And the amount of time devoted to Rick's tedious, circular struggle winds up making it very hard to service the other characters. There are people who have been on the show for years whose names I still have to be reminded of (Beth, Hershel's younger daughter, to name one), and others who have been around since the beginning who remain ciphers (I still could not tell you what motivates Glenn beyond basic survival and his love for Maggie). On occasion, a character gets significant development, but often it takes forever — samurai sword-wielding Michonne, one of the most popular figures in the comic, was little more than a scowl and a katana for most of her first TV season — or else the show kills off or otherwise removes that person. Perhaps the most successful bit of character rehab involved Carol, a mousy domestic abuse victim in season 1 and a catatonic grieving mother in season 2 before evolving into one of the show's more aggressive and morally complex characters over the last year and a half, but Rick sent her into exile just as she was getting really compelling. (Though with the characters all being nomads after the destruction of the prison, it's entirely possible Carol will return in this season's second half.)

As I began watching "After," the mid-season premiere, I realized that the thing I was rooting for most of all was the thing least likely to happen: the show working up the nerve to kill Rick.

It would be a huge line of demarcation from the comic books, and prevent anyone from being able to predict what would happen next on the TV show. It would take away a character designed as a hero who's turned into a narrative dead end, and it would force the writers to devote more time and energy into caring about other people and questions beyond whether or not Rick will have the fortitude to take charge of the group again for the umpteenth time.

Are there other characters here who could handle that kind of spotlight? I don't know. Norman Reedus' Daryl is the show's most successful regular (perhaps not coincidentally, he was invented for TV), but he also benefits from less-is-more screentime and dialogue. Michonne is slowly turning into a person — and "After" fills in some interesting holes in her backstory — but is also maybe too taciturn. Other characters remain blank canvases — they've only scratched the surface of Chad L. Coleman's Tyreese — and we won't know what they're capable of becoming until someone gives them more to do.

The most promising candidate may be Rick's son Carl, who began the series as yet another annoying adolescent on a prestige drama, but has become much more complicated over time. Carl actually gets the most to do in "After," and though the episode drags at times (mainly because a lot of it is about Carl's relationship with his father), it's yet another suggestion that the children are where the action ought to be here. Rick and Daryl and the others are still driven in part by who they were and what they believed before the apocalypse; Carl and the other kids growing up with little memory of the days gone bye have the potential to turn into something very different, very scary, and a whole lot more exciting than the misadventures of Saint Rick.

"The Walking Dead" is way too successful for anyone involved to suggest such a radical shake-up, however. They're on this course with Rick, and they're not going off it unless the ratings start to slip. And until that happens, I expect the show to remain the same uneven mix of thrilling zombie action and depressing human drama, occasionally transcending itself, at other times getting trapped for an extended period down a narrative dead end like Hershel's farm or the Governor's lack of charisma. The good parts are usually good enough to slog through the other stuff for, but I can also picture a day coming where I start asking the same questions as the characters about how much longer I want to see through life in this zombie world.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at
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Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at