Truth be told, I was frustrated enough with season 3 of AMC’s behemoth success The Walking Dead that I kind of forgot-on-purpose that it resurrected on Sunday. After all, Scandal, Revenge, and American Horror Story also started again recently…and frankly, I’ve found those to be more entertaining on the whole. Let’s not talk about my other television habits.
The season 4 opener is directed by horror makeup legend Greg Nicotero, and it starts the season off on the right foot. It re-establishes the old, points out the new, and throws into motion an important chain of events that (if we’re lucky and the writers do theirs jobs) may keep up the momentum. Rick’s community, which now includes the survivors of Woodbury, has a small farm outside the prison. They lead a relatively staid and unexciting life; everyone has chores and duties, whether they be clearing out the sow’s trough or poking the walkers with sharp things through the chain-link. The farm is, for lack of a better term, the new normal.
As I wrote in my recap of the season three finale, “Rick, stumbling through his own personal hell, hasn’t bothered to notice that his kid isn’t a kid anymore.” The season 3 finale arranged Carl and Rick to be completely at odds over the importance of mercy and the significance of “having a childhood.” Season 4 is puttering right along on that arc. Carl has undergone the beginnings of puberty since last season: his voice has lowered, his hair lengthened, his face hardened into a teenager’s pout. He named the prison sow Violet, and Rick chastises him that he shouldn’t name the animals – they aren’t long for this world. Rick says, “Do your chores, read comics, maybe read a book, go to story time!” Rick says softly. “Dad, that’s for kids,” Carl protests. “Yeah,” Rick agrees. He’s all but begging Carl to be a kid.
Meanwhile, couples new and old worry together about going on a supply run. Glenn and Maggie are still arguing over who should be in danger, and Glenn’s world-wary eyes are becoming duller with each passing month. Tyreese is romancing Karen, the woman who played dead in the season 3 finale to avoid the Governor’s wrath. Beth is in a relationship with Zach (Kyle Gallner, who I can’t un-see as the rapist in Veronica Mars and Jennifer’s Body). Finally, Carol and Daryl are unabashedly flirting.
It’s obvious pretty quickly that former Woodbury citizens treat Rick’s crew like powerful leaders. Carol and Daryl respond unsmiling to “ma’am” and “sir,” and Daryl accepts the glowing praises of a bespectacled kid. “Sir, can I shake your hand?” Patrick asks. Daryl, always kind of a dick, conspicuously licks the food off his fingers and gives the kid a good hard grasp. To his credit, Patrick looks positively thrilled he’s slimed with Daryl’s spit.
The prison has formed a kind of governing board, a Council that consists of Sasha, Daryl, Glenn, Carol, and Hershel. Hershel, still replacing Dale in the areas of sage advice and conflict diffusion, tells Rick the Council wants him to carry his gun when he leaves the prison. Evidently Rick’s been going out alone with his knife; does he have a death wish, perhaps? Rick reluctantly agrees to carry his firearm outside the prison walls, but not before Hershel makes a point to show Rick a plant whose leaves have sharp bristles; a chartreuse leafy green that frequently breaks but continues to grow. In the zombie apocalypse, that is how the world works: you bristle, you break, you keep going.
Zach, Glenn, Michonne, Tyreese, Sasha, and Daryl prepare to go on a run for food. On the way they pick up a prison newbie, Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., a.k.a. The Wire‘s D’Angelo), a former army medic who hasn’t yet proved he can play on a team. This run takes them to the parking lot of a thinly disguised Big Lots (called Big Spot!) where the military had set up an encampment that was soon invaded by walkers. Little does our tiny crew of survivors know, the walkers didn’t move on. Bob appears to be having some issues; outside Big Spot!, he spends a long minute staring blankly at the severed camouflage-draped leg of an army man. Inside, he grabs a bottle of wine, has a difficult, shaky inner debate, and nearly sticks it in his jacket. He makes the right decision to place it back on the shelf…but unfortunately in doing so he ruins everything.
The scenes inside Big Spot! are deliberately reminiscent of Romero’s shopping-mall zombies (we eagle-eyed viewers may remember that Nicotero not only did makeup for the original Dawn of the Dead, but also had a cameo as a biker in the pie fight). Glenn wanders aimlessly through aisles of electronics and photo albums, knowing those things are completely meaningless in this world (and hoping that Maggie isn’t pregnant). Bob pushes a shopping cart through a darkened grocery aisle in military garb. These juxtapositions, the mundane jutting uncomfortably against the horrific, are what The Walking Dead does best.
When Bob mistakenly knocks over the booze shelf, it has a domino effect; suddenly the walkers stumbling about on the roof hear the noise, collapse the ceiling, and crash through one by one, tangled in their own intestines and splattering to bits on the cool tile floor of the Big Spot!. But of course that isn’t the end; the wrecked helicopter no one realized was there collapses suddenly on top of our troop of survivors. While trying to rescue a buried Bob, Zach meets his bloody end (an interesting choice – Gallner would’ve made a great recurring character).
In the meantime, Rick is on a run of his own. He encounters a dying pig, and shortly thereafter a humanoid creature that moves like a walker. When she speaks, he realizes it’s a starving woman. She’s grimy, wild-eyed, lank-haired, stumbling. She is every inch the alive undead. She leads a wary Rick back to her camp, where she says her husband needs to get food. Rick agrees to let her and her husband return to the prison, but only if he can ask them three questions. The show splits its time neatly between the Big Spot! run and Rick’s own mission; avid viewers know neither event is going to go well. Nothing ever does.
Rick gets to ask his three questions, but not before the woman attacks him and then herself, and not before he realizes her husband is a walker and she’s been trying to “keep him alive.” Rick’s three all-important questions are as follows:
1) How many walkers have you killed?
2) How many people have you killed?
The hungry woman responded that she hadn’t killed any walkers, that the only person she’d killed was herself…and she never gets to tell Rick why.
Unsurprisingly, Violet the sow is dead when Rick returns to camp.
Carl stumbles upon a group of kids poking gently at the zombies outside the chain-link, yelling names at them. Taking a page from his father’s book (though he probably doesn’t realize it), Carl tells them, “They don’t talk, they don’t think, they eat people, they kill people. They’re not people, they’re not pets. Don’t name them.” He’s the big badass ’round these parts, reporting back to the other kids on the real world. But when a cute blonde asks him and Patrick if they’ll be at story time, Patrick smiles and says surely they will.
Carl sneaks into story time a little late, just as Patrick is leaving due to “not wanting to ralph on anyone.” When Carol gets the girls alone, she puts down the book, whips out a suitcase full of weapons, and explains, “Today we’re going to learn how to hold a knife.” Little does Rick know, “story time” is about teaching survival skills, not about letting kids be kids.
Patrick kept his sickness mostly to himself, and Carol virtually told him to suck it up. But when he stumbles, sick, sweaty, and coughing, into the shower room and collapses, it’s a sudden reminder that everyone who dies comes back. And what of Daryl’s fate? Was it his finger-lickin’ good handshake that sickened Patrick? Is he the one responsible for what’s to come next?
As usual in Nicotero-helmed episodes and often in season premieres, the makeup in “30 Days Without an Accident” is fantastic. The effects (particularly at Big Spot!) look great. Some of our beloved posse has changed since the last season (Beth has hardened, Michonne has softened), and some have remained the same (Carol, Rick, and Hershel are still moving on the same paths). New guy Bob looks to be trouble – as Rick can attest, the zombie apocalypse is no place to battle your own demons.
After assuring a relieved Glenn she isn’t pregnant, Maggie tells Glenn there’s a difference between fear keeping you alive, and fear keeping you breathing. Hopefully her proclamation indicates a sea-change in the series; these characters live in fear, but in order to remain interesting, to stay functional, they have to be truly alive. They have to seek and enjoy each other’s companionship, they have to learn new things and process change. This is the magic of the books, and one hopes that in season 4, the writers will strike a comfortable balance between character development and thrills.
(On a side note, I am positively elated they’re grabbed up Lawrence Gilliard.)