The Walking Dead is a good show, sometimes a really good, but it may never be a great one. It may be the highest-rated scripted show on television, and it may feature more major character deaths than any other series, but part of what keeps The Walking Dead from being a great show is that it lacks both a central character we can truly invest in, and an definitive series arc. There was an arc in Breaking Bad (the rise and tragic fall of everyman Walter White) and seemingly one in Mad Men (the rise and fall and redemption(?) of Don Draper); we know where Sons of Anarchy is going (everyone will die); while The Wire examined the city of Baltimore from several different perspectives, humanizing both drug dealers and, in a way, the city of Baltimore itself.
But what is the point of The Walking Dead? Survival? Perhaps, but survival for what? Where is this show going? We’re in the middle of the fourth season now, and the characters in The Walking Dead — or at least those who are still alive — are not any better or worse off than they were at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. Robert Kirkman is moving characters around on a game board, introducing new ones and disposing of old ones — sometimes, smartly — but he’s not advancing them. On the rare occasion when The Walking Dead does bother to develop a character, we’re still left to wonder what it is that the character development informs.
Where, exactly, is The Walking Dead taking us, except to another supply run, another illness, another villain, another setting, or another character death? Robert Kirkman suggested a couple of months ago that he could take the comic series to 1000 issues. He could, and if the show were to go for 12 seasons, it could continue to be a good, action-driven series that I would probably watch until the bitter end. But until a point to the series avails itself, The Walking Dead may never enter into the pantheon of great shows (and even if a point does make itself known, the writing and some of the performances may keep it out of that pantheon anyway).
That’s not to say that a good show can’t have great episodes, and for 20 minutes last night, the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead was great. How we arrived toward the inevitable battle between The Governor and Rick, however, remains part of why The Walking Dead remains stubbornly good, rather than great. The logic behind certain decisions doesn’t always square with reality, and the “it’s an apocalypse, so people aren’t themselves” excuse isn’t always sufficient.
The Governor had no business attacking the prison, and the people of his camp had no business following an outsider who had been a part of their camp for only a brief time. Those people who backed the Governor were honestly too stupid to live. I mean, Rick makes a very reasonable argument with The Governor, while The Governor holds a sword to an old man’s head, and no one stops to think, “I wonder if we’re on the wrong side of this?” No, they just blindly follow the new guy with a patch around his eye. The Governor never really even did anything to prove himself with the new people, except to kill Martinez and Pete, and no one knew about that except Mitch. All of this would’ve made much more sense if The Governor had been attacking with his Woodbury crew, instead of people he picked up at an RV park.
Hell, the only person who kind of knew “Brian” was Lilly, and even she wasn’t dumb enough to fall for his bullsh*t “I love you” line, not that she’s terrible bright, either. I mean: When your kid is playing in the dirt during a zombie apocalypse, YOU KEEP A DAMNED EYE ON HER.
None of what happened in last night’s episode needed to happen, and in many ways, what happened didn’t make a lot of sense. How does Rick escape 20+ people holding a gun on him while he’s running backwards? How does Michonne manage to escape her captors while she’s tied up and right in front of them? Did not one of those people stop to think, “Hey! Let’s kill the woman five feet away from us before she circles back around and kills one of us?” Everyone on this show continues to be a terrible shot, unless they’re shooting at walkers, in which case they hardly ever miss. Why would The Governor mow down the fences, which were the only reason he allegedly wanted the prison in the first place? Maybe he could fix the fences, as he muttered to Hershel, but once he started blowing up the prison, he brought on exactly what he’d warned: More biters.
But none of that really changes the devastating outcome of the episode, and it was devastating. You knew, as soon as Hershel offered up during Rick’s speech that sad grin (I couldn’t tell if it was hopeful or resigned) that he was a goner. It was one of the hardest deaths we’ve had to suffer on the series. It was heartbreaking; it felt like losing a grandparent, although it might have been even more difficult if we’d been allowed a second to process it before the gun shots broke out.
We also lost The Governor, and that was one incredibly satisfying death, not only because Michonne finally got her revenge (THROUGH THE BACK), but Lilly was able to put a bullet in his head in a way that said, “This is what you wrought, asshole. I hope you’re happy now.” I hope Lilly sticks around, too: She’s a worse mother than Lori, but at least she has some chutzpah.
There is some question about whether The Governor ever really cared that much about the prison in the first place, or whether he was only interested in getting his revenge on Rick. When he gave the order to “KILL THEM ALL” and effectively destroy the prison, it may have been because he’d lost Penny 2.0 and just didn’t care anymore, or it may be that he never cared about the prison in the first place. If he’d really cared about survival, he’d have obviously accepted Hershel, and then Rick’s deal to co-habitat. But the moment after he killed Martinez, he effectively became The Governor again. It was only a matter of going through the motions and arriving at the inevitable. Quite frankly, the inevitable came half a season too late. The Governor should’ve died at the end of season three, and though this episode was both satisfying and heartbreakingly tragic, it came at the expense of two wearisome episodes that never needed to happen. Why redeem The Governor, only to take his redemption away, and then kill him? It’s that kind of needless inefficiency that keeps The Walking Dead from being great.
There was other carnage, as well. Daryl blew up Mitch’s tank, then killed Mitch with his cross-bow because Daryl continues to be an amazing bad ass (even if his “That’s not Carol” argument with Rick was not particularly well acted. Daryl should stick to blowing sh*t up and nodding. Daryl gives good nod.).
Tara’s lesbian girlfriend was also killed, by Lizzie, saving Tyreese’s life in the process, meaning that Carol — who trained Lizzie — effectively saved Tyreese. Would that be enough for Tyreese to forgive Carol for the botched cremation of his girlfriend? Or will it even matter, since it’s fairly obvious now that Carol didn’t actually kill his girlfriend, but was covering for Lizzie who directly saved Tyreese’s life? (Honestly, given how much time was devoted to that subplot this season, it was given awfully short shrift in the mid-season finale).
And then there is Judith, who is presumed dead. But is she? Really? It seems doubtful. We never saw her body, and there were others who could’ve gotten Judith to safety. Maybe Tara has her? Maybe Michonne does? Or maybe she is dead, and the writers just couldn’t bring themselves to feature a dead baby. But at least we were able to revisit Rick’s grief face, with Carl’s grief-weeping as a bonus (goddamn, that kid cannot act).
Besides the losses, the other important thing to come out of the mid-season finale was the death of the prison. It’s gone, and when the series returns in February, everyone will be separated. Who knows how long it will take for them to find one another again. The entire second half of the season may just be about regrouping. Daryl and Beth are together; Sasha, Bob, and Maggie are in another group; Rick and Carl are by themselves; Glenn is on the bus with several others; Tyreese and the kids are in yet another group; and who knows where Michonne is, though it is possible that she hooks up with Lilly and Tara, who are also still alive. One of those groups is also bound to run into Carol at some point.
I don’t know, however, if switching locations again can be considered advancement. Kirkman is reconfiguring the groupings again, and moving them along to new settings, where supply runs will undoubtedly dominate much of next season, as they have in past seasons. New villains may appear, or additional obstacles will be erected, but that doesn’t bring The Walking Dead any closer to a point. “What’s [Meghan] going to be in this world?” Lilly asks The Governor midway through the episode, after questioning his decision to attack the prison. “Alive,” The Governor says. That is a fairly apt representation of the series and its surviving characters: They’re “alive,” but we still have no idea what they’re going to be in this world, or even if there is a point to their survival. There are a lot of unknowns in The Walking Dead with which we have no answers, but the biggest problem with the series so far is that no one is even asking the questions.