The Walking Dead Season 4

The Walking Dead” has become such a ratings-devouring force AMC rather brazenly scheduled its mid-season return opposite the Olympics — as in, “Olympics? We’re not afraid of no stinking Olympics.”

Sunday’s episode, moreover, found the series still in disarray after the tumultuous, character-shedding events of its most recent finale, which allowed the producers — in an episode written by comics creator Robert Kirkman — to indulge in what amounted to a deeper character study, albeit with some tense geez-they’re-not-going-to-kill-him-or-her-off-too moments.

Perhaps foremost, Sunday’s episode (and warning: Spoilers lurk ahead) offered an opportunity to explore the character of Carl (Chandler Riggs), who started out as a little kid and has grown into a self-sufficient, mother-killing, zombie-shooting badass.

Yet this latest episode tested those assumptions, showing how for all his bravado and survival instincts (which came in handy when he placed himself in a particularly harrowing situation), there’s still a little boy inside there, one gripped by anger toward his father (Andrew Lincoln, presently forced to wear “The Elephant Man” makeup) and, not incidentally, this upside-down world in which they and everyone else have been forced to live.

Riggs’ development as the series has progressed has been among the show’s more intriguing and unexpected aspects, and one suspects the producers and network are thanking their lucky stars that the young actor turned out to be so capable, in much the way “Mad Men” has kept finding increasingly juicy plots for Kiernan Shipka as the actress has matured. (Last year columnist Chuck Barney placed Riggs in Shipka’s company in a list of TV’s top child actors, and it’s hard to dispute that.)

A “B” plot, meanwhile, focused on the sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira), providing interesting (if a little too cryptic) backstory into her ruthless character, offering hints regarding the grief, loss and rage responsible for honing that razor-sharp edge.

All told, it was an extremely strong episode, despite the fact it was simultaneously something of a breath-catcher before the show has to go about reassembling the cast, which will be no small feat given how scattered they are, and how difficult it is getting cellphone reception during a zombie apocalypse.

Then again, this season of “The Walking Dead” — under new showrunner Scott Gimple — has seemingly reveled in bending its format, trusting the audience to stick with it while the writers detour onto unexpected side streets. (Gimple discusses some of the loose ends in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.)

For AMC, meanwhile, each new flight of the series, with its bifurcated seasons, brings not only high ratings but also the prospect of launching a new program on its brawny shoulders. And when blessed with a show that has built up the kind of loyalty this one has established — with viewers carrying such an Olympic-sized torch for it, and media outlets (including this one) having such a strong incentive to feed that appetite by hanging on its every wrinkle — that provides the network something Carl and Michonne almost discovered its characters don’t possess: A sizable margin for error.

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