their run, but surprise reanimation has always been The Walking Dead’s thing. As I said at the top, the show doesn’t need to be good. But I’m so pleased that suddenly, surprisingly, it very much is.

Filed Under: TV, Walking Dead, AMC, Zombies, The Wire, Horror, the strain, frank darabont, Glen Mazzara, Josh McDermitt, Chad L. Coleman

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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