TV check-in: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead season five

This Sunday’s hour of The Walking Dead wasn’t a particularly great one. It was one of those episodes that focuses entirely on a sub-group within the show’s large cast — or, in this case, a single person, Beth, who was last seen being abducted by a black car with a white cross in the windshield — and catches us up on what’s been going on with them. And though it wasn’t great, it was still an assured and entertaining hour of television. Yep, folks, this is where we now find ourselves: Even on its off weeks, The Walking Dead is a show worth watching.

Even more impressive, these off weeks are occurring with less and less frequency. It only took four seasons and three showrunners, but AMC’s zombie-apocalypse drama has finally gotten to a point creatively where you could argue it deserves its astronomical ratings. Frank Darabont struggled with setting a tone for the series after his effective pilot, and Glen Mazzara wasn’t able to create storylines that pushed the characters in any compelling directions. (Remember Hershel’s farm? If not, you might have slept through it.) But at the beginning of season four, Mazzara was gone, and AMC turned the keys of the show over to Scott Gimple, the guy who wrote season three’s best episode. His first year was a little uneven but still easily the series’ strongest to date. Gimple was able to speed up the pace and jolt the show with a real sense of purpose. He also took characters who clearly weren’t working and fixed them with seemingly minimal effort. He gave the Governor a short and final story arc that was miles better than anything they did with the character in season three. He even righted the show’s center by returning Rick’s backbone to him. And he did it in a single scene. The season ended, and, as a new one approached, I found myself actively anticipating The Walking Dead‘s return for the first time ever.

And then Gimple and company went and produced the series’ very best hour — an episode as good as anything else that’s been on TV recently. Carol’s one-woman raid on Terminus to free Rick and the others in last month’s premiere cemented her status as one of television’s biggest badasses and best female characters. It was a taut and exciting episode and when the group reunited at the end of it, I literally had to wipe tears from my eyes. Tears! Because of The Walking Dead! But we’re at the point now where feelings for these people have finally been earned, where their trials feel legitimate and real, as opposed to some random, not-quite-logical events pulled from a writers’ room whiteboard. The Walking Dead has always done well with season premieres, but this year’s kick-off episode reached new heights. And while the episodes since haven’t been quite that strong, they’ve worked well enough to keep the momentum going. Gimple is pulling stories and characters from the same comic book Darabont and Mazzara did, but, for whatever reason, he’s better at retrofitting them for TV. (It’s also possible that Walking Dead comic creator Robert Kirkman, who’s heavily involved in the show, is improving at adapting his own work.)

Episodes 5.2 and 5.3 dealt with the Terminus fallout, allowing Gareth (a creepy Andrew J. West) to stick around as a villain a little longer … although not long enough to wear out his welcome. The Walking Dead no longer wallows in single locations or storylines for too long, wisely preferring to make its point and then move onto the next thing. At the same time, other plots were being juggled, including Abraham’s impatience in moving on to Washington where he hopes a cure can be manufactured and the arrival of Father Gabriel, a God-fearing soul who doesn’t quite fit in the new world. Rick’s near-instant decision to join Abraham’s mission was refreshing. Old Rick would have agonized about it for weeks and possibly consorted with his dead wife’s ghost over the matter. And the reversal of that decision — Rick’s not going anywhere without Carol or Daryl — was organic and believable, as opposed to something contrived that had to happen to break the characters up again.

Viewers know Carol and Daryl went chasing after the car that took Beth. This week, we found out the cross in the windshield wasn’t a religious symbol but a medical one. A group of hard-case police officers have teamed with a doctor to form an uneasy alliance in a secure hospital in Atlanta. Beth was “rescued” by cops out on patrol, but is now expected to stick around and work in the hospital to pay off her debt. So it’s another unstable mini-society ran by borderline sociopaths who are convinced everything they do is for the greater good. Not exactly new territory for The Walking Dead, but at least the cold sterility of the hospital and the crispness of the police uniforms gave the story a fresh look. I could have done without the rapey cop, and I’m not convinced that any female police officer strong enough to survive in this world would be okay with her underlings assaulting a teenaged girl. But I liked that the doctor was desperate enough to sacrifice an old acquaintance to ensure his skills remain vital to the group. And Beth’s attempted elevator-shaft escape with a hospital orderly proved to be a gripping action sequence. Loved the smile that broke out on her face as the orderly ran free, even if Beth was re-captured at the last minute. Emily Kinney has grown into one of the show’s chief assets.

In the final scene, Beth is ready to draw blood of the non-zombie kind but stops herself when a new patient is wheeled into the hospital. When Carol is wheeled into the hospital. How badly is she injured? How did she get hurt? Where’s Daryl? Is Carol playing possum, ready to spring out of that cot and fuck everyone’s shit up next week? (Hey it’s Carol! She’s amazing! It could happen!) And that’s the beauty of The Walking Dead these days … you’re no longer dreading the answers, fearing they’ll either be stupid or take eight weeks to arrive. The show has finally earned our trust and convinced us there’s always more good stuff just around the darkened corner.