One thing is certain…The Walking Dead shows no signs of lightening up as it approaches middle age (in TV years, that is). If anything, season four is the darkest and most violent yet. While not as great as season three (the series high point so far), these 16 episodes further confirm that there’s no better TV horror out there.
The story picks up several months after the end of season three, when our growing group of survivors managed to defeat The Governor’s plans to take over or wipe them out. Still living in the prison, life is reasonably idyllic for awhile, with everyone content to make this place home. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has since removed himself as the defacto leader and hung up his guns, content to be a farmer and father while an appointed council makes the decisions. But increasing zombie hordes and a lethal flu virus once again has them fighting for their lives, not-to-mention someone in the camp whose been feeding small animals to these things. Soon after, The Governor returns with a new army for another deadly assault on the prison, forcing everyone to flee, who end up in splintered groups.
The first eight episodes are as great as ever. Characters introduced in season three become an important part of the ongoing narrative (such as Tyreese, well played by Chad Coleman), while a few news ones arrive, who are either zombie fodder or will obviously be important parts of season five. Most of the core cast remains, but sometimes not for long. In usual [The Walking Dead](series:201193) tradition, no character is guaranteed to survive until the next episode, and saying goodbye to some of them is heartbreaking. We also learn a bit more about the pasts of the show’s most interesting characters, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). And yeah, Rick’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs) is as unlikable as ever.
Storywise, the first half of season four continues the show’s bleak intensity, pulling no punches with its gore, moral ambiguity and body attrition (including the onscreen deaths of children). Especially impressive is the three episode return of The Governor (David Morrissey), the best villain the show ever had. In fact, episodes six-through eight are almost exclusively about him…the months after losing everything at Woodbury to his return to megalomaniacal power with a new batch of survivors. What’s especially cool about this side story is it lures us into actually liking the guy for awhile - no small feat considering how despicable he was in season three - before he returns to his old self and commits even more horrific acts.
The remaining eight episodes can’t quite maintain the same momentum. Most feature the cast, now in smaller groups, endlessly wandering, not knowing who else survived the prison attack. Major characters disappear for long stretches as certain episodes focus almost exclusively on one of the four groups of survivors. These episodes are still interesting; we’re intrigued by messages & maps luring everyone toward Terminus (a supposed safe zone and obvious set-up for season five), and some truly disturbing events transpire that’ll shake you to your core. Yet at the same time, the final eight episodes are arguably the most meandering the show’s been since season two. Season four does end with one hell of a cliffhanger, though.
Despite the somewhat anticlimactic second half, season four of The Walking Dead is another binge-worthy collection of episodes. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, this is more of a transitional season than anything else, setting up some pretty epic future events. If that turns out to be the case, then its less-compelling second half will ultimately be viewed as a necessary part of the big picture.