AMC’s hit show, The Walking Dead, debuts its fifth season tonight, amped up by ambiguous trailers and several creator interviews lauding its growth, its gore, and its unique presence as a sort of B-rank alternative to Emmy fodder like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Although the show still maintains some of cable’s highest ratings, even die-hard fans can figure out why The Walking Dead seems to have fallen in status since its philosophical first season.
The truth is, The Walking Dead has more than a tendency to be a little boring, a little drawn-out, and a little feeble at creating interesting, likable characters (with a few important exceptions). All of these things seem like a huge problem for good television, and yet fans keep making excuses to return again to the sweaty, Georgian zombie apocalypse, even with no end in sight.
Personally, I still think The Walking Dead is one of the must-watch shows on TV right now. But with all these criticisms driving so many viewers away, what’s left to enjoy?
A few things, actually.
First, the show is growing stronger.
After the deaths of Lori and Andrea (among the characters fans loved to hate, despite creator attempts to humanize them), the tedium of the farm, and the when-will-this-flu-thing-be-finished situation at the prison, The Walking Dead finally challenged its viewers and amped up its momentum by 1.) removing one of the best-loved, best-developed characters from the screen, and 2.) by introducing several new, non-annoying and definitely mysterious characters who contribute whole-heartedly to the plot.
For example, audiences saw Rick secretly banish Carol from the prison last season, dooming her to survive on her own in a world full of flesh-hungry humanoids. A few things made this an interesting—and risky—move for the show.
Carol, in my opinion, had already proven herself to be one of the best-written characters on The Walking Dead. She grew from a timid battered woman, to grieving mother, to weapons master, to a full-on challenge to Rick’s no-nonsense leadership in the course of her screen time. She developed an intriguing relationship with Daryl, another fan-favorite character via the perfect combination of crossbows and surprisingly innocent displays of affection.
Carol’s banishment revealed the irony of Rick’s leadership, since Rick had recently performed crimes not dissimilar to hers (murdering, without permission, a few weak links for the sake of the many). Her actions made audiences not only question the ethics of her act, but also the ethics of the show’s hero—who, by the way, has never been allowed to separate from the many flaws that make him so compelling).
Since that moment, Carol’s brief reappearances always arrive with all the fullness and complexity of her role as the warrior-mother of the apocalypse, every time tasking viewers to consider what exactly that role entails in the shattered morals of this new world.
But Carol’s absence also left a little room for some compelling newcomers last season, namely Abraham Ford and Dr. Eugene Porter, two travel companions on the way to Washington, D.C. Why? Because Dr. Porter, an odd, almost illogical man wary of using too many words, claims to know the secret to curing the zombie disease. His friendship with Abraham, a hardened gun-toter still sensitive to the murder of his family, leaves much to be discovered about their mysterious mission and the validity of Dr. Porter’s claim.
Second, the cynicism of Terminus.
Many fans of the show complain that the plot mostly serves as a road to nowhere, landing characters in similar situations again and again. But last reason, that road to nowhere lead not to a farm or a prison, but to Terminus, the mysterious “end of the line” promising shelter and peace—and delivering the opposite.
One of the major themes of The Walking Dead revolves around the concept of finding utopia in the midst of disaster, whether that comes from a person or a place or just an idea. When Terminus—the first place literally advertised as a safe haven for all—turns out to be some sort of trap, the audience is forced yet again to consider reality in the zombie apocalypse. Does all life stop in these “dead” ends? Can people still trapped in the end of the world still find redemption? And if they do, what does it look like?
Third, Daryl may still be one of the most beloved TV characters of all time.
Several fans of The Walking Dead have threatened to stop tuning in if writers decide to kill Daryl Dixon, the most popular character—if Norman Reedus’ meet-and-greet lines at Comic Con are to be considered—on the show. Aloof, independent, and always looking like the grumpy result of a bad nap, Daryl still maintains his position as one of the most sensitive, admirable characters on the show.
The angel wings sewn on the back of Daryl’s motorcycle vest cater to The Walking Dead’s less-than-subtle symbolism, they work to remind us of Daryl’s strangely elevated status among the group of survivors. Perhaps because he lived a fairly solitary life before the zombie disease wiped out most of the population, Daryl forms connections with the group without expecting much in return. And when he does form connections—for example, his sacrificial devotion to his older brother, Merle—he does so with a surprising amount of sensitivity, like the Cherokee rose bestowed upon Carol after the devastating loss of her daughter, or cradling baby Judith after the tragedy of her birth.
Daryl, despite his gruffness and stoicism, maintains one of the clearest moral centers on the show, a good sign when considering his countless fans of the otherwise ghastly horror show he occupies.
And in a show often criticized for its pattern of unlikeable characters, the fact that viewers tune in to watch one specific person every week certainly says something about the lure of The Walking Dead.
Last, even the show’s criticism can be turned around into some of the aspects that make The Walking Dead great. The plot may be dragging sometimes, and audiences don’t always love every character, but what that creates, incidentally, is an atmosphere well suited to a real-life apocalypse. Audiences fully submerge themselves in the dour world of dirt and dullness, brought low by the possibility—inevitability, even—that their loved ones might be killed any day.
The horrifying stillness of the wait for death and the feeble hope for salvation may actually be the best way to handle a show about the zombie apocalypse. So that even if the road does carry on forever, fans will still be there until the end.