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As a capitalist idea, The Walking Dead is transformative: The cable TV show that cut the last fragile residual cords of broadcast television dominance, the meteor that ended the age of dinosaurs. Analogically, it is to the economics of television what The Sopranos was to the aesthetics of television: A demarcation between What Was and What Will Be. As pure creative destruction, the show is fascinating. But as a work of creativity, the show has been frustrating. I recapped the show during its second and third seasons, which established the basic pattern of High Highs, Low Lows, and Long Slow-Paced In-Betweens.
Anecdotally, I’ve learned that there are people who love Dead unabashedly, people who dismissed it somewhere around the CDC, and people who watch it almost as a sport or a reality show, taking bets on who will bite the dust next. I run hot and cold. To me, the high point was the show’s Death Metal Phase: The four episodes at the start of season 3 when the Grimes Gang claimed the prison in a pre-industrial War of Attrition. That mini-saga climaxed with a moment of Freud-Bible horror: the double matricide of Lori Grimes, killed first by her new baby daughter and then again by her son. There have been at least six radically different versions of the show, and that’s the one I like best: The breakdown-America nihilist gore opera, set in a Recession-appropriate Anti-Eden where the best-case-scenario is not too different from the worst-case-scenario.
From there, the show meandered. The third season was building up to a showdown with the Governor, but Walking Dead isn’t really a “building up to a showdown” kind of show. Game of Thrones can spend whole half-seasons moving fascinating well-spoken colorfully adorned chesspieces into place. Walking Dead doesn’t really do chess. Everybody’s a pawn, even if some pawns have their own bespoke weapons (crossbow, hammer, katana, knife-arm.) There are no elaborate moves, no factions, no complexity. The Autumn 2013 half-season struck me as more of the same. Dead doesn’t really have a long-term story arc like other serialized genre shows, but the eight episodes that started off season 4 still had the whiff of Hydra-Island stall tactics: “The fence is coming down! We fixed it. There’s a plague! We cured it. Quick, Governor Flashback!”
That sequence ended with the show burning itself to the ground for the third time in its history. The prison was destroyed; the characters sent running in every direction, in curious and legitimately random combinations. (Had Maggie ever even talked to Bob?) Since coming back from the midseason break, the show has split its time between the combinations, sometimes giving whole episodes over to just a couple characters. There was an entire episode about Daryl and Beth trying to get a drink. Rick spent half of one episode hiding under a bed; the nominal protagonist of Dead, he hasn’t appeared for three weeks.
Anecdotally, reactions to this narrative strategy have been mixed. Personally, I think it’s been one of the most interesting, creatively fertile periods in the show’s history. The show has taken characters who spent whole seasons doing almost nothing — Beth, Sasha, Tyreese — and given them real emotional heft. Last week’s episode completed one of the great character turnarounds in recent TV drama history: Carol, essentially a non-entity in the first three seasons except as a Grieving Mom (season 2) and a Good Marksman (season 3), strikes me at this point as the open-wound brutalized heart of the show.
The key to understanding the post-prison sequence, I think, is to realize that the show has fully embraced the Bottle Episode as its defining storytelling mechanism. The term “Bottle Episode” is basically understood by everyone, although it has two very different definitions: One clear and concrete, the other hazier but arguably more interesting.
The clearest definition is: An episode set mostly or entirely in one location, originally to save money but also occasionally to allow the show’s creators or actors to show off. The most famous recent example is probably “Fly,” the Breaking Bad episode where Walt and Jesse have dark-night-of-the-soul epiphanies in the lab — and coincidentally, an episode that is either one of your favorites or one of your least favorites. People usually include Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase” (Don and Peggy have dark-night-of-the-soul epiphanies at the office), although you have to allow a trip to the local diner. Community has had a few different bottle episodes, including one that explicitly comments on bottle episodes. Maybe the single best bottle episode in history was “Three Men and Adena,” the fifth episode of Homicide‘s first season, which is basically just three guys in an interrogation room.
None of the episodes this season of Walking Dead fall into that definition, mostly because the show has no real “set” now. But here’s where the hazier definition of “Bottle Episode” comes in: An episode that laser-focuses on a few members of a large ensemble, which features a minimum of actual narrative action and a maximum of internal character turmoil. Typically, these episodes purposefully send those few characters far away from everyone else: Sealed off from the normal flow of their lives, they gain some new perspective. (A better term might be “vacation” episodes, although nobody ever has much fun.)
Again, you could look to Breaking Bad, and “4 Days Out,” a middle-of-nowhere near-death experience (and EW’s pick for best BB episode, period.) You could also look to pretty much all the Desmond-centric episodes of Lost, which usually sent the bearded Scot on a time-tossed trip far from the on-island shenanigans. Or look at half the episodes in Battlestar Galactica‘s third season, which mostly eschewed long-game serialization in favor of short-story one-offs, possibly as a recovery strategy after the budget-blowing Battle of New Caprica. This was the point at which the show did a whole episode about Kat. Coincidentally, lots of people don’t like the third season of Battlestar Galactica.
For Walking Dead, this storytelling strategy hasn’t just worked: By digging into characters who were basically just defined by their trademark weapon and some telltale article of clothing, the show might have actually rebooted itself as a creative venture. Some of this is just simple old-pro TV maneuvering: The relationship between Maggie and Glen has never felt as sharp as it does now that they’re separated, two lost lovers hunting for each other in a world where anyone not directly in your line of sight might be lost forever.
But to me, the best thing about this season is how the creators have managed to dig into the characters — to discover reservoirs of feeling that, frankly, barely seemed to exist before. Cards on the table: I think the Daryl-and-Beth-Drink-Moonshine adventure is a Hall of Fame episode of the show, top three if not higher. Writer Angela Kang took two characters who didn’t even seem to exist in the same universe. Daryl Dixon at this point was basically a late-’60s biker-gang movie poster brought to life; Beth at this point was a barely-there presence, The Chick Who Sang That One Time, one of the show’s pantheon of characters who seemed to purely exist as a potential Monday Morning “Can you believe they killed [insert boring character's name here]?” talking point.
The episode’s aims were ridiculously modest in scope, with the kind of mission statement that defines hazy-definition bottle episodes: Beth wanted a drink. The “action” was minimal. They went to a golf course, and found the ruins of a country club-turned-fortress. Beth wanted to drink some schnapps; Daryl decided schnapps was not a fit first drink; so they got drunk on some long-gone nobody’s homebrewed moonshine. They got drunk; they got belligerent; they tore into each other; they cried; and they burned the house to the ground.
Structurally, this really was Walking Dead doing it’s “The Suitcase”: Show Superman and Show Everygal get drunk, talk, cry, move on. And somehow, it worked. There were great little moments that showed off Dead‘s keen eye for little details. (Beth changes into a bright yellow shirt, which immediately becomes yet another grungy blood-strewn article of clothing.)
But there were also long conversations that felt vivid in a way the show hasn’t often managed. The classic Dead conversation goes macro: What’s the point of living, are we a democracy or a monarchy, etc etc. But Daryl and Beth just talked about, like, Daryl and Beth. There was even a nicely self-deconstructive undercurrent to their ultimate conclusion. Beth laughingly told Daryl that he’ll never die — always implicit, since everyone who watches Dead loves them some Reedus — but their conversation managed to recast Daryl as a fundamentally tragic figure, the Last Man Standing after everyone else dies.
Most epic television now veers more towards the Game of Thrones model: Episodes that cut between massive far-flung ensembles, plots that are always in motion. Dramas like American Horror Story and Scandal have more plot in five minutes than has happened since the prison fell on Walking Dead. Heck, True Detective told a complete decades-spanning story in the equivalent of a Dead half-season. But something about the show’s tremendous success has given the show confidence. It’s taking its time. The camera lingers on the actor’s faces — hell, the Daryl and Beth episode was basically JUST their faces, with occasional zombie attacks mix in — and for once, it’s giving those actors something to play beyond Stoic Melancholy.
Maybe I’m being too rhapsodic. For all its everything-is-bleak bluster, Walking Dead still usually defaults to triumphs of the human spirit. Bob, Maggie, and Sasha spent a whole episode talking about splitting up; ultimately, they didn’t split up. (See also: Carl, realizing that he really does love his father.) Some characters still feel a bit undercooked. I’m not sure Walking Dead has figured out yet what to do with what Lauren Cohan is doing with Maggie: The actress is going Full Ripley (thigh holster, who-gives-a-crap wild mussed hair, steely eyes staring daggers like she’s always screaming at somebody to Get Off Her Plane) but the show can’t let her do much more than hunt for her man. The three new characters introduced in this back stretch exemplify the show’s worst character-building instinct: Start with a physical attribute and then stop. In this case, it’s the Mullet, the Mustache, and the Midriff.
But wow, that last episode! Again, the show seemed to be working with its least combustible elements. Tyreese hasn’t had much to do for two season besides swing his hammer; Carol got interesting right before the show banished her for several episodes; and I can’t believe anyone besides Chris Hardwick honestly even remembered the names of Murder-Eyed Blonde Girl and Sweet-Eyed Blonde Girl. But the hour of television that followed was mythic, like a missing chapter from a redacted Old Testament, complete with inferno zombies and Sibling Killing Sibling.
By embracing the Bottle Episode as its new Standard Operating Procedure, Dead has very quietly transformed itself. The show has turned its weird jeans-and-work-shirts cheapness and its Magic Forest discontinuity into virtues. If the Darabont era was a western and the Mazzara era was a war movie, the Gimple era is an Off Broadway play. A couple characters take the stage, lay into each other, and then move on: Call it Waiting for Terminus.
The previews for season 4’s endgame promise Big Events, and even if you haven’t read the comics, you can guess that the characters are all moving back together into some New Normal. I’m betting the next season of Walking Dead will look very different: New home, new community, new characters, new villains. It’s been almost a year since Walking Dead fired a showrunner; although Gimple seems pretty safely ensconced, you can imagine that some of Dead‘s many executive producers/cooks in the kitchen are telling him to hit the plot pedal. This has been a half-season of character studies, not really the stuff of pulp entertainment. Dead will probably start moving faster. But if you ask me, it’s rarely been better.