It's time to thin the herd. • There are too many heartbeats, too many breathers. • So tonight at 9 on AMC, open up the zombie buffet, I say. • If The Walking Dead wants to survive and advance into a strong fifth season, the No. 1 show on cable television needs to end its wildly uneven fourth season by knocking off — oh, let's say — half its cast, which has become way too cumbersome. • The show has suffered from a cavalcade of characters and plotlines. We've routinely lost touch with crucial heroes because endless, and weaker, narratives need tending. • We want Dead, not Dynasty. • So kill Maggie. • Glenn, too. • Keep Tyreese and his mighty hammer. Save Big Baby Judith. But give the heave-ho to Bob, Tara and her twisted ankle, Dr. Eugene, Sgt. Abraham Ford, Singing Beth (definitely Singing Beth). • Carol's cutthroat. You saw how she capped Crazy Lizzie amid the flowers. She snuffed out Ty's main squeeze, too. Let Carol bump off some people! • As a devout fan of the postapocalyptic blood feast, I'm even prepared to sacrifice my favorite characters — Carl, Michonne, vavoomish Rosita — if it means retaining the show's morbidly lonesome theme: that the battle between life and death is intimate, that we're all hopelessly alone and totally in deep. • For weeks, survivors have been heading toward the sanctuary of Terminus, which looks like a '60s hippie commune gone creepy. • For a swath of characters on tonight's finale — byyye, Sasha — let's hope it really is "the end of the line."
• • •
Greg Nicotero tells me he has the "utmost confidence" in showrunner Scott Gimple — the guy who's responsible for the day-to-day operations of the show — and the various writers. And yet, the 51-year-old Walking Dead producer-director did something novel this year that totally bucked the show's overpopulation problem.
He pared down and rebooted, kicking off the second half of Season 4 with a show that, for all intents and purposes, was about a boy, his hat and his pudding.
After the crowd frenzy of the midseason finale — goodbye, One Eyed Gov and Hershel — Nicotero reined things in. He reminded us how good the show was in its tonally perfect first season, when we basically followed one man, Sheriff Rick Grimes, as he searched for his family in devastated Georgia.
"I felt like we were about to overstay our welcome at the prison," Nicotero says during a recent phone chat. "I wanted it to feel like the show was starting over again."
Thus, Episode 409, a.k.a. "After," which was written by Robert Kirkman, whose best-selling graphic novels are the show's source material.
It was chilling, personal, somber, as young Carl Grimes was forced to contemplate his own — and, more important, our own — existence. The clatter of the season's sluggish, oddly paced first half had been wiped clean.
In one heartbreaking scene, the sheriff's kid, in full Huck Finn mode, sat on a suburban rooftop, slurping from a can of pudding, mulling his fate — while a zombie reached through a cracked window just a few feet away.
I confess to Nicotero that I almost wept at the quiet beauty of that rooftop moment. "I wanted to re-establish the world," says the director, who cut his teeth in Hollywood as an effects and makeup guy under zombie-movie king George A. Romero. "I wanted to show how big the world is and how small we are."
• • •
The Walking Dead pulls in some 13 million viewers per episode, the most-watched original drama on cable. Even more impressive, only a few broadcast TV shows, available to a wider audience, draw more eyes.
Any time something in pop culture gets that gigantically hot — whether it's Michael Jordan or McDonald's or a show about a mysterious zombie apocalypse — there will be lovers and haters.
"Everyone has an opinion about The Walking Dead," Nicotero says, "so I tend not to read a lot about it. But it is fascinating how polarizing the show is."
And yet, when you perused social media after each new episode this season, you discovered a tweeting increase not just in nerds debating plot points or bemoaning character decisions, but in nerds who once adored the show totally losing faith in The Walking Dead altogether.
The show hasn't suffered in the ratings yet, but if it doesn't do something soon, it just might.
• • •
AMC has been talking more and more about a Walking Dead spinoff show. And why not? There's not enough room for the characters they have now.
After Nicotero's "After," plots and subplots started spreading like a plague as the Good Guys splintered into various wandering tribes. The show's writers suddenly resembled vaudevillians juggling plates. Trying to fit as many faces into the show as possible, they even hobbled the show's money-in-the-bank hunk — crossbow-toting Daryl, played by Norman Reedus — by pairing him with the show's most cloying presence — obscure-song-warbling Beth (Emily Kinney).
Even more inexcusable? For the past three seasons, The Walking Dead has made Sheriff Rick (Andrew Lincoln), with his inner battle of compassion vs. barbarism, the show's unmistakable protagonist. And yet Rick has been all but absent for the past two months. That's inexcusable.
The longer we go without quality Rick time — and the more we get new faces a la menacing "Claim It" Joe and Abraham Ford — the less we care about Rick. Or Carl and his giant vat of pudding.
In praising The Walking Dead after a particularly focused episode, and acknowledging that the show doesn't always get it right, the Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman wrote:
"Interconnected stories that run through characters as they grow are essential to making a great series. Believability and, ultimately, emotional payoff come from not only getting to know characters well, but also having them act as we might expect them to as they face adversity, change or something unexpected."
Goodman's right. But how can you get to know characters, old or new, when you spend less and less time with them?
Here's what I say: Give me a team of six — Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Carl, Tyreese, Carol — fighting an epic, if futile battle against The End.
Oblivion is overpopulated; the end times are too hectic.
Embrace death, end life.
And maybe even save the show.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.