My favourite chapter of Stephen King's The Stand - a postapocalyptic tale of good versus evil, and one of my favourite books as a teenager (and one of my favourite book-to-television translations too) - is Chapter 38.
Chapter 38 comes around a third of the way into the book, or thereabouts. King starts by explaining that "as the superflu epidemic wound down, there was a second epidemic that lasted roughly two weeks", before outlining the various non-superflu, non-postapocalyptic war-related ways people had died.
Sam Tauber is five years old, left alone after the death of his entire family, and dies by falling down a well. Irma Fayette dies after a pistol she fires at a rapist explodes in her hands. Middle-aged teacher George MacDougall takes up running after the apocalypse, and expires at the hand of a massive coronary while jogging. A rancher named Milton Craslow is bitten by a rattlesnake and dies at the hands of its poison.
The point of the chapter is that death doesn't stop for anything; even in a book where death consumes ninety-nine percent of the population of the planet, people are still dying in traditional ways. Her family might have been taken by a superflu, but Candice Moran can still fall off a bike and fracture her skull. Death doesn't stop for anything.
As a teenager, this chapter was both exciting and terrifying. As I read The Stand for the first time, the idea of death coming at any moment, and in any situation, hadn't really occurred to me before. I was 14 years old and invincible. Yet, this chapter brought a sense of realism about death, made me confront the helplessness in the face of death, for the first time.
The first few episodes of The Walking Dead's fourth season - which continued with another brilliant episode last night - have tapped into that same sense of helplessness and horror. Through five episodes, the biggest threat to the survival of Rick, Herschel, and the rest of the prison community, hasn't been the walkers trying to take down the fence (as it turns out, the group was always safe because Carl is damn handy with a machine gun) but the very act of survival itself.
As Glen pointed out a week or so ago, helplessness set in quickly after everybody realized that sickness had infected many survivors and that there was nothing anybody could do about it. And I think it shows how strong showrunner Scott M Gimple's handle is on the material that we could spend several episodes sitting and waiting but not feel like things were dragging.
It wasn't that long ago, after all, that the second season of the show turned into weeks and weeks of boredom while Rick's merry band of survivors rested at Herschel's farm.
Season 4 has really put the focus of the show back onto character development - and while The Walking Dead didn't do a good job in that department in the past, the Gimple era has been marked by efficient writing and quick development. The writers have done a great job with Rick, a character who has traditionally been somewhat enigmatic, and Andrew Lincoln seems to have a better grip on things. We know Carol (Melissa McBride) a lot better than we did before the season began, and the increased focus on her paid off with last week's confrontation between her and Rick.
Even smaller story beats - Michonne (Danai Gurira) crying after being asked to hold Lil Asskicker, or Herschel (Scott Wilson) letting despair take over at the end of last night's installment - have done wonders for the development of the cast and of the show as a whole. It all adds to that sense of helplessness. These characters don't exist in a fantasy world where death isn't a going concern; Rick and Michonne and Herschel, and everybody else, exist in a Chapter 38 world. And we can see it on their faces now.
The Walking Dead is still nailing the zombie encounters too; I don't know who had the idea of zombies coming through vines, but I found the whole scene creepy as hell. This is a show that can do these large scale action pieces as well as any show on the planet. And now that the character writing is equally as strong, The Walking Dead is making a case as one of the best shows on television right now, maybe all year.
I'm not convinced the quality will last. We've got The Governor coming back into the fold - next week looks like a The Other 48 Days-esque look at what he's been up to since the end of Season 3 - and a horde (a flock? A crowd? A throng?) of zombies coming down the road as well, both of which have been badly handled in the past: The Guv was so badly written toward the end of last season that he was comical, while our last run-in with a horde came at the end of Season 2.
But the writing is so good this season that I'm hopeful things will be different. Season 4 has been brilliant through five episodes under Gimple, and I'm genuinely excited to see what happens. Must-see television at its best.
Are you enjoying The Walking Dead this season? Are you excited to see The Governor back?