“The Walking Dead” has clearly established by now that the real evil isn’t in the slavering, mindless zombies but rather the horrors that people will commit in a world turned lawless and desperate. Yet the series still occasionally needs to be reminded – and to remind its audience – of that fact, making death mean more than just artful blood spurts and the unsettling prospect of being eaten alive.
The last two episodes have, somewhat inadvertently, demonstrated the heights and depths of that challenge. Because while the second episode of the new season felt gratuitous and unnecessarily grim – like an eruption of violence mostly for its own sake, or even to kill time while giving several key players the week off – the latest installment made viewers feel those deaths, even for peripheral or unidentified players.
Although much of the discussion in its wake (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) will focus on the apparent this-might-break-the-Internet killing of Glenn (Steven Yeun), one of the beloved originals from the first season, the entire episode deftly dealt with sacrifice. In the process, the hour sought to make the audience feel something even for those who hadn’t been around that long and might have lacked the requisite fortitude and grit to survive.
After the show’s brush with cannibalism, the surprise second-episode attack by the Wolves didn’t exactly breach any new frontiers. But while that encounter offered a chance to further explore the characters – and show off Carol (Melissa McBride) at her ruthless best – the prolonged nature of the assault did seem to turn the people who were dying into simple cannon fodder, faceless victims to be bludgeoned or skewered.
By contrast, this third episode, titled “Thank You,” built on the central theme of these last two seasons – namely, whether the battle-hardened core cast can be integrated into the sheltered community they’ve found, and to what extent the latter will have to be toughened up in order to survive (and, indeed, be worthy of protection).
As Rick (Andrew Lincoln) bluntly said near the outset, not everyone would complete the trek back, and sentimentality is the kind of thing that can get you killed. Yet even if that telegraphed that many would fall along the way, the producers cleverly humanized the casualties even with small touches. Those ranged from the newlywed who, knowing he was doomed, wrote a note to his wife; to the anonymous attacker discovered to have a jar of baby food in his pocket.
Suddenly, via that one shot, the latter sequence took on a completely different, more sobering tone: So did the guy really try to kill Rick because he was trying to get food for a baby? And if so, what will happen to that kid?
Inevitably, there’s a certain repetition to even a series like “The Walking Dead,” and killing key characters is not only a way to keep the audience from becoming desensitized but also to make the show feel unpredictable. It’s also, more pragmatically, a good way to inform actors and their agents that nobody is bigger than the show’s overarching world, while providing a more graceful and organic way to shed those eager to move on to new roles than, say, having a truck hit McDreamy. (For what it’s worth, showrunner Scott M. Gimple’s statement about Glenn’s fate was cryptic at best, and thus more irritating than illuminating.)
Viewed together, these last few episodes have demonstrated the show’s sometimes-uneven storytelling approach, which counts on the audience’s enormous loyalty to ensure people will stick with it through even its most questionable detours. Yet the emotionally moving aspects of Sunday’s hour demonstrate the difference between the show’s periodic stumbles into mindless carnage and what happens when the abundant guts are mixed with brains and heart, which, for “The Walking Dead,” is when death really becomes it.