“The Walking Dead” has returned from its midseason break in an inordinately pensive mood, as if the characters are experiencing an existential crisis beyond the actual threats to their existence. Think of it as Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” if the key players periodically had to jam knives into the heads of slavering zombies.
This is not, by itself, a bad thing, but it speaks to a larger issue about the show over the past couple seasons, which has lurched around in unexpected ways – from focusing on just one or two characters to engaging in lengthy flashbacks to pausing to essentially catch its breath before plowing ahead with major action sequences.
The midseason return and Feb. 15 episode (and needless to say, SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) have both been preoccupied, to an extent, by having the will to go on. Last week, the show poignantly dwelt on saying goodbye to Tyreese (Chad Coleman), who was bitten by a zombie and eventually ushered to the other side by hallucinated visitations from those who have died before him.
In the most recent hour, written by Heather Bellson and directed by Julius Ramsay, the surviving characters sullenly march onward, while absorbing the losses of loved ones and wondering, basically, whether the battle for survival is worth it. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), the show’s narrative (and only occasionally these days, moral) center, even engaged in a rather long soliloquy about the point of it all, making explicit what has always been implied by the title: That it’s those struggling to maintain a semblance of their humanity, not the zombies, who are really the “walking dead.”
“We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead,” Rick intoned, by way of explaining means of coping with their situation.
In some respects, “The Walking Dead” has consistently confounded expectations, creating a series where character-driven soap opera and old-fashioned horror/splatter can walk hand in hand. The latter, alas, is perhaps one reason why the series has labored to earn the sort of awards attention that would justify all those billboards and ads that AMC has placed on its behalf.
The series has also shed major characters in a manner that embraces the notion this organic world is bigger than its component parts, although not all the stragglers, obviously, are created equal.
Yet even by the program’s standards, these episodes have been particularly somber and philosophical, contemplating grief, death and loss in a more inward-looking way than Rick’s sort-of breakdown in response to the death of his wife Lori. It’s one thing to drill down into the characters, and another to risk turning an episode of a show that features zombies into an Ibsen play.
In the latest Entertainment Weekly (which like most publications, including this one, can’t cover the series enough), showrunner Scott M. Gimple promised that the story “will shift quite a bit. We are going to see a show that in its look and circumstances is very, very different from what we’ve seen.”
Frankly, only a franchise with these kind of stratospheric ratings and this much goodwill with its audience would have the audacity to test the parameters of fans’ patience and loyalty by shifting gears in the manner in which “The Walking Dead” has, and continues to do. (As always, the latest episode ended with a cryptic twist, in the form of a mysterious stranger, designed to whet one’s appetite for what comes next.)
Some “Dead”-heads might relish these variances in tone, while others — as the producers acknowledge — will gripe about the action screeching to a halt. About the only certainty if past performance offers any guide is that next week, they’ll be back for more.
“Some people can’t give up. Like us,” Carol (Melissa McBride), a survivor if there ever was one, said near the outset of the latest hour.
While the episode’s underlying message seemed to be that in spite of all the suffering, where there’s life, there’s hope, the more pragmatic takeaway is that as long as the ratings remain like this, the “Walking Dead” can take chances — and the “walking dead” to which Rick referred should resign themselves to trudging onward.