[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
It's amazing the kind of positive feeling The Walking Dead is able to elicit from watching its characters walk (or run) away from a location they were undoubtedly hoping would turn into something safe, secure, and permanent. But unfortunately for Rick, Carl, and the rest of the ever-dwindling survivors in their company, the needs of the story continue to outweigh what little comfort these perpetually unlucky people are ever able to achieve.
In that sense, the season 4 mid-season finale, 'Too Far Gone,' had many of the same elements that gave 'Beside the Dying Fire' its feeling of welcome change in environment and circumstance for the characters. But the episode also served as a nice parallel to that story by the way it portrayed Rick's handling of adversity, challenge, and someone trying to usurp what was ostensibly his.
So, on some level, the Governor and Shane wound up having a lot more in common (narratively speaking, of course) than anyone likely first thought. And while Philip/Brian and Shane probably had a whole slew of psychological issues that were at least partially to blame for their continual fixation on former Sheriff Grimes, it just makes you wonder: What is it about what Rick has that makes everybody (including the writers) want to take it away from him?
For the last two episodes, the show has been riding along with the Governor and his special brand of crazy just to show the audience how deeply affected he was by the fall of Woodbury, and the lengths to which he would go for a little vengeance. Despite all the problems with the character's charmless and rather binary approach to good and evil in season 3, there was at least some effort made to show the Governor as some sort of parallel to Rick, and to demonstrate the kind of darkness that can manifest in someone with so much weight on his shoulders.
While that parallel managed to be clear, it wasn't exactly layered with much meaning regarding either character. But here, credited writer Seth Hoffman manages to use that same parallel to show (and explicitly talk about) how time and a little therapeutic farming have turned Rick into a different man, while Philip retreated back into the comfort of the same.
It would be nice to think that Rick's change, his willingness to welcome into his group those who would approach him with guns drawn and by driving a tank up to his front door, is an extension of how the show's writers view the next steps the show will take.
In other words: the recognition that change is difficult, uncertain, and likely fraught with even more unexpected ugliness, but it's also the right thing to do. After all, it's hard to image anyone doesn't want The Hershel Greene Knowing Smile of Approval for having finally unlocked the achievement of humanity and forgiveness. And in the case of the writers behind the show, the approval comes from knowing the show's strengths and its weaknesses, and that leaving the prison behind was a long time coming.
That's not to say the show hasn't found some interesting stories to tell in the prison; the beginning of the season certainly felt lively enough, and it even mined the depths of misery when it gave way to a killer flu wreaking all kinds of havoc on the survivors. But as the show proved with 'Too Far Gone,' there are two things The Walking Dead does quite well: action through conflict and action through constant motion.
Perhaps its ironic that the show's best qualities come from maintaining a steady level of liveliness and display of kinetic energy, but there's no doubt that watching Rick and Carl walk away from the prison yields all sorts of hope about where the story will find them next, and how long it can keep the survivors moving.
The sense that some much-needed progression was on its way was obvious enough from the show's promise that "some will fall" during the mid-season showdown. But at this point in the series, it may have brought forth more of an expectation of hope for the future than worry over who among the survivors would not be around come February.
If anything, The Walking Dead has demonstrated that big events generally shake up the status quo enough to give the show a bit of a narrative lift. Sure, sometimes that shake-up can result in a sweaty Rick yelling at ghost Lori, but that same event essentially opened the door for Tyreese to join the show (and maybe someday the show will find a way to actually use the character, so there's hope in that as well).
At any rate, for a program that basically thinks of its characters as zombie fodder first and people second, the passing of Hershel actually registered more as a signifier for the evolution of the show than it did as a truly harrowing event. One side effect of the series choosing to depict its characters becoming hardened against the constant, oppressive threat of death is that the result is mostly true for the audience as well; those watching have been programmed to see the fall of a character as the beginning of something new, not necessarily the end.
That's not to say the death of Hershel – or the apparent death of Judith – wasn't affecting; it was. But those events, as well as the death of the Governor, will likely be remembered more for allowing the show to open up a new chapter than for drawing out sentiment or true emotion.
The Walking Dead at least partially owes its tremendous popularity to the promise that anyone's number could be up at a moment's notice. And, if anything, the show has established it's as difficult to continually illustrate the stakes of an environment that harsh as it is in one where the survival of characters is entirely implicit.
In that regard, the show can be applauded for finding what it is these deaths can mean and signify, and for demonstrating it as well as it did in 'Too Far Gone.'
The Walking Dead season 4 will continue in February 2014 on AMC. Check out a preview below: