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The Walking Dead's been popular for years. Now it's also good.

Five seasons in, The Walking Dead is suddenly, abruptly, a really good show. How did this happen?
Five seasons in, The Walking Dead is suddenly, abruptly, a really good show. How did this happen?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Four episodes into its fifth season, The Walking Dead has never been better.

On the one hand, this isn't particularly surprising. The series has gotten a little bit better with every season it's been on the air. In its earliest days, it occasionally seemed as if the series were on the air simply because all involved thought it might be kind of crazy to do a TV show about the zombie apocalypse.

(Read more: How Carol became the show's best character13 things to watch when the show isn't around.)

The actual difficult work of turning this into a recognizable TV show was left to later showrunners and seasons. It took a while, but the show's fourth season finally managed to turn most members of the ensemble into actual characters. That has given season five the velocity it needed to attain liftoff. (You can catch up on it here.)

But it's still a little weird. At its best, The Walking Dead has only ever been passably entertaining. Now, however, it's actually on the verge of becoming really, really good on a consistent basis, and the season's third hour — a grisly affair that featured our heroes dealing out some frontier justice — might be the show's finest episode ever. As Indiewire's Sam Adams points out, it's not unprecedented for a series to have its best season in its fifth year, but it's definitely strange for a show to make this big of a leap this late in its run. (Also on board the "wait, is this show good now?" train is Grantland's Andy Greenwald.)

But here we are. The Walking Dead is, week in and week out, an entertaining, satisfying viewing experience. How did we get here? Here are a handful of theories.

The Walking Dead

The show's new focus on character has made even Beth (Emily Kinney) interesting to watch. (AMC)

1) Character, character, character, character

For too much of the show's first two seasons, The Walking Dead seemed to be populated by a bunch of half-baked archetypes, led by the halfest-baked archetype of them all — Rick Grimes, small-town sheriff turned post-apocalyptic leader because everybody liked how he looked in a police uniform. Though Andrew Lincoln has been occasionally very good in the role, the show has never known what to do with Rick, and that hasn't really changed in season five. (That said, this year is definitely doing a better job of tapping into his savage, unchecked, brutal side.)

What is different, however, is that spending the back half of season four telling various short stories and vignettes about the show's sprawling cast has finally managed to turn many of those archetypes into actual characters. Now, when the show puts characters in peril — or even kills them off — you actually give a damn, instead of rolling your eyes and waiting for the zombies to attack again. I've already sung the praises of Carol, but the show has managed to turn plaintive, whiny teenager Beth (Emily Kinney) into a character worth caring about, as evidenced by this season's fourth episode, which was dedicated entirely to her ordeal after becoming separated from the rest of the group.

But those fourth season storytelling experiments have been helpful to the show in other ways as well, because ...

2) The show has become surprisingly hard to predict

One of the big problems with the show throughout its run has been the way that it boils down to the same thing over and over — the characters find somewhere they think will be safe, only to come into conflict with some other group of survivors. Eden is destroyed, everybody sets off into the wilderness, and the show endlessly resets itself. Rinse. Repeat.

And, to be sure, the show still mostly conforms to that basic story structure. But what showrunner Scott Gimple and his writers have done is mess with the rhythms of that story. The season's third episode would have been a season finale in prior years. Now, we know how the show operates so well that it can dispense with the buildup and just get to the climax. And that means when the next episode is an entirely disconnected story about what Beth's been up to all this time, it doesn't feel frustrating, because we're not being taken away from the main story. The main story, in fact, can be anything.

Turning into a loose anthology drama in the midst of the zombie apocalypse probably wasn't always the plan for this show, but it's ended up suiting the series well. It's also created an environment where ...

The Walking Dead AMC

Even Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has been weighed down by the season's higher stakes. (AMC)

3) The themes have become deeper

The Walking Dead has always been about how the characters preserve their humanity in the face of the end of the world, but it's rarely felt as much like they're in danger of actually losing that humanity as it does in this batch of episodes. The idea of giving up something primal just to be able to survive has been reflected in ways both big and small throughout every storyline on the show, and every character has been tested by that idea time and again.

Having that sort of unified focus is incredibly satisfying, and even more satisfying has been the way that the show is subtly underlining the idea that the characters who hang on to their humanity the most are the ones who tend to end up dead. And these ideas are only heightened by the fact that ...

4) There's a larger goal for once

Instead of just trying to turn some piece of land into a safe haven as in seasons past, this season of The Walking Dead has keyed in to another idea entirely — saving the world. As Adams points out in his review, having the characters decide whether to escort a man claiming to be a scientist who can stop the apocalypse to Washington, DC, has provided the storytelling with another shot in the arm.

In all likelihood, this guy isn't telling the truth. The show isn't going to suddenly start to be about something other than zombies overrunning the world. But by giving the characters a larger purpose than mere survival, the series has given itself something more tangible than a vaguely looming confrontation to push toward.

The Walking Dead

The zombie attacks have always been good, but this season, they're even better. (AMC)

5) The stuff that's always worked is working even better

The Walking Dead has always given good zombie attacks, but season five has given us even better zombie attacks. From the characters making their way through a flooded basement filled with water-logged monsters to Beth and a friend descending through a barely lit elevator shaft with zombie arms grasping for them, the zombie stuff has been dead-on all season, and creative in ways that are surprising. It should have run out of ideas for zombie attacks long ago, but somehow, season five has been revitalized in this arena as well.

It's entirely possible for this show to completely fall apart at any time. It's once again splitting up the ensemble for reasons that seem to have less to do with the actual story and more with keeping things from sprawling too much, and there are so many balls in the air at this point that it's bound to drop one or two of them. But The Walking Dead is one of TV's most popular shows. It could be resting on its laurels and simply giving fans bigger and gorier zombie attacks with every new episode.

Instead, it's reinvesting in the show's characters, deepening its themes, and twisting its usual formulas. The Walking Dead doesn't just seem revitalized — it seems hungry. And that's made it feel like a brand new, much better show.

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