With the cultural phenomenon and ratings behemoth The Walking Dead making its return tomorrow evening, we at Action A Go Go figured we all might need a little history lesson before the season premiere. So if you’re a WD newbie, this here is your chance to get a little background on the show before tomorrow night!
I like to think of the history of The Walking dead as three different “eras”, starting with:
The Darabont Era (2010)
The Walking Dead kicked off its run back in 2010 to much fanfare and massive critical acclaim. Hollywood veteran Frank Darabont served as show runner on the the first season, which was dark, grim and serious. In ways very reminiscent of Darabont’s previous works, Walking Dead was more about the deterioration of the human psyche as a result of the hellish zombie Apocalypse than the flesh-eating monsters themselves. Ironically, however, the zombies featured more heavily in this first season than in the seasons that followed. Unfortunately, for all the excellence that Darabont brought to the table, he was booted from the show before production on the second season over budget concerns (his vision for the show was simply far too expensive for the executives at AMC to consider). Under Darabont’s supervision, The Walking Dead had the potential to rival some of television’s best shows as far as writing quality goes and the show has had a hard time recovering after his firing. It has had stellar moments, for sure, but it’s very, very rarely managed to equal the first season’s excellence.
Season One Grade: A-
The Mezzara Era (2011 – 2013)
For season two, Glen Mazzara, a writer on the first season, stepped up into the role as show runner. And while the first episode or two worked solidly, the rest of the season (the first half in particular) suffered from a distinct lack of direction and a struggle to balance Darabont’s grim tone and Mazarra’s more pulpy sensibilities. The zombie threat was also largely neutered in this season, as the walkers very rarely made an appearance, and when they did, never managed to achieve much of anything. While the final few episodes improved significantly, with the finale abandoning the farm setting and essentially rebooting the show’s tone and direction, the second season is universally considered the weakest of the series.
Season Two Grade: B-
Season three showed massive improvement by fixing the previous season’s biggest problem: it was cripplingly boring. Right off the bat, season three jumps right into a high-velocity, high tension narrative where anybody could go at anytime. Within the first quarter of the season, two of the show’s long-term leads were offed in one of the series’ best episodes that was both shocking and entertaining in a new way. It still lacked the pointed gravitas of the first season, but it was rip-roaring entertainment and kept the viewers on edge from week to week. Unfortunately, after a stellar first half, the season sort of fell apart during its final eight episodes. Most of the plot lines that had been built up so excellently in the first half were either dropped or reached disappointing conclusions. Although mostly an anticlimax, the second half of season three still managed to deliver a stand alone episode that I consider to be the series best episode: “Clear” (an episode that I’ll expound on in a little bit).
Season Three Grade: B+
The problem with Glen Mazzara’s show-running, is that he lacked the foresight to create a really cohesive and satisfying season of television. He managed some really shocking moments of excellence here and there, but they never amounted to much of anything. I can’t think of a single running plot line during seasons two or three that really lived up to their potential, despite often excellent beginnings. The result was television that was highly entertaining, but very messy, and very imbalanced. Due to the floundering latter half of the third season, as well as conflicts with executive producer (and writer of the original comic books) Robert Kirkman, Mazzara received the boot after season three and has been replaced for the upcoming season by series writer Scott M. Gimple.
The Gimple Era (present)
Although this is all speculation, I have high hopes for Scott Gimple’s takeover as the series’ showrunner. He has written some of the show’s best hours; “Clear” and “Pretty Much Dead Already”. These episodes in particular are the ones most consistently reminiscent of the series’ first season. They are powerful, focused and interesting episodes that manage to recapture that same sense of sprawling, despairing grimness that made the first season so powerful. So I’m hoping that Mr. Gimple can really bring those elements back into play. Due to the loss of it’s original visionary, The Walking Dead can never be the complete and fulfilling narrative (a la “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones”) that season one so perfectly set the stage for, but at the very least it can make a return to some of those themes and deliver some high-quality television. Who knows? Maybe Scott Gimple can take the excellent cast and crew he’s been given and make something new out of it and surprise us all. The Walking Dead has all the pieces to be an entertaining show, why not a legitimately great one (even if it’s not the same great one we initially thought it was going to be)?
Top Five Episodes:
5. “Guts”, S1Ep2: Essentially a “part two” to the pilot episode, “Guts” is intense, exciting and, best of all, completely disgusting. It’s in this episode that we get our first introduction to the series’ ensemble who all manage to make a strong impression even in the middle of being attacked by a massive zombie horde in downtown Atlanta. It is one of the only two episodes written personally by Darabont and his masterful writing still makes this one a series stand-out.
4. “Beside the Dying Fire”, S2Ep13: to cap of the lackluster second season, the writing staff basically threw up their hands saying “screw it!” and somehow churned out one of the most exciting episodes of the series, and probably the most action-packed episode to date. The zombies who had been so absent during most of the season make a big reappearance, decimating the farmland and offing a few side characters. It’s messy, it’s intense and it’s actually pretty awesome, ending the season with the bang that it should’ve had from the get-go.
3. “Killer Within”, S3Ep4: After a few solid episodes to open the season with, it seemed like things were settling back into the monotonous rut of season two. Things were going decently; no pesky zombies around, no real interpersonal drama to speak of. And then, almost as if to say “you think we’re gonna make that same mistake twice?! Here’s our collective middle finger”, the writers surprised everybody by suddenly, and gruesomely offing two of the leads in the most stressful ways possible. “Killer Within” firmly reestablishes that in “The Walking Dead” nobody is safe from being horribly torn to shreds. It’s a jaw-dropping hour of television (particularly surprising given how early in the season it was), and one that had people talking for quite sometime, deservedly so.
2. “Pilot”, S1Ep1: “The Walking Dead” made a triumphant first impression with one of the greatest pilot episodes in recent memory (probably in television history). This first episode, written by Frank Darabont, is everything this show ever needed to be; it’s scary, it’s gross, it’s intense and it’s beautiful. It’s one of the first television episodes to rightly earn the description of “cinematic”, and while it’s a shame that the series has rarely stacked up to this level of quality, this first episode is and will always be an achievement that The Walking Dead can wear proudly on it’s chest.
1. “Clear”, S3Ep12: This is the episode that gave me faith in Scott M. Gimple’s ability to craft an engaging and powerful story in a limited period of time. It has focus and carries itself with purpose, serving as a spiritual sequel of sorts to the very first episode of the show. Coming totally out of left field, it’s rare that a series one-off is this good. But “Clear” was a phenomenal surprise amidst a few lackluster episodes, and it’s a fantastic reminder of the potential this show really has. If the fourth season can stylistically and thematically keep in tone with this episode, then The Walking Dead may yet see a return to excellence.
Honorable Mention. “Vatos”, S1Ep4: In this episode we get to see the zombies deal some mass carnage for the very first time, and it does not disappoint. Equal parts scary and moving, “Vatos” let’s the audience know just how lethal these things are and how much damage they can really do on a massive scale.
Andrew Allen is a television (and occasionally film) writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check out him on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.