Even though The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television, it has a bit of an image problem. Fellow AMC tentpole shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad were getting a fraction of TWD’s ratings, but critics were paying the show much more respect. While Jon Hamm was getting SNL hosting gigs and Bryan Cranston was hauling home a wheelbarrow full of Emmys, it took years for any of the stars of TWD to get past the perception that they were just cogs in a zombie-killing machine.
Those perceptions weren’t exactly unfair. For the first three-and-a-half seasons TWD was on, it didn’t come close to its AMC brethren in the quality department; the characters were flat, the tone of the show veered wildly from hyper-violence to plodding ennui, and the overall feel of the show was that it was going to be a grim slog of scene after scene of walkers getting stabbed in the eye for a decade or more.
But lately, things have been looking up for TWD, to the point where it can stand next to Mad and Bad with its head held high. A quarter of the way into season five, it may not even be heresy to say that it’s one of the best dramas on TV. How did the show manage to pull off this feat?
AMC DIDN’T BUY INTO FRANK DARABONT’S “VISION”
Say what you will about how the network has treated its “auteurs” — both Mad Men“s Matthew Weiner and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan were subjected to tough contract negotiations and cost-cutting attempts — but in retrospect, they were right on the money when they fired original showrunner Frank Darabont halfway through season two.
You remember the first half of season two, right? We understand why you’d try to forget; Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his group had gotten bogged down at Hershel Greene’s (Scott Wilson) farm, with the women washing clothes and preparing meals and the men doing stupid things like using Glenn (Steven Yeun) as walker bait. There were rare encounters with walkers, and it seemed like most of that first half was spent ruminating about how grim things had gotten. It bored fans to tears, and as soon as new showrunner Glen Mazzara took over, the action picked up.
THE SHOW FOUND A BOSS THAT KNOWS COMICS
Mazzara did OK in the showrunner’s job, but his experience was with shows like Criminal Minds and Hawthorne, not comics-based shows like TWD. In his season and a half at the helm, he kept the action at a high level, but failed to develop most of the characters beyond stereotypes: Rick was conflicted, Michonne (Danai Gurira) scowled all the time, Hershel was the wise old sage, the Governor (David Morrissey) was pure molten evil. Things moved faster, but there was nothing for fans of good drama to sink their teeth into.
At the beginning of season four, Scott Gimple was elevated to the showrunner’s chair, and, given his background, the move made sense. His IMDb profile shows more of a bent towards genre shows and movies, like FlashForward and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengance. He knows the need to balance action and character in a genre show in a way that perhaps Mazzara didn’t. He also wrote or co-wrote some of the best episodes under Mazzara, including "Clear,” a moving episode that brought back Morgan (Lennie James) for the first time since the show’s pilot.
THAT NEW BOSS DISPATCHED THE GOVERNOR AND SCATTERED RICK’S GROUP
The show had gotten bogged down again at the prison in season three, and the show’s side trips to the seemingly peaceful community of Woodbury didn’t yield the dramatic weight that they were supposed to. Morrissey, an otherwise good actor, was too busy converting his British accent to something resembling Southern to really dive into the role, and everyone else in the town was basically a cartoon character, except for scientist Milton (Dallas Roberts).
In the first half of season four, Gimple gave the Gov a chance to go out in a blaze of glory, being humbled by the Woodbury massacre and then coming back to power with a small group of survivors, convincing them to attack Rick and the remaining Woodburians at the prison. As monumental as the character was to the comic series, it was good to see him get his comeuppance at the end of last season’s third half; Rick and the gang needed new adventures, not fighting the same enemy all the time. If the price was losing fan favorite Hershel, so be it. He got his showcase as a virus laid waste to the folks at the prison in the first half (a very smart clean-up strategy, by the way).
THE SHOW SLOWED THE ACTION, BUT KEPT EVERYONE ON THE MOVE
As all the group’s subsets made their way to Terminus in last season’s second half, the action slowed down tremendously. But, unlike when Darabont trapped everyone on the farm, Gimple knew that the best way to deepen everyone’s backstories is to have them on the move. We got to see Michonne bond with Carl (Chandler Riggs) and actually smile for once. Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney) bonded and we found out more about Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) younger sister, who had been severely underwritten for two-plus seasons.
Without taking time to build the characters up from archetypes to a semblance of real humans, the drama of how the group escaped Terminus and how Rick confronted Gareth (Andrew J. West) in the church at the end of the episode “Four Walls and a Roof” would have had no resonance; despite the fact that Rick put a gruesome end to Terminus’ head cannibal, he’s still a hero, despite how violent he’s become. It’s that kind of mindfuck that’s kept viewers watching and rooting for TV’s best antiheroes, like Breaking Bad’s Walter White.
Gimple’s act of scattering the group also gave us the chance to get introduced to Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), the fire-haired ex-military man who thought he was protecting the mulletted scientist Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who claimed he could reverse the zombie apocalypse, as they made their way to Washington. We found out in the episode “Self Help,” though, what was really going on: Eugene lied to get someone to protect him, and Abraham was trying to keep his mind off of how his violent nature scared his family into the clutches of the walkers. Such an introspective episode would have never been possible at the prison, where the overall feeling was of being trapped.
Oh, and if we didn’t get a deeper glimpse into Beth, we wouldn’t have been able to see her alone at Grady Memorial in last Sunday’s episode “Slabtown,” trying to figure out how to escape the payback-centered society created by Officer Dawn Lerner (Christine Woods).
CAROL BECAME THE STAR OF THE SHOW One of the most satisfying character transformations has been Carol (Melissa McBride), who went from abused and helpless in season one to the person who single-handedly sprung the group from Terminus in the season five premiere. This is a transformation that started almost as soon as they left the farm, and Carol was being asked to do more than cook dinner and it flourished as a mature relationship evolved with Daryl. But Gimple took Carol to another level in season four, especially in the episode “The Grove,” where she had to kill the unstable preteen Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and revealed to Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) that she killed his girlfriend Karen at the prison in order to keep the virus from spreading.
She was one of the first characters who realized that living in a zombie apocalypse involves tough choices and doing things you never thought you’d be capable of doing in the normal world. It’s a theme that’s been at the forefront of this entire season, and Carol’s been at the center of that moral conflict, her strength being balanced out by her regret at what she’s had to do.
Carol was the blueprint that showed Gimple that the living — the good, the bad, and everyone in between — are surely more interesting than the undead at this stage of the zombie apocalypse. And while the danger of being bit is still there — just ask Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gillard Jr.) — it’s now more akin to the persistent threats soldiers see up during wartime than the main thrust of the show. It also makes The Walking Dead a hell of a lot more interesting. It’s about time.
Joel Keller is one of the cofounders of the site Antenna Free TV and cohosts the weekly AFT Podcast. He was editor-in-chief of the now-defunct TV Squad, and since those heady days, he’s written about TV and other topics for The New York Times, The A.V. Club, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create, Vulture, Parade, Indiewire and elsewhere.