New season of “The Walking Dead” successfully resurrects exploration of what it means to be human

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Sure, “The Walking Dead” is technically about a zombie apocalypse. If you’re not a fan of zombies, it can seem like just another entry in a tired genre. It has the staples of the zombie trope — gory scenes of hungry zombies, tension and jump scares and, of course, the strangely hairless but perpetually unshowered women that litter such series — but during its strongest moments, the walkers are little more than a macabre backdrop. A focus on human conflict and character depth sets “The Walking Dead” apart, and season four’s return this week was a welcome reminder of why it shines.

Zombies have gained increasing popularity in recent years. The undead command a captive audience; they’re human but not human at all, and that’s fascinating. Admittedly, it’s also an excuse to fight and kill (or rekill) “humans” without having to justify it beyond self-defense. “The Walking Dead” has become synonymous with the zombie craze in part because it meets all the requirements of a good zombie narrative, but its strong following comes from everything it adds to the traditional formula.

There are two major themes in “The Walking Dead” that, at first, seem to contradict each other. Over the first four seasons, it’s been made clear that humans are far more dangerous adversaries than walkers. The beginning of season four was weak, in part, because the antagonist was a disease (although not the disease that turns people into zombies) instead of something sentient. The explosive midseason finale, however, very brutally illustrated the power of the human as enemy, a strength that many other zombie stories do not have.

“The Walking Dead” also emphasizes that positive relationships are a key to surviving and, more importantly, to retaining humanity. It’s arguably one of the most interesting and thought-provoking themes of the show, and the midseason premiere focuses entirely on it.

The episode features Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) as well as Michonne (Danai Gurira), all of whom have been separated from the rest of the group after the events of the finale. Michonne, whose past had gone unexplored for some time, has a dream about her now-dead family in which her husband asks her what the point of surviving in a world like theirs is; it offers a much-needed look into Michonne’s personality as well as an important question for the series.

Rick and Carl, meanwhile, are looking for food. Carl has long been bitter about his father treating him like a child instead of a capable survivor, which had previously made Carl pretty insufferable. This episode, however, is an important step in his development as a character. It’s also a relief for the audience, since Rick and Carl’s strained relationship had been becoming tiresome — you’d think Carl would have more important things to do than rebel against his father’s authority, all things considered.

Most importantly, the episode is a reminder to fans that “The Walking Dead” isn’t really about the dead. It’s a great zombie story because it’s not really a story about zombies; it goes beyond the horror tropes and, ignoring season one’s cliche let’s-go-to-the-Centers-for-Disease-Control plot, doesn’t focus on what caused the outbreak. It’s really about people trying to survive in an apocalyptic world and how they interact. It’s not hard to imagine it taking place without the zombies entirely because at its core, it simply explores what it means to be human. If “The Walking Dead’s” popularity could be considered a cultural phenomenon, it’s because of that human relatability, not a zombie craze.

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