By James Hibberd
Updated December 01, 2013 at 08:58 PM EST
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

UPDATED: Yeah, it’s a little slow. Normally that’s a deal-breaker. If I have to choose between character development or story momentum, I’ll take “stuff happening.” This season I finally quit HBO’s Boardwalk Empire after the sad-trombone conclusion of too many sluggish episodes that left me shouting at the TV: “Don’t just end! Give me a reason to watch next week!”

Yet what happened this fall on The Walking Dead has been pretty remarkable. The show’s latest showrunner Scott Gimple has taken a series that’s been a rather disposable fun pulp-viewing experience for the past couple years and made it more eloquent and suspenseful and interesting. There’s no way to do this without annoying some fans. When a show is the highest-rated series on TV, you’re supposed to try and keep it exactly the same, not fix what ain’t broken … right?

And I have gripes about this season, big over-arching ones: We’re still at the prison — and you can’t watch a TV drama about characters living in a prison without feeling like you’re stuck in a prison too (I wish AMC would bless TV’s top-rated show with a bigger budget so producers could take this series on the road and open up its world some more beyond the sweaty Georgia forests and suburbs). Also, the virus threat wasn’t hugely interesting, with its Captain Trips pathos getting murky and gross and dark in a cell block (dark as in dim-can’t-see-what’s-going-on dark). And while Gimple has excelled at making the peripheral characters more interesting, the show’s major characters haven’t had much to do (Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Maggie…).

These are not minor issues. Yet they’re easily fixable. Focusing more on the main characters, ditching a setting, throwing in more action … that’s a pretty simple course correction (and might correct tonight). Which is why I’m patient on that front. Because moment-to-moment, scene-by-scene TWD has been more consistently engaging than in any other season since its first. Here’s four ways season 4 has stepped up:

1. The Governor: I was so bored of The Governor last season. This psychotic villain intoning his threats. All this fall’s anticipatory “The Governor is coming back!” excitement was lost on me. I truly didn’t care. If you had told me TWD was going to spend two episodes solely on his story, I wouldn’t have even watched. But from the moment the “Live Bait” episode opened, with a hollowed-out death-weary Governor stripped down to a shell wandering the landscape to the tune of Ben Nichols’ “The Last Pale Light in the West,” I was riveted. Over the course of the next two hours, you not only had a tense neo-Western self-contained story of post-apocalyptic survival, but you really began to understand why The Governor is the leader that he is; that no matter how many times you reset Brian’s circumstances, if you put him in a pool of survivors, he will naturally rise to the top due to his own mercenary survival instincts and the deadly threats survivors face. And that, perhaps, The Governor is the only type of leader that can truly keep a group of people relatively safe in this world.

2. The winter finale has higher emotional stakes. Is Sunday’s showtime between Rick and The Governor a mirror of last season? Yes. Is that bad? Yes. BUT there’s a big emotional difference. You actually care — at least I do — about some of the people The Governor is protecting, and even a little about the Governor himself (there was Andrea in his camp last season, but she was a quasi-hostage). The show is now slightly more Game of Thrones-ian, where you have various factions fighting with characters you care about on both sides. If Maggie faces off with that cop-cadet daughter that The Gov is protecting … suddenly that’s a compelling fight, with bloodshed invariably tragic no matter who “wins,” instead of just being another fleeting action beat.

3. Carol got interesting. Not much to say on this point that hasn’t already been said by others, but this is an example of how Gimple seems driven to balance out character development on the show. Of all the characters to surge to the foreground in a compelling way, who would have picked Carol?

4. The walkers are threatening again. This was one of the big promises producers made about this season: The zombies wouldn’t just be Left 4 Dead kill-fodder (despite having one awesome scene of father-son gunnery bonding that was the most transparently video game-ish sequence in the show’s history). There’s been several well-staged set-pieces that have been truly creepy, from that department store roof cave-in during the opener to the protect-the-fence fight to last week’s camp-invader to The Governor falling into the zombie pit from a couple weeks ago. There seems to be an effort toward originality being made in each of these scenes: How can we do this in a new way?

A couple other odds and ends: The dialogue seems a notch sharper, and the great composer Bear McCreary’s score seems more prominent.

But what say you? Do you think The Walking Dead has been leveling-up this season? Or has its lack of zombie action among the core characters have you yawning? For another take, see Darren Franich’s post “What if other TV shows were as slow as this season of ‘The Walking Dead‘?” And for a tease of tonight’s finale, see Dalton Ross’ interview with Chad Coleman.

UPDATE: Do not read if you haven’t watched Sunday’s episode, spoilers! …… So that was interesting. Here’s the midseason return date and back-eight episodes teased by TWD team. Between the winter finale and the midseason tease on that link, it seems my gripes listed above just got addressed. Ditching the prison and going on the road? Check. Back to focusing on the main characters? Yup. Less sluggish? Apparently so. I realize many of you disagree with this post, but I’m now even more invested after watching that finale, which had arguably had the best big-action set-piece of the series and sets up a stronger second half of the season.