Last week, anticipating the show's return from its mid-season break, we asked whether The Walking Dead could get its mojo back. That question seems moot now, as last Sunday's episode answered with a resounding, "No." Following what was arguably one of the worst episodes of its run, any hope that the series might return to its former glory now feels like the stuff of fantasy. It may not be impossible, but it's certainly unlikely. Instead, the show's creators must shift to damage control and try to save what they can of the season.
Make no mistake, The Walking Dead has had plenty of poor episodes and jump-the-shark moments in the past. Ranked in order, this may not even be the most galling of them. (Glenn's Season 6 fake-out death hiding in the one-inch gap beneath a dumpster would probably take that trophy.) Somehow, the show has always managed to survive these failings and lumber on. Yet the episode Squeeze felt particularly wearying to watch. This isn't a momentary stumble. It's another depressing symptom of years of decline.
The mid-season finale had left Carol, Daryl, and a handful of their friends in a seemingly dire predicament, trapped in a cave with a huge herd of Walkers clawing at their feet. Of course, they find a way out, which involves hopping across conveniently spaced rock platforms like the characters in a Super Mario Bros. game, crawling through tiny (yet strangely well-lit) crevices without removing their bulky body armor or the weapons strapped to their backs, and eventually digging a hole to the surface. It's all terribly improbable and dumb.
Struggling to come up with new and creative predicaments to place the characters in, the writers have resorted to plucking scenarios from old movies, hoping no one will notice. Last week's inspiration was clearly 2005's The Descent. One of the producers must have caught it on cable recently and declared, "Let's do a cave episode!"
The episode's biggest failing was the way it shortchanged its characters, most prominently Carol (Melissa McBride). Long one of the most beloved characters in the series, Carol has turned into a flat-out moron ever since the death of her son Henry (who earns our prize for most annoying character in the show's history). In years past, Carol had already lost her daughter Sophia (in Season 2) and surrogate children Lizzie and Mika (Season 4). Her grief in those instances hardened her, and made her a more cunning and dangerous opponent to the many villains she faced. Henry's death, however, somehow sapped all the intelligence from Carol's skull. She not only led the charge to chase Alpha into a painfully obvious trap, her sudden affliction of claustrophobia (never once hinted at before this point) and suicidal tendencies put her friends in danger and ultimately caused Magna (Nadia Hilker) and Connie (Lauren Ridloff) to get trapped in a cave-in, and possibly even killed.
Not to worry, the fact that they weren't given on-camera deaths and neither Magna nor Connie were featured in the "In Memoriam" montage on The Talking Dead is all the confirmation we need to know that they're both fine. They'll undoubtedly extricate themselves from this situation in some equally contrived and unbelievable way.
Through all of the show's ups and downs, the thing that's kept the show's remaining fans watching isn't zombie carnage, but an attachment to the characters. We love Carol, Daryl, Michonne, and at least some of the supporting cast. If the series is going to betray those characters with bad writing and dumb story arcs, why should we continue to watch?
As the show's ratings continue to decline, the way to stop that attrition won't be through bigger action set-pieces or killing off more major characters, but by better serving the characters left and reminding viewers why they're worth caring about.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM on AMC.
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.