I thought my 2012 year-end ten-best list was good to go until last Sunday, when I was realized I was going to have to make room for AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which I planned to include among my runners-up. That realization came as I watched “Killer Within,” arguably the most powerful episode in the series’ three-year history and one of the most impactful hours of television this year. I’m still shaken by what I saw. I haven’t been so rattled by a drama series since that game-changing episode from the fourth season of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” in which gang leader Clay Morrow shockingly and brutally beat his wife Gemma, forever changing the narrative structure of the show.
Similarly, “The Walking Dead” will never be the same after last Sunday’s episode. If you haven’t yet seen it, you may want to skip the next two paragraphs and avoid the spoilers to come:
In short, as all of the characters who are currently seeking shelter in a correctional facility were fighting off an unexpected zombie invasion, Lori Grimes – the lead female character on the show – suddenly went into compromised labor, with only her young son Carl and their friend Maggie to help her. When it became clear that either mother or baby had to die, Lori chose to sacrifice herself for her unborn child, insisting that Maggie cut it out of her, using the scar from Lori’s previous Cesarean section as a guide. The emotional power-punches that followed came fast and furious: Lori, knowing she would not survive, saying goodbye to a horrified Carl and to life itself; Maggie forcing herself to kill Lori in order to save her baby; Carl stepping up and shooting his deceased mother in the head to prevent her rising as one of the walking dead. (Mercifully, Carl’s act of unparalleled heroism occurred off camera. Just hearing the gunshot was devastating enough.)
But the real emotional wallop came moments later, as a bloodied Carl and Maggie slowly walked out into the prison yard where their fellow survivors had assembled, Maggie carrying the baby in her arms. As soon as seemingly unbreakable group leader Rick Grimes saw the baby he knew that his wife was gone – and he broke, stumbling toward Carl and then falling to the ground, overcome with grief. And the episode had already included the shocking loss of another veteran character, the sturdy T-Dog, who became zombie food while attempting to protect Carol, whose whereabouts and well-being are currently unknown.
No spoilers here: Andrew Lincoln (Rick) and Sarah Wayne Callies (Lori) deserve serious consideration when next year’s Golden Globe, Emmy, TCA and Critics Choice Award nominations come into play. Further, the series itself ought to be acknowledged in some fashion as one of television’s best.
“The Walking Dead” is enjoying a banner season in every way, including robust ratings and much deserved media acclaim. As I have previously noted in this column, it is one of the big basic cable series this fall that are in many ways more successful than most broadcast shows – this during the time of year when broadcast is supposed to be showcasing its very best. Obviously, this show is not intended for children, even if today’s kids can’t get enough ultra-violence in their video game and movie choices. But it is powerhouse entertainment for teenagers and adults -- the viewer base that comprises the vast majority of the television audience -- and its outsize success has executives at every network from broadcast to pay cable taking note.
Indeed, outstanding episodes (like “Killer Within”) of truly exceptional series (like “The Walking Dead”) always leave me wondering how smart adult audiences can be satisfied with most of the broadcast dramas available to them -- and a number of basic cable dramas, as well. It’s not that most other dramatic programs are bad. It’s just that, when stacked against the likes of basic cable’s “The Walking Dead,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Justified,” or broadcast’s “The Good Wife” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” they seem rather ordinary, if not unremarkable.
I’d like nothing better than for quality programming as powerful as “The Walking Dead” to become the norm, rather than the exception, on both basic cable and broadcast. It’s not impossible, even taking advertiser concerns and FCC restrictions into account when they apply. Remember, it was CBS that paved the way for this unabashed boldness in scripted entertainment content way back in October, 2000 with the arrival of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which took crime violence and its grisly aftermath – not to mention the depiction of shadowy sexual behavior – to levels not previously seen on broadcast or basic cable television. Currently, another CBS series, “The Good Wife,” is depicting adult relationships in an uncommonly uncompromising manner. “Wife” is not always successful at this – I’ve had enough of the twisted sexual dynamic between Kalinda and her husband, thank you very much – but you have to admire the respect that it has for its audience.
That respect is evident in all of television’s best shows, and it’s what makes possible unforgettable viewing experiences like last week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.”