When we last witnessed the grim wasteland of AMC's post-apocalyptic drama, Rick and his fellow survivors had defeated the Governor in a shootout at the Governor's creepy, authoritarian facsimile of an all-American small town, Woodbury. Rick brought surviving children and old people from the town back to his group's home base, an abandoned prison, with the Governor and two of his henchmen still at large. As the new season opens this week, Rick is plowing the fields inside the prison gates while zombies amass outside. In an almost-nice touch, Rick takes on the rhythm of his labor as he blocks out the walkers' hideous rasping with some old-time Southern folk music on an MP3 player … which he's charged up by means the writers, I suppose, figure we don't really need to think about.
Roll the now-iconic title sequence, with its tense, cycling musical theme and frightening, cataract-y visuals. The Walking Dead is back.
This first scene captures maybe not everything but a lot of what's so compelling about the show—and alternately some of what's so frustrating. It's one of The Walking Dead's now-many striking vignettes showing what human resilience might look like if civilization were destroyed and replaced by a horrifying inversion of it. Rick, the show's burdened leader of a protagonist, starts in on a new day of a new quasi-normal life, which we know can only be temporary. We see him iterating a daily routine. We can imagine him taking some uncertain comfort from that. But we know it won't last. Nothing here does. We see him strike something with his hoe. It's a Colt 45 handgun, buried in the dirt. Rick barely pauses before removing the magazine from the gun, tossing both into his wheelbarrow, and getting on with his work. There's a air of vague mystery here. Maybe the gun means something. Maybe it's a clue of significant things yet to be discovered. But it's probably just an evocative souvenir of a gun battle at the prison last season. It's a standard play on The Walking Dead to build short scenes around details that remind us just how intense this apocalypse has been, and then just to move on. The show dwells and re-dwells. Which points to what I'm more and more convinced is the show's key weakness: It depends way too much on its basic premise.
To unpack that a little, let's put the opening scene in comparative context—granted, one that may make more sense to us in October 2013, when a non-trivial segment of the U.S. TV-watching population is working itself out of Breaking Bad withdrawal, than it will to TV historians in the future: If this were Breaking Bad, the 45 would mean something specific about where the story was going. True, Breaking Bad used foreshadowing in a particular, sometimes idiosyncratic, way. But it also generally didn't waste scenes on recalling for you what you already knew about the story. It drove the story forward, often relentlessly. That one-eyed teddy bear in the pool? That M60 machine gun in the trunk? These details told the viewer the story was going somewhere. And was it ever.
Breaking Bad brought the same purpose to character development that it brought to plotting. From Walt and Jesse to Hank or Lydia, its characters were distinct and specific; they spoke and acted specifically; they had specific purposes that interacted in specific ways, which made them and the story they were a part of real and compelling.
The Walking Dead struggles here. Last season, when Rick lost his mind and started hallucinating about his dead wife, he came back from it—a little more burdened, but that was that. In the Season 4 premiere, Rick meets a lone survivor who fears she's done such horrible things to get by that she never be able come back from as a human being. It turns out she doesn't. The encounter of course further burdens Rick. Hershel tells him not to forget he's come back himself. People can come back. These conversations sure do feel familiar. They happen over and over again.
While some of The Walking Dead's characters are serially put through this kind of dramatic recycling as ongoing representatives of the Horror, others end up the ad hoc playthings of writers more concerned with establishing new plot turns or lines of dramatic tension than with who these people really are. While slaughtering zombies through the prison perimeter, Tyreese tells the ex-Woodburian Karen, "I don't like comin' at them on the fence." Why? Not because it would make sense for Tyreese to develop such squeamishness after all the anti-zombie survivalism he's had to commit himself to, but apparently because the writers wanted to give him a motivation for leaving the perimeter and joining a supply run, instead.
The characteristically nurturing Carol has meanwhile become an advocate for training the prison's children in the most ruthless mindsets and skills for killing. Why? Well, I guess she's been through a lot. But beyond that it's not really clear. We just know she's trying to conceal her instructions from the rest of the prison's adult leadership. That's some latent conflict, right there.
And who's this likable new boyfriend of Beth's who wants to say goodbye to her before joining Tyreese and the others on that supply run? Maybe he's someone who'll end up bringing a new dimension to the story? Nope! We only learn his name—Zack—when Glenn calls out to him as a zombie suddenly … you know. Oh, and meet this nice new kid Patrick, a friend of Carl's. What do you think's going to happen to him?
The Walking Dead may be too fixated on its premise because it has no real vision beyond it. It struggles to develop compelling plot lines because it doesn't really know who its characters are or where they're going, so it has a hard time telling meaningful stories about them. Everyone ends up being one or another kind of Walking Dead stock character.
In which sense The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad make for a study in contrast. I expect it's not a coincidence that The Walking Dead's story comes from an independent creative team that works in a different medium—the comic-book creators Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard—while Breaking Bad was written from beginning to end by or with the oversight of its original creator, Vince Gilligan. Watching The Walking Dead's Season 4 premiere, you can hear someone in the show's production hierarchy reminding the writers: Don't forget, this show is about zombies. We need lots of zombies getting killed, in lots of gross ways, and also killing lots of people. Okay, if you don't want to kill off any recurring characters for a while, that's fine; just bring in some new ones. And kill them. ... so the established characters can have dialogue like this:
Are you okay?
Just tired of losin' people, is all.
A zombie apocalypse may be as good a premise for a television show as, if wilder than, the idea of a high-school chemistry teacher becoming a meth manufacturer. But it was never Breaking Bad's relative strength that its premise was more realistic. It was that Breaking Bad always knew the difference between a great premise and great drama.