Where do you suppose “The Walking Dead” is taking us? Or let me put it this way: If I ask you to envision what its final episode might look like a few years from now, what do you see? President Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) giving his inaugural address from the steps of a fortified U.S. Capitol to a nation of several hundred non-zombie Americans?
The answer, as Season 4 begins Sunday night, is quite possibly and intentionally “nothing,” which would stand to reason: AMC’s zombie saga is a hit because it is an exercise in hopelessness and even nihilism.
The world is gone and it is never coming back. There is no underlying anchor of morality or long-term care; the characters who might have once been vested in the nobility of shared survival now struggle and fail to provide relief — to one another or to the viewer. Our rooting for them is a cruel joke. Our hopes in the stouthearted redneck Darryl (Norman Reedus) will almost certainly be dashed at some point; even Hershel (Scott Wilson), the wise country veterinarian now hobbling on one leg, no longer seems to buy into his own platitudes of perseverance.
With “The Walking Dead,” there is no goal in sight. We are not building toward payoff. We are not even following the story arcs of the 114 issues (and counting) of the original 2003 “Walking Dead” comic book that started it all. There is only a reset button (revolving showrunners, new writers) or a fresh level of horror and despair, just like the popular video game based on the show which emphasizes the feelings and personalities of characters, who could all die at any moment. The TV show also banks on non-zombie intervals of personal conflict among the still-living, who behave like test subjects in a morbidly long experiment of applied social psychology.
Having watched the serviceable but flat opening episodes of this new season, I think now is as good a time as any to ask if it’s worth going on with “The Walking Dead,” when all it does is underline its message of futility over and over and over. Why keep watching, even if we like the gore?
The show’s routine has been well-established and rewarded by a fervent fan base and strong ratings. In rural Georgia, a group of surviving humans are ambivalently led by former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, who wears the role with such heavy sadness). They fight off a relentless onslaught of thousands and likely millions of zombies who can only be killed by blunt brain trauma (in accordance with nearly all zombie lore). In any given episode, we see anywhere from a dozen to 100 such blows administered — spears and arrows and bullets and even boots puncture zombie skulls, which squish and explode with such regularity that viewers have long since become inured to the squealfully gross sight of it.
After their tedious, season-long battle against the power-mad Governor of Woodbury (David Morrissey), Rick and his band took on responsibility for the remaining townsfolk, inviting them to come live in the prison compound where they’ve managed to keep the zombies on the safe side of the fences. In Sunday’s episode we find the group in what passes for relative, fleeting bliss on “The Walking Dead”: Rick tends to a community garden and raises pigs while others stand watch and make periodic supply runs to abandoned, zombie-infested box stores.
But there is no such thing as happiness here. (Light spoilers ahead.) While on a solo hunt for wild boar, Rick has one of his trademark eerie encounters in the woods, meeting a severely troubled survivor who begs for his help. It’s a harbinger of doom. Back at the prison, more than one new danger presents itself and, to make matters worse, the fences cannot hold back an increasing horde.
Even though there’s a popular discussion show (“The Talking Dead”) that airs after each episode, what is there to talk about anymore, besides which main character will be the next to go? Apocalyptic despair is a required element of all zombie narratives, I don’t argue with that. But momentum is necessary to all television dramas, and too often I find myself making wish lists for “The Walking Dead” instead of writing reviews of it.
I wish, for example, that the core characters would hit the road and see what lies beyond Georgia. This wish became more profound while watching Brad Pitt globe-trot in search of a zombie cure in the summer hit “World War Z.” If he can get to Israel, can’t Rick’s group at least cross a state line? What if things are better somewhere? How will they ever know? I wish Michonne (Danai Gurira, who increasingly provides the show’s most compelling thread) would go off on her own, maybe even to a Michonne spinoff show, and discover some counterbalance to “The Walking Dead’s” inertia.
I also wish for a little zombie relief. One of the more memorable innovations in the 2002 film “28 Days Later” was the discovery that zombies can actually starve, wither and weaken over time; they’re walking corpses, after all.
See what’s happened here? “The Walking Dead” hasn’t changed enough, which causes my mind to wander, which usually means a show is losing its grip.
And yet I can’t not watch. By promising only nothingness, “The Walking Dead” is very much a show for the times, easily described by the words that are currently in the air: shutdown, sequestration, unwinding, collapse, ruin, default, deficit, destruction, betrayal, distrust, dishonesty. It’s about the few remaining haves vs. the millions and millions of have-nots. Someday we’ll have to tell our children that one of our very favorite TV shows was the one in which life only got worse and worse and worse — and never once got better. It was a show where characters were relieved to die and were hardly mourned by the ones who kept living.
I hope that narrative concept makes no sense whatsoever to them.
(one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.