The commercial success of The Walking Dead has, up until this season, far outstripped its actual quality as a show. Prior to last season, the show was, for the most part, downright bad. That, of course, never stopped anyone from watching it, myself included. There is a certain draw to the apocalyptic.
The Walking Dead has always offered, in addition to its blood and gore, a kind of easy emotional catharsis, the kind that reinforces the age-old idea that American entertainment is both sentimental and emotionally unsophisticated. It has a special talent for parading around the tragic quality of death in its constructed world. In a given episode we might see a father let his guard down for a moment, only to have his son suffer a bite on the arm, which, rather than killing him immediately, sentences him to a slow, painful, and conscious death. Both the audience and the father must then watch the son slowly drift further and further from life, until, once finally undead, the father must kill him again by stabbing him in the head. Thus the parent must lose his child by his own hand twice, and we must stay glued to our Netflix. This, along with a bit of gore, gunplay, and suspense, has been, for the most part, why the show has been so successful, and, also, why it has been so bad. This recipe in many ways sums up the events that lead to the downfall of the Governor, the ominous, eye-patched villain from the third and fourth seasons, and it is no coincidence that his death will, most likely, eventually come to be the watershed moment to which people point when discussing the show’s newfound quality. For too long prior to the middle of last season, the show had relied on a combination of cheap sentimentality, sterile philosophy, and popcorn violence. It has now, however, settled on a far better formula. Whereas the show was once kitschy and safe, it is now leaner, edgier, less predictable, and perhaps most importantly, frightening. For a horror show, The Walking Dead has long missed the mark of what is truly terrifying—which, of course, is not the zombies but the people who live beside them.
The world we come upon after the prison’s destruction is far different from the one we saw before its habitation. The once sterile world of family men and cheap quotes about survival gives way to a world of sexual violence, horrible brutality, and systemized cruelty. We see Darryl fall in with a group of men who rob, pillage, and rape their way through the world, who govern themselves only through the mechanism of group violence. We see Beth, while healing in Atlanta, threatened with what amounts to state-sanctioned rape—an alleged cost of keeping the peace in an apocalyptic world. Miles away, meanwhile, Carol kills a child in cold blood, just so that she might be able to save the life of another. And, to cap it off, we stumble upon a group of cannibals, whose system of train-car transportation and numerical record keeping seems like something pulled straight out of the Holocaust. Forget the undead—it is the living who are the truly scary ones.
The show is also doing the little things right, in a way that it never has before. The characters for once feel real. The dissolution of the prison allowed us to get to know each of them in real time rather than flashback. It also feels less predictable. While the show has always been oddly paced, its strange temporal choices now feel intentional. The show seems to fully understand what its audience expects of it and, perhaps even as a result of its previous incompetence, can now manipulate those expectations quite cleverly. I doubt that I was the only one surprised to see that Gareth, the villain introduced at the end of the fourth season, was executed by the second episode of the fifth season. His presence looked like it was shaping up to be the central conflict of the season. In the landscape of the new show, it is a footnote.
More than anything else, the show seems to have a thematic focus and vivacity that it has never really had before. The funny thing, though, is that it does not seem to know what that focus actually is. “Are there any good people left?” the characters ask themselves as they stumble through the chaotic world outside of the prison. Can we maintain our humanity in the case face of such overwhelming cruelty, carnage, and terror?
The question they should ask themselves, however, is far darker and, in the end, far more complicated. After all, we do not ask, as we watch the parade of violence, rape, and torture that now defines the show, whether these men and women have lost their humanity. We ask if they ever had any in the first place.