*This review will serve as a thematic overview of the season in question. The Walking Dead doesn't hold back, and it's best going into the fourth season knowing as little as possible. Consider this a mostly spoiler-free review.
The landscape of entertainment has been fascinating to watch. Most my life, the primary focus had been on film. That is, if you wanted to see big stars in large roles backed by high production values, you'd be compelled to visit your local movie house. Nowadays, major studios tend to hedge their bets. If you want to produce a massive CGI-fest based off an existing franchise, your chances of getting the mountainous budget you need go through the roof. If, however, you want to tell a story that strays from the cookie-cutter concepts we've seen a thousand times over, then you're likely to get low balled... and if you want to make your film bad enough, you'll have to make due. As a result, mainstream thespians struggle with longevity, and talented filmmakers have a difficult time making a name for themselves. Fortunately, television studios have stepped up to provide content that's far more compelling than the snooze-worthy drivel leaking out of Hollywood like an aggressive disease. One such example is The Walking Dead, as it unquestionably defines the shift in dynamics I'm going on about.
There's plenty of programs that have showcased a more cinematic approach, but I'm still in awe of the higher quality writing, direction and cinematography we've seen in recent years. So much so, that I consider myself lucky to have maintained my core entertainment 'values'. That is to say, what I appreciate most of all is a tale spun by the art of 'slow burn'. It allows me to get to know the characters and identify with their personal struggles, and that's precisely what sucked me into the world of The Walking Dead in the first place.
Yet, in regards to the drama that's so thick I can't help but get sucked in... well, my attention has wavered over series' run, and often found myself at the opposite end of the fan perception stick. A lot of people disliked the 2nd season for slowing things down and straying further away from the zombie action... but to me, it's the best batch of episodes to date. While everyone loved the faster pace of season 3, I was disappointed to find much of the heavier content had been given little time to marinate. As a result, I questioned if The Walking Dead would continue to walk down the more accessible path, or if it would once again pull on the reigns and focus on struggles that were more than just 'good guys against the bad guys'.
Fortunately, the 4th season of The Walking Dead brings us back to a more intimate look at the zombie apocalypse.
If there's one constant in the series, it's suffering. The characters can press their hands together to pray, dig deep to find the will to live, and remind themselves of what ‘humanity' means all they want… but it doesn't matter. Bad things are going to happen, and when they do, the only choices are survive or die. However, survival often comes at a cost, and nobody understands that better than Rick. People often looked to him for leadership, and because he felt an obligation to keep everyone in his group safe, he accepted the burden of making all the difficult decisions. What was his ‘thanks' for spreading himself too far and too thin? He lost sight of himself, and more importantly, the people closest to him have been slipping away. Rick meant to keep tabs on his moral compass in survival situations, but he inevitably reached the point where he became too ‘cold' for comfort.
Fast forward a bit, and we see everyone is playing a role at the prison: Carol is teaching the kids how to defend themselves, Daryl hunts and leads small groups on supply runs, and the list goes on. Rick, on the other hand, has distanced himself from the group. Aware he had temporarily lost his mind, he's decided to take a step back and live a simpler life. He still contributes by tending the garden and raising pigs, but this is more for his wellbeing than that of the group. To him, farming is a representation of hope: With enough time and energy, the prison could become self-sufficient. With plenty of meat, vegetables and medicinal plants, the need to scavenge beyond the prison's border will dissipate. Furthermore, he's hoping this positive outlook will be a good example for his son, Carl, who also seemed to lose a bit of his humanity along the way.
Of course, The Walking Dead isn't too fond of the ‘happily ever after' thing, so it isn't long before traumatic events - both from outside and within - cause the core group to disband. Once again Rick finds his mental state shaken, but he's still ‘with it' enough know he's at a crossroads... and it all comes back to something Dale (we miss you, man) had said a couple of seasons ago: "The world we know is gone, but keeping our humanity? That's a choice." That's what Rick - and everyone else for that matter - has to figure out. Is it a choice? When there's no sense of community, and no figureheads or ‘council' to listen to, will they succumb to the nightmare permeating their lives, or is it possible for them to claw their way back from despair?
We've seen the core group fractured before, but never like this. I mean, everyone had gotten used to the microcosm of society the prison helped to provide. Now, we're seeing them reacquaint themselves with the uncertainty that comes from being lost and alone, and from an entertainment perspective, this adds a new layer of intensity unlike anything we've seen to date... and why? Because this season, The Walking Dead is doing what it does best: Slowing down to focus on the human struggle from an intimate angle. With characters surviving on their own, or in groups of 2 or 3, it isn't uncommon to see each person/pair/group get an entire episode to shine. It's an interesting experiment that pays off more than it doesn't, but this does leave me with a couple of minor complaints.
Logically, I don't think anyone expects the series to maintain a fractured storyline forever, right? Right. The only way to resolve this self-imposed storytelling device is to bring everyone - or at least some of the characters - back together, and the writers do very little to mask this telegraph. So I didn't find myself asking what would happen, but more or less how it would happen. Sort of a clunky way to move things away from the prison, but it works. And hey, you could argue one of the season's themes is that a glimmer of hope can exist in even the darkest depths of reality... but I think that's a bit of a stretch. This is The Walking Dead, after all. My second complaint? I'm okay with how everything played out, but the finale was too anticlimactic for my liking.
But as I said, this experiment paid off more than it didn't. The 4th season of The Walking Dead packages gobs of warmth, drama, suspense and horror, and it's all been ribboned with matured writing and solid acting. As far for the latter, I think Andrew Lincoln, Scott Wilson and Melissa McBride - Rick, Hershel and Carol, respectively - stole the show. That said, I'm not trying to diminish the performances put forth by Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira and Chad Coleman - Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, Michonne and Tyreese - because they were better than ever. On the flip side of the coin, I didn't see much growth from Chandler Riggs (Carl), and although Emily Kinney (Beth) had more screen time this season, I never ‘felt' what she was attempting to convey. The only performance that really pulled me out of the moment, however, was that of Brighton Sharbino (as Lizzie). I don't want to spoil what rubbed me the wrong way, but her performance was - and I hate to say it - eye-wincing at times. She's young yet, so I hope time will bring the experience she needs to sharpen her skills.
Of course, not every show is perfect, and as I stated at the beginning of this review, neither is The Walking Dead. But despite its flaws, I still find myself biting my nails, jumping in my seat, crying, and even laughing… sometimes all in the same episode. Television doesn't get much more compelling than this. In short - If you've been burned out by zombie-mania or the direction the series had taken the year before… don't stop now. Things get very tense, very quick, and the writers do everything in their power to manipulate your emotions every step of the way… and with the culmination of their talent and that of the talented cast… they've succeeded.
The Walking Dead - The Complete Fourth Season doesn't shuffle and shamble to Blu-ray (AVC codec, 1.78:1, 1080p)… it sprints with confidence. As a matter of fact, it was like I was watching these episodes for the first time. The show is shot via 16mm, yet none of that grit the grain provides seems to make a statement at the time of airing. On Blu-ray however, The Walking Dead retains the grimy look it had been envisioned with, and in an essentially flawless presentation, otherwise. Detail is immaculate, the image has a natural sharpness to it, black levels are solid and contrast is great... it really doesn't get much better than this. You're going to find color palettes are muted a bit, but that's intentionally done to add to the bleak nature of the show. A stellar presentation after all is said and done... but then again, if you've been collecting this series on Blu-ray already, this isn't a surprise.
Those production values I was talking about? Yeah. They didn't skimp on the audio, either, as The Walking Dead - The Complete Fourth Season absolutely kills with its lossless 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Zombie moans creep through the surrounds, gunfire and explosions rock the dynamic range and LFE, and there's always that unsettling ambience of the environment: We're always used to hearing cars or SOMEthing in the distance, but when all you hear is silence in the wilderness, it gets pretty unnerving... and the show captures that spooky/quiet ambience perfectly. There's a lot of dialogue to bridge some of the more excitement moments in the series, so you may not feel compelled to show this title off in your home theater, but in regards to sound design and artistic intent? Flawless.
-Commentaries - "30 Days Without An Accident" - Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple, Executive Producer/Unit Production Manager Tom Luse, Executive Producer/Special Effects Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero / "Internment" - Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple, Actor Scott Wilson / "Too Far Gone" - Director Ernest Dickerson and Writer Seth Hoffman / "After: Extended" - Executive Producer/Special Effects Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero, Co-Executive Producer Denise Huth, Actress Danai Gurira / "Still" - Director Julis Ramsey, Actress Emily Kinney / "Still" - Writer/Producer Angela King, Actor Norman Reedux / "The Grove: Extended" - Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple, Co-Executive Producer Denise Huth, Actor Andrew Lincoln
-Inside The Walking Dead - This is a series of episode specific featurettes that discusses characters, stories, overall themes and more. This is a great addition for those who like supplemental content, as it provides an 'in episode' perspective as well as a 'throughout the season this evolves into' perspective. Each episode of the season is treated to one of these, and are highly recommended.
-The Making of The Walking Dead - Very similar to the 'Inside The Walking Dead' featurettes, however, these focus more on the behind-the-scenes development as opposed to the thematic development.
-Drawing Inspiration - Sort of a brief cross-examination of the content between the comics and the show. You can't NOT watch this if you're a fan... but of course, spoilers beware for those who haven't seen the comics.
-Hershel - Everyone aboard the set has something to say about this guy, and for good reason: He's one of the best characters on the show. He stands as the voice of reason in a world that's gone mad, and that's been sorely needed especially after Dale had croaked some time back.
-The Governor Is Back - Well, I managed to avoid this in my contextual review... but AMC has a really bad habit of spoiling stuff in the titles of their supplemental material. Anyway, this brief featurette details this character in full.
-Society, Science & Survival - This featurette covers the online courses one can take in order to brush up on survival by... you guessed it, using examples from The Walking Dead series itself.
-Inside KNB Studios - This is the studio responsible for a lot of the practical special effects... like the gory stuff we've all come to love. Need I say more?
-A Journey Back To Brutality - This piece is dedicated to Rick, and how he transforms from... well, again, I don't want to spoil anything. Just keep in mind I said I was really, really pleased with his performance this year.
The Walking Dead - The Complete Fourth Season is absolutely to die for (sorry, couldn't resist). No, it's not perfect (what is?), but it's still one of the most effective shows on television... meaning you'd be hard pressed not to feel the entire gamut of emotions throughout all 16 episodes. More maturely written than ever, this is one of the most intimate seasons thus far, and in my opinion, stands head and shoulders over its predecessor. This release also comes with a killer A/V presentation and a decent batch of supplements. Highly Recommended.