Original air date: February 16, 2014

The Review (with SPOILERS): This show is so damn bizarre. Last week it comes back from winter hiatus and craps the bed.  Then this week, we get what is not only one of the best episodes of the series, but an episode that would be right at home with some of the finer programs on TV currently.  This was a really, really good episode.  The high points were very high and the lows were pretty minor.  When readers complain in the comment thread about the poor grades I give this show, they often say, “What do you want from this show?”  Well, I want more of THIS.  Last week was crap, this week was excellent!

The first thing that made this episode stand apart was just some novelty to the storytelling.  After starting out with the story of Darryl and Beth, we came back from commercial break to the tale of Tyreese and the girls.  Only, the story of Tyreese happened BEFORE the story of Darryl/Beth.  As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Wow, non-linear storytelling on The Walking Dead?  I’ll be damned…”  We have have seen non-linear storytelling on TWD before (see – S04E04 also directed by Tricia Block), but it is not common.  The theme continued with the stories of Maggie/Bob/Sasha and finally with Glen.  We actually picked up with Glen right in the aftermath of the Governor’s attack on the prison.  One of the things I’ve found so frustrating about TWD is the sheer repetitiveness of the episodes.  Everything is strictly linear and it gets a little old.  I don’t want non-linear storytelling all the time, but it’s nice to see them mix it up a little bit and try something new.  Not everything has to be a straight path from A to B.

There were other clever storytelling items in this episode.  The ambiguity about whether or not Maggie had killed a Zombie Glen was wonderful.  Before the commercial, we just saw her crying.  At first it looked like tears of sadness, like she had just killed her zombified husband.  Then it seemed to shift to tears of joy, Glen wasn’t on the bus, so he must have survived.  But, they never showed us the body.  They just sent us to commercial not really knowing what happened, but actually having a scene to interpret and discuss.  Holy crap!  This was so much more refined than Carl screaming at Rick, “I’d be okay if you died.”  Then we come back from commercial break to see Glen’s head with what looks like a stab wound in his forehead.  His eyes opened up and we realized he was really alive, but for a split second, we all thought that was dead, zombie Glen; “killed” by his beloved wife.  Isn’t it amazing how quickly your brain can churn through a complex situation in a tenth of a second?  Amazing thing, the human brain…  Very, very clever.  The fact that the whole scene with Maggie was so ambiguous was very out-of-character for TWD.  Usually, in a scene like this, someone like Rick shows up to tell us viewers exactly what is going on.  It was nice to have a chance to use my imagination a little with TWD.  Later, during Glen’s scene, we had a similar opportunity as he laid there on his cot.  There was no talking.  No Rick telling him to “Get up and fight to carry on!  Maggie would want you to carry on!” No Herschel or Dale giving old-man advice… Just Glen laying there with his thoughts with the viewer left to figure it out.

It would take too long to go through the other nifty elements: use of vultures to signify death circles over them (a little blunt, but it worked), the POV camera work when Riot-Suit Glen pushed through the zombies, the Beth narration over her and Darryl’s run from zombies, the very excellent music throughout (the creepy piano notes when Glen went back into the prison)…  I even detected a little bit of the show poking fun at itself in a few scenes.  The zombies spilling out of the bus was very reminiscent of the zombies spilling out of Herschel’s barn.  And speaking of Sophia, was anyone else thinking of her when Tyreese left the girls alone in the woods?  And did anyone notice that Beth was near a campfire and elected NOT TO SING?  The whole episode was clever and smartly executed.  It’s almost like real professionals showed up this week and knocked the show out of the dunces’ hands and said, “Just…  Just… Give me that…  You’ve done enough.  This is how it’s done!”

I’m really not used to TWD being this smartly packaged and here we are, 600 words into the review, and we haven’t even really talked about what happened.

  • Beth & Darryl: This was probably the weakest of the bits, but it was still fine.  I thought it was interesting that Darryl didn’t seem too eager to find the others (again understated and ambiguous).  I was also surprised at how Beth has gone from a gawky teenager-looking girl to kind of a hottie in just a few months.  How did that happen?  Did the make-up people decide that she needed to look older and hotter so that she can have a love-story with Darryl (and not have it be creepy)?  I’m sure everyone caught that “love is in the air” vibe from those two.  Again, understated.
  • Tyreese, Lizzie, Mika and Judith: Yes, the Seed of Shane is alive.  And I really liked the idea of putting big, burly Tyreese alone with two teenage girls and a baby.  It was tense every time Judith cried and you could see Tyreese’s anguish over how difficult it would be to keep them ALL safe.  Keeping one weakling safe is no big deal, two is challenging, and three– that’s just too hard.  Again, Tyreese didn’t explode into a monologue about how he couldn’t keep them all safe… We just had to read between the lines to understand that.  And how psycho is Lizzie?  Geez…
  • Carol’s back: I’m not really sure what the point of sending her away was, but I’m glad she is back. I mean, didn’t they barely even deal with her absence before the Governor attacked the prison?   Carol is one of the stronger characters on the show and having her locked into a small group with Tyreese will be interesting.  In the comics, there was a Carol/Tyreese romance, but in this TV continuity, Tyreese is bound to figure out that Carol killed his girlfriend.  Either way, there are explosions down the road for this small group.
  • Terminus: Not so sure about sending the survivors to another safe haven right away, but I’m willing to be optimistic based on how good this episode was otherwise.
  • Maggie, Bob & Sasha: This was a wonderful story which I’ve already talked about some.  I also liked how Maggie was tough and had a purpose again.  Bob got to deliver lines that Andrew Lincoln would have fumbled about the importance of doing more than merely surviving.  Sasha was interesting.  And these three characters acted like they actually liked each other.
  • Glen: Another story that I’ve already said that I liked.  I think Glen is just better the less he talks.  He’s really good at wordless performances (remember his showdown with the zombie in Woodbury?)

It’s the small things that keep this from being a perfect episode.  One is the old child-actor problem.  The dialog between Lizzie and Mika just isn’t good or believable.  I LIKE the story idea of having an emotionally damaged child turn into a problematic killer, but I’m not sure how good it is in execution.  Again, this stuff works better in the comics when you can imagine Lizzie’s part being played in your mind by Dakota Fanning.  Neither of these little girls is in that class and it comes off like a middle-school theatre performance.  Hopefully they resolve this storyline soon.  To be clear, I’m generally anti-child-actor.  They are usually crappy actors, they grow too fast and force the show to address their growth spurts, blah, blah….

The other quibble I have is WHY did they preserve the character of Tara?  Remember all those awkward fist bumps? Why her?  I guess it is somewhat interesting to have a member of the Governor’s army living in the midst of our heroes, but it seems like they could’ve/should’ve picked someone else.

I was also excited to see the characters of Abraham, Eugene and Rosita show up at the end of the episode.  My only concern is that they seem very pulled from the comics themselves down to Eugene’s mullet and Rosita’s belly-shirt.  I just don’t see the point of making them LOOK just like the comic characters.  Abraham’s mustache isn’t a fundamental part of his character, nor is Eugene’s mullet and “unbuttoned shirt over t-shirt” look.  These actors look like they’re cosplaying…

So, I guess the question is, does this episode justify optimism that the series will get better?  The answer is: maybe.  The director for the next two weeks is Seith Mann, who has some impressive credits on his resume.  Then we get a few other moderately successful directors, but the biggie, the season finale is being directed by Michelle MacLaren.  She’s one of the hottest episode directors in TV right now, having done some of the most outstanding episodes of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.  Maybe this show is finally bringing better dramatic talent behind the camera?

Conclusion: I can’t remember a better episode of The Walking Dead.  Inventive storytelling is a huge plus, as is leaving the story ambiguous and letting the viewer use their imagination a little bit.

Grade: A-

-Dean Stell