December 11, 2014 by Jason Seligson
AMC’s half-season structure has always enabled The Walking Dead to try new things. From the very beginning, the show has made valiant efforts every six or so episodes to reinvent itself. Some of these transformations have led to narrative dead ends (see: the majority of the Woodbury/Governor arc, and many fans would argue, Hershel’s farm). But more recently, the attempts at shaking things up have felt inspired. The characters are finally being led down new and surprising avenues. This reanimation of a sort, resulted in the first half of Season 5, The Walking Dead’s boldest and most consistent stretch of episodes in the show’s run.
To be fair, The Walking Dead has had a long and complicated history behind-the-scenes. It’s had three showrunners over five seasons—a shuffle in leadership which lead to a lack of consistency and at times, vastly different creative visions. First in charge was Frank Darabont, who was notoriously fired by AMC after the first six episodes; Darabont was replaced by Glen Mazzarra, who helmed the show for Seasons 2 and 3, also before being fired; finally, Scott Gimple took the reins in Season 4 and remains the current showrunner. It’s hard to deny that the show experienced an immense creative resurgence over the past two seasons—this is a direct result of Gimple’s guidance. In seasons’ past, The Walking Dead has meandered—it sacrificed character development for a surprising death far too many times, but Gimple’s version has been the show’s best incarnation thus far.
After Season 4’s massive cliffhanger, it was only natural that Season 5 started with a bang. “No Sanctuary” was action-packed, tense, and terrifying. Not a single second was wasted—from Rick, Glenn, and Bob nearly being killed at Terminus, to Carol single-handedly rescuing everyone, and the emotional Grimes family reunion. Five years in, The Walking Dead delivered its best premiere yet, and it would seem, has finally found the right balance of character and story, amidst all of its zombie-gore.
In those first few episodes, Gareth was a fantastic addition to the cast; he was a villain the show hadn’t seen before—not quite the Governor or Shane, but a different animal entirely. The Termites’ return at the end of “Strangers” and their surprise Bob-BQ, along with the “Tainted Meat” line at the start of “Four Walls and a Roof” were among the show’s best and most cringe-inducing moments of all time. This was a new step for The Walking Dead, a horror story in-progress. Gareth was so compelling that I almost wish he could have stuck around a little longer—but I also give kudos to the writers for not dragging out the Terminus arc, either. This kind of expediency feels like the show has learned from its missteps, and is another reason why Season 5 was so promising.
Other things the first half of this season accomplished was continue its laser-like focus on the rather large cast of characters. There were a couple of standout episodes that didn’t advance the plot much, but were still hugely important for their development of key characters (or characters that hadn’t gotten much screen time). “Self-Help,” for instance, not only revealed back story for Abraham, but also packed the present-day gut-punch reveal that Eugene had lied about knowing how to stop the zombie plague. Still, the balance of character heavy, plot-light episodes could use some improvements.
As good as this half-season mostly was, there were some things that didn’t work as well as they could have. While I appreciated the incredible character-work in “Consumed,” a Carol/Daryl installment, I found it to be a little slow, plot-wise. The problem was that we were shown Carol being carted into the hospital at the end of “Slabtown,” so we didn’t really need to see an entire episode devoted to seeing how she wound up there. Similarly, the detours on the road and at the hospital made us go far too long without seeing Rick, Michonne, and the other characters at the church. This doesn’t mean these were bad episodes—the last two leading up to the mid-season finale, “Coda,” were simply quieter compared to the usual crescendo we’ve become accustomed to. I may not have enjoyed the two-episode focus on the Governor we got last season, but at least they led to the conclusion in the long-awaited fight at the prison in “Too Far Gone.” That said, “Coda” was a solid episode—and a fine swan song for Beth Greene.
Beth was a background character when we first met her. I think it’s safe to say that nobody expected her to survive a single episode, let alone to still be alive in Season 5. This is what the Gimple era of The Walking Dead has accomplished so well: he’s given depth and agency to all of the characters, even the weaker ones. Carol, for instance, has undergone a radical transformation since Season 1; her evolution into the Carol of Seasons 4 and 5 is something the writers should truly be proud of.
The same goes for Beth, who first asserted herself as a substantial figure in an episode last season with Daryl. Her storyline this season at Grady Memorial Hospital took her away from the main characters (she was only reunited with them minutes before her death), which was somewhat disappointing, but her final episodes showed once and for all, that she was strong. There’s tragedy in her death, especially because one could so easily see more story for her down the road, but in the end, I grew to appreciate her as a character. Beth began as a tertiary character but was given a great deal of care and attention in later seasons, something I only wish Andrea or Lori had been given more of.
After Beth’s sacrifice, the mid-season finale left us with a bit more food for thought, when fans were treated to another look at Morgan, who we last glimpsed in the premiere. Now that Morgan knows he’s been following Rick, here’s hoping the two meet up sooner rather than later.
I trust Scott Gimple and his vision for the show. If I have one hope for The Walking Dead’s return in February, it’s that the gang will finally be sticking together. One unfortunate thing that happens when the show starts fleshing out its characters is that it tends to split them up. The fall of the prison was the perfect opportunity to illuminate Michonne, Beth, Daryl, as well as minor characters like Bob and Sasha. After an all-too brief reunion at Terminus, the group shortly split again when Abraham and Rick clashed about the decision to head for Washington D.C. It’s hard to fault for Gimple for any of this, though. He’s done more character development in a season and a half then the show has done in its entire run—and the results of splitting up the main group has done wonders for character development. R.I.P. Beth. We’ll miss you. Welcome back, Morgan. And so it goes with this show, right?