After two seasons of about 25% classic zombie apocalypse and 75% episodic soap operatics, I went into the third season of The Walking Dead with a half-hearted “might as well” attitude. I might have even sighed tiredly. But after last night’s episode, the fourth in the new season, I couldn’t be happier with how the series is turning out.
I thought there would be no room for the uniquely dire demands of a zombie apocalypse on television. Time and again, AMC has proved me wrong with their willingness to resort to over-the-top gore, to kill off significant cast members, and to give the end of the world its due in a way that Falling Skies and Revolution never will. It’s the difference between networks with a “B” and a “C” in their names, and everyone else.
Futhermore, a TV show has the luxury to trace character arcs more precisely, more languidly, with more detail than a 90-minute movie. But too often these character arcs take a back seat to the episodic tendency to reset to zero, or the sanctity of the cast, or the focus grouping of the demographic, or TV’s tendency towards telegenics over talent, or whatever unholy forces so often make a series forgettable and safe.
Consider how rarely TV shows know what to do with growing children. For a variety of reasons, it’s a tricky proposition to cast a child in an ongoing series, particularly a successful one. Poor RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad has faded sullenly into back bedrooms. I cringe at the out-of-his-depth child actor who plays Manny on Modern Family. And who knows whatever happened to Walt on Lost. Kids grow up. Maybe they aren’t good actors. Maybe the storyline doesn’t have room to involve them. Maybe the show is busy catering to the adults.
But last night, one of Walking Dead’s most dramatic twists wasn’t what happened during the plot. That was staggering, to be sure, and another sign that AMC has the ruthlessness needed for a zombie apocalypse. But to me, the most dramatic twist was how Walking Dead doubled down on its confidence in apple-cheeked Chandler Riggs, the child actor who plays Carl Grimes. Zombie apocalypses have the dire tradition of never playing it safe with children, living or undead, starting in the basement of the house in Night of the Living Dead and now going all the way to the boiler room of the prison in Walking Dead.