This review contains minor spoilers.
This just might have been one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead of this entire season. From top to bottom, front to back, in all aspects, this was probably the best constructed episode since the first season, maybe the best since the pilot itself. Part of this is the return of a long-awaited character, and part of this is simply because the show turns back in on itself and revisits the locations from the original pilot. What could easily be a bad idea – reminding us of the show at its highest point – turns out to be one of the better ideas The Walking Dead has come up with during its run.
Low on guns, low on ammo, low on food, and low on ideas, Rick decided to go on a supply run and thought that it might be nice to pay a visit to his old home town, where there’s a gun locker with his name on it. However, revisiting the olden days is rarely a good idea, and when significant blocks of downtown have been turned into barricades, booby traps, and various other manglers with spray-painted words of warning on them, all of which imply bad things for those too stupid to turn back, well… Rick has to proceed anyway, while Carl and Michonne get a little bonding time.
With Glen Mazzara stepping down at the end of the season, I’ve been worried about the show. Mazzara has nearly turned the show completely around from a very disappointing second season (and started the turn near the end of season two when he took on the role officially), and has done some great work with plotting and structure as the show runner. However, his replacement is going to be Scott Gimple, the guy who wrote tonight’s brilliant episode. Given the way Gimple effectively split up the already-small group, gave all four characters plenty of time to breathe, and resisted the urge to do any check-ins back at the prison or Woodbury, it gives me hope that the show’s future might be more focused.
Granted, the plot wasn’t anything noteworthy, but the execution was spectacular and the writing was brilliant. The characters all got notes to hit, and with the returning presence of someone important from Rick’s past, it seemed to turn the show up to another level. It was meaningful. For the bulk of this season, The Walking Dead has been an exercise in comparing and contrasting Woodbury with the prison, even down to Woodbury having its own group of fighters featuring an Asian guy and a black guy. This week we get a comparison for Rick, but in the other direction. What would happen if Rick didn’t find the steel in his spine needed to actually do what had to be done to survive? What if Rick ran from trouble, rather than facing it head on? What if Rick gives in to his weariness, his grief, his guilt, his growing madness?
It’s a brilliant idea, but it’s the execution that sells it. Some of that credit also goes to director Tricia Brock and the incredible cast and crew who designed the set. The centerpiece of the action, which cements the show’s full turn back to its original episode, was a gorgeously designed set full of crazy, fun details. It’s clever in its intricacy, and tense and funny by turns depending on the message and its location. Some of the shots, particularly of the many zombie traps, are downright disturbing. Other written warnings are borderline hilarious when viewed from the safety of the couch, but probably not as funny when accompanied by sniper fire.
It’s nice to see the show make some nods to its origins in such an overt way, with Rick even handling the rifle from the pilot episode again, while at the same time showing how far things have come thanks to Carl morphing into a goofy-hatted killer, Michonne saying more than two sentences (and telling two good jokes!), and the show itself changing how it addresses issues. There are moments in The Walking Dead that happen this week that would’ve triggered long, boring debates in the second season (see the guy impaled on the fence whom they brought back to the farm) are now simply dismissed without so much as a wink or nod or unkind word.
Call it progress via devolution.
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