While “The Walking Dead’s” spectacular ratings success could hardly have been predicted, the latest episode of the AMC series — the best of its fourth season — niftily highlights some of the key ingredients. In fact, almost every beat of this splendid hour reinforced why this is more than just your run-of-the-mill splatter-fest, although there was certainly some of that as well. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Beyond the most obvious qualities — action, suspense, cool weapons (crossbows and samurai swords and knives, oh my) and mastering new and creative ways to crush and explode zombie heads — here are five attributes, in no particular order, that have distinguished the show and were particularly well represented in the Nov. 3 episode:
1. Moral ambiguity. The entire exchange between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carol (Melissa McBride, simply terrific in these last few episodes) highlights the fundamental question that echoes throughout the series — namely, how people can hang on to their humanity and sense of values amid an apocalyptic landscape where survival is constantly threatened and, in terms of civility, all bets appear to be off.
Carol’s willingness to commit murder for the collective good, revealed the previous week, forced Rick — who has also broken his initial vow about not killing the living — to contemplate what amounts to crossing the line, wherever the line might be.
When does pragmatism become ruthlessness? It’s not a simple answer, especially given the personal losses both characters have suffered over the course of the series, and their exchange beautifully zeroed in on that tension.
2. Effortless diversity. The second plot in Sunday’s episode featured four characters in search of medical supplies. As it happened, three of them (played by Danai Gurira and “The Wire” alums Chad L. Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) happen to be black.
A lot of shows play at diversity, but “Walking Dead” has managed to present a broad spectrum of players in a way that feels completely organic — perhaps in part because once the zombie apocalypse hits, the only distinctions that matter are “living” and “flesh-munching.”
3. Shedding characters — and reloading. It’s unclear whether we’ve seen the last of Carol, but assuming she’s been driven off for good, it’s only the latest departure from a cast that has turned over almost entirely except for Rick, his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Glenn (Steve Yeun). And before someone yells “Daryl!,” Norman Reedus’ cross-bow-wielding hillbilly didn’t show up until partway through season one.
Obviously, there’s a blueprint for that in Robert Kirkman’s comics, but the notion of shedding key players as promiscuously as “Walking Dead” runs counter to virtually every notion of franchise maintenance in TV and has helped keep the program fresh and the audience off guard.
Former showrunner Glen Mazzara penned an interesting first-person column about this, concluding, “I tell stories. Not all of them have happy endings. Not everyone makes it home.” Simply put, no network suit needs to give “The Walking Dead” a note saying, “Raise the stakes.”
4. Terrific casting. Genre shows seldom get the credit they deserve in this regard, but “Walking Dead” has been especially adept at adding compelling players, including Scott Wilson as the grandfatherly Hershel. There’s also an element of good fortune in that one suspects even the producers didn’t realize what they had in Riggs, a child actor who has literally grown up in an especially resonant way.
5. An underlying humanity. Frankly, this is one area where “Walking Dead” occasionally stumbles, or at least neglects, when caught up in the process of feeding gore to the constituency that tends to gripe when an episode doesn’t feature enough zombie guts.
The latest hour, however, actually reminded viewers that those slavering corpses were in fact once people, sending Rick and Carol into a suburban neighborhood, where the camera drifted over family photos. Sure, they’re mindless monsters now, but they weren’t before the world went to hell — providing a mere taste of the sobering losses experienced before Rick ever woke from that coma.
Any show garnering the kind of ratings “Walking Dead” delivers is being watched for a whole lot of different reasons — including by folks with stocked bunkers waiting for some version of Armageddon to actually happen. Moreover, teams of network executives and sociologists will no doubt be analyzing such factors for years to come.
But for now, these five are as good as any — just as the fourth episode of season four was about as good as this show gets.