Contains mild spoilers.
By now we know what we're getting. It's The Walking Dead; it's the triumphant pinnacle of post-apocalyptic survival story telling. With brilliant emotional, nuanced and brave writing, confident acting and sumptuous triple A production and presentation it's everything the ardent zombie fan, like myself could hope for. It's also becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate each season from a review position, and perhaps this is why on the cusp of season 7's highly anticipated return I've only just got round to looking at season 4 again. While it may have taken season one and two to establish its identity, now some 51 episodes in, its increasingly difficult to discern or separate episode from episode, never-mind season from season. The Walking Dead is what it is; season 3 was nigh on perfect zombie fun, as is 4, as is, and this is jumping ahead of myself 5 and 6, and no doubt 7 ad infititum if they get their way, will be. Each season is now an iteration of what we all know just works; and as long as the formula is stuck to then what could go wrong?
Maybe with season 4, the Walking Dead formula has never been quite so obviously adhered to. There's the quiet period; the day to day survival and down-time; if dealing with deadly plagues or work-place accidents like having a helicopter crash through the ceiling or having your leg ripped off by a ravenous flesh-eater, can be considered down-time. It's a character driven survival narrative that's thoroughly engaging and beautifully polished, if maybe at times a little meandering and by now a tad rehashed. But it's all really about creating a foundation upon which the various writers, directors and producers can build up tension to a big climatic explosive, and inevitable pay-off. It's brilliant, it works and once invested you can't not see it through. The thing with Season 4 though is it does it twice to meet the demands of a now established mid-season TV break, and for the first time I felt the very deliberate design was, well for want of a better word deliberate, and all a little fabricated. I'm not sure it really detracted from the show and the pay-off in both episodes 8 and 16 was perfectly executed, and some of the best television I've ever watched. It's just I'm just not sure how strict adherence to a formula like this can benefit artistic licence and aesthetics long term, and there's always, as with any long running show the problem where over-adherence to safety, stability and repetition ultimately leads to monotony, predictability, dullness and an audience turning off.
While the focus of the character development and narrative again focuses on the established key personalities of Rick, Carl, Carol, Dwayne, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Glen and Maggie, Season 4 introduces some much needed fresh faces in the feisty but vulnerable Tara (Alanna Masterson), the subdued Rosita (Christian Serratos) and the instantly appealing double act of Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). As is the way, The Walking Dead isn't afraid to reduce the cast too; though one gets the increasing feeling that the main gang of seven, as mentioned above, are treated with a certain invulnerability able to constantly scrape by, while all those around drop like flies. There seems an ever increasing reliance on new characters, or throwaway one episode wonders, to provide that feeling of hopeless futility, and carry the weight that is the inevitably of death the original cast were entrusted to before. This all being said, the writers aren't scared to do some pretty horrible things with and to, all those involved with some quite harrowing, brave and thought provoking episodes. Moral ambiguity and dissonance has always been a staple of the Walking Dead experience and the theme of at least trying to be good in a world that no longer adheres to any kind of moral rules is still central to the narrative. While Rick's internal journey hasn't quite fully resolved, its Carol this time that's central to the groups moral struggle, adopting Shane's pragmatic position, albeit almost to the point of pathological, to challenge Rick's reaffirmed (though Hershel) belief in a categorical imperative. All this leads to some and highly charged emotional confrontations, intelligent characters development and great drama.
Despite possibly being easily accused of having an overarching, rather formulaic design; the writers and production team with season 4, demonstrate a greater confidence not being afraid to deviate from the normative linear narrative structure. Both the episodes focused solely on the Governor (David Morrissey), and the sequence of six tight little self-contained moral tales after the mid-season climax while mostly successful, allowed the writers the freedom to play with dynamics that would not have evolved naturally and opened up the characters in ways that were both fascinating and emotional. The Walking Dead season 4 is every bit the same breath-taking, engaging, high-octane modern survival zombie brilliance we've come to both expect and with such a fervent weight of expectation, probably demand. With Robert Kirkman now firmly established as one of the executive producers, even writing two of the episodes, the franchise's future is almost firmly assured, guaranteeing the same uncompromising grit and gore as its comic book inspiration. The benchmark - 9/10.