[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Since Scott M. Gimple officially took over, The Walking Dead has been on something of a bleak streak, taking Rick and the other survivors down an ever darkening and seemingly hopeless path, and putting familiar faces in a whole new kind of peril – the kind where people in an already pitiless world choke to death on their own blood before trying to chomp down on their former caretakers and eventually forcing an old man to break down and cry in the prison cell that's become his temporary home.
In terms of giving the storyline a sense that something is truly at stake, while demonstrating the writers can also generate a different kind of conflict for the survivors, season 4 has certainly been a success. The flu, the quarantine, and, certainly all the choking on blood has been a new trick for the series this season, and it has managed to give several different characters a brief moment in the spotlight. And sure, there's a pervasive darkness to the show that simply needs to be there all the time – otherwise it wouldn't be called The Walking Dead, right? The only question, then, is: How much longer can the series sustain this level of darkness before even the most ardent fan begins to cry out for a shift in tone?
That's definitely hard to say, as season 4 began with some of the best character work (and ratings) the series has ever seen, and, even through all the bleakness, it has still managed to deliver some compelling character moments from Rick, Carol, and Hershel that will hopefully lead to more from them down the line. So, maybe shifting the setting back and forth from the prison to the veterinary college, and focusing on a more diverse group of characters in a more evenhanded fashion has helped some to overlook some of the tonal issues that have sprung up in the last few episodes. One thing's for sure: the storytelling is certainly improved this season, but like the fence Rick is constantly trying to mend and fortify, a new weak spot has emerged in the form of its relentlessly bleak tone.
On the plus side, despite their dreariness (and the occasional questionable actions of one or more characters), the episodes so far this season have all been constructed in such a way that the pacing feels swifter, more urgent, and certainly more entertaining. The flu that swept through the prison was a worrisome plot for the show to develop, as bringing in something like a deadly flu virus could easily have become a plot sink the series had no intention of resolving until after the winter hiatus. So, in that regard, season 4 has legs where perhaps seasons past might have become mired in dealing with a viral outbreak inside a confined and terrifying space.
And now that Team Daryl has made good on securing the necessary medicine for the survivors in the prison, it's time to move on to the next soul-crushing storyline, as 'Internment' ends with a not-so-subtle tease of the Governor's return. From the looks of it, Philip didn't find his smile while he was away, so The Walking Dead can get ready for a different kind of drama to rain down on the prison and the former citizens of Woodbury.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Live Bait' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: