After the dust settled on filming season three of The Walking Dead, and Robert Kirkman looked at what had been accomplished, I imagine his thought process went something like this: “We have a fun show on our hands. It’s the biggest drama on television. It’s fast-paced, action-oriented, and entertaining as hell on most weeks. The Walking Dead is a good show. But how do we make it great?”
Kirkman must have looked at the evidence, and surmised that the show’s best episodes were mostly written by Scott Gimple, who wrote last night’s episode, who wrote “Clear,” the Michonne-centered episode a few weeks ago, and “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the episode where Zombie Sophie was shot that brought The Walking Dead itself back from the dead. That’s why Scott Gimple, I believe, was hired as next year’s showrunner. Because Kirkman wasn’t happy with a good show. He wanted a great one, and in last night’s episode, he definitely got another great hour out of Gimple.
Episodes like last night’s matter. They make us reconsider the show. It’s not in the same league as Breaking Bad or Justified, and it never will be. But as much as we have bellyached about the show over the course of three seasons, lately its entered into the second-tier of great television dramas, along with Boardwalk Empire. Episodes like “This Sorrowful Life” elevate The Walking Dead, but they matter most because they allow us higher contrast glimpses into the personalities of these people we’ve spent three years with. Merle has never been anything but an evil little sh*t. We like him because Michael Rooker is an outstanding actor, and like most of the prison gang, we accept him because Daryl accepts him. But last night, Merle demonstrated why it is that Daryl accepts him. There is a hero inside of him. Yes, he is a racist, asshole hero, but there is a hero nonetheless.
I also appreciate the refined approach The Walking Dead is taking lately, to, by centering each episode’s attention on essentially one character. It’s such a large ensemble cast that jumping around from character to character within each episode doesn’t give us enough time to get to know anyone. It was easy to break these recaps down into “10 Things We Learned” earlier in the third season because the show would develop smaller arcs for each of the characters within each episode, so it became something of a check list: What’s Andrea doing? What’s Rick doing? What are Glenn and Maggie doing? How’s the Governor, etc. etc. The last few episodes, in particular, have taken the Lost approach: Lasering in on one or two characters and moving the storyline along through that character’s interactions. In Lost, however, we always knew that something monumental would likely happen to the character they focused in on, but folks, with Merle, holy sh*t, I did NOT see that coming.