How The Walking Dead Season 4 Transformed the Show From Good to Great

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The Walking Dead season 5 premiered this week with an episode that was record-shattering in terms of ratings and beloved by fans and critics alike. It seems that after years and years of turmoil with showrunners cycling in and out AMC’s hit, The Walking Dead has finally found its footing. I would argue that this transformation really took place over the course of The Walking Dead season 4, and we’re reaping those rewards now with this premiere, and whatever is about to come. Like many seasons of top shows these days, season 4 of The Walking Dead was split more or less in half with a large winter break in the middle. It featured the wrap-up of the show’s central conflict with the Governor, and finally had the gang get on the road again after what felt like eons of them being stuck at the prison. It’s also the season where Scott Gimple was promoted from writer to showrunner, and he’s more or less responsible for the change in the show’s trajectory over the past year or so. Previously, he’d penned some of the best episodes of the series, and now that he was running the entire circus, he had much more freedom to do whatever it is he wanted. And what he wanted is to make great episodes. The Walking Dead season 4 worked on a few levels, but a main factor was Gimple’s ability to create not just memorable moments in the series, but memorable episodes as well. This transformation has been well-documented throughout the seasons.

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Season one of The Walking Dead was very short, and served as little more than an introduction of the post-apocalyptic worlds and a few of the main characters. Nearly all of the original characters that were in season one are dead at this point, but the ones who have stuck around we’re very much attached to. And yet, outside of very select scenes like Morgan being unable to kill his walker wife, the show was devoid of anything memorable, other than being simple a “cool zombie show based on a cool zombie comic.”

Season two is where we saw the show start to do more with its powerful moments. It’s hard to forget things like the revelation had shot Otis to keep the walkers off him, or how the barn door opened and Sophia, missing the entire season, came wandering out as a transformed walker. Moments like that shocked both show watchers and comic readers alike, as The Walking Dead had taken liberties with the source material in order to produce shocking scenes like that.

And yet, both seasons two and three were devoid of many memorable episodes that were great from start to finish in their entirety. There were a few, but not many, and most of the “big events” of the season were random pops of shock rather than anything that had been orchestrated particularly well.

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That started to change in The Walking Dead season 4 which arguably gave us some of the best episodes of the entire series. My favorites were “Internment,” which focused on Herschel almost singlehandedly saving everyone’s life as a deadly disease spread throughout the prison, “After” which had some great bonding between Carl and Michonne, and finally “The Grove,” the harrowing episode that ended up with the death of two little girls, one insane, one innocent, and how profoundly that affected Tyreese and Carol. I could go on, but the point to be made is that Gimple is responsible for this shift in not simply creating shocking deaths to get people talking the next day, but developing the surviving cast members into characters so that when they do die (and most will, inevitably), we’re heartbroken. That’s what Game of Thrones has done so well, and why those deaths, both of heroes and villains, often make more of an impact than similar ones in The Walking Dead.

The season five premiere is showing that the show is expanding what it is capable of. The first episode of the season seamlessly blended drama, emotion, heroics and action in what was one of the most well-paced, well-directed episodes of the season. There’s simply no questioning that the show is getting better over time. It was downright comical at times in season two, hung up on bad logic and poor character choices, but all this showrunner shuffling has landed The Walking Dead a man whose shown that he deserves to be in charge. Usually this kind of turmoil would only lead to bad news for a show, but it’s a rare case to see a show get consistently better and better over time. Sometimes it’s the showrunner learning (as with Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad), sometimes it’s leadership change that gets the job done. And it all started with season 4.

[Photos via AMC]

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  1. Austin West

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