Has ‘The Walking Dead’ Cracked My All-time TV Top 5?
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[If you haven’t watched Season 5, yet, stop reading, right now. Or, enter at your own risk . . .]
Just a few words of praise upon finishing Season 5.
Wow, do I have my hair blown back. And I don’t mean just by the thrills and chills. I mean by the relationship drama, the villains/villainy, the comedy. Perhaps where the show excites me most is the inventiveness — a.k.a., rule-breaking — of its cinematography. That’s especially true of Season 5. Sure, the camera work has always been fresh and ingenious. But now, with all the night shooting and severe-yet-nuanced studio lighting, they’ve really turned the thumbscrews on pure retinal agitation. Plus, shooting on the infinitely more mobile 16mm camera produces some startlingly original looks. Like in Ep. 3, “Four Walls and a Roof,” in the church, when our heroes turn the tables on Gareth and Martin, and the hunters become the hunted. That shot from Gareth’s point of view, looking up at Rick wielding the “machete with the red handle.” Sure, that point of view isn’t new, angled up and making a giant of Rick. But the framing — the shot has the altar and stained glass in the background. You’re not supposed to elevate heroes to the level of God. (Not in America, anyways. It’s not an uncommon trope in Japanese screen culture, especially in anime. See Berserk.)
Though it’s impossible to argue what the show does best, consistency has to be part of that conversation. Not a single episode feels like a dud, not in any of the five seasons. Only the rarest cable drama reaches this astonishing level of reliability, episode to episode. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood keep it at a “10” from bell to bell. But other shows? I can’t think of any. Even some of my favorite shows of all time have their off, phone-it-in days. Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Wire. None of them can match such perfection.
In its mature state the series unsurprisingly has become heavily philosophical. Mostly themes of identity and ego. And, oh yeah, that third theme. Despite having way more characters who die than survive, the show has rarely been about death. Season 5 is about death. Tyrece, Beth, Bob, Martin. (Martin. Yep. Death.) That the nature of existence depends on death — or, rather, IS death — that’s one common thread among the episodes of Season 5.
It’s no coincidence Beth is only a great character when she confronts death. At the front of her plot arc (Season 2, Ep.10) she tries to kill herself; at the back of her plot arc (Season 5, Ep. 8) she dies bitterly. In both, her cynicism and clear sight ring true. Take for instance her first real scenes (Season 2, Ep. 10). Maggie tries to talk Beth out of suicide.
Maggie: “You could do that to Dad?”
Beth: “He’s clueless. He had us waitin’ for a cure.”
Maggie: “You could do that to me? I can’t take another funeral.”
Beth: “You can’t avoid it. What are we waiting for? We should both do it. At the same time–”
Beth: “–help each other. It’s hard to do–”
Maggie: “Stop talking like that.”
Beth: “–our choice. Then it would be over. Or we’ll be forced to do it when this house and the farm is overrun . . . I don’t want to be gutted.”
In Seasons 3 and 4, the middle span of her plot arc, Beth comes across as flat and contrived and superfluous. But her lustrous scenes in Season 5, Ep’s 6 – 8, anchoring the drama of the mid-season finale, she grows into herself. She survives in that Lost-like, dystopian hospital from hell. She stands up to the depraved corruption, the naked abuse. She helps shield victims of what is essentially a prison. She becomes larger than life, becomes a worthy member of our group of super heroes. In her swan song she says, sneering, seething at Dawn, “I get it now.” She stabs Dawn in the chest and gets shot in the face. Showrunner Scott Gimple could’ve gotten many more great miles out of her. But her death feels just forthright. It is certainly courageous on his part.
Throughout this season Rick feels the need to tell the town folk over and over, “It’s all about survival.” Well, that’s one side of the coin.