The last four episodes of The Walking Dead have been the best since the series' inception. For too many episodes to count, fans were subjected to shoddy dialogue and shallow character development—even the dramatic twists, like the Governor's aquarium of heads or the Terminus cannibals, seemed like thin, broadstroke symbols meant to convey post-apocalyptic horror like a club to the head. They were the script equivalents of b-grade special effects make-up. We all kept with it because the zombies, and the killing, were so awesome. But somehow, midway through this season: The Walking Dead has gotten GREAT. Not just great for The Walking Dead, but actually excellent television on its own level. What the actual fuck?

I'm about to drop some serious [SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS] so if you haven't watched and keep reading do not complain to me later, okay. So right before the mid-season break, viewers were plunged into the depths of horror and sorrow when the singing chick, Beth, was accidentally murked out by a gun. If one thing can be said for the writers on The Walking Dead, it's that they do know how to end a season or mid-season finale with a bang. (Remember long-lost Sophia, ambling out of the barn? Horrifying.) Beth was one of the few characters on the show that symbolized an abundance of hope; her willful naivety, dreamy eyes, stupid folk music and unwavering belief in humanity (if only we could love!) were traits that kept the entire crew going, even when they were like, what the fuck Beth, humanity is screwed, you tripping.

So when Beth died for her beliefs, it was the perfect set-up: the season would return in a deflated daze, with all hope that there might still be good in this ruined world as decimated as the flesh on a walker. The first episode of the resumed season was a fever-dream like no other, with the beloved Tyreese caught in the space between heaven (death) and hell (life), speaking to his dead homies (Beth!) in a sort of acid-trippy sequence brought on by blood loss. It was shot in a humid delirium, a bit confusing and almost Lynchian, to match the varying stages of physical pain and confusion Tyreese was experiencing. It was a fucking awesome episode, and mind-blowing insofar that we never knew The Walking Dead had it in them. They took a show whose script and direction we just tolerated and made it artful, a piece of television cinema that could stand on its own even without the dark thrill of zombies and gore. There were freaking beautiful shots of the goddamn sky, for god's sake, just for the sake of the storyline! The pacing was insane!

Tyreese himself was also representative of a sort of bygone human trait, that of peace—traumatized, he often refused to kill—so with him gone and buried, the group was at the very end of its wits. They clung to Rick's brute instinct for survival, and little else. The group scrounged for water, and it was a metaphor for their parched souls: so beaten down by recent events they just looked dry, especially Lauren Cohan's Maggie, whose face registers spiritual deflation more starkly than probably any of the other characters. Her lips were cracked open; her eyes had no light. For the first time in the history of this show, I wondered how they all got along without coffee. (I suppose they have bigger concerns than a lack of caffeine.)

So on last night's episode, when hope came barreling down upon them in the form of a weird (shady) government facility in Alexandria that was preserved and clean as Pleasantville, Rick was right to be wary. Deanna Monroe, a new character and the head of the Alexandria safe-zone, tells him that before the outbreak she was a Congresswoman in Ohio (apparently Rick didn't follow politics; that seems like a fairly easy thing to fact-check?). Monroe films her conversations with each member of the crew, little vignettes that serve as an excellent device for the episode's director, Greg Nicotero: we've been watching for five seasons and at times it's felt like we knew every possible thing about every character, but these shots add much-needed nuance to their motivations. They call to mind reality-show confessionals as well as NSA-style surveillance, which begs the question: why is Deanna Monroe doing this? And why are they letting her? Especially after the group discovered it had not only been followed but spied on by Monroe's people, including a harmless but still suspect Aaron, dispatched in the last episode to play ambassador.

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Ultimately, though, everyone but skeptical (and probably smart) Darryl bought into the idea of the Alexandria safe-zone, even Rick (now beardless and pretty hot!) and the ever-sensible Michonne, who actually allowed the crew to take away her sword. (I absolutely cannot believe they gave up their weapons, and it would be unrealistic if they hadn't been driven to the weary point that anything, even the tiniest drop of hope, was enough to sate them.) Sure, they have their reservations—Carol is going undercover as a total normie PTA knitting type as opposed to the type of savage killer who would shoot a child if necessary. Dear Young Carl finally gets to be around a young woman his own age (a relief, because I've been wondering about the logistics of a pubescent boy's raging hormones in this type of world; like what if you're jacking off and you have to stop to fight a zombie? Total boner killer). But that young woman reads as skeptical of the safe-zone as Daryl, and the rich-prep-schoolish teen boys in the camp freak Carl the fuck out by offering him a go at some video games. Really dogs? Who needs video games when you've driven a bowie knife through the skull of your own mother? Trivial bullshit for sheltered dicks. "Duckhunt" is babygames. Carl out here in these skreets, living this life.

No but really, it freaks him the fuck out, and drives home the sheer existentialism that the last handful of Walking Dead episodes have, seemingly out of nowhere, had the capacity to tackle. It's so far beyond my wildest hopes for this show, I'm still reeling from the fact of it: in just a few hours, it's gone from lite garbage we tolerated for the juicy shit, to a beautifully directed exploration of post-apocalyptic moral quandary. Two of the episodes were written by women—Heather Bellson wrote "Them," while Channing Powell wrote last night's "Remember." Can they keep doing this? It's a pleasure to watch.


Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.