The Walking Dead: why season 4 was the most shocking yet

With its finale behind us, Duncan talks us through why season 4 of The Walking Dead was the most shocking yet...

This feature was written before the finale aired but contains season four spoilers.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – while so much media attention was ladled upon the mighty Game Of Thrones for its sensationally shocking Red Wedding, The Walking Dead has been quietly and brutally taking levels of gore and central character deaths to dizzying new heights. While it’s safe to say that every season of TWD so far has had its own jaw dropping moments (the death of Sarah Wayne Callies’ Lori is still a standout), season four has been an absolute emotional whirlwind, taking things further than perhaps any of us were expecting.

If there are criticisms aimed at The Walking Dead it always seems to be regarding the pace, it’s either “There’s too much action and not enough character development!”, or vice versa, so in that respect the show will never win. I’ve loved every second so far and always think there’s a lot to be said for how a show is viewed – if you wait until its finished and then watch episodes at will, the pace feels entirely different as there’s no week long delay until the next fix, enabling a greater appreciation of the slower dramatic elements, which in the case of TWD season four, have lasted the duration of the second half.

To merely dismiss the latter half as just drama though, would be a tremendous disservice as there’s still been plenty of bloodshed, countless inventive moments of zombie gore (the penultimate episode’s depiction of a rotting face up against barbed wire was especially grim) and more than a few fist fights. When looked at as a whole, season four has managed to blend several sub genres within its sixteen episodes as there’s been the viral outbreak, the full blown action antics of the prison attack and then the creeping dread of a serial killer plotline, all of which were executed immaculately.

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What’s really made this latest season standout though is the consistency with which it’s surprised the audience in ways that most other forms of entertainment would shy away from. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most audacious elements, starting with the opening episode and…

Goodbye young new leads, hello Harry Potter zombie

When we returned to the residents of the prison all seemed far too settled and happy, a sure fire sign that the shit was well and truly about to hit the fan. It seemed like a much needed lift to the group’s dynamic to introduce younger members, especially teenagers, and there was even a new love interest for Beth. This being The Walking Dead though, by the end of the first episode young love had been terminated thanks to the ever-reliable zombie chomping and a much more sinister threat had been uncovered when Harry Potter lookalike Patrick (thanks for that, Ron Hogan) went for a cold shower and promptly bled out.

Cue the young would-be contender for the Hogwarts House Cup waking up as a virally converted flesh eater, who promptly set about feasting on a former Woodbury resident-based breakfast – it did seem as if adding more people to the core group would allow for more cannon fodder, but the delivery was explosive and truly unnerving as the makeshift curtains helped to contain the building undead outbreak.


Rick’s bacon buffet

An almost incidental moment in the grand scheme of things, but so bleak and poignant that it warrants a mention, if only for it for what it represented to poor Rick Grimes, when it forcibly snapped him out his blissfully bearded farmer mode. Certainly his isolation from the group and stepping down from responsibility was cause for concern, but the poor man had been carrying the burden of leadership since the get go and deserved a respite. Sadly his head in hands at the end of the pig run was yet another brief gesture that made everyone aware that he’s never, ever going to catch a break for long.

On the upside we did then get to see him strapping on his iconic police belt once more, but it seemed cruel that Rick’s period of denial and grief had to be ended by the stomach churning sight and sound of the piglets being winged (or legged in this case) and left to become a pork treat for those fence-bashing zombie bastards. It’s a strange part of the human psyche that we can come to accept an endless stream of gore and death by being torn apart, but the sight of little piglets being cut is more upsetting.

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Carol’s barbeque

At the time of writing, the resolution to this particular shocker has yet to play out in full. When Karen and David’s charred bodies were found by Tyreese, it didn’t take long for the former deputy Grimes to use his detective skills (and what a kick that was) to work out who’d done the deed. I’d refer to it as a dirty deed, but I think most of us knew that Carol was right in taking the lead on a very hard decision. Sure, the rest of the group should have been consulted but there was no way in hell that Tyreese would have allowed such a hard course of action. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for him though, as he was caught up in the throes of love and just on the way to deliver some nice flowers when he stumbled upon the horror.

It was clever to make Carol the person responsible as it’s given her character some much-needed depth and given Melissa McBride her best and most tragic season to date, as let’s not forget that when her daughter was killed she simply buried the emotions and didn’t allow us to fully relate to Carol’s situation. Since Carol has also been such a central member of the group from the start, it’s also added more of an impact to the future relationships between herself, Rick and Daryl and that particular encounter we’ve yet to see – I can’t even speculate as to what might happen as I always tend to get it wrong, such is the price for ever trying to second guess The Walking Dead.

Still at least we’ve been allowed a slight exhalation of breath now that her murderous secret has been shared with Tyreese, albeit under the harrowing circumstances mentioned further below.


The Governor’s golfing tips

Ah The Governor, a true villain for the 21st century. Now that his story is over, it’s safe to say that of all the threats the Grimes gang have faced, David Morrissey’s expertly handled portrayal of the one-eyed rotter has had had the most devastating consequences for them. The Governor’s kill count has topped anyone else’s, as it included a literal truck load of his own people, as well as three of the most beloved characters in the show – Andrea, Merle and finally Hershel, add to that the prison attack casualties and the death toll rises even higher.

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Yet despite all his sins in season three, when he made a fantastically timed reappearance in number four, there still seemed to be a little hope left that he could find salvation and worse still, there was a part of me that wanted to let him. Such was the superb handling of his second chance at a life, it really did seem as though with his newly adopted family his blood feud might finally be laid to rest, that was until he took to some rooftop golfing and the bastard we all loved to hate was back with one fell and sudden swing.

All hope was immediately abandoned, but the coup de grace that finally ended any and all sympathy for The Governor’s torment came with his last act, that meant no one would ever forgive him again.


Save your Pennys

It’s become a time honoured tradition in horror to make the central protagonist a young girl and for good reason, there’s something innately chilling about the clash of death against innocence – even typing I can hear the voice of Carol Anne in Poltergeist as clear as day. What was unexpected about the fate of poor Meghan was the execution of it and how cruel it was that she dies as a result of The Governor’s hubris.

It’s very unusual to graphically depict the death of such a young character, even with Lizzie and Mika’s story below the reveal was an aftermath shot (though no less powerful, as has always been the case when events are left up to the viewers’ imagination), yet there it was – Meghan openly and bloodily killed while the man who had promised not to let her suffer the same fate as his own daughter, Penny, abandoned her in favour of his futile quest to conquer the prison.

The denouement of The Governor’s new family was also especially strong, with Lilly (Audrey Marie Anderson) walking into the middle of a battlefield, dead daughter in her arms, presenting the body to The Governor, who promptly put a bullet through her head. Fitting, then, that Lilly be the last person to get revenge upon his dying body with that final, deadly shot.

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A heart wrenching heave-ho for Hershel

You would think after having several seasons to acclimatise to The Walking Dead’s unique way of killing off its main characters that a certain amount of desensitisation would have set in, but sadly that isn’t the case, as when it came to the murder of Hershel, the loss hit home harder than ever, on screen and off. This year when we spoke to both Norman Reedus and Danai Gurira, they both mentioned Scott Wilson’s departure from the show as one of the hardest to deal with, as he seems to have been as beloved by his fellow cast members as Hershel was by fans – Lauren Cohan even broke down in tears on The Talking Dead (a very fine show) when discussing it.

There were so many elements that contributed towards the sheer power of Hershel’s death; we’d witnessed him losing family and a leg, he’d been a great father-in-law to Glenn, always acted as a voice of wisdom when Rick was up against it and then to add insult to injury he’d even managed to selflessly survive the viral outbreak while constantly putting himself in harms’ way – an event that seemed certain to spell disaster for him. But alas, his end came from no such force of nature, but from one man’s own psychotic vengeance.

Hershel’s last few moments are so beautifully captured as the wry smile on his face imply that both the character and actor are happy and at peace to leave, while the raw emotions expressed by the rest of the cast are tangible in their upset. This being TWD things didn’t just stop there as we were then subjected to a lengthy hack job by The Governor, just to add to the gruesome act, which was then followed even more disturbingly by Michonne’s discovery of his dismembered and undead head – in fact the events were so traumatic that it does make me wonder why I keep putting myself through the emotional turmoil, but that’s the draw of the show and the strength with which it engages its audience, or I have a problem, one of the two.

Farewell Scott Wilson, you will be missed.


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Dreaming of pets

I wrote about and discussed the dream sequence with Michonne herself, Danai Gurira here, so in lieu of that, above is a picture that sums up the alarming reveal.


Kids with guns

And to think my wife and I cheered at the rather spectacular sight of seeing Carol’s younglings fulfil their potential and save Tyreese with a surprise couple of head shots. Little did we know it would lead to…


Ah, rats! The Lizzie and Mika story

The season had cleverly laid out breadcrumbs regarding its ‘serial killer in the making’ arc from the start, yet I was so utterly convinced that Carl Grimes was heading in that direction after his cold blooded kill at the end of season three that I couldn’t quite see past it. More fool me. Of course things became slightly more apparent who was to blame for rat-gate when Lizzie’s bunny dispatching was shown and the even more alarming scene where she nearly suffocates ‘Lil Ass Kicker.

The Grove has to be one of the strongest episodes yet, with the sheer impact of what took place affecting me like few things I’ve seen. Over the decades, few film and TV makers have had the audacity to kill children on screen as it remains one of the most harrowing paths that a story can take – it speaks volumes that John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 is still used as one such example and even the great man himself has confessed that he wouldn’t have shot the ice cream scene if he’d made the film after having his children.

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When the time came for the true nature of Lizzie’s psychosis to show itself in full, the simple, yet beautifully shot revelation, could not have hit harder. That she’d killed her own little sister was tragic enough, but no sooner had you processed that horror then you were hit with the sheer power of Melissa McBride’s performance as Carol, which managed to show both her current upset, while channelling her own previous loss back in season two. As if that all wasn’t bad enough, there was also Lizzie’s chillingly interrupted “I was just about to…” that conveyed she was seconds away from stabbing baby Judith. Even writing about it makes me shiver.

Truly superb work all round, again proving how strong the show is when it comes to feeding in to larger storylines, just go back to episode two for a reminder that when Lizzie and Mika’s father lay dying from a bite, it was Lizzie who said “We should be the ones” but couldn’t go through with the mercy killing, when she starts getting upset Mika turns her around and asks her to start counting to calm down, little did we know what that meant at the time.


Daryl’s moonshine melancholia

There are few things more upsetting than watching a heroic figure breakdown and cry. As a man who’s worshipped a variety of action icons over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by the power that their tears can have, as they tend to be such a rare occurrence. We’d already been subjected to Daryl’s grief-stricken upset upon finding his brother not just dead, but undead and then like so many of his friends having the unenviable task of finishing the job, but his moment in the twelfth episode was a more sombre, aggressive occasion and all the more moving as a result of what followed it.

Watching a character cry whose ‘man with no name’ attitude and calm exterior account for a large part of why he’s become such a fan favourite, made the outpouring of grief all the more surprising. It was a great relief though, to finally understand what had been going on in Daryl’s head and how much he blamed himself for everything that had happened, especially regarding The Governor’s attack that led to Hershel’s death.

In the scene that followed the ‘revelation’ that he hadn’t done much of anything in his pre-apocalypse life was never the point, but rather that he has become a true product of the zombie era, now free of any attachments to his old life now Merle’s dead, he has risen to become a leader and a hero and that’s why it was so sad to see him lose his strength.

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There’s also plenty of ominous foreshadowing at work in Beth’s comforting talk “You’re gonna miss me so bad when I’m gone Daryl Dixon” is delivered with the stark realisation that Beth, by her own admission, is unlikely to survive much longer. “You’ve got to stay who you are, not who you were” she tells him, a warning that seems even more poignant now that he’s fallen in with exactly the kind of people he’s spent his new life trying to break away from.


Beth’s boot bundling

Now just to clarify for our trans-Atlantic readers, a car boot in the UK is a trunk – apologies, it’s just that I love any excuse to use alliteration. More importantly though, who in the hell has Beth? Since so much time had been spent building the relationship between Beth and Daryl, I was curious to see exactly where that would lead to, the obvious choice was of course a romantic entanglement, but no.

The obvious suspect would be the owner of the building they were staying in – it could have been the dog, or the owner that led the barrage of zombies to the front door (or the dog belonged to him), either way Beth was flushed out and kidnapped faster than you can could shout “but she should have been the safest girl on earth with Daryl and his arms to protect her!” and that’s exactly the point, she should have been. There had been an unsettling quality to seeing the mystery mortician’s make up work on the undead, though it was the lovely Beth that dismissed the sight as “beautiful” instead of going with Daryl’s stance and look where it got her.

The ramifications for Daryl are also worrying too, as she had only just started to bring him through his nihilistic downfall and now he’s hanging with exactly the wrong crowd, heading towards Terminus with a gang keen to kill Rick, a man who he still has unresolved issues with regarding Carol’s unceremonious ditching. It’s all too much.


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Those who arrive survive?

I think just three words are needed here to surmise the likelihood of that happening at Terminus; not fucking likely.

Let’s just see what the last episode holds…

The Walking Dead remains a phenomenal show and one that takes great care to avoid easy repetition, while consistently and cleverly developing its characters with arcs, in some case, spanning several seasons. The acting, directing, writing and effects are first class and seem to go from strength to strength the longer it continues, so as we bid farewell to a superb fourth series, let the countdown begin to numder five. I, for one, can hardly wait.

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